Jami Attenberg’s “Saint Mazie” is an ingeniously constructed historical novel that expands upon a classic work of magazine journalism.
Published in the Dec. 21, 1940, issue of the New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell’s marvelous profile introduced readers to Mazie Phillips-Gordon, a benevolent soul who acted as a self-appointed caretaker for the denizens of a hard-knock Manhattan neighborhood. Her work earned her the nickname “Queen of the Bowery.”
“She has a wry but genuine fondness for bums and is undoubtedly acquainted with more of them than any other person in the city,” Mitchell wrote. “Each day she gives them between five and fifteen dollars in small change, which is a lot of money on the Bowery.”
A few years ago, Attenberg read Mitchell’s profile in “Up in the Old Hotel,” a 1992 collection of his journalism. She was an instant fan and soon realized that she’d found the inspiration for her next book.
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In “Saint Mazie,” she uses the raw material of Phillips-Gordon’s biography as a narrative springboard, crafting a meticulously imagined portrait of a singular woman who championed her city’s poorest and unluckiest. You don’t need to be familiar with Mitchell’s work to enjoy Attenberg’s.
Attenberg, the author of the broadly-praised 2012 family saga “The Middlesteins,” has devised a range of fictionalized sources to tell her story.
The bulk of the book is recounted in diary entries, which follow Mazie over the course of 30-plus years. These are complemented by anecdotes shared by her contemporaries and admirers. There are also snippets from an unpublished memoir about Phillips-Gordon’s experiences.
All of the above are inventions, the products of Attenberg’s prolific imagination. The diary, the roll call of friends and fans, the memoir — each has been dreamed up by Attenberg, who employs the novel’s varied fictional voices to reveal different aspects of her main character’s life.
Mazie is a grade-schooler when the book begins in 1907. She and her younger sister Jeanie have moved to New York City to live with their eldest sibling, Rosie, and her husband, Louis. The girls have fled from a dangerous family situation in Boston, the details of which slowly emerge over the course of several chapters.
Their apartment is on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, home to thousands of recently-arrived immigrants. Mazie fits right in with her new peers. “She ran with the older kids on the rooftops of the tenements,” a friend says. “They were a tough gang.”
Mazie’s wildness continues into her teens. She starts to draw male attention. She likes going to the racetrack. She makes the rounds of local bars.
Hoping to rein her in, Louis persuades her to take a job in the ticket booth at the Venice, the movie theater he runs. The films are in black-and-white, and they’re still silent, of course — 1918’s “Tarzan of the Apes” is a featured attraction — but she’ll stay long enough to witness the transformation to full-color talkies.
There, in the booth she refers to as “my cage,” Mazie watches as the complexion of her adopted home city changes from one year to the next.
When World War I ends, the streets are teeming with returning soldiers, many of whom are in need of jobs and emotional support. When Prohibition is enacted, speakeasies pop up all over the Lower East Side, and her friends become outlaws just for sharing a few drinks. And when the Great Depression hits, everyone is knocked down a few pegs — and many never recover.
In time, she’ll forge important friendships and have a couple flings, the most meaningful of which forces her to make some excruciating choices. But as the years pass, it becomes clear that Mazie’s defining loyalty rests with the boozers and the drifters who linger near her theater.
Thanks to an unforeseen windfall, she’s able to help those who’ve been discarded by society. And even as she’s pulled in many directions by her increasingly troubled sisters, Mazie devotes endless hours and untold amounts of money to her personal crusade.
“(W)hat does it cost me to buy these fellas a drink or two?” she says to a friend. “Or to give them some soap to clean up with, or to buy them a place to rest their heads for the night?”
Attenberg has clearly done a lot of reading and archival research. She gives readers a vivid sense of what it was like to be among the first passengers on a Coney Island-to-Manhattan subway — “resting on the cushion of the straw cane seats, the ceiling fans above dusting me with air,” as Mazie puts it — and she carefully conjures the terror of the 1920 anarchist bombing that killed almost 40 people on Wall Street.
An attentive character study that also happens to be rich in city lore and period detail, “Saint Mazie” is an edifying, companionable and moving novel.
“I loved her because she was tough and knew what she wanted,” says one of Mazie’s admirers. Read this book, and you might feel same way.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
“Saint Mazie” by Jami Attenberg (336 pages; Grand Central Publishing; $25)