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Tynan: Getting a Handle on a Hurricane

January 14, 1988|STEPHANIE MANSFIELD | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — On the note pad is the name Faye Dunaway, on the phone is Carl Bernstein and in the wing chair is Kathleen Tynan, willowy widow, author and friend of the famous.

She is not famous herself, but she married famous (legendary British drama critic Kenneth Tynan) and dates famous (film director Barbet ("Barfly") Schroeder). Her tailored herringbone jacket looks like one of Armani's, but she says it's "nobody's," meaning nobody famous.

She has written a book, "The Life of Kenneth Tynan." It's about her late husband, a flamboyant, mercurial, wickedly funny scribe who began his career being compared to Shaw and ended up in California, estranged from his family, attended by a young sadomasochistic mistress, writing profiles of Mel Brooks. Dissipated from emphysema, he finally smoked himself to death in 1980 at the age of 53.

Mostly, the book is a revolving Rolodex that Robin Leach would kill for.

Gore Vidal was there, Richard Harris and Marlon Brando arrived drunk . . . I remember my terror at first meeting Orson Welles in Spain. He wore a white suit and had a parrot on his shoulder. He looked like Long John Silver. I asked him if he'd ever thought of filming "Treasure Island" and he swiveled those terrifying eyes on me and said, " How did you guess? " . . . I threw myself into New York life. I met Norman Mailer, Norman Podhoretz, A. J. Liebling, Joseph Heller, Sen . John Fitzgerald Kennedy and a great many feckless Europeans. An Oxford friend remembers me as a tough little snob. ' 'Nobody could drop more names than you could. What made your name dropping very innocent was that to you Lumumba and Isaiah Berlin were more or less on the same level."

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At the outset, Tynan takes six pages to gratefully acknowledge a guest list of celebrities, including famous dead authors (Lillian Hellman), famous living authors (Mailer, Kingsley Amis, Vidal, Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne), famous actors (Sir Laurence Olivier, Marlene Dietrich, Sir Alec Guinness, Jose Ferrer), famous directors (Welles, Roman Polanski, Milos Forman), famous agents (Irving (Swifty) Lazar, Sue Mengers), famous heiresses (Gloria Vanderbilt) and non-famous wives of the famous who have become famous (Sybil Burton, Carol Saroyan Matthau).

The book has been reviewed by famous people (John Mortimer in England, John Houseman in USA Today) and celebrated at book parties attended by famous guests. Her friends say Kathleen Tynan is a lovely, uppah-crusty, intelligent woman who has written courageously about her eccentric, kinky, bon-mot-spouting husband who lived by the credo kept over his desk: "Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds."

Vanity Fair excerpted the juicy bits. Time found the biography "harrowing" and "brave." Even the terminally tart John Simon, Tynan's pale American successor, liked it, although he found some of her revelations "indiscreet" and felt compelled to criticize her "shocking" spelling and grammar.

But wait. There's more. Dame May Gossip Liz Smith called it "candid, frank and fearless" and cosmic tour guide Shirley MacLaine blurbed on the back cover, "Breathtakingly courageous sleuthing of a life that was intellectually, poetically and adventurously dangerous."

Carl Bernstein, a frequent companion, telephones. "It's a brave book," he says.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, panning the book in the New York Times, found the flotilla of famous persons disconcerting, calling the author "the aggrieved wife, striking noble poses and dropping her interminable list of names. There may be nuggets here. But they are not worth reading over 500 pages to mine."

Talent vs. Celebrities

"Famouses who then become your friends," Kathleen Tynan says defensively. "It's such a tricky position. You're accused of name-dropping, but in fact those are the people who happen to be around. Ken did not like parties. He did not like celebrities per se. He loved talent."

Tynan crosses her black-stockinged legs. At 49, she is reserved and a teensy bit prickly herself. Cool and crisp in a Julie Christie kind of way, her long brandy-butter-colored hair swept back, her igloo smile tinted a light plum.

"The book was so tough, because it was so personal," she says in her clipped Oxford accent. "I felt very vulnerable to attack and have been attacked as well as praised."

Attacked, she says, "for presuming to be both biographer and memoirist. Attacked for being too open and not open enough." She retrieves her cup of coffee and sips delicately. "That's the book I've written and I stand by it."

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