For me, it’s always been Auntie Mame, a fictional grande dame with a collapsible foot-long cigarette holder, a houseboy/chauffeur named Ito and the habit of getting up at “the crack of noon.” Patrick Dennis wrote the original book in 1955, based on his aunt, and it went on to become two films, (the 1958 version won Rosalind Russell an Oscar nomination for best actress) and a musical — whose feisty, fun songs I belt out whenever I feel blue.
“Open a new window, open a new door”, was one of Mame’s mottoes. When she loses much of her money in the 1929 stock market crash, she urges her family to open their gifts early, singing “Haul out the holly…we need a little Christmas, right this very minute!” She loves her dear friend, the actress Vera Charles, but not so much she sheathes her rapier wit: “If I wore my hair natural like yours, I’d be bald.” Mame’s indomitable cheer, insatiable appetite for fun and adventure and open-armed embrace of the unconventional make her my heroine. Here’s a design website with some images of Mame’s apartment, after dozens of its impossibly glamorous changes throughout the 1958 film.
For British journalist and author — great-grand-daughter of Sigmund Freud, and daughter of painter Lucian Freud — Susie Boyt, Judy Garland has been her lifelong touchstone, an avatar of glamour and hard work, of doing whatever it takes and, for this self-admittedly stiff-upper-lipped Briton, an open vein of accessible emotion. “They say once Judy has you she has got you for life, and it’s true,” she writes”, and her memoir is “My Judy Garland Life”, which she describes thus:
“It is a project I’ve been dreaming about for at least twenty five years and it’s one part memoir, two parts hero-worship and three parts biography with a dash of sequin studded self help thrown in.”
I discovered Boyt’s writing in my favorite newspaper, the weekend FT, where she writes a weekly column that manages to be beautifully, classically British in its understated ability to quietly limn powerful emotion. Reading her memoir, and some of what she’s survived (she alludes, darkly and obliquely, to addiction in her family; the challenge of being the youngest of six children and the sudden death, in a fall, of her college boyfriend when she was 20), I now understand something that has puzzled me about the photo of her that runs with her column. She’s published several novels and, happily married-with-kids seems to have a thriving career. Yet she stands, hands clasped, looking a little anxious. Reading this odd, charming, slightly over-long book explains much of why that’s the case. Turns out, she also works as a bereavement counselor, God bless her.
Her book hit me, too, on page 219, with her “little caution prescription”, that includes: do not show vulnerability; don’t rely on anyone but yourself; cover your needs; be jolly but not outlandish, etc.” Sounds familiar.
Do you have a hero or heroine whose life or style inspires you?