Press Release for Life Itself!
by Elaine Dundy
Back in September
of 1959 Elaine Dundy received a letter about her
in her autobiography Life Itself! Dundy has put into words a life
GORE VIDAL "Her life among the lions on both sides of the Atlantic is not only witty but wise as she brings into focus one husband Kenneth Tynan, one Orson Welles, the one and only Elvis Presley, and not least of all, the lioness herself, surviving all."
RICHARD MORRISON London Times "Life Itself! written by a woman who had the good fortune to mingle with the most outrageous figures in 1950s theatreland; and the misfortune to marry one of them (the critic Kenneth Tynan), it will rank as one of the most perceptive Showbiz memoirs penned. Monroe and Miller, Olivier and Leigh, Hemingway and Welles all are presented in pungent vignettes."
CHRISTOPHER DOWNES "No one could deny that Elaine Dundy has led an interesting life. But her really great gift has been to turn it all into a scintillating biography."
GEOFFREY WANSELL London Daily Mail "Compelling from the first page to the last, I couldn't put Elaine Dundy's Life Itself! down from the moment I started it."
Actress, journalist, novelist and biographer Elaine Dundy has been there, done that--and loved it all. She jitterbugged with Piet Mondrian in Madison Square; had a symbiotic relationship with her sister, Oscar winning filmmaker Shirley Clarke; drank Papa Dobles with Hemingway in Havana; shared a psychiatrist with Tennessee Williams; turned a dalliance with Cyril Connolly into a leading character in her second novel watched Gore Vidal win by losing a congressional campaign; married the enfant terrible of British theatre critics, Kenneth Tynan--and was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic with The Dud Avocado. Among her biographies is the ground breaking Elvis and Gladys (his mother) in which by delving deep into their roots, she unfolds their stories in the context of their backgrounds which forged them. It gained her an entirely new readership and makes it still what the Boston Globe called the "Nothing less than the best Elvis book yet."
Born into a prosperous Jewish family in the 1920s. Elaine Dundy grew up in New York on Park Avenue. Her lineage includes a maternal grandfather whose revolutionary screws fastened together two of America's best loved landmarks: Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and the Statue of Liberty's crumbling drapes. In many ways it was a privileged childhood. But wealth, luxury and opportunity were counter-balanced by fear and repression. She loved Lincoln School, the flagship progressive school she attended, but coming home every day was like "returning to prison with my father the sadistic warden and me and my sisters inmates. He was a rageaholic given to violent fits of temper at the dinner table which could land on anyone present." A wealthy successful businessman, an active philanthropist, in his own home he was a tyrant; a frightening, damaging and destructive father. Throughout her teens Dundy nurtured fantasies of killing him.
After working in war-time Washington Dundy, became an actress and moved to Paris where the chances of furthering her career looked good and where she could escape from the family situation.
Loving Paris as a moderately successful actress, she accepted an acting job in London. There she met the man who was to change her life irrevocably--the enfant terrible of British theatre critics, Kenneth Tynan. On their first date, he said to her, "I am the illegitimate son of Sir Peter Peacock. I have an annual income. I am twenty-three years old and I will either die or kill myself when I reach thirty because by then I will have said everything I have to say. Will you marry me?" Caught in each other's spell, three months later they plunged into a marriage that was both comic and tragic. It was also romantic. As Tynan would say to her, "We gave each other a tremendous feeling of specialness, uniqueness, even glamour. We looked at each other with the absolute certainty that nobody quite like us had ever existed." They spent years in undomesticated bliss, where Dundy's household chores consisted in cooking breakfast, Tynan's in setting traps for the mice. But eventually they divorced after thirteen years of battles over Ken's sado-masochistic tendencies, his suicide threats, blatant extra marital affairs, (and her more discreet ones) and increasing dependence on alcohol.
Says Dundy "The 50s have so often been characterized as Dull Conformity that I wonder what planet these people were on. Not mine. It produced such bold original stars whose like we shall not see again but who still shine bright on the radar screen: In films it produced Marilyn, Elvis and Brando. In music it produced the great Miles Davis. It made stars of writers Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Philip Roth, and James Baldwin. It made stars of playwrights John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Bertholt Brecht. Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot got theatregoers happily chewing on its mysteries for months--or angrily spitting it out in minutes. It produced The Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King. Dull Conformity?"
