Barbs and Ken: A sleazy celeb funhouse

The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan

Two-Pack-a-Day Ken has something to tell you: Oh, it's just that Gore Vidal snuggled between the sheets with Noël Coward and his young-bohunk lover. Gore got inside the bohunk, Noël performed frottage against Gore's bare ass, and everyone came out happy. Feel better now? Maybe Acid Ken wants you to know about the day he refused to take calls in his National Theatre office (Sir Larry's down the hall, that-a-way) and instead gave a five-finger review to his own joint while perusing "a magazine filled with pictures of distended female anuses"? Or maybe you wanted to know that when an ex-lover cheated on him--unimaginably, with Kingsley Amis (who looked like every drunken-to-death pubkeeper in every Hammer Films horror movie ever made)--Wicked Ken, a spanking fanatic at any time, caned the lover's rump with one ferocious, weal-raising lash for every letter of Amis the Elder's name?

Here's the savage fun of The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, collected by the respected (and typically respectable) New Yorker theater critic John Lahr. Tynan made his fortune traipsing in circles around the knights of the mid-century British stage, pouring glitter on their heads and ululating fiercely like some nicotine-stained Oxbridge courtier-banshee. This tack, remember, came in the days before places like Vanity Fair came to render the Professional Celebrity Portrait as expertly, flatteringly, and routinely as a Sears group shot. Tynan was its mentor and master. Want to hang out with Lord Olivier, Brando, Orson Welles? Write them the sort of panegyrics one expects from humble Restoration playwrights, penning 40 lines to bow before their benefactors.

And for Randy Ken it worked wonders: By the time we meet up with him in the Diaries (early Seventies), he's got Princess Margaret for a light lunch, Groucho and S.J. Perelman for midday martoonies, Sue Mengers, Streisand, and a yipping dog for dinner, and Miles Davis as the spine-firming late-night espresso. Critics, read this book and gnash your teeth, for in this fallen age, your kind words will not win you access to such coolios!

Yet Tynan's ghost appears today each time Anthony Lane makes a stammering, I-say-old-boy pun in the film pages of the New Yorker; or in the creepingly more conservative speed-jive of Vanity Fair's once-dazzling critic-at-large James Wolcott. Tynan brought to criticism the amphetamine rush, the pop colors, the Warholian hiss of gossip that we think of as "the Sixties." And he marinated it all in a British diction so correct it could pop the buttons on Kingsley Amis's waistcoat. He forged, in essence, the Tina Brown mid-Atlantic aesthetic: "smart," verbally dexterous, in-crowdish, PC, and breathtakingly snobbish.

Tynan made cutting and witty perceptions on the failed work of Britain's Angry Young Man period as the angry men aged: His assessments of Pinter's No Man's Land and the late work of John Osborne are the best writing in the book. But pans are easy, and sharing one's enthusiasms (like that which Tynan once felt for the AYM's) is difficult. From the evidence of the Diaries, one must take this Tynan skill on faith.

Most of the book instead consists of his depredations of his wife (who mispronounces the question "Am I misshapen?" as "Am I Miss Happen?"); and his rhapsodies over Nicole, the mistress who shares his spanking mania, and whose idiocies he quotes with a touching fondness: "Nicole doesn't know whether it's worse to work (i.e., act) or not to work (i.e., work in a store)."

And then there's his terror at a slow death from emphysema, egged on by so many cigarettes that one can fairly smell them off the page. The book made this reader go out and buy some Nicorette gum, but it had few other lessons--except that rich Englishmen seem able to indulge in radical chic as blithely and benightedly as their cousins on Central Park West.

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