STARRED REVIEW
June 2015

A tribute to New York’s street saint

By Jami Attenberg
Mazie Phillips-Gordon was a real person. Born in 1897, she ran the ticket booth at New York’s Venice Theater from 1916 to 1938. You may not think that’s such a big achievement, but then you probably haven’t read the Joseph Mitchell New Yorker essay about her that inspired Jami Attenberg’s entertaining new novel, Saint Mazie.
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Mazie Phillips-Gordon was a real person. Born in 1897, she ran the ticket booth at New York’s Venice Theater from 1916 to 1938. You may not think that’s such a big achievement, but then you probably haven’t read the Joseph Mitchell New Yorker essay about her that inspired Jami Attenberg’s entertaining new novel, Saint Mazie. In her younger days, Mazie was a good-time girl, drinking with the boys, hanging out with sailors, getting physical with sea captains in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge and going to the track. But what a transformation: She eventually became a patroness of sorts to New York’s downtrodden. She doled out cash, food and cigarettes to the city’s homeless and drunks, including former bankers devastated along with millions of others by the Depression. Her largesse earned her the nickname “The Queen of the Bowery.”

Attenberg, whose last book was 2013’s The Middlesteins, structures this fictionalized homage mostly through entries in a diary that Mazie began when she was 10 and continued writing until the late 1930s. (She died in 1964.) Mazie moved to New York from Boston when her older sister, Rosie, and her brother-in-law, Venice Theater owner Louis Gordon, took her and her sister, Jeanie, far from the father who had cheated on their “simp” of a mother. Through these diary entries, we meet the characters who had the biggest influence on Mazie’s life.

The best thing about this novel is Mazie’s brassy, streetwise voice. She can’t understand why Rosie sees only the crime in the streets and not the “shimmering cobblestones in the moonlight” or the “floozies trying to sweet-talk their customers.” The book also includes Studs Terkel-like oral histories from people who knew or were related to Mazie’s acquaintances. Some of these histories are extraneous, but, otherwise, Saint Mazie is a fascinating portrait of early 20th-century New York and of an unlikely champion of the dispossessed.

 

Michael Magras is a writer living in southern Maine and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

This article was originally published in the June 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

 

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Saint Mazie

Saint Mazie

By Jami Attenberg
Grand Central
ISBN 9781455599899

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