Elaine Kendall, author and former L.A. Times book critic, dies at 91


Elaine Kendall, the author and playwright who was a book critic for the Los Angeles Times, has died in Montecito. She was 91.

Her son, Richard Kendall, said Kendall died Aug. 3 after complications from a series of falls.

“My mother spent her entire life immersed in the arts, whether as a playwright, a librettist, an author, or as a book critic,” Richard Kendall said. “Even in her 90s, she kept writing satire and produced a play just six months before her death.”

Elaine Kendall was a book critic for The Times from 1980 to 1996, reviewing a variety of authors including A.M. Homes, Geoff Nicholson, Penelope Lively, Dominick Dunne, Rick Bass and Stewart O’Nan.

Reviewing Margaret Atwood’s now-classic dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” in 1986, Kendall wrote, “Given conducive circumstances, every one of the atavistic changes in this novel could be implemented virtually overnight, smoothly and efficiently … The power of the book comes not from Atwood’s inspired flights of fancy or felicities of style but from her deliberate subjugation of imagination to demonstrable fact. Only the form of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is fiction, as the form of ‘Mein Kampf’ was autobiography.”


In the 1980s, Kendall worked with fellow Times critic Carolyn See, an author whose daughter, novelist Lisa See, is married to Richard Kendall.

Elaine Kendall was born in 1928 in New York City and educated at Mount Holyoke College. She began writing in the early 1960s, her son said, after almost drowning during a vacation in Acapulco.

“As she lay exhausted on the beach after being rescued, she realized her obituary would have reported only that she was a ‘beloved mother and housewife,’” he said, “and she wanted her life’s work to include a career.”

She wrote widely as a freelance journalist and was the author of four nonfiction books: “The Upper Hand: The Truth About American Men,” “The Happy Mediocrity,” “‘Peculiar Institutions’: An Informal History of the Seven Sisters Colleges” and “Seeing Europe Again: Confessions of a First World Traveler.”

Kendall also wrote four plays: “Two Margarets,” The Chameleon,” “The Trial of Mata Hari” and “The Nominee.” In addition, she contributed lyrics to musicals, including “American Cantata,” “The Would-Be Diva,” “Isadora!” and “Cole & Will: Together Again!”

In recent years, Kendall was a columnist for the Satirist, an online magazine based in Amsterdam. In a 2015 column, she reflected on “reviewese,” the language critics use to describe works of art. “Where are the witty reviewers of yore; the Alexander Woollcotts, the Dorothy Parkers, the Walter Kerrs, and the rest of an erudite and often acerbic cohort? Gone to the internet or simply gone, every one,” she wrote.


Elaine Kendall is survived by her husband, Herbert J. Kendall; son Richard Kendall and daughter-in-law Lisa See; daughter Nancy McCabe and son-in-law Patrick McCabe; four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Services are being handled by McDermott-Crockett & Associates in Santa Barbara.