Classy is as Classy Does: Saint Mazie By Jami Attenberg

by Antonia Crane

Before all the tattoos, the stripping and the rock band was my life of San Francisco-specific political activism that involved marching in the streets, spraying a plastic green oozy water gun while yelling for gay rights and one newspaper article with a spread of my face because I volunteered for the first lesbian sex club in the Bay Area. When I die, someone could patch together a fairly accurate portrait of a queer woman with a big mouth and a shoe collection to match. But they would see other things too: An early struggle with drug addiction, a dead mother, decades of sex work, artsy boyfriends, and an MFA: layers of complexity make up fictional portraits of real people and who’s to say what will stick and what parts will fade away.

Jami Attenberg’s new novel Saint Mazie is not only a story that bamboozles any memoir enthusiast into reading historical fiction but it also forces the reader to wonder: What will they say about me when I die? Will my text messages be silly pet noises and bicycle emojis? Will they say I was a loyal friend: That I had a big heart?

According to legend, and a profile piece written by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker in the 1940’s, Mazie Phillips-Gordon was a saucy, unmarried dame who wore her makeup cakey and her dresses tight. She was more preoccupied with helping the needy than landing a husband. She worked at and eventually owned a ticket booth in a movie theatre called The Venice in Brooklyn, NY in the early 1900’s. In fact, the real Mazie Phillips-Gordon is still asked for by men and women in New York, fifty years after her death, not because she’s a silent picture film star or beauty queen, but because Mazie had a huge heart that left a lasting impression.

Mazie’s whale-sized heart captured the attention of Jami Attenberg. She used The Venice as a backdrop to springboard Mazie’s life, which was textured by prohibition, the depression, police brutality, small time crooks, big time alkies, a sister who ran away to become a burlesque dancer, and the decline of her other sister’s mental health, all issues that could easily be current topics highlighted on our Facebook newsfeeds.

Saint Mazie contains episodes of her diary, real and imagined, expanded upon in vivid scenes that stick with you like following a strung-out mother to a crack house in order to feed her starving kids or by chasing down a man beaten by a cop. These snapshots show a generous feminist with a unique brand of philanthropy that was as grassroots as it was downright gritty.

The way Attenberg skillfully straddles that springy tightrope between memoir and fiction is a magical trick that surpasses genre: a hypnotizing voice, so modern and bawdy, she made me fall in love with a woman we actually know very little about. Letters and diary entries are the fabric Attenberg sews together to form a whole woman so beguiling, you will want to warm her frosty fingertips as she hands out movie tickets through her glass window and light her cigarettes. Both of them.

Mazie spent most of her free time roaming the streets after work with a nun she befriended, giving away her money to homeless people. She named herself the “Queen of the Bowery” and, like the movies of the silent era, the view from her ticket booth would appear to be myopic at first glance, only to reveal that is was anything but.

Through Mazie’s lens, life is heartbreakingly clear. She chain smokes. Sips from a flask. Befriends the man who was the brutal cop’s target. Other voices of characters also broadcast throughout, allowing the reader to piece together sections of Mazie’s life that she may have not wanted aired, like the Captain’s son. Throughout Saint Mazie, our heroine receives postcards from a Captain in the military with whom she has a love affair that spans several years. The postcards and her responses echo a life that can be felt in the reader’s skin:

Postcard from the Captain. Niagra Falls. A place not so far away from New York City. A day trip, a train ride away. I can see it on a map in my head.

I can hear the crash of the waves when I look at it. I can feel the spit from the falls on my face. I bet it’s cold up there near the water. I bet the air stings your skin red. Like a man slapped you hard and meant to leave a mark.

Saint Mazie is never sentimental or bogged down by 1920’s lingo or reverie about days of yawn because Attenberg proves to be too astute to fall for those traps.

Instead, Attenberg gave a classy dame a proper funeral.

By doing that, Attenberg presented a beautiful woman’s life pieced together in a collection of shining fragments: A curvaceous figure of an early 20th century feminist during a time when the women’s movement gave rise to a young generation of female artists, photographers, performers and professionals entering the workforce for the first time. The change helped propel women such as Mazie Phillips-Gordon into formerly patriarchal social, political and professional roles. She was a trailblazer — a giant heart in a difficult, war-torn world.

Long live Saint Mazie.

Saint Mazie

by Jami Attenberg

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