Laughter, soft light, the rustle of napkins: Kenneth Tynan’s collection of New Yorker profile-essays is a posh affair, a cork-popping evening spent in the company of the famous and the famously forgotten. In a perplexing foreword, Tynan says that in recent years “essay” has become an odious world. in certain corners of the lit-crit world. “Many critics maintain that the essay is an inferior form; and many publishers believe that modern readers care only for long-distance, marathon writing….” If these experts are correct, Tynan muses, then Montaigne must be given the heave-ho. “To the bonfire with William Hazlitt, closely followed by Max Beerbohm, Sainte-Beuve and John Aubrey. A brusque kiss-off to Francis Bacon, Charles Lamb, La Bruyère and the best of Mencken, not to mention Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars; and into the garbage goes Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, perhaps the finest book of profile-essays ever written.”
Who are these fiendish vandals longing to torch Hazlitt and trash Dr. Johnson? Tynan doesn’t name names, but Show People is clearly aimed at their doubting heads. The lives chronicled here belong to Sir Ralph Richardson. Tom Stoppard, Johnny Carson, Mel Brooks, and Louise Brooks, who are all amusing, articulate, and (he says) spellbindingly gifted. “Last and far from least, they all rank high on the list of people whom I would invite to an ideal dinner party.”
Tynan’s first and best guest is Sir Ralph Richardson, who stirs and fusses like a vague, flustered ghost. At the age of six Richardson visits his grandmother in the company of a mouse named Kim. When a servant refuses to allow the rodent indoors, the impudent child says, “In that case, when’s the next train back to Brighton?” He and Kim are finally admitted. Impressed by the boy’s sassiness, the grandmother remembers him in her will a decade or so later, leaving him five hundred pounds—a sum that allows Richardson to quit his job at a law office (where he used to walk along the window-ledge to draw a crowd) and enroll in the Brighton School of Art. A few months later, Richardson sees a production of Hamlet at the Theatre Royal, and realizes his life isn’t meant to be a litter-trail of broken brushes and slashed canvases. He decides to become an actor, and as the years flip by like calendar pages in an old movie, he scales the Shakespearean heights as lago, Caliban, Bolingbroke. Petruchio, and Prince Hal, stars in contemporary plays by Somerset Maugham and J.B. Priestley, appears on Broadway in Romeo and Juliet, and, in 1944, triumphs in the role he cherishes most, Peer Gynt.
Punctuating this brisk account of applause and acclaim are several comic explosions. On Guy Fawkes Day in 1937 or 1938, Richardson sets off a rocket on Laurence Olivier’s lawn that comes crashing into the dining room, setting the curtains ablaze. “According to Olivier, it also wrecked a lot of priceless antique crockery and left him and Vivien [Leigh], who were cowering behind the sofa, blackened about the face like Al Jolson.” Years later, Richardson tumbles through the rafters of Olivier’s reconverted abbot’s lodge in Buckinghamshire, reducing a bed to splinters and scatteration. “I felt pretty dogsbody, I can tell you,” Sir Ralph later remarks.
Anecdotes like that crinkle like candywrappers, yet what gives the Richardson profile its tart appeal is that, having watched him for over thirty years, Tynan has seen Sir Ralph at his most sublime and eccentric. As an undergraduate at Oxford, Tynan saw Richardson bring a rare knightly dignity to the role of Falstaff; in 1952, he witnessed a performance of Volpone patched together with lines from other plays—“At one point, he stunned his fellow actors by addressing them as ‘Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves,’ and went on (since there was clearly no going back) to favor us with the rest of the famous speech from The Tempest….” Stranger still, perhaps, is Richardson’s Shylock of 1964.
I saw The Merchant before it left England. It had a lot of very oldfashioned sets, with equally oldfashioned blackouts between scenes, and was memorable chiefly for Sir Ralph’s physical appearance. He wore a bright yellow skullcap, set off by lurid green makeup, and he brandished what I took to be a shepherd’s crook…. I paid a brief visit to Sir Ralph’s dressing room afterward. When I asked about the shepherd’s crook, he explained although he based his interpretation on the assumption that Shylock was “a gent,” it was vital not to forget that “the Jews were a race of nomadic shepherds.”
Tynan celebrates Richardson’s voice for being yeasty, agile, suave, delicate, breath-light, flake-shavingly smooth, and “something between bland and grandiose: blandiose, perhaps.” He praises also Richardson’s “balsawood lightness of movement,” his Jacques Tati fastidiousness. New Yorker profiles are usually acts of appreciation, but Tynan mischievously goes beyond appreciation into halo-polishing idolatry. By the end of the piece Tynan has so convincingly portrayed Richardson as a benign immortal that one expects Sir Ralph to ascend through parting clouds to the tip of a golden celestial cone. Instead, Tynan suggests that his hero remain on earth to play God. “I would find it entirely credible that the creator of the universe as we know it was someone very like Sir Ralph,” says Tynan, brushing splinters of light from his shoulders. Fresh drinks are poured, and glasses click in tribute.
