The daily grind of the average literary wife—pouring drinks, looking nice at parties, managing multiple selves, and talking the loved one down off ledges—has opened up a whole new seam in the publishing industry. If Lady Macbeth were around today she’d surely be ready to launch Is This a Life I See Before Me?: The Girl I Was in the Bonnie Before and angling for a spot on Oprah’s Book Club. I say this is new but of course in some respects it’s pretty old. Who could forget Jane Welsh Carlyle’s dazzlingly tortured letters about being Mrs. Minimus next to Master Sage, or indeed Double Drink Story: My Life With Dylan Thomas, in which Caitlin Thomas looks through the empty glasses darkly, to find her Welsh wizard, only much more and much less than she had expected?
Being married to the man who took first prize is evidently a hazardous fandango, but in the newer memoirs, at least, there is a wonderful sense of liberty born of survival. One after another these books turn out to be tales of how the clearer morals of the smaller life, distilled by hard experience, can come first to shame and then to haunt the pronouncements of the moralist.
To call them revenge narratives won’t cover it: they are clever, self-conscious books proclaiming the human wonders and terrors to be illuminated by sidelight. If memoirs by the likes of Adele Mailer and Claire Bloom were propelled by anger, hurt, and a sense of defeat, then many of the newer books by ex–literary wives are, to some larger and more striking extent, nurtured in self-confidence and pity for the Man Who Wasn’t Quite. Let it be known: somewhere in the stratosphere of literary affairs, adjacent to every unwritten novel by Cyril Connolly, there is a small, scintillating volume of published memoirs by Barbara Skelton, the last of them containing a photograph of the smiling authoress, captioned “Today.”
Elaine Dundy, who was married to Kenneth Tynan, started her own battle against invisibility rather fabulously and rather early, and she did so in a way that involved the novelist Henry Green. In June 1954, Marlene Dietrich, in spangled dresses and with lines fine-tuned by Tynan and Noel Coward, enjoyed a brilliant opening at the Café de Paris in London. After the performance, Tynan, along with Coward and his entourage, gathered in Dietrich’s suite at the Dorchester to toast her success. “As it was getting late, Noel and his contingent said their goodnights and left,” reports Dundy:
Significantly, they noted, Ken had stayed behind with Dietrich. In the hall they found themselves waiting for the elevator for some time.
“Poor little Mrs. Tynan,” said Noel, “she must be putting her head in the oven by now.” No sooner had he uttered this than Ken appeared. The elevator arrived and they all descended together. “There was a most embarrassed silence,” said Cole [Cole Lesley, Coward’s friend and …