Jami Attenberg has a way with outsized characters. Her bestselling 2012 novel The Middlesteins gave us 300-pound insatiable Edie Middlestein. Her latest work of fiction rescues real-life Mazie Phillips-Gordon from obscurity and gives the big-hearted Queen of the Bowery the attention she deserves.
A century ago, Mazie ruled New York from her seat inside the ticket booth at the Venice Theater. When the Depression hit, she’d work a full day at the theater, then at night became a one-woman relief effort, dispensing aid, cheer, nickels, blankets, cigarettes and lollipops to the bums, drunks and the down-and-out. Despite what they called her on the street, Mazie was no saint. Though never married, she never lacked for men. She smoked and was no stranger to alcohol. “Hell, I drank straight through Prohibition,” as Attenberg’s Mazie says.
The novelist maintains she fell in love with Mazie after reading her 1940 profile by New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, included in his 1993 anthology, Up in the Old Hotel. Well, what’s not to love? Attenberg, who had such a deft touch with The Middlesteins, works hard — perhaps too hard —to get us to fall in love with Mazie, too.
The author tells the story through pastiche — with snippets from Mazie’s journals and a clamoring multitude of characters including chocolate-loving nuns, charmers who do a girl wrong, social climbers on their way up and boozing cops on their way down. They all thrum with New York verve, and they’re all courtesy of Attenberg’s generous imagination, and not one of them has a bad thing to say about Mazie. As one character says, “I loved her because she was tough and knew what she wanted.”
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Employing the scant known facts about the real Mazie, Saint Mazie begins in 1907 in New York. Mazie, age 10, and her younger sister Jeanie have left their Boston home, abusive father and “simp” of a mother to be raised by their elder sister Rosie and her husband, Louis. Attenberg applies her keen sense of family dynamics to this untraditional family, depicting Jeanie and Mazie as Jazz Age party girls running wild despite their elder sister’s efforts to control them.
In time, Jeanie breaks free and runs away, but New York is Mazie’s home. It’s her whole world. “Rosie doesn’t understand what it’s like to love the streets,” writes 19-year-old Mazie in her journal. “She doesn’t see the shimmering cobblestones in the moonlight, she just wonders why the city won’t put in another street lamp already.”
Increasingly obsessive, Rosie tries to put Mazie in a cage — literally. To keep her out of the bars and out of trouble, she gets her husband, Louis, to hire Mazie as a ticket taker at the Venice. Louis owns the Venice and a few other properties, besides. He’s devoted to Rosie and her sisters, but the nature of his business is perhaps not quite kosher. “‘Criminal? Look, he was never arrested for anything. [H]e was no worse than anyone else of his ilk,’” as a family member observes.
Mazie works at the Venice for decades, and in a clever twist, doesn’t even like the movies. Watching them makes her queasy. Watching — and being part of — real life suits her just fine, though, even as New York goes from Jazz Age razzle-dazzle to the Depression’s soup lines and flop houses.
“This city has changed. It’s lost its pride,” observes Mazie, who, remembering her hardscrabble childhood, becomes even more of a soft touch for the hard-luck cases. “We ain’t no better than them.”
The novel follows Mazie over the course of 30 years, as she goes from young and yearning to a life-toughened woman. One thing remains constant, though. “Everybody knows Mazie Phillips likes to have a good time.”
By the end, Mazie emerges as someone you’d love to have a drink with, but more like a great picaresque character rather the real person she was. If Attenberg can’t equal Mitchell’s precise, riveting prose, she nails Mazie’s irresistible combination of sweet and seedy, tough and tender. We don’t need the cumbersome subplot about a documentary maker looking to tell Mazie’s story or quite as much adoring commentary by those who knew her. We’re already sold on this savior with swagger.
Mazie lived. Boy, did Mazie live. And thanks to Saint Mazie, she lives on.
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.