Hoagy Carmichael created Aunt Harriet.
Take in an earful of “Rockin’ Chair” and… huh? Listen, you think I’m making this up? That little nugget of Bat-history comes straight from the great Julius Schwartz himself! Wait—what? “Who’s Hoagy Carmichael?” Hey, you’ve got the internets at your finger tips, bub—the entire universe of early-20th century jazz crooners is just a double-click away. Me, I’m simply here to pay homage to one of the most maligned, most misunderstood, most under-appreciated Batman cast members ever.
Aunt Harriet, that sweet, old dame….
You’ve probably heard the story by now, ad nauseum, how Schwartz was handed the Bat-titles to edit back in ’64 and the first thing he felt the need to address was Bruce and Dick’s homosexuality. Err, alleged homosexuality. Anyway, address it he did—by killing off Alfred. No ménage à trois in Stately Wayne Manor, see. And while the Schwartz is at it, a female living under that famous roof might be just the ticket, too.
Enter Aunt Harriet.
At first she was just that: “Aunt Harriet,” a relative of Dick Grayson’s who heard about the Alfred-tragedy and came to take care of the “helpless youngsters” and “little boys” at Wayne Manor. Look it up for yourself; it’s a matter of public record in Detective Comics #328—and you get Alf’s demise in the same issue for no extra charge. Regardless, she was Dick’s aunt, not Bruce’s, but beyond that she was a mystery in a pillbox hat and with an annoying tendency to clean up all the dirty dishes and empty pizza boxes lying around.
It took a certain TV series to give her a last name. After Batman’s debut on January 12th, 1966, she was officially “Mrs. Harriet Cooper” and the comic books got in line and folded the name into their continuity—such as it was in the mid-60s. Now, the lady was a widow of the mysterious Mr. Cooper and, presumably, the sister of Dick’s father. Right? I mean, I think so… let’s check The Essential Batman Encyclopedia to be sure. Ah! Yep, says there that Harriet is the sister of John Grayson, Dick’s late father. I love it when a fictional comic book family tree comes together….
Where was I? Oh, yes: Aunt Harriet. In the comic books, she was something of a busybody and the Caped Crusaders soon learned that above and beyond cooking and cleaning and that infernal tune-less humming, she also liked to install hidden cameras in chandeliers and spread wet pitch across exit roads from secret caves. And before you get all, like, “libel, dude” on me, all that is also public record in Detective Comics #351. Go and check it out for yourself; it’s got go-go chicks on the cover. I’ll wait.
Done, smartie? Let’s move on. Harriet waits for no man, nor fangirl.
Bruce and Dick, clever boys, jus barely scraped by and figured out a way to make the dear old woman think she was nuts and not onto the secret of the century—that they’re super-heroes, dammit, super-heroes!—and all was calm again. Over in the TV series, well, maybe more jittery than calm.
Aunt Harriet in Batman was played, of course, by the wonderful Madge Blake. Say what you want and will, but Madge cemented the character forever in the eternal strata of pop culture. And yes, that’s a good thing. Not nearly as clever as her comic book counterpart, the TV Aunt Harriet nevertheless helped put the “wacky” in Wacky Wayne Manor and endeared her to a generation of kids who grew up on the show. I myself have gone back recently and watched Madge’s performance and she truly does add a certain “something” to the already clever, sly mix.
Adam West, in his fantastic Back to the Batcave, reports that Ms. Blake was pretty much just like her character at that time, nervous and hesitant and flighty, but that he honestly believed that made her performance a real treasure. Supposedly, he even shouted down some directors who just weren’t grokking the whole thing. Thank God he did, say I, for without Madge’s hand-wringing and stuttering and utterly charming delivery, ol’ Aunt Harriet would have been relegated to the dusty Batcave of dim memory.
“Ohh, Alfred, I just can’t understand where those two are always running off to!” It’s like poetry….
As it stands, Aunt Harriet, or “Hattie” as she referred to herself in her own mind—no, I did not make that up either!—only appeared in barely a dozen or so Batman comic stories; on TV she’s in just about every first and second season episode. Sadly, by the time the third season rolled around, Madge Blake was quite sickly and Harriet only made a precious two cameos. Ah, Madge, we hardly knew ye… rest in peace, dear lady.
After Alfred returned from the dead as a bumpy, chalk-white supernatural villain in Detective Comics #356—you think the TV show was goofy?—Harriet’s place in the Manor became a bit redundant—what, she no longer served her purpose as a chaperone? The butler’s back, for cryin’ out loud!—and the editors tried to kill her off. She survived, thanks to some cryosurgery—listen, I’m getting tired of the disbelief here—and by the end of 1968 she packed her bags, hidden cameras and pitch brushes and moved out. In 1974 she made a silent, token appearance in Batman Family #4, which also is a matter of public record. I couldn’t make up a title like that.
So, where does this leave us? Looking forward, obviously.
Mrs. Harriet Cooper, aunt to Dick Grayson, must return. And there is no better writer already in-place than Grant Morrison to handle such a weighty and delicate resurrection.
Imagine, if you will: Harriet re-enters the lives of our heroes in 2011 but this time as a disguised Talia… or, or Catwoman! Or, wait! Aunt Harriet is a… robot from the future! Maybe she is the most impenetrable mystery of all in Batman’s Black Casebook, the one time in his past that just doesn’t add up. A woman living at Wayne Manor? Dick’s aunt? Cooking and cleaning for them while nosing about in their private business?
Jim Beard, among many other stately writing pursuits, is the editor of Gotham City 14 Miles, a new book examining the 1966-68 Batman TV series. Get more info and read a sample chapter from the book, join its official Facebook page, or order a copy.