From my personal archives. I’m in the mood to share something today. 🙂
Washington and Lee is a fine old American university. At least that’s what I hear; I never studied there. My own (liberal) education began under quite different tutelage: that of Lawrence and Lee.
Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee were one of the great playwright partnerships of the American theatre, probably best known for Inherit The Wind (1955) — to this day one of the most-produced plays in America — which, along with other classic works from the ’50s like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, was part of the nation’s arts community’s rejection of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his odious -ism.
The team went on to write The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail (1970), their response to the Vietnam war (they were against it) and First Monday in October (1978), a play about the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, which adumbrated Sandra Day O’Connor by three years (and which explored the ideological divide between liberal and conservative Justices).
By the time I got to know any of these works, however, I was already under the spell of another of Lawrence and Lee’s creations.
Or, more correctly, adaptations. Her name was Mrs. Burnside; and if Lawrence and Lee served as my first institution of higher learning, she was unquestionably the dean, the doyenne (a word, by the way — and this is no mere coincidence — that I first encountered in connection with Molly Picon, who I had read was “the doyenne of the American Yiddish theatre”).
The world knows her better as Auntie Mame.
Auntie Mame and I first came into the world the same year, 1955. A wildly successful novel (over two years on the New York Times‘ bestseller list) by one “Patrick Dennis,” it’s a fictional memoir of the brilliant and unconventional aunt who raised him.
Mr. Dennis tells of his first meeting with Auntie Mame when, along with his nanny/guardian Norah Muldoon, he shows up at the door of her Manhattan duplex as a ten-year-old orphan in 1929, while Mame is in the middle of hosting a raucous jazz-age party:
“But why didn’t you tell me you were coming today? I’d never have been giving this party.”
“Mum, I wired you…”
“Yes, but you said July first. Tomorrow. This is the thirty-first of June.”
Norah shook her head balefully. “No, mum, ’tis the first, God curse the evil day.”
The tinselly laugh rang out, “But that’s ridiculous! Everyone knows ‘Thirty days hath September, April, June and…’ My God!” There was a moment’s silence. “But darling,” she said dramatically, “I’m your Auntie Mame!” She put her arms around me and kissed me, and I knew I was safe.
Patrick’s love affair with his aunt — and ours — dates from that moment. She ushers him in to the party, where he overhears a dizzying babel of incomprehensible grown-up conversation; the next morning, a hungover Auntie Mame begins his education in earnest.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand a lot of the words you use, Auntie Mame.”
“Oh, child, child,” she cried, and her feathery sleeves fluttered wildly across the bed, “what can be done about your vocabulary! Didn’t your father ever talk to you?”
“Hardly ever,” I admitted.
“My dear, a rich vocabulary is the true hallmark of every intellectual person. Here now” — she burrowed into the mess on her bedside table and brought forth another pad and pencil — “every time I say a word, or you hear a word, that you don’t understand, you write it down and I’ll tell you what it means. Then you memorize it and soon you’ll have a decent vocabulary. Oh the adventure,” she cried ecstatically, “of molding a new little life!” She made another sweeping gesture that somehow went wrong because she knocked over the coffee pot and I immediately wrote down six new words which Auntie Mame said to scratch out and forget about.
I accquired quite a vocabulary by the end of summer. I still have some of the vocabulary sheets of odd information picked up at Auntie Mame’s soirees. One, dated July 14, 1929, features such random terms as: Bastille Day, Lesbian, Hotsy-Totsy Club, gang war, Id, daiquiri — although I didn’t spell it properly — relativity, free love, Oedipus complex — another one I misspelled — mobile, stinko — and from here on my spelling went wild — narcissistic, Biarritz, psychoneurotic, Schönberg, and nymphomaniac.
One of the most daunting challenges in adapting a book to the stage (or screen) is this: how to distill hundreds of pages of narrative and dialog into a format that will fit into a couple of hours (including scene changes and intermission), without losing the essential flavor of the story or the soul of the characters. It’s an extremely difficult operation, and one which Lawrence and Lee, who introduced Auntie Mame to Broadway in 1956, performed brilliantly.
Rosalind Russell’s movie was the first Auntie Mame I knew. Sometime in the very early ’60s — I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old — it appeared on TV and my mother sat me down to watch it with her (until the end of her life it remained one of her favorite films). I was instantly smitten. A couple of years later (when I was just about Patrick’s age) I discovered a paperback copy of the novel among my parents’ small library, and Mom, believing that if a book captured my interest it was not too advanced for me, let me have a whack at it.
Like Patrick before me, I found a lot of the vocabulary hard to understand. But thanks to the powerful charisma of Auntie Mame (one character in the play describes her as “the Pied Piper”), I developed a hunger to learn. Auntie Mame nurtured in me a taste for glamour and sophistication, but she also taught me to loathe bigotry, anti-Semitism and mindless conformity — and to value the words of Sir Francis Bacon, “Knowledge is power.” Of course, it was many years before I was to learn that this phrase originated with him, and not with Auntie Mame herself. But when that day eventually arrived, I was ready for it. Scientia potentia est.