The real life of Patrick Dennis was just as bizarre as the madcap adventures of his most famous invention, Auntie Mame. Profiled in Life magazine as one of the world’s most successful authors at age forty, he tried to commit suicide a week later and was committed to a mental institution for eight months. A multi-millionaire, thanks to his best-selling novel Auntie Mame and fifteen others, he was penniless at age fifty and went to work as a butler for Ray Kroc, the McDonald’s hamburger mogul, who had no idea who he was. A devoted husband to Louise Stickney and father of their two children, he fell in love with a man and abandoned his family.
Dennis was born Edward Everett Tanner III on May 18, 1921, in Chicago. Nicknamed “Pat” before he was born, in honor of the Irish boxer Pat Sweeney, known as a “dirty fighter,” he attended Evanston Township High School. He joined the American Field Service and drove an ambulance in Northern Africa and the Middle East during World War II.
After the war, using the pen name Patrick Dennis, he wrote the novel Auntie Mame, about a character based on his father’s sister. Writing in the first person, he inserted himself into the fictional narrative as the orphaned youngster who is raised by a zany aunt. It sold two million copies and was on the best-seller list for more than two years. Adapted into a play, a movie, a musical, and a movie musical, it was a vehicle for Rosalind Russell, Beatrice Lillie, Angela Lansbury, and, unfortunately, Lucille Ball. Dennis wrote fifteen other books, some as Virginia Rowans, and several became best-sellers. He was also the author of Little Me, a parody memoir which became a hit Broadway musical starring Sid Caesar playing seven roles.
Having squandered a fortune, Dennis took a job during the 1970s as a butler, work which he said he greatly enjoyed. He also became well known as an outré denizen of the Greenwich Village gay scene.
In 1976 Dennis was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and by the autumn of that year was gravely ill. He asked his physician, Dr. William G. Cahan, for enough sleeping pills to end it all. “I can’t use a gun,” said Dennis, “because I can’t shoot straight, and I can’t jump out of a window because I’m afraid of heights.” Dr. Cahan naturally declined to offer a suicidal dose, but did prescribe a modest supply of morphine-based pain-killers, which Dennis squirreled away.
Dennis maintained his dry wit to the very end. On his last day, November 6, 1976, his friend and former housekeeper, Corry Salley, administered some medicine to him and asked, “Is there anything else I can do?” Dennis replied, “Yes, for God’s sake, will you put in your dentures.” His estranged wife, Louise, was at his bedside, and his last words were to her: “Louise, there’s a spot on your dress.” At fifty-five, “Uncle Mame,” as one biographer called him, the man who led a life as improbable as a character in one of his books, was dead. Whether death was hastened by ingesting some of the pills he had stowed remains unknown.
In his will, Dennis specified that there be no funeral or memorial service. “My body is to be cremated and disposed of in the quickest, cheapest manner possible (flushed down the toilet, scattered to the winds, sunk into an unmarked hole in the ground, etc.).” Louise kept the urn containing his ashes and was buried with it cradled in her arms 24 years later.