JANUARY 26, 2017
A DASHING COUPLE, wearing matching faux-leopard pants and white shirts, sits on faux-zebra upholstered armchairs. Their gazes meet, though it’s hard to decipher their expressions. This fascinating black-and-white photograph of her parents Kenneth Tynan and Elaine Dundy from 1957 is on the cover of Tracy Tynan’s memoir, Wear and Tear: The Threads of My Life. It looks like a still from a classic Hollywood movie.
The couple met and married after a whirlwind three-month romance in 1951. They divorced in 1964 when Tynan was 12. Their marriage is on record as having been epically tempestuous.
He was as famous for his wit, his flamboyance, and his outrageousness as for his exquisite writing. His run as theater critic for The Observer coincided with a golden age that included the first stagings of plays like Waiting for Godot and Look Back in Anger. In due course, he was appointed the literary manager of the newly instituted National Theater. Later, he staged Oh! Calcutta! — a steamy revue and one of the longest running musicals on Broadway and in London’s West End. In 1958, Dundy published her first novel, The Dud Avocado. It was a great success. Other books followed, including a memoir. She counted Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, and Henry Green among her good friends. In fact, the couple invented celebrity culture long before the term was coined. Their social circle included the who’s who of film, theater, and literature: think Ernest Hemingway, Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn (appointed godmother to little Tracy), Marlene Dietrich … the list goes on and on. Their glamour quotient was off the charts.
So was the intensity of their raging rows. Their marriage was devolving and crashing in a tailspin of broken china and a haze of recriminations. Elaine ultimately became mired in pills and alcohol, though she later recovered from these addictions. Tracy’s father married Kathleen Halton and had two children, Roxana and Matthew Tynan. Elaine Dundy did not remarry.
Little Tracy was a witness to both the glamour and the very bad behavior. A beneficiary of the privileges of her parents’ rarefied social world, she also learned how to find a spot on the sidelines, and how to appear unperturbed. A series of nannies and au pairs looked after her. In the lives of her caretakers or the homes of her friends, she detected a warmth and simplicity that was absent in her own. At the same time, although she longed for complicity with her parents, she quickly defined herself as the un-glamorous member of this ultra-fabulous household.
In a structure that complements the book’s premise — that through her relationship to clothes Tracy finds a way to construct her own identity — each chapter is devoted to a memorable object of apparel. The book’s opening chapter delivers her first memory of clothing as talisman. She evokes the ecstatic comfort of snuggling in her mother’s fur coat that breathed her scent. In real life, though, her mother appears to have been incapable of behaving affectionately toward her. There is an account of an event after her parents’ divorce when she and her mother almost drown, following a misguided attempt at a moonlight boat ride with some friends. In this circumstance of extreme danger, her mother shows her love. It is almost the only time in the book that we have a sense of Dundy as mother. More frequently she is either in the throes of some nosedive into oblivion, or overtly, though perhaps unintentionally, unkind to her daughter.
With her father, Tracy does succeed in establishing the longed-for complicity, notwithstanding the relationship’s fraught boundaries — doing lines of coke with him at her 21st birthday party, for instance, or listening to him divulge detailed confidences about the nature of his happy sex life with a mistress.
“From an early age,” Tynan writes, “I had learned to accept my parents’ aberrant behavior with a kind of voyeuristic fascination.” Recounting a variety of incidents — some intimate, often funny, frequently uncomfortable, bizarre or upsetting — Tracy contends with the bedazzlements of her parents’ world, and her awareness that it fails to deliver the basics required for her well-being. Take this account of a screening her father arranged as part of the celebration of her 21st birthday:
My father told me that our friends George and Joan Axelrod had a special birthday present for me. (George was the writer of many classic screenplays, including The Manchurian Candidate and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Joan was an interior designer.) They wanted to give it to me on the evening prior to the big bash. Their pal, Sammy Davis Jr., was in town, and they had arranged to screen his personal copy of Deep Throat, the infamous porn film that had come out the previous year in the States but was still banned in Britain.
She goes on to state that she’s never seen a porn flick at this point; she barely has managed to get it on with a mellow boyfriend called Mike, also present. The 20-person screening is introduced by Sammy Davis Jr.:
As I watched him, I could only think how incredibly small he was and wonder what kind of a person traveled around the world with a personal copy of Deep Throat. I supposed he did it to impress people like my father — and this night he had clearly succeeded.
This outsider gaze coupled with the ultimate insider seat casts the already unusual proceedings in a stranger light still:
When the lights went up, I was so embarrassed I wanted to flee. But as the daughter of Kenneth Tynan, important critic and writer and übercool purveyor of all things sexual, I felt compelled to hang around, chat with the guests, and act nonchalant, as if I’d been watching this kind of thing since I was a toddler. After profusely thanking my father, Michael and his parents quickly left. Actually, I think everyone felt a bit awkward, and as soon as they could, they too escaped.
The passage is a good illustration of Tynan’s strongest suit, her evenhanded tone. It mirrors the equanimity she appears to have achieved in life, eschewing drama and sentimentality in favor of the clear observation of detail. It is unclear whether this is the result of years of therapy, or a byproduct of her practice of silent meditation she describes in the memoir. In any event, it serves the book well. In the end, what makes a memoir a good read is not that different from what works in traditional fiction — compelling characters, a plot that propels said characters to a place far from their point of origin, and an ability to create a sense of identification for a reader. Check, check, and check.
In an early chapter dedicated to a pair of apple-green shoes, Tynan observes: “In a world where almost everything else felt out of control, having control over the clothes I wore filled a hole.” Although it ends up taking her a couple more decades to appreciate the way her relationship to clothing would let her bring together her skills and interests in a career, something is set in motion. Perhaps she’ll dress her way out of the chaos. In the fashionable world of her parents’ social whirligig, where attention was at a premium, and where she felt she had been graced neither with the physical attributes of her stunning mother, nor with the wit and brilliance of her adored, flamboyant father, she discovered through fashion a ticket to her own territory. She ends up buying the ravishing green shoes with a clothing allowance intended to last three months.
In a 1975 diary entry, feeling unduly vulnerable about his own relationship to writing — premature given the stunningly brilliant New Yorker profiles he was to write over the next several years, Kenneth Tynan worries: “I have even lost the ability to write well. Without self-approval, there is no self-confidence, without self-confidence one has no secure identity; and without a secure identity one has no style.” If we take the wisdom of the observation to heart, it’s easy to see that when she realized she could buy her green shoes if she wanted, Tracy Tynan found her style. She knew what was good for her. She’s known all along.
For the daughter of two brilliant writers who has no prior claim to a literary career herself, the decision to write this memoir cannot have been simple. I approached the book somewhat skeptically, but read it quickly and found it unexpectedly absorbing. Tynan is surprisingly clear-sighted as she enumerates the myriad ways her parents failed as parents. In spite of seeing their pathologies and the consequences, she not only manages to carve out a place of her own in the world, but is also able to see beyond their failings and to forge a meaningful and loving relationship with them, while they are alive and after their death. More mystifyingly, stunningly, she has overcome the handicaps of her chaotic childhood and gone on to build a unique iteration of a blended, melded family.