During her marriage Elaine Dundy was to become friends with some of the most distinguished names in theatre, film and literature and Life Itself! is packed with fascinating anecdotes about legends both in their own time and beyond. A chapter "Larry and Viv" includes a dizzyingly varied weekend at Notley Abbey with the golden couple of the theatre, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh who described herself as a "Zen Buddhist Catholic." There is a hilarious description of a dinner the Tynans held for Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe to which the main guests failed to turn up due to Monroe's hysteria. Happy were the weekends be enjoyed with Gore Vidal at Edgewater where she saw aside of him not usually seen: affectionately playful and actively helpful to her writing (as, she discovered he was to so many others). Weaving in an out of her narrative is Orson Welles who once fired everyone except her from a radio set. Then there are pub lunches with Henry Green one of the most highly praised English novelists.
Based on her first hand experiences with Hemingway and Tennessee Williams is a chapter Hem and Tenn,the yang and yin of 20th century American letters, twin peaks so seemingly opposite as to appear foreordained but who in fact had much in common and who met for the first and only time in Havana in '59 when Dundy herself was there.
In the midst of all this Dundy take a candid look at what life was like in the high Bohemian set Dundy mixed with, a post Syphilis and pre-Aids era when within that set, certain men and women had carnal knowledge of each other not for favors, or for second-hand fame "but for curiosity and attraction; for fun and for free."
Dundy's life however was not all fun and games and neither bravery nor bravado gets her through the late 60s when her life comes crashing down on her shoulders and she finds herself part of the Valley of the Dolls generation as she battled with her pill addiction and depression in her uphill attempts to get her life back on track.
"Deliver us from evil whose presence remains unexplained" is the way Dundy opens her chapter n the death of her of her sister Shirley Clarke, a leading Independent Filmmaker and a popular UCLA professor of film who pioneered the use of the Video Camera as a filmmaking tool ushering in the MTV generation, struck down in her prime by Alzheimer's disease. Three years into this terrifying disease she did not even recognize her sister.
Finally, Dundy describes her experience of writing Elvis and Gladys and the people in Tupelo who helped make it the groundbreaking biography. This became another important turning point in a life filled with godshots which she defines as "what happens when problems you are sure will take huge amounts of time, trouble, money and frustration unexpectedly come towards you solved."
"I think it was a master stroke of Fate," she says, "that in researching the greatest celebrity of them all, I would at last be meeting real people, finding them more extraordinary than celebrities; fascinated by them all and
enjoying enduring friendships with some."
Life Itself! was on the You Really Must Read, list in the London Sunday Times. It was on several prominent writers' best liked books of the year Mail list and on Evening Standard best seller lists.
Richard Morrison, London Times, Life Itself! is written by a woman who had the good fortune to mingle with the most outrageous figures in 1950s theatreland; and the misfortune to marry one of them (the critic Kenneth Tynan), it with will rank as one of the most perceptive showbiz memoirs penned. Monroe and Miller, Olivier and Leigh, Hemingway and Welles all are presented in pungent vignettes."
India Knight, London Sunday Times, June 24th, 2001 "Elaine Dundy, the author of The Dud Avocado has written her autobiography. It's an absolute treat, by turns jaunty, pleasingly self-knowing and unexpectedly moving.
Patrick Skene Catling, Irish Times, June 23rd, 2001 "A wonderfully entertaining confession. Her autobiography depicts her life with unflinching candor."
Christopher Gray, Oxford Times, June 22, 2002 "Those keen, as I am, on literary and theatrical life will find much of interest for besides [Dundy's] involvement with Tynan on the British scene there are also long and enduring friendships with such as Orson Welles, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams and Hemingway. A whole chapter "Hem and Tenn," makes valuable remarks about those two giants, who while seemingly so different had really rather a lot in common."
Lynn Barber, London Observer: "What makes Elaine Dundy so amiable is her bounce, her puppyish enthusiasms, her optimism. And god, it makes a change after all the recent self-pitying-will-survive memoirs to find someone who says, in effect, 'Oh, sure, father was a monster, my husband was a perv, my sister was an alcoholic , and I was once too, but, hey wasn't it great meeting all those famous people?'"
An interview with Elaine Dundy by Molly Barnes
You may order Life itself at: Amazon.com UK