I have written about, and always been a fan of, Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker. Now a new book takes a real character from Mitchell’s writing and develops a fictionalized life for her. That character is Mazie Phillips, chief proprietress of the Venice movie theater in the Bowery in lower Manhattan and the novel is called Saint Mazie (Grand Central Publishing, 2015) by Jami Attenberg. Mitchell is known for often bending the rules of nonfiction: compositing characters, condensing time lines, and even injecting a fictionalized version of himself into his work. However, Mazie Phillips was real, and she is an intriguing and complex character both in Mitchell’s work and in the novel.
First, some true-to-life Mazie is in order. Mitchell calls her “A bossy, yellow-haired blonde” in his piece published on the pages of the magazine in 1940. She fled her hometown of Boston and the difficult life she had there accompanied by one sister to go and live in New York with yet another sister and her husband. It is the husband, Louis, who owns the theater. To earn her keep, she goes to work in the ticket booth, the cage, as a teenager and for years she is an institution in the neighborhood, helping down-on-their-luck drunks through prohibition, the Great Depression, and two world wars. Mitchell captures the taste and heft of those days, as he was most famous for doing in all of his pieces for the magazine. The theater is open every day from eight in the morning until midnight. Mazie works the cage while the very small staff work the house, cleaning and polishing the old theater to accommodate the bums and dreamers who frequent the showings. For a dime, patrons can see two movies, a newsreel, a cartoon selection, a short, and a serial episode. The place was warm and dry, and often, if a bum didn’t have the price of admission, Mazie would let him in anyhow. She also was free with her change, handing out nickels, dimes and quarters to those in need of a cup of coffee or a sandwich. Step out of line meant incurring the wrath of Mazie, and she had no qualms about marching into the theater in the middle of a show to escort some miscreant out to the street, berating him all the while.
Over the years, she develops relationships with a local order of Catholic nuns who patrol the streets of the Bowery looking to aid and assist the downtrodden. She also knows all the local merchants, and she frequents them to share gossip and stories. She also knows the places that serve alcohol during those dry days of prohibition. Mitchell is so good at drawing characters in his writing. He is at heart a storyteller, so his essays burst with color and character, and his story of Mazie is a classic in his oeuvre.
Jami Attenberg builds on Mitchell’s work to present a unique and full novel, fleshing out the characters that The New Yorker piece only mentions in passing. She also utilizes a particular narrative technique similar to an oral history. I was reminded most often when reading her writing of Studs Terkel and his oral histories. She eschews the standard narrative for passages in Mazie’s unpublished autobiography and diaries, as well as transcribed interviews with key characters in her life and times. By piecing together clues from each person’s account of the story, a full picture emerges that in the end is both sad and complete, an entire history of a time and place long crumbled into the dust of years. As she is in Mitchell’s piece, Mazie is a strong and memorable character. Attenberg’s work only deepens Mitchell’s because it focuses on her life behind the public face, bringing into the character the details the experiences that made Mazie the truly memorable person she was.
What is truly successful about the novel is that we get to see those other characters that walk the fringes of Mitchell’s story. The Catholic nuns, for example, are given names and character, and we see the unlikely friendship between the Jewish Mazie and the nun called Sister Tee develop into grudging respect and intimacy. It is a poor, drug-addicted mother who brings them together in the first place so that they can save the lives of her two children. Unfortunately, only one can be saved while the other is lost in the system. There is a good ending to the story, however, later in the novel.
Jami Attenberg captures the tone and environment of the Bowery in her novel. The characters are sepia-toned and full of life, like a lyrical history that takes the reader beyond facts and statistics. Like Mitchell, she has a gift of establishing true and memorable characters. Mazie, of course, is a force to be reckoned with as she is in the source material from the magazine. For those interested in Mitchell’s profiles, or who love character-driven stories, Saint Mazie is an excellent read and a beautiful story. The author pays homage to Joseph Mitchell, storyteller of 20th century New York and deepens the tale of Mazie Phillips, queen of the Bowery, rescuer of the fallen.
Note: For those interested in reading a complete collection of Joseph Mitchell’s writing for The New Yorker, including Mazie’s story, check out Up In The Old Hotel (Vintage, 1993).