It should come as no surprise to you, dear reader, but the truth behind the “real” Auntie Mame happens to be even stranger than its own loosely based fiction. Yes, just like the pseudonymic Patrick Dennis, “Auntie Mame” novelist Edward Everett Tanner III had himself one frightfully zany aunt.
Her name was Marion Tanner. She had always been Edward Tanner’s favorite relative. And how could she not be? She was eccentric, she was bossy, she possessed an unmistakable joie de vivre. It was only natural that, while breathing life into his titular creation, the author might choose to borrow a few scant details from the life of his own dearest Auntie. After all, as the experts always say, “Write what you know.” Perhaps that’s why there are quite a few fundamental similarities between Marion and Mame. For starters, both women were born in Buffalo. Each had notoriously chilly relations with their brothers. Both attended Smith College (Marion had her masters in sociology), both worked at Macy’s and both— for a brief time— acted on the stage (Marion Tanner appeared in an off-Broadway revival of “Tobacco Road” in 1960). Give or take, that’s where the similarities end.
As Edwards Tanner’s wife Louise routinely persisted, Aunt Marion was merely his jumping off point. Contrary to Mame’s grand elegance, Marion was something of a slob. In his sensational biography of Edward Tanner titled “Uncle Mame”, author Eric Myers described Marion as “dowdy,” and, “straggly-haired,” before ultimately concluding the she was, “more evocative of a bag lady than anyone’s idea of Auntie Mame.” Perhaps it wasn't always that way.
It was back in 1927 when Marion and her first husband were divorced. That’s also when she gained possession of a large redbrick building that sat at 72 Bank Street. It wasn’t long before Marion’s ideals saw that property transformed into a bohemian boarding house for the Greenwich Village's intellectual aesthete. Within years, however, the place had become a flophouse. Marion had removed the locks from her doors; anyone was welcome. Most people that walked through her door were all too eager to take advantage of Marion’s blind generosity. As her friend Frank Andrews explained, “The place was a shambles; it reeked of urine. Little kids were running around. They would just pee on the walls. She was into yoga, and she’d be off in a corner doing meditation…” At one point, one of her derelict tenants pushed her down the stairs, which resulted in her breaking her leg.
During this tumultuous stretch, the house was foreclosed upon. Twice. It was Marion's talented nephew the author who had to bail her (and her dozen plus derelict dependents) out. His one condition: Marion was to stop referring to herself as the “real Auntie Mame”. She'd been chatting with the press too much as of late, bragging about how she was the basis for the dizzy doyenne. At one point, she even appeared on a television quiz show. This made Edward Tanner thoroughly displeased. As far as the world was concerned, Hollywood glamazon Rosalind Russell was the "real Auntie Mame". Marion's public insistence that she was the character's origin was tarnishing his valuable brand. In exchange for her silence, Mr. Tanner offered his Aunt a monthly stipend of $300. But everybody knew what "Auntie Mame" was worth. There was a book, there was a sequel, there was a play, there was a movie, there was a musical. Sniffing out her kin’s good fortune, Marion refused to be bought for so paltry a sum.
The relationship between the two grew colder. Without Edward Tanner’s financial assistance, Aunt Marion was evicted from her Bank Street home. It was the mid-1960 and she was moved to a nursing home where she stayed until she reached the end of her days. At one point during her stay, the nursing home was set upon by financial woes. The powers that be launched a campaign, which capitalized on Marion’s association with the famous character. They called it, "Save Auntie Mame and Her Friends”. Said one donor at the time: “I didn't know Auntie Mame was still alive.”
After her death in 1985 at the age of 94 (she outlived her nephew by almost 9 years) the remembrances offered by her friends were genuine and kind. “I met her in February 30 years ago, in the basement of 72 Bank Street,” said Graham McKeen, a composer. “I was sick, drunk. She got me to St. Vincent's Hospital. She saved my life. She never preached to me. She just kept saying: 'Keep composing! Keep composing!’”
The eulogy for Miss Tanner was offered by the Rev. Al Carmine, formerly of the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. ''In her presence, things glittered,'' he said. ''One was no longer just a painter, but Caravaggio. Or just a teacher, but Socrates. Or just a singer, but Caruso. She lived in capital letters.''