By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Perhaps a biography of Wilhelm Reich, the controversial psychologist whose focus on the orgasm Tynan had embraced? As one who regularly consulted a Reichian therapist in his own life, Tynan may have been too close to the topic; the project won him a generous publisher’s advance but also a bad case of writer’s block. Perhaps pursue a career as a filmmaker, for which Tynan was well-connected? He’d collaborated with Roman Polanski in the adaptation of Macbeth (1972), and until 1975 was within a hairsbreadth of financing Alex and Sophie, an explicitly sexual work “with an erotic and anally sadistic theme” he’d scripted for himself to direct.
The sad comedy of this project’s failure to materialize is counterpointed by the actual sadistic love affairs Tynan engaged in during these years, for he was indeed addicted to spanking, and being spanked. “How infinitely more varied in its excitements is sado-mas than straight sex,” he writes after a visit to his extramarital partner.
The marks that stay on the bottom, giving one a reminiscent thrill with each twinge; the anticipation of punishment, which can go on for a week or more and provoke masturbation a dozen times before the whipping actually happens.
These frank digressions give extra buoyancy to those memories of Vivien Leigh. For despite the inevitable twinges of primitive embarrassment if you don’t quite share the fantasy, such unflinching confessions also make clear just why it was that Tynan could be so scathing in his critiques and yet still befriend his targets. He knew exactly who he was, and because he refused to be ashamed, found the courage to be as truthful about whomever else fell under his scrutiny. Those he wrote about recognized this, much as they might rage, and trusted it.
And it’s remarkable how completely they opened up to him. Marlene Dietrich describes sexual encounters with Edward R. Murrow and John F. Kennedy in droll detail. Louise Brooks, sitting for the 1978 portrait Tynan fashioned in her honor — the crowning achievement of his critical career, and one that restored the actress to fame after years of neglect — confides a graphic glimpse of her solitary sex life at age 71 that didn’t quite make it into The New Yorker: “I sit on that couch and the spurt from my cunt goes Poww! clear across to that record player on the other side of the room. That’s five-and-a-quarter yards!”
The inclusion of this tidbit here is an expression of principle. Brooks also observed (in an aria Tynan did publish) that, for her, reading a person’s life story was meaningless unless there was, near its core, an uncompromised revelation of that person’s sexual desires and fears. “It is the only way,” she said, “the reader can make sense out of innumerable apparently senseless actions.”
Tynan is unsparing with himself about himself, and as a result these diaries become exactly the major work he had wished for at the start of what proved to be the last decade of his life. They’ve taken so long to see daylight because their honesty so disturbed his second wife, Kathleen, that — after Tynan’s death of emphysema in 1980 — she wrested control of the slim volumes away from their rightful heir, his eldest daughter, Tracy, and incorporated some of their contents into her worthy but overlong 1987 biography of her late husband. Upon Kathleen’s death in 1995, her two children by Tynan, Roxanna and Matthew, gave the diaries back to their stepsister. John Lahr has edited them with an adroit, exacting touch: The footnotes and bits of interstitial biography keep the reader well-oriented.
If the diaries have any defect, it’s simply this: For the moment, they constitute the only work of Tynan’s that is currently in print. His volumes of reviews and personal essays — particularly Curtains, Tynan Right and Left, The Sound of Two Hands Clapping and Show People— are nearly impossible to find through used bookstores because nobody who owns one ever lets it go. For Tynan was far more than a first-rate critic — he was a first-rate writer, one of the finest of his time. A great deal of what was rarest and most fleeting about those times lives at full blast in his prose. This last work — fiery, intimate, exact — is no different, and serves as such an excellent introduction that one can only hope it brings the rest of Tynan’s writing back to where it belongs, at center stage. THE DIARIES OF KENNETH TYNAN | By KENNETH TYNAN, edited by JOHN LAHR | Bloomsbury/St. Martin’s Press | 439 pages | $33 hardcover
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