Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, September 03, 2007

What a Life! What a Dame!: Life Itself! by Elaine Dundy

Life Itself! by Elaine Dundy

The more I read about my fellow Angeleno, Ms. Dundy, the more I want to take her out for tea. Then again, to a woman who befriended Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Ernest Hemingway, and Vivien Leigh, I'd probably be comparatively dull company.

Dundy's autobiography is a star-studded spectacle, but the author's own life never takes a backseat to the figures of the page, stage, and screen who populate her story. In fact, given the effusive, larger than life woman who springs from the pages of Life Itself!, it only makes sense that she'd surround herself with similarly big personalities.

Born to a wealthy New York family, Dundy splits for California, the Deep South, and finally, Paris, to escape her tyrannical father, but also to have a go at a life on the stage. After achieving some modest success, she moves to London where she meets, and soon marries, theatre critic Ken Tynan. Their relationship is a stormy one, hampered by Tynan's sadomasochistic proclivities (which he only reveals to her after their wedding)*, emotional manipulation, and the extramarital affairs of both parties.

Despite trading in one tyrant for another, Dundy manages to enjoy a relatively successful career in television and radio -- she abandons the stage, after growing weary of directors joking that they'll "get a bad review" from Ken if they don't cast her. And after the birth of her daughter, Tracy, Dundy moves from acting into writing, with a bibliography that includes everything from plays to novels to a biography of Elvis and his mother.

The book is full of great stories, including a lively party Tennessee Williams threw for his mother, the "Hemingway Code" as it applied to young women in his company, and the time Ava Gardner showed up at the flat asking for cab fare, but Dundy's writing shines even when describing the mundane. While reading, I constantly regaled Potts with lines from it, and atypically, this was more to his amusement than his annoyance. A few of my favorites include:

On giving a disasterous class presentation on "arson": "When you have got it firmly lodged in your head that arson is a chemical, a batch of newspaper clippings with headlines such as: 'Ten Die in Warehouse Blaze - Arson Suspected' is not going to dislodge it."

On discovering rampant anti-Semitism at Sweet Briar College: "My shit list was growing apace and I had only been there for two months."

On not buying a jar of peanut butter: "I was the only one in our household who ate it and the thought struck me with force that our marriage was not going to last before I finished it."

If you're a fan of 50s theatre, screwball leading ladies, and stories of women who live life to the hilt, this book is for you.
* There's a great line in the book when Dundy is telling a friend about her marital troubles, and he responds, "Of course Englishmen love flagellation. It's the only time they ever get touched as children."

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