Thursday, May 18, 2017

Birthday: the best-selling butler in history, Patrick Dennis became the McDonald's man's man.


Edward Everett Tanner III (1921-1976), aka Patrick Dennis
Author of ‘Auntie Mame’

In 1965 or ‘66, my mother brought a book home from the library. It was called First Lady: My Thirty Days Upstairs at the White House, by Martha Dinwiddie Butterfield, as told to Patrick Dennis.

It was, the dust jacket said, the memoir of the widow of a robber baron who somehow managed to be president for thirty days between the end of President Roosevelt’s term and the start of President Taft’s in 1909. Copiously illustrated with period photos into which Butterfield- played by the actress Peggy Cass- was inserted, the book absolutely convinced me it was real history.

I wasted no small amount of time ransacking encyclopedias to find the lost president (I was ten, and just past my dinosaur and planets phases).

Such was the magic the author sometimes known as Patrick Dennis wrought.

His friends called him Pat. He himself had multiple identifies, publishing sometimes as Patrick Dennis, sometimes as Virginia Rowan. He played the roles of husband, father, and party hound in the gay life of Greenwich Village. He was famous, and he wasn’t; poor, rich, then poor again.

Tanner grew up in Evanston, Illinois, the son of a well-off family left less so after the 1929 Crash. When America entered World War II, he joined the American Field Service and drove ambulances in North Africa, the Middle East, and France (he won a posthumous Purple Heart).

Cast up in Manhattan in 1945, he got a job as a copywriter for an ad agency.  Lunches were long and gin-soaked, and there was plenty of time for personal projects. Tanner ghost-wrote articles and held dinner parties where everyone admired his unstinting wit. From the ad agency, he went to a marketing job for the Foreign Affairs, a very serious magazine, and took to dressing like a junior British Foreign Office employee.

In the early fifties, he got an idea for a book based on his eccentric aunt, Marion Tanner, who bought a brownstone in Greenwich Village in 1927, and became known as one of the neighborhood’s most colorful eccentrics.

For many years it was a haven and salon for struggling artists, writers, freethinkers, radicals and a wide spectrum of what Miss Tanner sometimes called ''Bohemian types.''

Tanner completed Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade, in 1955. Nineteen publishers rejected it.

Vanguard Press, the vanity house, took it on but refused to market it. Dennis and a friend pooled their ad agency skills to do it themselves, and, almost overnight, it was a hit. In two years, it sold two million copies in five languages.

The book rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller lists, and remained there for 112 weeks. He had two more books at the ready, The Loving Couple and Guestward Ho!, and in 1956 became the first writer with three books on the Times bestseller list at once.

Auntie Mame quickly became a Broadway play, then a movie, then a Broadway musical based on the movie, then a movie musical based on the play. The story of a ten-year-old boy scooped from the depths of the Depression by his impossibly rich, bohemian aunt became a cultural landmark; one of her bon mots, “Life's a banquet, and most poor s.o.b’s are starving to death,” has been a catch-phrase for decades.

Awash in royalties- he wrote seventeen books in all- Dennis, as everyone then knew him, bought a big townhouse for his two kids, his wife, and her enormous collection of enormous tapestries.

His and his aunt’s lives changed places, as she grew older and more eccentric. Her obituary noted,

Miss Tanner had turned her home into a boarding house and sanctuary for often nonpaying ''visitors.'' These included drunken derelicts, shopping-bag ladies and others she considered less fortunate than herself.

Although Miss Tanner was regarded as Lady Bountiful by those who sought and were given the warmth of her hearth and her heart, in the view of some of her neighbors she and her house were nuisances.

Dennis became increasingly annoyed that Tanner rejected his advice to sack the freeloaders- on whom she spent money he gave her- and sell the townhouse, and the two became estranged. In 1964 the house was foreclosed on and she was ousted.

Two years before, after an not at all happily-ever-after affair with a male Broadway set designer, Dennis became suicidal, was institutionalized for a time, and separated from his wife. He moved to Mexico City, where they often vacationed in palmier times.

Lucy Cross, in her bio at, writes,

In the space of six years in Mexico, during which he lavishly decorated two apartments, attempted to build a mansion in Cuernavaca, supported his aging parents back in Chicago, kept servants who ripped him off, dined always in the best restaurants and threw the most elaborate parties, he succeeded in spending all his money. He made a few feeble attempts at earning a living in radio and television but lost interest; he wrote three more books, but they did not sell. As he had foreseen, his style and his works were out of fashion, and soon all his books went out of print.

In serious straits, he left Mexico and went to Houston with friends to manage a sculpture gallery, but that too failed. At last he hit upon an astonishing but, in the end, entirely satisfactory solution: he hired out as a butler. “I’m embarking on what is probably the best career that I will ever have,” he told Louise and their friends in New York, and enjoined them never to make his choice or whereabouts known. He took a new pseudonym, Edwards, shaved his beard, and sold everything he owned except Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Emily Post’s Etiquette, and a crossword dictionary. His third employer was Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s. None of his employers ever suspected he was the famous Patrick Dennis, creator of Auntie Mame.

Returning to New York in 1968, Dennis reunited with his spouse. Shortly afterward he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died at 55. Almost forgotten, he got a paragraph in Time magazine. His son, who wrote prefaces to new editions of his work in 2010, said, “He tried to be conventional, but he just wasn’t.”

His aunt, Marion Tanner, outlived him by nine years She parlayed her fame into several roles in plays and won $20,000 on a TV quiz show. She died in 1985, at 94, and got a full write-up in The New York Times.

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