- 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.
Since Tynan’s death in 1980, this treasure trove of lore has furnished a memoir by his first wife, airily called Life Itself!;[*] a widely-praised full-length biography by the second; the volume of letters mentioned above; a play inspired by his Louise Brooks profile, Janet Munsil’s Smoking with Lulu; and now the diaries, which Tynan bequeathed on his deathbed to his daughter Tracy. They have been edited by John Lahr, the perfect choice for the task – indeed, an inescapable one. Lahr is Tynan’s true successor at the New Yorker, reviewing theatre for the magazine, as did Tynan, and, more important, filling his loafers as its premier celebrity profile writer, its most fluent, buttery and adept suck-up to the stars. (His own collection of celebrity toasts, Show and Tell, was published this year.)[†] He even shares some of Tynan’s transatlantic Leftism. So this book looked like a dream publishing package, the can’t-miss capper to Tynan’s posthumous career. But it seems to have been another sad case of going a book too far. The qualmy critical response to these bare-all diaries, though full of ritual salaams to its author’s personal zest and swashbuckler prose, has dealt a setback to the Ken Tynan personality cult. I think the damage goes deeper. The acid drip in these pages erodes the super-suave finish from Tynan’s preening manner and image, revealing something slimy beneath. It’s a stature-shrinking book, at least temporarily.
The diaries begin in the 1970s, not a decade that brought out the best in anyone. Tynan was at his best when he was waging exuberant, nimble battle against stodgy, old-fogey conformity. He shone brightest against drab surroundings. In the 1950s, his style was a floral burst, a bouquet of sparklers, but it came at a far greater cost to his constitution than anyone knew. As Elaine Dundy reveals in her memoir, the Observer reviews didn’t ripple from his fingertips like pearly notes, despite appearances. It’s a consolation to any writer who has envied and marvelled at the epigrammatic ease of his reviews to discover that he had to lash himself to the mast to meet a deadline, pulling all-nighters fuelled by cans of soup or corned beef hash, bottles of hock and packs of cigarettes (‘When I opened the door of his study the smoke, as if from a nuclear blast, shot out to engulf me’), emerging like Dracula from his crypt when he was done. ‘He woke me when he was finished to give me his copy and at that moment he always looked very strange; rather insane.’ The skating charm of his writing required deeper reservoirs of mental-physical stamina and willpower than anyone other than Dundy knew; to hit near-perfection week after week, he was borrowing against the future. The future would have less need for his iconoclasm, having incorporated it. Over the course of the 1960s the cultural landscape radically changed, the resistance barriers that he had challenged overrun by the very forces of sexual freedom and raw expression he helped to unlock. As Lionel Trilling pointed out in a review of Curtains, a collection of Tynan’s criticism that appeared in 1961, ‘the Philistinism of our day is likely to manifest itself in ready acceptance rather than in stubborn resistance.’ By 1971, the year the diaries begin, hip Philistines have complete run of the scene, priding themselves on being uninhibited, unshockable, insatiable for anything new. The photographs in the diaries document this shift, as the cocktail-hour Tynan of his London regency morphs into the epicurean sage of his Hollywood exile, where, in one photo, he stares at the camera wearing sunglasses and sporting a white goatee, the very picture of the playboy philosopher – a fucked-out burn-out who still has a seductive way with words.
To borrow a word from Norman Mailer, Tynan was a sexologue – an ideologue about sex. He was an admirer of the renegade psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, about whom he was writing a book-length study (never completed). With his once-voguish theories about armoured personalities and orgone energy (even dedicated bookworms such as Saul Bellow and Dwight Macdonald took their turn in orgone boxes, trying to recharge their bioelectric systems), and his later prosecution and imprisonment by the US Government, Reich was a popular martyr figure among the countercultural Left in the 1960s, a classic Misunderstood Genius driven mad by the uncomprehending establishment. A countercultural lefty before there was a counterculture, Tynan was attracted to the chain-reaction dynamics of Reich’s sexual diagrams, the utopian possibilities of bigger, better, freer orgasms triggering a freeing-up of all energies, creative, political and social, snowballing irresistibly past every checkpoint until the last Puritan was love-bombed. Better living through better loving – that was the basic visionary programme.
