From the early days of his misspent youth, Auntie Mame’s creator Edward Everett Tanner III (pseudonym Patrick Dennis) was the life of the party. Everyone adored him for his effusive wit, polished manners, and beguiling charm. Everyone, that is, except for his own father. The conservative-minded Edward Tanner II could scarcely tolerate the idiosyncratic mannerisms of his budding bon vivant.
Pat’s homosexuality was perceptible from an early age. Childhood friend Gordon Muchow said, “When [Edward Tanner III] walked, he kind of rose up on his toes.” It came as quite a shock to all when the effeminate youngster joined the boy scouts— but he was hardly there for sport. Rather, his participation was on display in more creative ways-- by writing, designing, directing and performing comedic skits for his troupe. Like the characters he would go on to create, the boy refused to go unnoticed.
During World War II, his masculine side prevailed (for the most part). Tanner enlisted in the American Field Service. For those who don’t know, such as myself, the AFS is a corps of ambulance drivers comprised of volunteers who have enlisted so as to be spared the draft. While serving his country in Africa, Tanner whiled away many an hour writing pithy letters home. For example, to his sister on her birthday, he wrote:
While lighthearted letters such as these might give the impression that Tanner had been spared the atrocities of war, this is not the case. The AFS carried him from Africa to Italy where he was almost struck down dead. According to his biographer Eric Meyers, “[Tanner] and his partner were loading a wounded soldier on a stretcher into their ambulance. [Tanner] had his head bent; his partner didn’t. A flying bullet missed [Tanner's] head and went through his partner’s head and killed him instantly.” In order to preserve his fragile sensibilities throughout the remainder of his service, Tanner relied more and more heavily on an imagined, fanciful version of reality. Eventually, his reliance leaned a little too far; he lapsed into full psychosis. A psychiatrist stamped his papers and sent him home. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart for his service.
Thankfully, after a short spell, Tanner was able to gather his wits. After a brief convalescence, he landed himself a rather lucrative gig at the Franklin Spier advertising agency... which happened to specialize in publishing. It was there that he first shook hands with the muckety-mucks who made him a star. At first, he was tasked with ghost writing three books. When those proved to be a success, he was entrusted to publish two novels of his own. Still, he chose to write under a nom de plume. For Oh What a Wonderful Wedding! and House Party, Tanner would be known to the world as “Virginia Rowans”. Jane Cobb of the New York Times was so bamboozled by Dennis that she wrote in her review, “Miss Rowans writes with a fine feminine realism.”
The books of "Viginia Rowans" brought Tanner some minor attention. But it wasn't until his next endeavor that he really hit the mother lode. It took him a year, but he had compiled a series of stories about a young boy who is adopted by his extravagant Aunt. Since it was narrated from the boy’s point of view, he signed his manuscript “Patrick Dennis”. His literary agent was eager to send it around. Hindsight being 20/20, it’s almost impossible to believe that, in total, nineteen publishers used the manuscript of Auntie Mame to line their wastepaper bins.
Eventually, it was the brass at Vanguard Press who were charmed into action by the dizzying antics of Tanner’s title character. They published Auntie Mame in January of 1955. By April of that year, it was a runaway smash. It earned itself a spot on the New York Times Best Seller List where it would remain for another 111 weeks. While on the list, it competed with such memorable titles as Peyton Place and Atlas Shrugged. The reviews for Auntie Mame were truly stunning. Chicago Tribune: “Here it is, the funniest story about the most unforgettable character you’ll ever run across. If you want a good laugh, Auntie Mame is the surest bet in bookstores today.” At it’s height, Auntie Mame was selling 1,000 copies a day. It was flying off the shelves!
Naturally, pushing that much paperback can earn an author some serious coin. And, just as the characters in the pages of his book, Edward Everett Tanner III lived life as a banquet. His generosity knew no bounds, but, unfortunately, his checking account did. In just a few years, all of the money was gone. Sales of his novels had long since dwindled and his campy satirical style was seen as old hat. By 1962, having been an alcoholic for many years, he attempted suicide for the third documented time. He was locked in a mental institution where he was subjected to electroshock therapy. After the episode, he needed a fresh start. Plagued by his true sexual identity, he abandoned his wife and children (yes, he had been that much in denial) and fled to Mexico.
Tanner eventually deciding to embrace obscurity. He spent a few years burning through his money by setting up a luxurious hacienda in Mexico. When the cash ran out, he moved to Arizona and opened an art gallery in a shopping mall. Then, as if turning the page in a story of his own invention, a whim carried him away. For his final days, "Patrick Dennis" was... a butler! And he loved the job, too. It offered him the chance to earn a decent income, live in some seriously fancy digs, and demonstrate his impeccable breeding on the regular. His favorite employers were none other than Roy and Joan Kroc— the owners of McDonalds.
Edward Everett Tanner III (aka "Patrick Dennis", aka "Virginia Rowans") died in 1976 of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 55-years old. At the time of his death, his employers didn't even know his true identity—creator of one of the most iconic characters of the 20th century.
FURTHER READING: "Uncle Mame" by Eric Myers