In 1955, Patrick Dennis published a novel that was loosely based on an eccentric aunt that was part of his life as a child. The novel followed the adventures of a young Patrick who had been placed in his Auntie Mame’s care after he was orphaned.
Eventually the novel became a play and then a movie in 1958, starring Rosalind Russell as Mame Dennis. It eventually received 3 Golden Globe and 6 Oscar nominations as well as being recognized as one of AFI’s (American Film Institute) 100 funniest films.
On a lazy weekend recently, I was up rather late, just surfing the net and occasionally glancing up at the TV. Around 1 a.m. in the morning, a local channel began to broadcast Auntie Mame. I really wasn’t in the mood to watch a movie so I decided to change the channel to see what else might be on. That’s when I discovered one of the biggest dilemmas a guy must occasionally face. The remote was missing! I frantically pawed all around the recliner, peered over the arms to see if it had dropped to the floor and scanned the room to see if I could spot it without getting out of smy eat. It then hit me….. I had mistakenly carried it to the kitchen during a commercial and had probably left it on the counter next to the fridge. I now had three choices –
• Do I get up and walk ALL THE WAY back to the kitchen to retrieve the remote?
• Do I, God forbid, get up and MANUALLY change the channels? – OR
• Do I remain seated and enjoy a vintage film that I probably hadn’t seen for at least 20 or 30 years?
The decision was obvious to me, the movie won and the channel stayed put and so did I.
As I watched the movie, I couldn’t help but think back to someone who was my family’s and perhaps the neighborhood’s reincarnation of Auntie Mame. This relative would be best described as “colorful” and “larger than life.” She could easily be thought of as a clone of the TV character “Maude.” Brash and sometimes outspoken, while at the same time a loving, caring and giving “good soul,”……. that was my Aunt Mary.
You may be somewhat familiar with Aunt Mary from some of my previous posts. She was always part of my life. She was born in her childhood home on Hamilton Avenue in Duquesne in January, 1922. She was #8 in a family of 9 children, and was my mother’s full sister. If you happened to read some of my earlier posts, you’ll remember that my grandfather and his first wife had three children together before she died. He remarried my grandmother, a widow, who had three children from her first marriage. The new Mr. and Mrs. Puskaric had three more children together AND my mother and Aunt Mary were two of the three.
Mary Puskaric was the product of the good Sisters that taught at St. Joseph’s School in the late 30’s and early 40’s, part of the Duquesne High School Class of 1940, a wartime bride, a mother of three, a Duquesne girl and Duquesne Hunky through and through. Unlike the character Rosiland Russell played in Auntie Mame, my Aunt Mary was not a world traveler. In fact, the number of times she traveled outside of the Duquesne area and didn’t return home on the same day could be counted on my two hands.
In spite of the fact that Aunt Mary wasn’t a member of the “jet set,” she was an enigma and fancied herself as Duquesne’s own Perle Mesta(1), who was known as the “hostess with the mostest” in Washington D.C. Everything she did, she would do “bigger than life” itself. This was particularly evident when she served as the president of what used to be known as the Holy Name Mother’s Club.
In addition to always thinking BIG, she was also an advocate of women’s rights and the power of women. As such, she convinced the members of the Mother’s Club, during her tenure as president, to change the name and the by-laws of the group. The new name, “Holy Name Women’s Guild,” was adopted and the membership was opened to women who weren’t necessarily mothers or wives. This was in the late 60’s and of course, raised a few eyebrows in Duquesne. You go Aunt Mary…. burn that bra!!!
Because of my background in art, I was often recruited by Aunt Mary to assist her and the Women’s Guild with various projects. I remember she decided that the guild should sponsor a fashion show (not really a rather feminist POV.) Of course, Aunt Mary would NEVER settle for just an ordinary show. Instead, she pulled together a show that featured bridal gowns from every decade, beginning in 1890! In addition to a historic collection of gowns which she managed to collect from Duquesne residents, she also had live entertainment and a huge luncheon. My part was to create huge silhouettes of models that were mounted to the Holy Name School cafeteria walls and stood about 15 feet tall. I made them out of black construction paper and assembled them piece by piece.
Aunt Mary and Fr. Dennis at Holy Name were a great team. They would butt heads occasionally, but they always managed to remain friends. With Fr. Dennis’ permission, Aunt Mary launched an annual event at Holy Name that ran in conjunction with the parish’s summertime festival. Each year, she would chair the committee for the Holy Name Flea Market. Held in the church basement each year, the event would make the church thousands of dollars. It seemed there was a never ending supply of items donated by parishioners and non-parishioners alike.
Of course, I was always recruited, along with her daughters, Paula and Karla Goldman, to help with the set-up. We, along with her team of volunteers, would spend weeks sifting through item donations, determining prices, where they would be located, AND if any of them might be a particular value as an antique. She would arrange for a group of antique dealers to review these items prior to the beginning of the sale, knowing that she would get more money from them for the church than from the general public. She was generally correct!
