There’s something magical about novels based on historical figures, those that morph fact into fiction to illuminate something perversely truer about a specific person or humanity. These novels become wonderful, entertaining shortcuts. Often more accessible than history and more fluid than nonfiction, historical novels based on real figures impose restraints while daring the writer to complicate the facts and subvert what even the subject might think he knows about himself. It’s a tricky, exciting business.
Most often, the subjects of such novels are figures we know, or should know: statesmen and politicians (as in Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian and Gore Vidal’s Burr), bushrangers and explorers (Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark by Brian Hall), artists and musicians (Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, Leonora by Elena Poniatowska and Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter). The list could go on for pages, especially considering the recent craze in novels about authors, including multiple takes on the lives of Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. There’s something comforting yet electrifying about fiction that transforms the famous into flesh.
Occasionally, a writer rescues a private person, a minor local celebrity who has faded into the past though they colored and shaped everyone in their radius. There are no recorded speeches, no manuscripts, no public spats in newspapers that illustrate the person’s character. But we all know those neighborhood eccentrics, the ones whose personalities felt too big to include us but who remained too small for any posterity except local lore.
One such rescue comes in the shape of Jami Attenberg’s entertaining, inventive and fulfilling Saint Mazie, which chronicles the life of the “Queen of the Bowery,” Mazie Phillips (or Gordon), who owned a cinema and spent most of her life—fourteen hours a day, every day—in the ticket-taker’s cage. If anyone outside of New York knows or remembers Mazie (who reigned for thirty years from the late nineteen-teens), it’s most likely from Joseph Mitchell’s New Yorker article published just before Christmas in 1940 and reprinted in his 1992 collection, Up in the Old Hotel.
Mitchell writes about a no-nonsense broad beyond beauty, with the glow of it just receding. She guards her privacy, will explain little of her eccentricities, smokes three and a half packs a day and barely noticed prohibition. She’s an enigma: she invites bums (her word) into the cinema to escape the weather, beats them with rolled celebrity mags when they disrupt ladies and children, then walks the streets after midnight to give these poor victims of the Great Depression tiny bars of soap, money for food—and for their next drink. Mitchell quotes a detective describing Mazie as owning “the roughest tongue and the softest heart in the Third Precinct.”
Mazie knows everyone, and every needy man calls her name. But she deflects anyone who wants to know more.
Attenberg plays with this premise in beautiful ways. She creates a mosaic of Mazie from purported diary entries and interviews with neighbors and descendants of those who knew her. Through these delicate snippets of a life, we find a rich, complicated woman both practical and, under her spiky persona, romantic. Awash in money from her gambler brother-in-law, she enjoys pretty dresses and dying her hair, but she can’t understand how anyone could step over a homeless drunk or a junkie. Or why a single girl would reject a pinch on the bottom, if she’s in the mood. Or a tipple any night of the week. And she wouldn’t deny the same to anyone else, no matter how destitute, dirty or hopeless.
In Saint Mazie, we watch her walk the streets:
I fished in my pocket, and I squatted down next to a man on the sidewalk. … He was shivering. Everyone on the streets was shivering.
I handed him a quarter.
I said: This is for a bed to sleep in.
I handed him another quarter.
I said: This is for a meal.
I handed him a final quarter.
I said: And this is for a drink or two.
That last part [the nun] wouldn’t have approved of, but [she] never knew how to have a good time.
The saddest, truest moment of the novel comes as Mazie discusses luck with her brother-in-law. She says, “I used to think I was special.” He says, “I know.” Later in her diary, Mazie confesses: “I wanted him to tell me I still was. I would have eaten my left pinky to hear it. Torn it off with my teeth. But you can’t ask someone to tell you that.”
Attenberg makes sly use of space and silence, giving readers most of what we need but leaving room for us to fill in the blanks, somehow creating even fuller, rounder characters and situations. We’re tricked (delightfully so) into believing we’re part of the creation. The underlying story beneath Mazie’s, that of the researcher pulling together this secretive woman’s life, energizes the material and reminds us that we’re all voyeurs as we make up our own existence.
Saint Mazie, an unsentimental, funny tribute to the best and worst we have to offer, slowly becomes what we assume Mazie would have wanted, a reminder that none of us must be a saint—we can even enjoy life’s naughty pleasures!—but we must call ourselves to notice and help the bums (whatever that word might mean) along our paths. A task that, after all, isn’t so difficult.
As Mazie recounts late in the novel: “Helping people’s the easy part. It’s the rest of life that’s hard.”