Tynan: Getting a Handle on a Hurricane

The Washington Post

On the note pad is the name Faye Dunaway, on the phone is Carl Bernstein and in the wing chair is Kathleen Tynan, willowy widow, author and friend of the famous.

She is not famous herself, but she married famous (legendary British drama critic Kenneth Tynan) and dates famous (film director Barbet ("Barfly") Schroeder). Her tailored herringbone jacket looks like one of Armani's, but she says it's "nobody's," meaning nobody famous.

She has written a book, "The Life of Kenneth Tynan." It's about her late husband, a flamboyant, mercurial, wickedly funny scribe who began his career being compared to Shaw and ended up in California, estranged from his family, attended by a young sadomasochistic mistress, writing profiles of Mel Brooks. Dissipated from emphysema, he finally smoked himself to death in 1980 at the age of 53.

Mostly, the book is a revolving Rolodex that Robin Leach would kill for.

Gore Vidal was there, Richard Harris and Marlon Brando arrived drunk . . . I remember my terror at first meeting Orson Welles in Spain. He wore a white suit and had a parrot on his shoulder. He looked like Long John Silver. I asked him if he'd ever thought of filming "Treasure Island" and he swiveled those terrifying eyes on me and said, " How did you guess? " . . . I threw myself into New York life. I met Norman Mailer, Norman Podhoretz, A. J. Liebling, Joseph Heller, Sen . John Fitzgerald Kennedy and a great many feckless Europeans. An Oxford friend remembers me as a tough little snob. ' 'Nobody could drop more names than you could. What made your name dropping very innocent was that to you Lumumba and Isaiah Berlin were more or less on the same level."

At the outset, Tynan takes six pages to gratefully acknowledge a guest list of celebrities, including famous dead authors (Lillian Hellman), famous living authors (Mailer, Kingsley Amis, Vidal, Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne), famous actors (Sir Laurence Olivier, Marlene Dietrich, Sir Alec Guinness, Jose Ferrer), famous directors (Welles, Roman Polanski, Milos Forman), famous agents (Irving (Swifty) Lazar, Sue Mengers), famous heiresses (Gloria Vanderbilt) and non-famous wives of the famous who have become famous (Sybil Burton, Carol Saroyan Matthau).

The book has been reviewed by famous people (John Mortimer in England, John Houseman in USA Today) and celebrated at book parties attended by famous guests. Her friends say Kathleen Tynan is a lovely, uppah-crusty, intelligent woman who has written courageously about her eccentric, kinky, bon-mot-spouting husband who lived by the credo kept over his desk: "Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds."

Vanity Fair excerpted the juicy bits. Time found the biography "harrowing" and "brave." Even the terminally tart John Simon, Tynan's pale American successor, liked it, although he found some of her revelations "indiscreet" and felt compelled to criticize her "shocking" spelling and grammar.

But wait. There's more. Dame May Gossip Liz Smith called it "candid, frank and fearless" and cosmic tour guide Shirley MacLaine blurbed on the back cover, "Breathtakingly courageous sleuthing of a life that was intellectually, poetically and adventurously dangerous."

Carl Bernstein, a frequent companion, telephones. "It's a brave book," he says.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, panning the book in the New York Times, found the flotilla of famous persons disconcerting, calling the author "the aggrieved wife, striking noble poses and dropping her interminable list of names. There may be nuggets here. But they are not worth reading over 500 pages to mine."

Talent vs. Celebrities

"Famouses who then become your friends," Kathleen Tynan says defensively. "It's such a tricky position. You're accused of name-dropping, but in fact those are the people who happen to be around. Ken did not like parties. He did not like celebrities per se. He loved talent."

Tynan crosses her black-stockinged legs. At 49, she is reserved and a teensy bit prickly herself. Cool and crisp in a Julie Christie kind of way, her long brandy-butter-colored hair swept back, her igloo smile tinted a light plum.

"The book was so tough, because it was so personal," she says in her clipped Oxford accent. "I felt very vulnerable to attack and have been attacked as well as praised."

Attacked, she says, "for presuming to be both biographer and memoirist. Attacked for being too open and not open enough." She retrieves her cup of coffee and sips delicately. "That's the book I've written and I stand by it."

She was Kathleen Halton, London-born, an ambitious 24-year-old journalist who started out as a Newsweek researcher and later worked at the Observer, where she fell in love with the newspaper's seductive drama critic. He was born in Birmingham, the illegitimate son of Sir Peter Peacock, and later, shrugging off his unhappy past, reinvented himself at Oxford, where he strutted Oscar Wilde-like down High Street in lipstick and gold satin shirts under a purple doeskin suit. He was also 11 years her senior and already married, the father of a daughter. Kathleen was married, too. They left their spouses and lived together, with Tynan telling his new girlfriend she looked just like "the young Garbo." The beautiful, if somewhat humorless, young Kathleen and the brittle, biting Kenneth were, in her words, "bound by hoops of steel."

On their first date, he solemnly confessed to having a weakness for spanking girls. "It didn't mean anything," she says. "It was like he said, 'By the way I have a limp.' "

Did he ever spank her?

"No," she says, bristling. "You're on the wrong subject. This is not what it's about."

Why write about the sexual peccadilloes, then? "I had to be truthful," she says, "because Ken himself insisted on this kind of personal candor. But it would really be wrong to get this out of proportion. . . . Of course it pained me to write it. But I don't think it's central. I just think if one doesn't reveal that aspect of Ken, then I'm not giving you a portrait of Ken."