Where Tynan deviated from Reich was in making pornography the main platform of his liberation sexology. (To strict Reichians, pornography fostered masturbation, which locked the individual in a self-reinforcing loop of diminishing returns.) Tynan experiences an epiphany at a live show in Hamburg, where he, wife Kathleen and another couple spend a lovely evening watching a young ‘mutually affectionate’ couple copulate on stage. For some obscure dramatic purpose, the female partner is either a Scot or portraying one. No matter. ‘The full rectal presentation, with the dear Scot’s bum outstretched to bursting, as the pink piston of prick slides up and down, is something I shall never forget,’ Tynan rhapsodises. Yes, it’s something for the old scrapbook, along with the memory of another lassie, or perhaps the same one doing double duty, inserting a pair of burning candles into her vagina, where, to the wail of bagpipes, her kilted co-star lights his cigar. ‘I return from the city sexually refreshed and laden with some well-chosen pornography,’ writes Tynan, whose own impresario schemes to bring edifying erotica to classy audiences would exact a toll on his morale and well-being. True, Oh! Calcutta! – its title taken from a Surrealist painting – was a cheesy international success, but the follow-up, Carte Blanche, degenerated into a tug of war as Tynan refused to heed the requests, suggestions and anguished pleas of those who wanted him to cut his own contribution, a playlet called ‘Triangle’, which, they said, didn’t fit the revue format and brought everything to a talky stop. Tynan was adamant, arguing that ‘Triangle’ was vital to the artistic integrity of the show; moreover, it addressed a taboo practice to which he was passionately committed – spanking. How could he part with it? Unswayed, the producer dropped the piece from the show and Tynan sued for breach of contract, but by then Carte Blanche had already opened to reviews Variety might characterise as ‘stinko’. Another quixotic quest was Tynan’s years-long fight to finance and produce a film he would write and direct with ‘an erotic and anally sadistic theme’. Broken promises and capsized distribution deals kept the project in permanent limbo. ‘These delays . . . have frayed my nerves to shrieking,’ he writes. Years of futile phone calls – such a fritter of an intelligent man’s time.
Smacking bottoms wasn’t just a hobby for Tynan: it was a way of life, a cause, and heavy is the hand that holds the whip (or cane, or paddle). Although some commentators still insist on treating his spanking fetish as if it were a kinky diversion, a naughty bit of English-schoolboy vice, he was engaged in far more than recreational play, as his use of the phrase ‘anally sadistic’ indicates. In the diaries, he puts on his A-list of desirable things ‘the propinquity of a female bottom I can quite freely whip’ (his italics). Tynan’s sadism wasn’t just foreplay served with a sting, but systematic brutality against women – concentrated anger. ‘To cane a woman on her bare buttocks, to hurt and humiliate her, was what gave him his greatest sexual satisfaction,’ Dundy writes in Life Itself! In the diaries he describes caning her for having a fling with Kingsley Amis, ‘one stroke for each letter of his name’, then ordering her to confess her punishment to another couple (like a dope, she did).
And he didn’t halt at corporal punishment. During one of their apache dances, he laces into Dundy so hard she’s left unconscious on the bathroom floor with a pair of black eyes and a broken nose. Tynan didn’t mind when word got round about the fracas, she says. ‘There was always part of him that gloried in his reputation as a lady-killer, the sinful, depraved Don Juan. The mad, bad, dangerous-to-know sadist.’ I now wonder if part of his ardent embrace of Look Back in Anger – ‘I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger,’ he memorably pronounced (an odd bit of emotional blackmail for a critic to pull) – wasn’t rooted in the hostility towards women that seethes through the play. Jimmy Porter may rail against society, boring Sundays and the general peeling-wallpaper crappiness of postwar England, but it’s women who bear the brunt of his hyperarticulate, inchoate tantrums, women who embody and enforce the stultification of life; in particular, his bullied wife and the ‘Mummy’ he loathes with such relish. Certainly, Tynan’s description of Jimmy’s marriage mirrors what we know of Tynan’s to Dundy: ‘two attractive young animals engaged in competitive martyrdom, each with its teeth sunk deep in the other’s neck, and each reluctant to break the clinch for fear of bleeding to death’. Tynan’s competitive martyrdom took the form of his climbing on ledges and threatening to jump whenever she didn’t cave in to his demands. ‘Ken’s ledge-standing, which he used as a tool of persuasion, continued throughout our marriage, both at home and in the hotels where we stayed.’ For a dom, he was quite the drama queen.
