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The Complete Book of Aunts

Here is the web-exclusive book review with excerpts.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Though sometimes underappreciated in real life, aunts have always played a prominent role in fiction—and in the lives of the writers who've created them. Remember Elizabeth Bennet's reliance on her Aunt Gardiner in Pride and Prejudice? Indeed, several of Jane Austen's novels portray the relationship between aunt and niece as stronger than that between mother and daughter. And in real life Austen herself was a proud aunt to several nieces. Virginia Woolf, too, was an affectionate "Aunt Ginny" to her nephews and niece. And aunts in television and movies have long been favorite characters—from Andy Griffith's homespun "Aunt Bee" to Patrick Dennis's exotic "Auntie Mame" (loosely based on Dennis's own Aunt Marion). Conventional or eccentric, nurturing or nasty, all types are represented in The Complete Book of Aunts. After reading this delightful celebration of the sometimes-forgotten family member, you'll never again take your own aunt for granted.

Get to know John Lennon's heroic Aunt Mimi and Thomas Hinds's notorious-in-her-own-right Aunt Bess from the excerpts below.

EXCERPTS

All You Need Is Love
Liverpool, 1940. Julia Stanley's marriage to the feckless Alf Lennon dismayed her respectable middle-class family. When Julia gave birth to a baby boy, her younger sister, Mimi, went to see the child in the hospital and felt immediately that she was destined "to be his mother." She chose the name John for him, with Julia patriotically adding Winston to the moniker. Five years later, after Alf had drifted off and Julia had taken up with another man, Mimi insisted that she should give John the proper stable family upbringing that Julia was unable to provide. And so John moved to Mendips, a semidetached house in a pleasant suburb of Liverpool, to live with Mimi and her husband, George.

Mimi and George were happy together, as far as anyone knows, but because she had spent so much of her childhood looking after three younger sisters, Mimi let it be known that she did not want children of her own. Psychologists may see the appropriation of her sister's son in terms of displacement and surrogacy, but the simple fact is that Mimi loved John with a true enduring love that never faltered or softened or lied. "I would sometimes rant and rave at him, but deep down he knew I loved him, and he loved me," she said. "We were very close." Love, love, love, all you need is love—and John Lennon was given plenty of it.

But it must have been confusing for the boy. If strangers took him for Mimi's son, she would not contradict them, yet he would also privately ask her, "Why can't I call you mummy?" In a strange inversion of nature, Julia became in effect his aunt, visiting regularly and lavishing him with indulgent affection and treats. Her second relationship produced two girls, John's half sisters. None of this was clearly discussed or explained, and John experienced a jumble of conflicting relationships and confusing presences and absences. The result was an anxious, anarchic, aggressive, ambitious, selfish, softhearted, mixed-up kid who fought and stole and swore and rode the bumpers of the tramcars when Mimi wasn't looking. He could well have turned delinquent, and nearly did.

Within the walls of Mendips, however, he was happy. Mimi was a conventional disciplinarian, emphasizing the value of domestic routine, cleanliness, and good manners. John was required to mow the lawn, clean his room, and go to church on Sundays. Most significantly, he lived in a house with plenty of good books: John was consumed by Just William, The Wind in the Willows, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and from the age of seven he began producing his own skits, cartoons, and stories. Clearly a bright boy, he earned his place at one of the best grammar schools, Quarry Bank—a conservative institution that might have turned him into a doctor or lawyer. Instead, he became the class comedian, lying and swearing and talking back to the masters. "I was aggressive because I wanted to be popular," he later told a Beatles biographer.

Mimi delighted in John's wild drawings and verbal inventiveness, and she tried to encourage this creative streak. Then Uncle George slipped the boy his first musical instrument, an old mouth organ, which John played incessantly. Mimi thought the music rubbishy, but John's mother, who played the banjo, bought him a cheap ten-pound guitar and taught him some basic chords.Mimi later relented and bought him a fourteen-pound guitar, though she remained skeptical about his talent. "Stick to art," she told him in what would become one of the most celebrated remarks in the Beatles mythology. "The guitar's all right as a hobby, John, but you'll never make a living with it." Yet she always knew he would "amount to something."

There were tragedies, which the boy in his self-centered adolescent innocence never fully confronted—Uncle George dying suddenly, his mother being killed in a car accident. Mimi's values remained immovable. She refused to countenance music as John's destiny, instead pushing him into art college. He did no work at all there. One day she tracked him down to a dirty Liverpool dive known as the Cavern, where the band now calling itself the Beatles was playing. She was appalled.

