He Who Played the King

When Kenneth Tynan submitted articles on politics to Playboy during the Sixties, in his capacity as contributing editor, they were always accepted. But every time he offered the magazine an article on sex, as his late widow Kathleen records in her fair and forgiving biography,1 the upholders of the Playboy Philosophy felt obliged to turn it down. His “scholarly homage to the female bottom” was judged by Hugh Hefner’s men to be afflicted with “an archness which is middle-aged.” Of his piece on female underwear, an editor wrote, it “comes off not only as a little bent but boring to boot.” Even his defense of hard-core pornography was too much for the magazine that defined itself as the caretaker of the Sexual Revolution.

This was all the more surprising in that Tynan, the most shamelessly dazzling critic in the England of his time, had set out, from boyhood, to be the big-screen Oscar Wilde, and complicated the matter often by living up to his own billing. A scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford, as Wilde had been, he took up lodgings above the Oscar Wilde Rooms, and swanned around in gold satin shirts, signing off his letters with Sarah Bernhardt’s motto: “Quand Meme“—“even though.” One of his proudest acts, he says, though not (to his occasional regret) gay himself, was to stand bail for a friend arrested for “homosexual offenses.” And having appointed his own Boswell at eleven—“My collected works will bulk small but precious,” he pronounced while in his teens—Tynan even as a school-boy was throwing off epigrams that showed the breadth of his ambitions (“Orson Welles is a self-made man and how he loves his Maker”). Yet never, surely, did he expect that the Wilde he would most come to resemble might be the sad figure of the final years, improvident, exiled, deserted by his friends, and best known for his petty indiscretions.

Such melancholy thoughts are occasioned by the publication of The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, the long-awaited journals from Tynan’s final, diminished decade, which ended in his death at fifty-three, in Los Angeles, in 1980, smoking cigarettes in the emphysema wards, his eldest daughter tells us, with tubes of oxygen hanging from his nostrils. The diaries, accompanied in England by a publicity kit complete with padlock and key, are being published with some fanfare in the hopes that readers will come running to accounts of Tynan licking the anus of an actress still prominent, and secondhand reports of threesomes in Noel Coward’s bed. But the diaries are a desultory and dispiriting series of jottings, a mishmash of not so bon mots, obscene limericks, lame puns, lame puns repeated, and rather desperate attempts to conscript Evelyn Waugh and D.H. Lawrence to the cause of spanking. Even the tidbits are seldom new. Kathleen Tynan’s graceful and wrenchingly honest biography drew heavily and faithfully on the best parts of her late husband’s then secret journal, while performing the good spouse’s duty of consigning the rest to oblivion.


This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.