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Travels with 'Auntie Mame'
by Richard S. Klein
2005-05-11

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Auntie Mame, a.k.a Mame Dennis Burnside, is one of the beloved literary figures of the 20th Century. She has been a gay icon ever since Patrick Dennis's novel came out in 1955. Dennis produced two bestselling novels, Auntie Mame and Around the World with Auntie Mame. Then there is Auntie Mame, the smash hit play and the movie starring Rosalind Russell. And there is Mame the Broadway musical starring Angela Lansbury, and finally Mame the movie musical starring Lucille Ball.

Who doesn't know the story: A larger-than-life, avant-garde lady provides a home and scintillating environment for her newly orphaned nephew Patrick Dennis. It begins as the Roaring Twenties end, with Patrick leaving Chicago to reside with his 'unknown' aunt in New York. She introduces him to a fabulous life of shopping, salons, theater, progressive education, high culture, marvelous characters, and assorted hi-jinks.

The great Mame scenes are set at various locations in Chicago and New York. If you would like to set out on the Auntie Mame trail, you can find some intriguing places associated with the novels, play, stage musical, various books, and a number of individuals who contributed to the Auntie Mame creative process. Some of the places in our Auntie Mame Travel Guide are private residences. Should you go on an Auntie Mame journey, please make sure to respect the privacy of the residents.

'Auntie Mame Central' in NYC

Number 3 Beekman Place ( private residence ) , in the novel, was Auntie Mame's home in the 1920s. Beekman Place, between 49th and 51st Street, east of First Avenue is a very toney and quiet residential street, near the United Nations. You will see numbers 1 and 5, but not 3. It does not have an address marker. Nevertheless, Number 3 is a 12-story brick building, which blends seamlessly into the adjacent Number 1. ( Composer Irving Berlin resided at Number 1. ) Although Number 3 was cited as her residence throughout the movie and play, her apartment and its interior existed only in the imaginations of author Patrick Dennis and the play and movie creators.

Greenwich Village Locales

Greenwich Village is also represented in Mame-land. In the novel, Auntie Mame had a spectacular townhouse in Washington Square Park ( though the specific locale remains unknown ) . Pick any townhouse at random and imagine that it could have been her manse.

Also in Greenwich Village, at 72 Bank Street ( private residence ) , lived author Patrick Dennis's real Aunt Marion Tanner. While Dennis claims his novel Auntie Mame was based on no one specific, Aunt Marion insisted she was the model for the character.

Mame Lore Stores

An Auntie Mame character, Vera Charles, after hearing of the stock market crash, mused how everyone had thought her foolish for spending all her money at Tiffany's. Later Mame effusively thanked Vera for casting her in her upcoming play, Midsummer's Madness. 'Vera,' said Mame, 'your heart is from Tiffany's.' New York City's Tiffany's, at 727 Fifth Avenue, is always worth a visit. And, Tiffany's is, of course, the store where Holly Golightly, played by Audrey Hepburn, had her 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'.

R.H. Macy's in Herald Square on West 34th Street is one of the world's premier department stores. It was also the store where, in the novel, Mame sold roller skates during the Depression. To the chagrin of floor manager, Mr. Loomis, Mame's paperwork was in constant shambles. But she was able to charm a special customer, Beauregard Pickett Jackson Burnside. Beau bought a whole mess of roller skates from Mame as an act of charity for Georgia orphans. Beau was so taken with Mame that they soon married. Unfortunately, Uncle Beau Burnside met his untimely end when he got kicked in the head by a horse in Central Park. Auntie Mame thus became the ninth richest widow in New York City.

Mame Fame Hotels

Certain hotels figure very prominently in Auntie Mame's world. The St. Regis Hotel at 2 East 55th St. ( at Fifth Ave ) was Mame's sometime residence in the 1950s between her gallivants around the world. Check out the famed King Cole Bar, with the Maxfield Parrish mural of Old King Cole.

The Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th St., between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, received mentions in the book—Mame had a short-lived interior decorator career, and she fixed up friend Vera Charles' suite. She tried to interest the Algonquin in a personal shopping service, but there were few takers due to Mame's expensive tastes—and this scene was set during the Depression. A few years later, nephew Patrick Dennis and Agnes Gooch had cocktails in the famed lobby. Initially 'mousey,' Agnes becomes increasing uninhibited with her consumption of 'pink whiskers,' while Patrick becomes increasingly uncomfortable. The Algonquin had the reputation of being a literary salon, with its scintillating Round Table. Wits Dorothy Parker, Alexander Wolcott, Robert Benchley and other literary lights exchanged bon mots and barbs.

Rosalind Russell, while starring in the play Auntie Mame, made her residence at the very luxurious Pierre Hotel, 2 East 61st St. at Fifth Ave. and Central Park. Roz was back in her suite, cozy in her bathrobe, not long after the curtain dropped.

Chicago's Edgewater Beach Hotel at 5439 N. Sheridan Rd. in the novel was nephew Patrick's early home. His childhood activities included playing Parcheesi with the doorman. Chicago was the birthplace of author Dennis, whose birth name was Edward Tanner III. The Edgewater Beach Hotel, a glorious pink palace, was torn down in the 1960s. In its place is a high-rise condo. However, just south of the old hotel's location, at Bryn Mawr Ave. and Sheridan Rd. is the Edgewater Beach co-op apartments, in a recently renovated pink building that gives a sense of what the Edgewater Beach Hotel looked like.

Theaters of Mame

If you are going to a Broadway show, see what's playing at the Broadhurst, 235 West 44th St. This theater was the original home of the play Auntie Mame. Mame was a great vehicle not only for Rosalind Russell, but such luminous stars as Greer Garson, Beatrice Lilly, Eve Arden, Constance Bennett, and even Gypsy Rose Lee. The Winter Garden Theater, 1634 Broadway, was the site of the musical Mame with Angela Lansbury. Ann Miller was one of the most outstanding musical Mames.

Chicago's former Oriental Theater also figures into the Mame scene, if in a more oblique way. Most likely, the novel's housekeeper Norah Muldoon took young Patrick to the Oriental Theater, at 24 West Randolph Street to see Saturday movie matinees. ( The Oriental Theater has been reconstituted as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre. ) Norah notes the entrance to Mame's apartment bore a strong resemblance to the lady's room of the old Oriental.

Miscellaneous Mame Sites

While in New York City and getting hungry, stop at Sardi's, the famed theater restaurant, at 234 West 44th St. Here, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, who wrote both the play and the musical, offered Jerry Herman the opportunity to pen the lyrics and music to the musical Mame. Reportedly, Herman was so surprised at the offer that he let out a yelp of total delight.

In both the book and the play, nephew Patrick attended Boys Latin, now the Latin School of Chicago, at 59 W. North Ave. Both the book and the movie indicate nephew Patrick and his father attended Fourth Presbyterian Church, 125 East Chestnut St.

Then there is Dennis's childhood home at 1574 Asbury Ave. in Evanston ( private residence ) . During the 1930s, he moved into Chicago proper to a townhouse at 3200 N. Lake Shore Drive. That too was torn down and replaced by a high-rise condo. Dennis studied at Chicago's Art Institute, 111 S. Michigan. Though Dennis did not graduate from the Art Institute, his artistic creativity was not wasted, but funneled into his wonderful writing.

Before you start your Mame tour, you might want to do some research:

— But Darling, I'm Your Auntie Mame! The Amazing History of the World's Favorite Madcap Aunt, by Richard Tyler Jordan. Kensington Books; 1998, 2004.

— Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis., by Eric Myers. St. Martin's Press; 2000.

— Auntie Mame, an Irreverent Escapade, by Patrick Dennis. Vanguard Press; 1955. ( Reprinted by Broadway Books )

— Around the World with Auntie Mame, by Patrick Dennis. Harcourt Brace and Company; 1958. ( Reprinted by Broadway Books )

— Auntie Mame: ( film ) is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

Richard Klein is a travel consultant with Aqua Terra Travel, Inc., 65 E. Wacker Pl., Chicago IL 60601. Aqua Terra is owned by Cynthia A. Marquard. Richard and Cynthia can be reached at 312-787-2400 or 1-800-44-ENVOY. Visit the Web site, www.aquaterratravel.com .


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