I recall how she and all of the ladies on her committee would work tirelessly during the Flea Market event . From early morning until late in the evening they would wheel and deal with every person who entered. By the end of the sale, which lasted about 3 or 4 days, each worker was totally exhausted and ready to never see the church basement again. Aunt Mary made the last day of the flea market a “bag day.” She and the ladies would sell brown grocery bags for one or two dollars and then allow the customers to stuff as much as they could into the bags. The more they filled them, the less they would have to get rid of. It was a great idea, and it worked.
Aunt Mary’s propensity toward going “over the top” was evident in her home as well. She had impeccable taste in her clothing and her home. The house was located on Martin Street just over the Duquesne/West Mifflin border. It sat across from the power plant that runs along Mifflin Street. I have checked the county records and have found that the home was only 1150 square feet , BUT looked and felt as if it were a mansion! From the picture above, you can see that she wanted it to look like an English cottage and decided to turn it into an ivy covered home. I’m not sure how she managed to do it, but in the course of about 5 years, she had managed to coax a few little cuttings that she planted on the side of her home, into fully covering the property. Actually, it was very impressive looking, but the problem was that it looked out of place among the stark looking homes that surrounded it. In honor of Aunt Mary, I decided to Photo Shop her house into the English countryside (right), complete with cobblestone walkway.
When it came to her clothes, she and I would sit for countless hours just thumbing through catalogs such as JCPenney, Sears, Montgomery Wards and Spiegel’s, as she decided what she liked. Most of the time, we would make fun of everything. When it came to making choices and actually buying something, Aunt Mary would regularly go to the local stores. Salkowitz’s Dress Shop and Sally Fashions, both on Grant Ave., were her favorites. She would also make trips to McKeesport in order to fill her needs. Jaison’s, Cox’s, Katzman’s and Immel’s were her “go to” places there. The items she would buy were sometimes very reminiscent of the clothes Rosaline Russell work in the movie Auntie Mame.
I certainly could write volumes about Mary Martha Puskaric-Goldman if I had the opportunity. In spite of the fact that she was an “over the top” character, she was a Duquesne Hunky at her core. Driven by a profound love for her family, a pride in her heritage and a lust for life, she will ALWAYS be one of my most unforgettable characters. I am so honored and grateful that I could call her my “other mother.”
In closing, let me sum up my Aunt Mary again with the piece of dialog from the movie that I mentioned earlier:
“Auntie Mame: Oh, Agnes! Here you’ve been taking my dictations for weeks and you haven’t gotten the message of my book: live!
Agnes Gooch: Live?
Auntie Mame: Yes! Live! Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”
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Footnote on Perle Mesta:
1. She was born Pearl Skirvin, in Sturgis, Michigan, a daughter of William Balser Skirvin, an original 89er who became a wealthy Oklahoma oilman and founder of the Skirvin Hotel. Her younger sister was a silent-film actress, Marguerite Skirvin (1896–1963). She married steel manufacturer and engineer George Mesta in 1916, but was widowed in 1925; she was the only heir to his $78 million fortune. Mesta settled in Newport, Rhode Island, but moved to Washington, D.C., in 1940. She also maintained a home in the Pittsburgh suburb of West Homestead, the location of her late husband’s steel machining plant, but spent little time there, as she felt largely unaccepted by the Pittsburgh social scene. Four years later, Mesta changed the spelling of her first name to Perle.
She was active in the National Woman’s Party and was an early supporter of an Equal Rights Amendment. She switched to the Democratic Party in 1940 and was an early supporter of Harry S. Truman, who rewarded her with the ambassadorship to Luxembourg where she launched the Nordstrom Sisters. Former President Richard M. Nixon said in grand jury testimony after the fallout of Watergate and his resignation, in June 1975, that Mesta was appointed by Truman because: “Perle Mesta wasn’t sent to Luxembourg because she had big bosoms. Perle Mesta went to Luxembourg because she made a good contribution.”
But Mesta is most noted for her parties, which brought together senators, congressmen, cabinet secretaries and other luminaries in bipartisan soirées of high-class glamour. Invitation to a Mesta party was a sure sign that one had reached the inner circle of Washington political society. Her influence peaked during the Truman era and being an old friend of the Eisenhowers, she maintained her social position throughout the 1950s despite her support of the Democratic Party. Her power waned significantly with the rise of the Kennedys in 1960. Perle was in fact a friend of Rose Kennedy, however, the generation gap between her and Jacqueline Kennedy had made it impossible for her to stay relevant during the Kennedy era. Nevertheless, she remained an avid hostess until her later years.
Mesta wrote an autobiography Perle: My Story, published in 1960, and was the subject of a book by Paul Lesch, Playing Her Part: Perle Mesta in Luxembourg. Lesch also directed a documentary film about Mesta’s stay in Luxembourg entitled Call Her Madam (Samsa Film, 1997).
She was the inspiration for Irving Berlin’s musical Call Me Madam, which starred Ethel Merman as the character based on Mesta in both the Broadway play and the movie. She appeared on the March 14, 1949 cover of TIME. Mesta was said to have been to some degree a model for the character Dolly Harrison in Allen Drury’s 1959 novel Advise and Consent, in a 2009 essay.
Mesta died on March 16, 1975, aged 85. She is interred with her late husband in Homewood Cemetery, a nonsectarian burial ground in Pittsburgh.