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True Grit

LIFE ITSELF! By Elaine Dundy, Virago/Trafalgar Square: 388 pp., $14.95 paper

September 22, 2002|GAVIN LAMBERT | Gavin Lambert is the author of several books, including "Inside Daisy Clover" and "The Slide Area," "On Cukor" and "Mainly About Lindsay Anderson."

Although Elaine Dundy divides her life story into four parts, "Waiting to Be Discovered," "Being Discovered," "Discovering Myself" and "Discovering Elsewhere," it really contains only three: life before, with and after Kenneth Tynan, the flamboyantly gifted and costumed British theater critic.

Part One is the story of a bright, attractive, ambitious girl from a well-to-do Jewish family in Brooklyn who becomes a small-part actress, then goes to Paris in 1949 after hearing that American actors are much in demand there. Parts Three and Four describe the post-Tynan-alcoholic-sleeping-pill-addiction route to AA, from which she emerges relatively intact. All this is familiar terrain with only a few compelling features, but in the long central section of "Life Itself!," the account of her marriage is riveting.

By the time Dundy and Tynan discover each other in London, it's clear that she's become a fame junkie. And her autobiography, like Tynan's posthumously published diaries, makes it clear that he shared her addiction. Celebrity fixes, in fact, were a powerful component of the glue that kept them together from 1951 to 1964.

In Part Two of "Life Itself!," Dundy throws famous names around like confetti: Richard Burton, Peter Finch, Graham Greene, Alec Guinness, Gene Kelly. When she bears Tynan a daughter, Cecil Beaton and Katharine Hepburn agree to become godparents. Not coincidentally, when Tynan in his diaries recalls the "happy times" with Dundy, he selects the happiest as a birthday party that Richard Avedon organized for Mike Nichols. Flown from London to New York, then--at the time of the party--nailed inside large crates and opened as human gifts, the couple joined a galaxy of guests including Lauren Bacall, Leonard and Felicia Bernstein, Truman Capote and Stephen Sondheim.

Dundy mentions too many celebrities like items in a gossip column ("Judy Garland was fat in a caftan, but talked easily and wittily"), but sometimes she records an illuminating anecdote. "I am for normalcy and against homosexuality," Ernest Hemingway announces to her, "because there are infinite variations for the normal person but none for the homosexual one." How little he knew, and how ironic that Tynan's obsessive heterosexual desires proved traumatic for his wife.

In Kingsley Amis' words, Tynan was "an old-fashioned British flogger." Caning was his foreplay of choice, but Dundy, after reluctantly consenting, felt only pain and anger at first. But from time to time she continued to submit, partly because she loved him (and the world he introduced her to); partly because he threatened suicide when she threatened to leave him; and partly because the sadist brought the masochist out of the closet, and Dundy felt "... the thrill of an accomplice collaborating at her own ruin."

As Tynan alternates between fascinating and humiliating her, Dundy's reaction seesaws between "Now I can love him and now I must hate him." When they begin to have affairs on the side, Tynan expects Dundy to accept and even welcome his infidelities but doesn't play fair. He recalls in his diaries that during a trip to Spain, when she confessed to an affair with Amis, "I caned her, one stroke for each letter of his name." Meanwhile, Kathleen Halton, his second wife-to-be, was waiting in the south of France on "a half-promise that I would leave Elaine and join her there."

Later, when "everyone" gossips about Dundy's affair with a Scottish laird, Tynan is so incensed that he beats her up and leaves her "unconscious on the bathroom floor with two black eyes and a broken nose." It's a relief to the reader, and surely to the writer, when Orson Welles takes one look at Dundy's face, says, "Now will you divorce him?" and she agrees.

Dundy describes 14 years of a marriage that turned from heaven to hell in vivid, horrible and absurd detail. Sometimes the couple become as savage as August Strindberg's in "Dance of Death," and sometimes as blackly comic as Edward Albee's central characters in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" As well as threatening suicide when he's on the brink of losing her, Tynan blames Dundy for making him feel ashamed of his sexual preferences, but he never seems to understand how they humiliate her. And yet, between canings, confrontations and reconciliations, party-going and visits to psychiatrists, travels to France, Spain, Italy, New York and Hollywood, Tynan somehow manages to write the best of his theater criticism (for the Observer in Britain, then for the New Yorker), and Dundy completes two slight, entertaining novels.

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