Skating Charm

James Wolcott

  • The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan edited by John Lahr
    Bloomsbury, 439 pp, £25.00, October 2001, ISBN 0 7475 5418 8

Kenneth Tynan smoked like a maestro, an aficionado of his own smooth technique. As the stripper sings in Gypsy, ‘Ya gotta have a gimmick,’ and photograph after photograph shows Tynan squiring a cigarette between the tips of his middle and ring fingers (his trademark), each puff drawing attention to the languid elegance of his long, slender, concert-pianist hands. Cigarettes were key props in the Ken Tynan legend assembly-kit, along with the Mickey Mouse watch and effete-aesthete Anthony Blanche outfits he wore at Oxford, and, later, the poolstick collection of headmaster’s canes he kept handy to beat women’s bottoms. The cigarettes eventually killed him, but it is only with one in his hand that he looks fully activated, in character. In London, creating a sensation as a theatre critic, he’s as trim, sleek and transparently avid as Laurence Harvey on the make in Room at the Top, but more convivial and amused – an amiable shark. No one looks that eagerly young anymore. Two decades after his death, Tynan is still getting the star treatment, a rare thing for any writer; even rarer for a critic, whose work tends to date fast. The morbid, sexy idolatry usually reserved for rock stars, dead poets and suicide blondes is being lavished on him. The front cover of Tynan’s Letters, published in 1994, features a portrait taken by David Bailey, itself a sign of pop status. The front cover of The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan is a close up of its subject inhaling, eyes shut, fingers splayed; its back cover, three shots of him in different stages of smoking – an action-sequence of sorts. How did Tynan become such a cool dead daddy? True, he remains a pleasure to read: his float-like-a-butterfly, sting-like-a-bee style has lost none of its panache, his witty concision is still quotable (on Gielgud in modern dress: ‘The general aspect of a tight, smart, walking umbrella’), much of his excitement outliving the occasions that produce it. But there have been other theatre critics with dapper styles and deep commitments whose names faded once their work slid out of print, once-prominent tastemakers such as Stark Young and James Gibbons Huneker. Tynan’s review collections have joined theirs in the second-hand stores, but he himself stays hot copy. Words aren’t enough to sustain a journalistic legend; neither are looks, photogenic as he was.

‘What makes a figure is the lore,’ the Jungian psychologist James Hillman declared. ‘Take the Beat Generation, Kerouac; their lore made them more than they were. We can’t get rid of Nixon, no way to forget him, because of the lore. Freud and Jung are full of lore . . . so they are very much alive as figures in the imagination. We keep on learning from them, through the lore.’ Kenneth Tynan’s life is a walk-in vault of lore. His bastard status. His dandy days at Oxford. His stammer (another reminder of Anthony Blanche), a stalling device that made his conversational cobra-strikes all the more lethal. The precocious brilliance of his first book, He That Plays the King, written when he was 23 and tapped for glory with a foreword by Orson Welles. His triumphant stint as theatre columnist for the Observer. His championing of Look Back in Anger, the play that blew the tea cosies off the English stage and became the rude manifesto of the Angry Young Men. His rock-’em, sock-’em first marriage to the novelist Elaine Dundy, their drunken rows rivalling Scott and Zelda’s. His snap conversion to Marxism after seeing Mother Courage. His hero-worship of Castro and his defence of the Cuban revolution, which led to his being summoned before the United States Senate Internal Security Subcommittee to explain himself (his own brush with the Red Scare). His intoxication with bullfighting in Spain, which brought him into contact and conflict with Hemingway. His second marriage to the divinely cheekboned Kathleen Halton. His headline-making utterance of the word ‘fuck’ on live TV. The party he threw in the 1960s that inspired the ‘Swinging London’ orgy scene in Antonioni’s Blow-Up. The Borgia intrigue of his stint as dramaturg under Olivier at the National Theatre. His championing of pornography for the masses and the scandalous success of Oh! Calcutta! His spat with Truman Capote over In Cold Blood. His years of demoralised inactivity. His third-act exile in Los Angeles, where he sunned with coked-out stars and their lizard-skinned agents, and yet was able to revive his reputation through a series of profiles for the New Yorker, his biggest scoop enticing Louise Brooks to break her silence, a piece laden with Sunset Boulevard shadows. The much-publicised party snap of Tynan in drag as Brooks, looking instead eerily like a cross between Milton Berle and Anna Wintour. His long, racking, losing battle with emphysema.

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[*] Virago, 388 pp., £17.99, 21 June, 1 86049 513 3.

[†] Bloomsbury, 352 pp., £20, 3 September, 0 7475 5413 7.