Life Writing’s expanding waistline

Life Writing. The term keeps expanding. The category is gobbling up its neighbours. It now includes

Memoir, biography, autobiography, eulogy, family history, personal anecdotes, blog entries, autobiographical fiction, case studies, diaries ……

You get the idea. Life Writing has flexible boundaries. It’s not just a branch of literature. Disciplines such as psychology, sociology, history and anthropology rely on it.

Memoir heads my list.

For me, the best memoirs linger in the mind because the author seems like someone you know. There’s an immediacy, a personal connection. You are attracted by tone, shared enthusiasms, humour, frankness or novelty. You empathise with suffering. You are drawn right in to someone’s viewpoint.

Memoirs can evoke key personalities; a time and a place; remarkable experiences, or a life story linked to a theme.

My own memoir, Penny Dreadful, evokes circles I knew in the late 1950s and early 1960s, mostly in Sydney. That puts it in the personalities/time and place category.

I recently read a good thematic memoir. Tracy Tynan’s book has a clever title, and an astonishing cover photograph.

Tynan and Dundy, in matching leopard-print tights

Tracy’s parents, Kenneth Tynan and Elaine Dundy, are pictured gazing entranced at one another. They wear matching leopard-print tights. The Wear of the title is all too apparent. This is a family with an eye for clothes.

Tracy Tynan made her name as a costume designer in Hollywood. She knows clothes. How could it be otherwise? Her father, theatre critic and director Kenneth Tynan, was a noted dandy, arriving in postwar Oxford with a purple suit and a cloak lined with red satin. Her mother, writer Elaine Dundy, also dressed dramatically. As the picture shows, neither paid much attention to other people’s opinions. The teenage Tracy, of course, longed for a mother who dressed in conventional clothes from Marks & Spencer.

Tracy Tynan was opinionated about clothes from the start. She adored her mother’s sealskin coat, with its delicious texture and unmistakable scent of Ma Griffe and tobacco. Her own scratchy toddler’s wool coat held no such charm. She objected to the clothes her parents chose until she was given her own clothing allowance.

Chapter titles in this memoir are clothing items. My Mother’s Fur Coat. School Uniforms: Purple, Blue and None. The Apple-Green Shoes. White Jeans and White Denim Jacket. My Mother’s Pucci Dress. The Striped Silk Socks… There is a sketch for each:

As a child, Tracy lived in London, where her father was a theatre critic, writer and friend of the also-famous. Elaine Dundy was a New Yorker whose books included the sparkling novel The Dud Avocado. The family eventually moved to the United States, but by the time Tracy was in college her parents’ marriage had gone the way of most marriages marked by heavy drinking, loud quarrels and smashing crockery.

We are getting to the Tear of the title. Tracy was an only child. Her parents loved her and went in for intermittent displays of affection. However, their main passion was celebrity hunting. They were out at parties most nights, and often entertained. Tracy was left with babysitters or au pairs, or sent to boarding school. None of her schools worked out particularly well. It was embarrassing to be the daughter of the first man to use Anglo-Saxon expletives on the BBC. The quieter lives of her friends’ parents seemed enviable.

There are many ways of telling such a story. “Misery Memoirs”, tell-all stories of abuse and terror, sell better than quirky, uncomplaining stories like Tracy Tynan’s. She loved Kenneth Tynan, despite his narcissism, haphazard attention to other people’s emotional needs, and reported appetite for sado-masochistic sex. She was devastated by his reduced life in Los Angeles, marked by downmarket non-dandy clothing, and many visits to hospital. He died of emphysema in his fifties, and was given three memorials by his second wife. Tracy Tynan’s description of these events – in Los Angeles, Oxford and London – is a remarkable melange of grief and hilarity.

Elaine Dundy, meanwhile, had been in and out of rehab for years. She outlived Tynan by decades. Her daughter was astonished by the grief of many friends.

Why did I not see Elaine? Tracy Tynan wonders. I saw only the Elaine who struggled with alcohol and drug addiction for over fifty years. The Elaine who was in and out of rehab so many times that I lost count. She was always Elaine, never Mother. She never took care of me. I took care of her, albeit reluctantly.

Clothes provide a triumphant note for the concluding chapters. With a lifetime of strong opinions about clothes, and familiarity with film and theatre from a young age, Tracy Tynan had a good background for a costume designer. She’d studied art history and was good at handcrafts. Her first tentative steps in the costume van of a film set led to a fulfilling career.

I won’t go into details about her emotional life, apart from mentioning one more chapter title, The T-Shirt Wedding Dress. What a hilarious chapter that is, with bride and groom dashing round Las Vegas in sparkly Charles and Di T-shirts, trying to get their documents to the right place on time.

Wear and Tear – The Threads of My Life, by Tracy Tynan, is published by Scribner.

PENELOPE NELSON

5 thoughts on “Life Writing’s expanding waistline

  1. I well remember Kenneth Tynan’s first BBC uttering of the F word and was aware of his stage show “Oh Calcutta”. In my circle we regarded him as a narcissistic poseur. Your account made me feel sorry for his daughter but showed people can somehow survive regardless of parents!

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  2. Look forward to reading this book! and I loved Penny Dreadful, for many reasons. Discovering the book in the Uni. of Queensland book shop in 1996 led me to reconnect with my dear friend after many decades (I left Sydney in 1966). We first met at age 5 in the playground at Kambala 🙂

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  3. Or maybe I was six. I had to cross New South Head Road on my own, take the tram and then the bus to deepest Vaucluse. Loch Maree, site of Kambala’s kindergarten in those days, is now a mega-million, much-restored mansion. Unknown to us at the time, the house had a scandalous reputation during WWII. Celebrity affairs in the boatshed. But that’s for another blog maybe….

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