In the diaries, Tynan’s misogyny, sadism and horny preoccupations warp his sensibility and render him witless in a way only a clever man who fancies himself a studied charmer can be. He plays raconteur on the page, the satyr as stand-up comic. Bad enough are the lame parody of The Great Gatsby (‘So we beat on, canes against the buttocks, borne back ceaselessly into the past’), the arch aperçus (‘A humanist is someone who remembers the faces of the people he spanks’), the coarse limericks (‘The anus of Marie Corelli/Was vast and repulsively smelly’), a crass couplet about Betty Ford’s mastectomy, crude literary anecdotes (asked by a snobbish girl how he planned to spend the summer, the novelist James Jones replied, ‘I’m having my asshole sewed up to see if I can shit through my armpits’) and inane puns (apropos a prostitute: ‘one swallow does not a slummer make’). Worse are the gossipy reveries about former lovers delivered with a minty blend of false gallantry and sly boasting, a rosy tone of remembrance that leaves mildew. On the death of the actress Pamela Brown, who had a withered leg, he recalls spending a day in her hotel suite, confessing his ‘then horrible secret’ about his erotic preference, which she accepts and indulges beyond his imaginings: ‘yes, I spanked the lovely cripple,’ he writes (‘the lovely cripple’ being one of the book’s many cringe-making endearments). Seeing a well-known Broadway musical star on TV, he lists the cities in which he licked her anus so many years ago. He’s like a nostalgic mountaineer leaping from crack to crack. Not that he’s unwilling to put his own pale moon into play. A cosy weekend with his regular spanking partner and mistress, Nicole, becomes a slapstick fiasco after she administers a vodka enema (his bright idea), which shoots through his anal canal like Prussic acid, turning his bottom into a scalding volcano.
As Tynan’s willing playmates dwindle, and paying for a spank session nearly lands him in jail during a police raid, he records with chagrin that the beautiful Kathleen now outpaces him in the infidelity department. He lists six known lovers for her during the previous four years, among them Warren Beatty and Bernardo Bertolucci, while he has been faithfully unfaithful only with Nicole. When she hangs up her French-maid garter, he may find himself bereft, his hand having nowhere to land. He ponders the last years of the Marquis de Sade, patron saint of cruel scatology and role model, observing that at the age of 50 he began an affair with an actress twenty years his junior. ‘She remained loyal to him until his death, 24 years later . . . She even went to live with him in Charenton when he was locked up again, there to spend his last ten years, half-blind and increasingly ill. At 50, who will join me in Charenton?’ He may be being ironic, but it’s difficult to tell with drama queens.
Until Tynan is carted off to spankers’ prison, he makes do by writing for the New Yorker (which then paid the highest fees in magazine publishing), making the namedropping rounds of Hollywood dinner parties (among the guests at one of them are Warren Beatty, Peter Bogdanovich, Ryan O’Neal, Steven Spielberg, James Coburn, Dudley Moore, Tuesday Weld and Angie Dickinson), peddling movie ideas (Kathleen trumped him here, too, selling her screenplay for Agatha) and driving to Las Vegas to catch Shirley MacLaine headlining at Caesar’s Palace. But he was a skeleton at a movable feast, financially strapped and physically ravaged, his emphysema aggravated by the cigarettes he refused to give up and the skyline carpet of LA smog. He smuggled cigarettes into the hospital, even though, as Lahr notes, he was hooked up to enough oxygen to blow him and part of the ward into tatteration. He felt unconsoled in his private Charenton. As he lay dying, he quarrelled viciously with Kathleen and rebuffed his daughter Tracy’s tender overture. Sneaking champagne into the hospital, she tells him: ‘You know, Daddy, I never told you this, but I . . . I . . . love you.’ Tynan held her hand for an appropriate interval, polished off the champagne, and replied: ‘Now let’s talk about something else. This is beginning to sound like a bad hospital movie.’ Tracy, according to the Diaries’ editor’s note, was ‘crushed’, excusing herself and scurrying to her car, where she sat and wept. Perhaps Tynan, by nature and trade, found any sentimentality chafing, corny – that’s the easy interpretation. But the self-portrait that emerges from his letters and diaries is of a man who so sexualised everything that he couldn’t respond to simple expressions of affection – what doesn’t turn him on leaves him flat.