In desperation, she signed him up to be a bus conductor, but he was nearly twenty and ready to take the first avenue of escape—the wild port of Hamburg, where the Beatles had been offered work in a club. Still, at some level, her opinion, or at least her presence, continued to matter to him. He moved out, but the night before his shotgun wedding to Cynthia Powell he came back to Mimi and broke down in tears. And he later persuaded her to listen to the band's first recorded single, "Love Me Do."

Once the world was at his feet, Mimi could only be proud of him. For all the contempt that became his stock-in-trade, her boy had turned out well, and Mimi could be amused by his antics. "Every time John does something bad and gets his picture in the papers, he rings me up to smooth me over," she said. "A big present arrives every time he's been naughty"—one of them his MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire), which he came and pinned to her breast, remarking that she deserved it more than he did. She displayed it on top of the television.

When he fell under the sway of Yoko Ono and based himself in New York, John would still call Mimi every week for long conversations, during which they teased each other affectionately. "Hi, Father Christmas here," was his customary greeting. Unable to return to Britain for fear of losing his American visa, he became nostalgic for Liverpool and asked Mimi to send him mementos remembered from Mendips. He even urged her to come and live in an apartment in the Dakota.

One morning in December 1980, two months after John's fortieth birthday, Mimi was lying in bed and heard his name mentioned on the radio. Being drowsy, she did not register the context, and only later, when a friend of John's called on her, did she hear the terrible news that her boy had been shot dead. Stunned with grief, she cut off her hair. "I will never recover," she told the world in a statement.

She died in 1991 at age 88. Yoko Ono, Cynthia, and her great-nephew Sean all came to the funeral. The Beatles have become a chapter in cultural history in which Aunt Mimi's role is honored, and Mendips is now owned by the National Trust, serving as an example of the postwar middle-class gentility and security from which John Winston Lennon mounted a creative rebellion that made him as famous as anyone on the planet.

The "Gangster" Aunt He Never Knew
Thomas Hinds, a writer and publishing consultant who lives in Tarrytown, New York, fondly remembers his great-aunt Bess, who had a far more colorful history than he ever knew as a boy when she was his favorite babysitter:

"My sister and I thought we knew Aunt Bess well. She was cool, she was funny, she never swore except when she was sewing, she had a fast and edged tongue and a raunchy sense of humor. She dressed well and drove strange, foreign cars in the early '60s. She sold liquor and had boyfriends, but no husband. From the late 1940s to the early '80s, she was a very active member of our family.

My mom trusted her implicitly, and left my sister, my brother, and I in her care even when we were babies. Although she lived in Minneapolis and we lived some forty miles south, we saw her often, and she showed up for Christmas Eve and for all christenings and confirmations. She later babysat for my sister's children. She was our great-aunt, my grandfather's sister, and lived from 1898 to 1983.

As kids, we thought we knew Aunt Bess well. Here are some of the interesting things we found out about her after her death:

Aunt Bess was the mistress of John Dillinger's "jug marker," Eddie Green, the guy who cased the banks. Eddie was shot down in front of her in an FBI ambush. She spent a year and a day in the Federal Women's Prison, Alderson, West Virginia, for harboring Dillinger. Her defense lawyer was Harold Stassen, perennial presidential candidate. Thomas J. Dodd, then FBI, later Connecticut senator, worked on her case guided by Melvin Purvis, the most famous of G-men under J. Edgar Hoover.

We never knew her as "Beth Green," although the FBI did. In police custody, Aunt Bess, alias Beth Green, informed to the FBI. She enabled them to identify Dillinger's gang (and to capture or kill all members), to break up the Barker-Karpis gang, and capture the kidnappers of two local beer scions. She provided other information that helped to ensure the cleanup of wild St. Paul.

In 1928, she was neighbor to her boss and protector, "Dapper Danny" Hogan, a capo of the St. Paul mob, when Danny was blown to glory as he stepped on the starter of his car. At that time, she was living with a runner for the biggest bootlegger in St. Paul. She also worked in, owned, or managed several notorious gangster hangouts and nightclubs in St. Paul from 1925 to 1934. She was then, and remained, close to Aunt Grace Rosenthal, a famous St. Paul madame. She continued as a "hostess" after she got out of prison until the early 1950s, skirting the edges of legality.

Aunt Bess chose to live an unconventional life. Born in the last days of the Wild West, she lived for fifty years with few boundaries except, briefly, prison.

Her family loved her and she loved us back. Every year from 1928 to 1933, this woman, no matter what name she was using, had professional photographers take her picture. She would send a portrait-size copy to her relatives so they could look at how well she was doing. Beth Green/Aunt Bess still deserves to be looked at; in fact, Bess would have loved the attention."

Excerpted from The Complete Book of Aunts by Rupert Christiansen with Beth Brophy. Copyright © 2007 by Rupert Christiansen. Reprinted by permission of Hachette Book Group USA.

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