Life Itself!



The Pequod Review:

Elaine Dundy (1921-2008) spent many years in her husband Kenneth Tynan's very large shadow, but she was an extraordinarily talented writer in her own right. Her autobiography Life Itself! is a thoughtful account of not just her troubled marriage but of the mid-century American/British cultural scene more generally. Dundy traces her life from her Manhattan childhood through to her adult life in primarily Paris and London, when Tynan's growing fame as a theater critic led to acquaintances with numerous theater stars (Peter Finch, Laurence Olivier, Sidney Lumet, Orson Welles and others) and literary figures (James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, etc.). 

Despite her abusive relationship with Tynan (which she maintained with "the thrill of an accomplice collaborating at her own ruin”), Dundy captures the key reasons for her husband's popularity:

Ken and the fifties were a perfect match. The explosion of post-war theater needed a pre-eminent illuminator and memorializer, and there was Ken, able to illuminate, memorialize, celebrate and excoriate like no other critic. Like Beerbohm and Shaw before him, he was as much a star as those performing on stage. Moreover, for the delectation of first-night audiences among whom he sat, he would appear in eye-catching outfits, such as a suit of dove gray with a velvet collar, enlivened by pastel-colored shirts in primrose, ashes of rose or apple green.

Meanwhile, Tynan's faddish obsession with bullfighting would become wearying:

And so we went to Pamplona. My resistance to detailing each and every one of the ten years of our bullfight summers is somewhat the same as Mark Twain's reluctance to stop the narrative flow of his books by describing the weather conditions therein.

Summers of sun, sea and swimming pool had been potent pleasures in my childhood and I welcomed them back into my life with something like ecstasy in the Spanish coastal towns where the bullfights often took us. At the Hotel Miramar in Malaga I would lie contentedly by the pool after a long swim, drying in the sun, and Ken would say in surprise, "It doesn't take much to make you happy, does it?"

The overall atmosphere of these yearly fiestas, when we were part of the aficion, was rife with boisterous high spirits, lots of jokes, hotly held opinions, short tempers, lengthy insults, and hurt feelings. Loving loyalties were followed by betrayals, then exchanges of letters full of accusations and apologies, and subsequently reconciliations, before the cycle began all over again.

In my mind all those hundreds and hundreds of corridas we saw have now melted in my mind so that now they are all one bull, one bullfighter and one bullfight.

Dundy was a quiet but perceptive observer of her celebrity friends; here she compares Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams:

I'd found Hemingway's voice very much at odds with his persona. It was a light voice, pitched rather high, with flat suburban Mid-western pronunciations unchanged from childhood. How further to define it? The word "coddled" comes to mind. A voice cushioned against raw nature by good plumbing, warm clothes, hot food and worried mothers, not what you expected to issue from his monumental build. From such an edifice you expected nothing less than the thundering sonorities of Orson Welles.

Tennessee's voice, on the other hand, with its supple, insinuating Delta rhythms, perfectly expressed his persona. Echoes of it would stay in my ear after an evening in his company, and before falling asleep that night I would hear its sinuous sounds like waves plashing against some distant shore. I can still hear the gusto of his rhetoric, the juiciness of his delivery, the orchestrated fluctuations of his rhythms, and the way he would pounce on certain words -- tackle them, play with them, squeeze and stretch them until the words themselves seemed surprised at being infused with so much passionate intensity.

Here she recounts a conversation with Christopher Plummer:

A few nights later I ran into Christopher Plummer, who was making The Sound of Music in and around Salzburg. He'd been there for months and was at the point of feeling — as he later expressed it — as if he were being beaten to death with a Hallmark card.

I love much of Kenneth Tynan's work — especially his biographical profiles, which sadly appear to have been mostly forgotten today — but there is an honesty and understated intelligence to Dundy's prose that make Life Itself! as good or better than most of her husband's books.