He can’t bring himself to impersonate a loving father and husband, but he does an excellent last-act job playing wife and daughter against each other. When Kathleen tells Tracy about some of her father’s sadomasochistic incidents, he retaliates by divulging one of Kathleen’s adulteries. He bequeathes the diaries to Tracy so that his jealous wife won’t be able to destroy the pages detailing his most intimate sadomasochistic affair. Kathleen is furious when she finds out Tracy is getting the diaries – as Tynan knew she would be (‘I told her,’ he coolly informs Tracy) – and the resulting rift between mother and daughter, complete with bitter lawsuit, never mended. (Kathleen died in 1995.) Thus Tynan engineered a two-fer: getting the most important women in his life fighting over him at the bitter end, and ensuring that a valuable slice of lore was saved for posterity. Dead or alive, the centre of attention.
A fair number of reviews of the Diaries conclude in a fine drizzle of pity, a diminuendo of regret over his inability to appreciate his own gifts (or, conversely, to get more out of them). It’s time to stop feeling as sorry for Kenneth Tynan as he felt for himself. The ballad of seedy decay and accidie he strums through these entries is a little too rehearsed, his unsparing, lurid self-inventory reminiscent of Cyril Connolly counting his blemishes – Connolly, another cosmopolitan, productive, libertine sloth who excelled as a weekly reviewer and longer essayist (and was a superb editor of Horizon), yet flailed himself with exquisitive strokes for not being Truly Creative. (Connolly’s one novel, The Rock Pool, is sensual and funny, not an easy combination, but for someone who harboured a Flaubertian-masterpiece-or-nothing attitude to fiction-writing it was a light snack to set before the literary gods.) Like Connolly, Tynan painted himself in middle age as failure made rotting flesh. Where Connolly notoriously compared himself to a moth-eaten ham actor, a ‘carcass of vanity, boredom and guilt’, Tynan, checking himself out in the changing-room mirrors of men’s clothing shops (where the strip lighting is pitiless), confronts ‘a stricken, blotchy, corpse-pallid, double-chinned, river-veined wreck’.
As Philip Larkin pointed out, Connolly’s lavish self-deprecation was something of a con job. ‘He spent most of his life doing what he wanted. He liked travelling, and did a lot of it. He liked women, and had a lot of them. He liked celebrated and influential people; his diary is full of lists of their names.’ Ditto Tynan on every score. Politically, he also had it both ways, posturing as an enemy of class, privilege and vulgar capitalism while leading the high life. On one page of the Diaries he’s giving money to the mentor of a West German urban guerrilla cell (‘I have to admit to a certain Le Carré thrill at helping hide a girl who is, in Germany at least, a notorious public enemy’), on the very next favouring us with a luxury travel report: ‘a week of Grande-Bouffe-ing in France, three-starring it from Paris to La Ferté-sous-Jouarre (Auberge de Condé), Liverdun (Les Vannes), Alsace (L’Auberge de l’Ill, last but one of the Michelin 3-star restaurants I haven’t yet tried).’ Tynan’s political opinions were mostly another opportunity to hear himself purr.
The most inspiriting entries in the diaries have the smallest trace of self-consciousness in them: his passionate appreciations of unpretentious, indomitable troupers such as Ethel Merman, Phil Silvers and Max Wall, past their prime but still in there punching (Silvers, on walking sticks offstage, trying to hide from the audience the effects of a stroke); a jaunty account of Peter Cook ad-libbing a voice-over during a private screening of Chant d’amour, pretending Genet’s homoerotic study of prisoners in love was ‘a long commercial for Cadbury’s Milk Flake’; his brief takes on the narcissistic haze hovering around Warren Beatty’s vague, vain star turn in Shampoo; the shallow mystifications of Pinter’s No Man’s Land (he has a gem of a sentence about how Ralph Richardson rolls on stage), and the snail-paced emoting encouraged by Antonioni in The Passenger – ‘One doesn’t mind (one can even tolerate) bad acting: but slow bad acting is insupportable.’ Criticism is often denigrated, even by some of its practitioners, as a passive activity, a parasite craft. Ken Tynan was an active spectator, an independent operative, never more alive in print than when he’s responding to the thrill of another’s talent. Performers took him out of his ramshackle self – their peak moments became his. That’s why his best criticism remains transcendent. Everything else is ashes.
[*] Virago, 388 pp., £17.99, 21 June, 1 86049 513 3.
[†] Bloomsbury, 352 pp., £20, 3 September, 0 7475 5413 7.