Tuesday, July 5, 2016

My Own Auntie Mame!

A message to the youngins who’ve never seen 1958’s Auntie Mame: Watch this comedy classic on Netflix or Amazon or TCM ASAP. The story of a rich, free-thinking aunt who takes her orphaned nephew under her wing is a hoot with a heart.

Rosalind Russell was the definitive Mame--just ask Cher!
The irreverent Mame Dennis has enjoyed many incarnations. The Patrick Dennis best-seller from 1955 was a satirical shocker that still zings some sting. Though toned down for star Rosalind Russell, Roz still scored as Mame on both Broadway and film. In the ‘60s, Angela Lansbury triumphed in a Broadway musical Mame; the ‘70s Lucille Ball film version was so trashed that it was nicknamed Maimed. In recent years, stars from Whoopi to Goldie to Bette to Cher have been pitched for the inevitable remake. Cher, who knew both Roz and Lucy when she was starting out in show biz, said why bother, since Russell was the perfect Mame.  And she’s right.

However, I have a personal bias regarding Roz Russell as the most authentic Auntie Mame.
My “Auntie Mame” was my Aunt Audrey. Whenever I watch Rosalind Russell swanning through her greatest role, I think of my great aunt, Audrey Swan. I always get goose bumps when I hear Russell announce: “But darling! I’m your Auntie Mame!”

My Mom’s aunt was the total opposite of her own rather reserved family. Aunt Audrey was full of high spirits or full of something else, depending on who you talked to. Aunt Audrey was audacious, always rarin’ to go. She loved being surrounded by family, friends, and often, a fresh cocktail. Audrey Swan also loved being the center of attention.

Aunt Audrey certainly lived by Auntie Mame’s much-quoted motto: “Live, live, live. Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

Aunt Audrey treated children like grownups and adults like they were children. Naturally, this delighted us kids and exasperated our parents.  Audrey asked opinions of children during an era when they were supposed to be seen and not heard. Aunt Audrey liked fussing over girls, like when she would wrap a scarf (one of my aunt’s favorite accessories) around my sister Robin and declare her “Mona Lisa!”

Childlike herself, Aunt Audrey named her pet poodle after the pet name she always called my mother—Coco Jean.

My Auntie Mame...Aunt Audrey, striking a pose, as usual!
There’s a hilarious family photograph of Aunt Audrey posing on a snowmobile, complete with snowsuit and white boots. I am willing to bet money she never rode that snow machine or the results would have been like Auntie Mame’s memorable attempt at horseback riding for a fox hunt on a dare!
Aunt Audrey was middle-aged when I was a kid and thought she was still striking, like an aging movie star. When I watch Russell as Auntie Mame, I am struck by their similar dark, sparkling eyes, and patrician airs. Roz Russell and Aunt Audrey both were masters of the arched brow, mock-dramatic intonation, and sailing into a room like a yacht. Bea Arthur worked those qualities, too. Bea became a hit in the sitcoms Maude and Golden Girls, and my family laughed as Arthur made her entrance, jutted chin and shoulders drawn back. Aunt Audrey was Roz’ and Bea’s equal in the dramatic entrance—and more than a few of the family thought Audrey Swan missed her career calling.

This is more like it! Aunt Audrey (left) in heels, with Grandma Leone.
Back in the late ‘60s, Aunt Audrey was visiting Manistique from Albion, MI. We had just moved back from Milwaukee, and she insisted on saying hello to Dad at his new job at the saw mill. When she asked to see him, Aunt Audrey introduced herself to his boss as “The Queen of the Lumberjacks!”

During the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, Aunt Audrey’s alpha female attitude wasn’t always appreciated. Some friends and family felt she was a bit much, and the term that fits Aunt Audrey best was drama queen, which didn’t exist back then!

But that didn’t stop Audrey Swan from carrying on, whether it was fussing over her charming husband Ed, or good-naturedly interfering with her children’s lives, whooping it up with friends, or looking for an excuse to celebrate. Like Auntie Mame, Aunt Audrey also enjoyed her cocktails, and could get “hung,” too.

When Uncle Ed died, this was a huge blow to Aunt Audrey. He adored her and was usually amused by her antics—the perfect husband for Auntie Audrey. And in her mind, he never left. Aunt Audrey believed in the afterlife and thought Uncle Ed’s spirit lived in her upstairs closet!

Latter day Aunt Audrey, right, with one of her "bosom buddies," Dickie Seymore.
Audrey and Ed had retired to Manistique in Upper Michigan, she adapted to her more modest personal and financial circumstances. Auntie Mame’s attempt at working class life might have been comical, but Audrey thrived on working around people, as when she was the guide at Manistique’s museum or later, when she became a janitor at the court house. I don’t know how spic and span her cleaning skills were, but she was probably the most charming janitor ever.

Audrey Swan was never afraid to try anything new, whether from necessity or curiosity. As a senior, my great aunt ended up moving to California, where two of her sons lived. She settled in an apartment complex where they worked and many college students lived. The kids loved this hip older lady, who loved hearing their stories, and they certainly got a kick out of hearing hers! Once again, there was a new audience for Audrey Swan.

Auntie Mame and Aunt Audrey, both the life of the party.
Aunt Audrey’s swan song finally came from cancer. She had a great life and was cared for by her beloved boys. Regrets were not Audrey Swan’s style—and she was a very stylish lady. Aunt Audrey and Auntie Mame both had lots of ups and downs, but they were always the life of the party.

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