Mazie Phillips-Gordon, the so-called Queen of the Bowery, was a cartoonishly large real-life heroine that no fiction writer would dare make up. A busty bottle-blonde with a green celluloid eyeshade and a booming voice, Mazie occupied the ticket booth of New York’s famous Venice movie theater at the south end of the Bowery from the beginning of Prohibition to the end of the Depression. When she wasn’t selling tickets, she cruised the sidewalks to distribute dimes and bars of soap to the ever-growing number of homeless bums, and, when necessary, stake a night in a flophouse or call an ambulance.
Joseph Mitchell canonized “Saint Mazie” in a 1940 New Yorker profile, but she was evasive about her family background and the circumstances that compelled her to work 13-hour shifts in a ticket booth for 30 years. Tantalized by Mitchell’s tale, Jami Attenberg has stepped in to fabricate Mazie’s backstory. As she demonstrated in her brilliant third novel, “The Middlesteins,” about a family helplessly watching its matriarch gorge herself to death, Attenberg is a nimble and inventive storyteller with a particular knack for getting at the heart of outsized characters.
The narrative conceit of “Saint Mazie” is the chance discovery of Mazie’s long-lost diary by an aspiring documentarian, who then fills in the rest of the story Ken Burns-style with interviews of geriatric acquaintances and talking-head experts. Mazie’s diary, a 10th birthday present, starts in 1907, just after she’s rescued from her abusive home in Boston by an older sister, Rosie, and her gambler husband, Louis Gordon. “My father is a rat and my mother is a simp. I live in New York now. Rosie says I am a New Yorker.”
Right from the get-go, Mazie is nobody’s simp. As soon as she develops “bosoms,” she becomes a “good-time girl,” carousing with sailors in Bowery bars and getting into rows with Rosie when she sneaks back home at dawn. “Why won’t you be a good girl?” Rosie pleads, but Mazie is too mesmerized by “the streets and the bars and the men and the women and the whiskey and the beer and the smokes.”
Finally, Rosie devises a scheme to corral Mazie by literally sticking her in a cage: the ticket booth of Lou’s movie theater. She objects, with prophetic words: “All day, hours and hours, the whole world going on around me. . . . The world will pass me by. I will grow old and then die in that cage.”
But Mazie slowly adjusts her new home, with its swivel chair, electric heater, pile of romance magazines and flask in the change drawer. Her voice grows gravelly and deep to be heard over the Second Avenue elevated rattling overhead. She also learns to accept the diminished horizon of her life. Her occasional lover and her dancer sister send postcards from faraway places that she is never tempted to visit herself. She can enjoy nature’s beauty from her cage. “No one else can see this sky like I can. No one else sits here and watches it change all day except for me. I see the snow and I see the clouds and it is all a show for me.”
So what prompted Mazie to open her purse and her theater to the reeking, scratching bums no one else wanted to touch? In her diary, she offers a few explanations: “What does it cost me to buy these fellas a drink or two?” she asks. “It’s change that I already got in my pocket.” More profoundly, she admits that she is trying to escape loneliness. “Now I’m never really alone anymore, day or night. Even if I walk the streets by myself, I’m always surrounded by people. It’s like being in the cage, only inside out.”
As in “The Middlesteins,” the cumulative narrative power of “Saint Mazie” comes from an antic array of outside voices, here in the form of documentary interviews. We hear from her childhood neighbor who lusted after the teenage vamp, the son of Mazie’s sea captain lover and the great-granddaughter of the longtime manager of the Venice. A blowhard high-school history teacher opines about Louis Gordon’s crime career, Coney Island’s middle class and the construction of Knickerbocker Village. A foppish retired editor recalls being introduced to Mazie by the potboiler novelist Fannie Hurst. Even the hapless thrift store owner who found Mazie’s diary in a junk heap adds his two cents. In classic Attenberg style, these characters all manage to wander hilariously off-topic and over-share their own 21st-century problems.
Attenberg proves her chops as a historical novelist by perfectly capturing Mazie’s jazz-age voice, which ranges from clipped and vulgar to melancholy and lyrical. Attenberg also sidesteps many of the pitfalls of the form: no day-by-day plodding through the decades, no unedited research notes masquerading as dialogue. She resists any plot twist or final revelation to provide a tidy psychological explanation for Mazie Phillips-Gordon sainthood.
The magic of “Saint Mazie” lies in its multi-generational voices and diary snippets seeking an answer to boozy, brassy Mazie’s simple question: “Is it so hard to believe I could be a good person?”
By Jami Attenberg