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The Life of Kenneth Tynan’

In response to:

Golden Boy from the December 3, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

My admiration for The New York Review of Books is occasionally tested by the difficulty in deciphering what part of a review is new evidence offered by the critic, and what is merely summary of the book up for inspection. In your December 3, 1987, issue, however, I find myself on firm ground: John Osborne was assigned my biography of Kenneth Tynan and he cribs most of his material from my book, as if he had retrieved it from somewhere else. He fails to get around to any criticism of Ken’s work—favourable or otherwise—though he does contribute one or two personal anecdotes that carry neither resonance nor freshness. Having attacked Ken when he was alive, Osborne now takes on the role of his defender, however condescendingly, against the wife.

Not unexpectedly, for those of us who know about Osborne on the other side of the Atlantic, he devotes a good deal of his piece to character assassination. In this case, my own. What is harder to accept is his relentless misogyny: his well-publicized and noisome rejection of ex-wives and daughter; his savage contempt for his mother, recorded in his autobiography.

Now he extends this ugly mischief beyond his nearest and dearest to an almost-stranger. His mode of so-doing is to take my text, distort it, and turn it on its head. Osborne writes (to take only a few of these lying points) that I “was privy to little that was not accessible to the cast of starry outsiders in his life…. Mrs. Tynan often gives her evidence like a passing pedestrian at a street accident”—a wondrously horrid misreading of my attempt to contain my overwhelming feeling so that the reader be allowed a closer look at the subject; and in blatant contradiction of the occasions when I do express those feelings. Sixteen years in a relationship, followed by five years in the excavation of a life, forbid the “passing pedestrian” tag.

He writes: “When Tynan was asked if his first wife’s forthcoming novel would be any good, he would reply, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t think so, just another wife trying to prove she exists.’ ” Had Osborne been less slapdash he would have discovered that this remark was not made by Ken, but rather Cyril Connolly. Ken encouraged his first wife to write—as he did everyone and anyone with talent.

I am accused of “blasphemy against an estate that Tynan revered.” I presume Osborne is referring to the estate of matrimony. It is a luckless task to tell him that my book is both a homage to marriage, and to the love I feel for Ken.

In the biography I quoted from Ken’s journals on Osborne, but discreetly so. Here is a fuller version:

August 13, 1971: Osborne has become a friendless and mean-spirited man who feeds on hostility and only feels alive when he is hating or hated…. His new hero [of West of Suez]…is a writer with 4 daughters (one more sister than in Chekhov, with whom J.O. clearly hopes to be compared). He is visiting a West Indian island, recently granted independence, and loses no opportunity to record his opinion of the natives as a mixture of ‘lethargy and hysteria, brutality and sentimentalism’—not a bad description of J.O. himself…. Most of the conversation is like a child with a good ear reproducing the noise made by intelligent and/or sophisticated people, but getting the words subtly wrong. J.O.’s plays are more and more like extracts from an interior monologue of increasing bad temper and incoherence…. A very sad evening—illiberal, self-absorbed, self-indulgent…. West of Suez is about as universal and Chekhovian as N.C. Hunter’s A Day by the Sea, a Haymarket hit of the 1950s which it much resembles. Ironically it was from N.C. Hunter and his school that J.O. was alleged to have saved the English theatre.

Ken continued to record his distaste for the playwright. I believe he would have been even more offended by Osborne’s performances of recent years, including this review.

Kathleen Tynan

London, England

John Osborne replies:

Connolly’s line indeed it was and quoted with approval repeatedly by Tynan. Mrs. Tynan’s aggrieved burblings are amusing enough I suppose, although the dark references to my own “nearest and dearest,” whoever they may be, are as puzzling to me as they must be to anyone else. Character assassination was rendered unnecessary in reviewing her book. She had already hired the most competent hit-man to do the job unerringly—herself. Any interested reader may judge the results of her aim. The blood on the good widow’s hands is drawn by her own disingenuous weapon, mingling as it does with the streaming egg on her face.

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