Lesser mortals occupy the center of the book. Like the Richardson toast, the profile of Tom Stoppard celebrates in part the pleasures of bright, unbuttoned chat. Stoppard himself is a conversational whiz, tossing off sparklers like a guest in one of Thomas Love Peacock’s dream-castles. The profile is full of funny scenes: a reading of Jumpers in which a tuckered-out Olivier nods off; a match between Harold Pinter’s cricket eleven and the Guardian’s; an evening of sherry and sloshed philosophizing at Oxford as guests of Sir Alfred Ayer (“Freddie” to his friends).
Structurally, however, the piece is a shambles. Tynan cuts from Stoppard’s progress to the travails of the Czech playwright and Charter 77 activist Vaclav Havel (who emerges as Stoppard’s soul brother), inserts parenthetical digressions about Stoppard’s attitudes regarding friendship and the Opposite Sex, and sprinkles the narrative with quotations from Keats, Wittgenstein, and Cyril Connolly. Leaping from log to log, Tynan awkwardly follows Stoppard’s progress from show-offy Nabokovian aestheticism to political engagement, skipping over the question: Just how good is Tom Stoppard? Tynan raps Stoppard’s knuckles for turning “professed socialist” James Joyce into an art-for-art’s sake propagandist in Travesties, but too often is content to quote the raves of friends and reviewers. “I suspend rational judgment,” says one; “I cannot hope to do justice to the richness and sparkle of the evening’s proceedings,” gurgles another. That’s what’s bewildering about Stoppard—that his plays so knock the sense and stuffing out of theater-goers that they can barely find words to express their dazed admiration. As Robert Brustein recently said of Stoppard in The New Republic, “He has insinuated himself into the affections of smart people like a heartworm, usurping whatever place might once have been reserved for genuine artists.”
Except for the 1977 TV-play Professional Foul, Stoppard’s writing has always struck me as the work of a glittering fake rather than of a genuine artist, and the examples of Stoppard’s “brilliance” Tynan provides do nothing to subvert that prejudice. Really, though, it’s the tone of Tynan’s piece that’s displeasing, a tone chummy yet condescending. Pats on the head are followed by tweaks on the ear, and it’s a wonder Stoppard doesn’t bolt the table and take his pleasure out on the terrace.
With Johnny Carson and Mel Brooks, Tynan is writing not about men of the theater but People-magazine celebrities, and he rejoices to concur with the common viewer. Tracing Brooks’s movie career, Tynan quotes box-office figures and makes chipper puns about the “days of wine and grosses.” Celebrating Carson’s late-night supremacy, he says that Johnny C. should remain at the summit as long as the alpine air “continues to nourish and elate him.” Both pieces are packed with wisecracks, excerpts from classic bits, and hammy flare-ups (as when Brooks startles Moss Hart at a restaurant by rattling off Hart’s credits and shouting, “You should be more arrogant! You have earned the right to be supercilious! Why are you letting me talk to you?“). Unfortunately, the pieces are also cluttered with namedropping asides and arch whimsies that slide off the page like loose shingles.
For some reason, it’s Carson who brings out the tut-tutting worst in Tynan. Tynan is rightly impressed by Carson’s quickwittedness, crack timing, and flair for spotlighting other performers (particularly fellow comics), but his praise is mostly fluff, his psychological speculations thimble-deep. At one point Tynan even passes on Paul Morrissey’s observation that Carson “must have a very loving relationship with his parents”—as if the director of Warholesque sleaze like Trash and Heat possesses intimate insight into Johnny Carson’s upbringing. Worse: After establishing that Carson was once a falling-down drunk, Tynan monitors the man’s every gulp.
Page 170: “A believer in eating only when one is hungry, Carson orders nothing more than a salad and some mineral water.”
Page 179: “During dinner, although wine is served, Carson drinks only coffee.”
Page 185: “Bar serves bodytemperature champagne in plastic glasses; Carson requests slug of water.”
