Author wrote of turbulent life with critic Tynan

Times Staff Writer

Elaine Dundy, a novelist, biographer, journalist and memoirist who wrote about her turbulent marriage to legendary critic Kenneth Tynan and their life among the rich and famous, died May 1 at her Los Angeles home. She was 86.

The cause was a heart attack, according to her daughter, Tracy Tynan.

Dundy was the author of several books, the best known of which are "The Dud Avocado" (1958), a novel about a young woman much like herself, who comes of age in the 1950s through a series of misadventures in decadent Paris; and "Elvis and Gladys" (1985), a well-received biography of Elvis Presley that homes in on his relationship with his mother.

She also wrote "Life Itself!" (2001), a memoir that focuses on her 13-year marriage to Tynan, the brilliant theater critic and New Yorker writer who finally drove her away with his demands for sadomasochistic sex. In between the beatings and arguments was a charmed life amid the literati and Hollywood and theatrical elite, including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Laurence Olivier, Gore Vidal and Orson Welles.

"She was a great wit," Vidal, who knew her for 50 years, said Monday. "There was no one else quite like her. She introduced a whole style, the freed American girl landing on old Europe, starting in Paris and moving on to London. She collected a lot of very interesting friends. . . . She had a lot of reality that was far more interesting than fiction."

Dundy was born Elaine Brimberg in 1921 into a prosperous New York City family. Her father was a successful businessman and philanthropist but was so abusive that she left home as soon as she could.

After graduating from Sweet Briar College in Virginia, where she studied acting, she moved to Europe, living first in Paris and later in London. In 1950, she met the flamboyant Tynan, an Oxford graduate who would soon terrorize the theater world with his brilliant and lacerating reviews for the London Observer. Soon after, as Dundy wrote in her memoir, he proposed to her with these words: "I am the illegitimate son of the late Sir Peter Peacock. I have an annual income. I'm 23 and I will either die or kill myself when I reach 30 because by then I will have said everything I have to say. Will you marry me?"

They were married in 1951.

Dundy worked as an actress but found only moderate success. Tynan encouraged her to try writing a novel and promised he would not read it until she was done.

The result was the semi-autobiographical "Dud Avocado," the title of which was meant to suggest the naivete of the American woman abroad: tough on the outside but green on the inside. The book opens on a late morning in Paris with a young American actress named Sally Jay "drifting down the Boulevard St. Michel, thoughts rising in my head like little puffs of smoke," who was dressed formally despite the hour in an evening gown from a previous soiree.

"That was Elaine to a T," said actress Rosemary Harris, who knew Dundy for more than half a century. "She was madcap. She lived life to the fullest."

"The Dud Avocado" goes on to chronicle the protagonist's search for love and enlightenment in boozy exploits and sexual encounters that made her an unusual heroine for the late 1950s. It earned enthusiastic reviews -- "A good many shafts of bright satire illuminate these prancing pages," the New York Times wrote -- and became a bestseller in the United States and abroad.

When the book was reissued last year in the New York Review Books classics series, critic Terry Teachout described Sally Jay as the "spiritual grandmother of Bridget Jones," a characterization that Dundy relished.

She wrote two other novels and a couple of plays before turning to biography in 1980 with "Finch, Bloody Finch" about actor Peter Finch.

Her next subject, to the horror of her sophisticated friends, was Elvis Presley, whom she did not discover until after his death in 1977.

"She was absolutely mesmerized by his voice," said Roy Turner, Dundy's literary executor and a historian in Tupelo, Miss., where Presley was born. She spent five months in Tupelo conducting research, uncovering little-known facts about the iconic performer's life, such as his Jewish and Cherokee heritage. The book was considered a definitive contribution to Presley scholarship, with the Boston Globe praising it as "nothing less than the best Elvis book yet."

Researching Presley led her to her next book, "Ferriday, Louisiana," about the small Louisiana town that spawned an inordinate number of celebrities, including singer Jerry Lee Lewis, World War II Gen. Claire Chennault and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart.

None of those efforts reaped as much attention as her memoir "Life Itself!" with its frothy anecdotes about her glamorous public life, such as the time photographer Richard Avedon flew her and Tynan to New York, nailed them inside large crates and presented them as birthday gifts at a party for director Mike Nichols.

There were also the shocking revelations about her husband's desire to have sex while caning her. She submitted to his punishment several times, explaining that she stayed in the relationship partly because of his threats to kill himself if she left him and partly because of her own sickness, which she described as "the thrill of an accomplice collaborating at her own ruin."

They broke up several times, always returning to each other. Harris recalled Tynan saying that he and Dundy were "like two predatory birds with their jaws stuck into each other. It was easier to stay there than break away." They finally divorced in 1964. Tynan died in 1980.

Dundy never remarried and in later years overcame alcohol and drug problems. According to Harris, Dundy's discovery of Presley "gave her a whole new lease on life and a whole new slew of friends" who were not literati or glitterati.

In her last years she struggled with macular degeneration until she was introduced to a magnifying device called the Optelec, which enabled her to read and write again. She wrote movingly about coping with her vision loss in "Out of the Darkness," a 2006 article for the London Guardian.

A few weeks before her death, she sent Harris a poem she had written. "It was an amazing poem," Harris said. "It was about . . . looking into the mirror and not finding herself in her reflection. She said, 'Rosie, do you ever do that, think who are you, where have you gone? I just don't recognize the me anymore.' It was as if she was telling me something, that her life was coming to an end."

In addition to her daughter, Dundy is survived by grandchildren Matthew and Ruby McBride of Los Angeles; a sister, Betty Lorwin of New York City; and two nieces. Another sister, noted independent filmmaker and UCLA professor Shirley Clarke, died in 1997. A memorial service will be held at Westwood Memorial Park at 2 p.m. on June 12.

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elaine.woo@latimes.com

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Opening lines

Read the beginning of Elaine Dundy's "The Dud Avocado" at

latimes.com/dundy

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