. . . I came across a metal box in which I found a large number of black-and-white pornographic photographs. The theme of almost every study was a woman in some stage of undress being spanked by a fully dressed spanker, usually a man.

In the autumn of 1964, this Pandora's box was strange and shocking to me, and I recall closing it up, leaving the flat and walking twice around Berkeley to get my breath back. That evening I told Ken of my discovery. He was visibly affected. We must part, he said.

John Osborne, in the New York Review of Books, writes, "This is pure Tynan charade and it is hard to believe that she was too obtuse or unworldly not to have been aware of her new husband's 'quirks' as she daintily describes them. They were common knowledge in a wide circle and put about largely by Tynan himself."

Osborne is the celebrated author of "Look Back in Anger," a play that was championed by Tynan as evidence of the overwhelming social revolution that would rock Britain in the mid-1950s ("I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see 'Look Back in Anger'," Tynan wrote). The playwright later had a falling out with the critic over Osborne's reluctance to join Tynan at the National Theatre, where he and partner Laurence Olivier masterminded a stunning, decade-long repertoire.

As a critic, he was both feared and admired, able to make or break a production with a paragraph and championing the works of Peter Brook, Tom Stoppard and Osborne. At the National Theatre he produced plays like "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "Jumpers."

Much to the dismay of serious theaterati, Tynan's career now seems to have been reduced to that of an erotic enfant terrible, notorious as the first man to utter the "f" word on the BBC and later devising the nude review "Oh! Calcutta!"

His wife's book tries to correct this impression, but readers may also come away with the notion that Tynan squandered his talents playing host to the rich and famous. Antonioni supposedly based the kinky party scene in "Blow-Up" on a party given by Ken and Kathleen in their Mount Street flat, and both seemed to flutter aimlessly from lunch to tea, from drinks to dinner, from lover to lover and, of course, from holiday to holiday abroad.

"I must say that I liked it," Kathleen Tynan says of this life. "I have far less of an appetite for it (now) because after a while there are just too many great persons about . . . I'm sure he wanted fame. He wanted attention very much. He wanted to notice and be noticed. He wanted to be in the light."

For years, she says, "I lived totally in his shadow. I had no great ambition. I wanted to be Ken's girl. I was terribly happy being Ken's woman. As I grew up, I began to want to spread my wings, to think, to write, that's when I started a novel." The result was called "The Summer Aeroplane."

Tynan's first wife, Elaine Dundy, had also written a novel, "The Dud Avocado." When a friend asked if Elaine's book was any good, the critic replied, "Oh, I shouldn't think so. Just another wife trying to prove she exists."

Kenneth Tynan lived with his second wife for more than 16 years, and fathered two children with her, but he was most productive as a writer during that first, stormy marriage.

Still, "I think that the kind of battling that went on was extremely destructive to his work," Kathleen Tynan says. "I don't think that kind of discord produces art. It played upon his own self-doubt so much and his own guilts. I'm not placing blame on either side."

Elaine Dundy is on the phone. She lives at the Chateau Marmont Hotel, she says, while in Los Angeles. She has written several books, among them the biographies "Finch, Bloody Finch" (on actor Peter Finch) and "Elvis & Gladys" (on the late singer and his mother.) She is currently working on a second novel.

"My opinion of the book is the same as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's," she says. "It's just posing and dropping names. He (Tynan) was about love and the theater and she doesn't take that in. She not only trashed me but trashed everybody so she looks grand."

She says Kathleen Tynan invited her to lunch several years ago and asked for her cooperation. "I said, 'No.' Then she asked if it were true that I was caught in bed with somebody else, and I said I was going to call my lawyer. There was quite a row."

In the book, a friend recalls the first Tynan household:

"A typical scene would be to arrive at the door of the Mount Street apartment, where the locks had usually just been changed by one or the other of the Tynans. There were locks from floor to ceiling on the front door. Ring the bell, sounds of screams and smashing crockery, and tiny Tracy (the Tynans' daughter) opening the door, trying to find which lock was working. Ken shouting, 'I'll kill you, you bitch.' Smash, smash and whimpers from the nanny, and Tracy absolutely poised and calm, saying, 'Hello, how nice to see you. Come in. Can I take your coat?' "

Tracy Tynan, now a set designer, is married to director Jim ("The Big Easy") McBride. They live in Los Angeles.

"Actually, I haven't read the book," Tracy says.

She has seen the reviews.

She is still the diplomat.

She sighs.

"It's awfully awkward when the second wife is writing about the first wife."

Kathleen Tynan now lives in London with her son Matthew. Her daughter Roxana is a student at Yale.

"Barbet's on the road and I'm in a suitcase, more or less."

She and Schroeder have been together for the last six years. No marriage plans. "He's against it, and I'm not for it."

There's a thin gold wedding band on her left hand, a remnant of her marriage to Tynan. "Why not? I'm not married to anybody else."

She leans forward on her chair. "The thing about Ken was that he was very childlike. He wasn't constantly on form with me and I wasn't smart enough to reply."

She says the problems in her marriage may have sprung from too much proximity. "We were rarely out of each other's sight. We weren't separate enough."

Both turned to the comfort of lovers. "An extramarital affair is painful," she says, "but it is the central danse macabre between you and the man you're married to that's really at work."

And what would Kenneth Tynan the caustic critic have to say about "The Life of Kenneth Tynan"? Would he have given it a rave?

She sighs. "It's a terrible question. I hope he would. I hope he would . . . I don't know whether he would have examined himself as deeply as I have, I don't know," she says, "because he found self-examination tedious."

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