When not keeping his eye on the liquor cabinet, Tynan criticizes Carson’s disdain for toilet humor—“It is depressing to reflect that if Rabelais were alive today he would not be invited to appear on the ‘Tonight Show’ “—and praises talk-show rival Merv Griffin for spending a full ninety minutes with the ponderously ponderous Orson Welles. (Whose name is misspelled on page 159. And Tynan is in error when he says that Carson “has yet to appear in his first film.” Carson turned up in a 1964 Connie Francis schlock comedy called Looking for Love—a film that made Rabelais’s ghost beg a passing gravedigger to heave on more dirt.) After the stingy calculations of Carson’s life, it’s a relief to flip the pages and see Mel Brooks ricochet from wall to wall, even though he ends up in a canvas chair directing the dismally coarse High Anxiety. Near the close of the Brooks profile, Tynan clears his throat, quotes Stephen Spender, and offers a few thoughts on “the urgent need for a study of the influence of cinema on the cinema….”
The snores and yawns soon cease. One of the unacknowledged pleasures of criticism is celebrating the delicate splendors of film goddesses—the curve of Garbo’s throat, the milky crack in Margaret Sullavan’s voice. Few stars have inspired as much ardor and devotion as Louise Brooks, a Kansas-born performer who toured with the Denishawn company, danced on Broadway in Ziegfield’s Follies of 1925, and acted in twenty-four films, the most famous being G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1928). Sporting bold black bangs, Brooks expressed a bewitchingly cool Jazz Age sensuousness that made men tumble into love and madness. In Hollywood she fended off porky Harry Cohn—head of Columbia Studios—and was threatened, demoted, and (eventually) humiliated. When Brooks was so down-on-her-luck that she agreed to dance in the chorus of a Grace Moore musical, the studio sent out publicity stills gloatingly captioned: “Louise Brooks, former screen star, who deserted Hollywood seven years ago at the height of her career, has come back to resume her work in pictures. But, seven years is too long for the public to remember and Louise courageously begins again at the bottom.” She returned to New York in 1943; worked as a department store salesgirl; was forgotten.
But not completely. Curiously, Louise Brooks seems to surface every ten years. In 1958, James Card, film curator at Rochester’s Eastman House, interviewed Brooks for London’s Sight and Sound; in 1968, an interview conducted by Clyde Gilmour was published in the Toronto Telegram. Brooks also appeared at fests in Copenhagen and Paris (“I was dug out of my film grave and invented as a great actress,” she told Variety last January), and published a series of scrappy, revealing essay-reminiscences in magazines like Sight and Sound and Film Culture.
Of all this cultish activity, Tynan apparently knows nothing; he seems to assume Brooks is as stiff as Rabelais. One January afternoon in 1978, Tynan catches Pandora’s Box on California’s Channel 28—he assumes he’s the only one watching, since everyone else in Southern Cal is out biking and brunching—and he decides to fly to Rochester’s International Museum of Photography to screen its treasure-trove of Brooks pictures. In evocative and sometimes tedious detail, he gives us a day by day account of his hours in the dark, stringing together personal reflections with anecdotes about Cohn, Pabst, William Wellman, and a legendary lesbian showgirl named (no kidding) Fritzi LaVerne. After this binge of Brooksiana, Tynan—at long last!—makes his pilgrimage to the third-floor apartment of Rochester’s “Ravishing Hermit.”
A tease Tynan certainly is, but his teasing audacity pays off. Most New Yorker profiles have an offhanded omniscience—see, for example, Janet Flanner’s amusing study of Thomas Mann in Janet Flanner’s World—but the Louise Brooks profile is set up as a nostalgia-tinged personal quest. It’s a dramatically effective strategy. Kenneth Tynan nudges open a creaking door on the past to discover not Miss Havisham in cobwebs and lace but—well, let Tynan himself speak: “The door slowly opened to reveal a petite woman of fragile build, wearing a woolen bed jacket over a pink nightgown, and holding herself defiantly upright by means of a sturdy metal cane with four rubber-tipped prongs.” His hyperattentive ears again tingle. “Her voice has the range of a dozen birdcalls, from the cry of a peacock to the fluting of a dove.”
Though Tynan at times lays on the gallantry a bit thick, he quotes Brooks at generous length and her remarks give the book a stinging send-off. She talks of being a molested child, a kept woman, a “gincoherent” boozer; of Chaplin, Keaton, Dietrich, Scott, Zelda, and William Randolph Hearst; of her unpublished autobiography, Naked on a Goat; and of throwing Pabst an unforgettably fabulous fuck (“Next morning, Mr. Pabst was so pleased he couldn’t see straight”). It’s perilous allowing a writer into your fading life—in the latest Paris Review is a painful account of Jean Rhys in her cups—but Tynan doesn’t chip away at Brooks’s dignity or stature, and he quietly takes his leave. Until Louise Brooks’s own writings are collected in book form, this valentine will splendidly do.
March 6, 1980