The exclamatory trill of the title alone, Life Itself!
, suggests an exuberance to Elaine Dundy's mostly jaunty memoirs but also an insecurity. One of three Brimberg sisters from a wealthy New York Jewish background, her grand father, a Latvian immigrant, had invented a type of screw that made his fortune. Elaine's designs, however, were more on screwball fun. Drawn to the stage, she left America for Paris and wrote The Dud Avocado
, published to popular acclaim in 1958, which described her salad days as a rich young socialite in the French capital. Fascinated with the sassy, vivacious actresses of pre-war Hollywood and their witty, charming, suave leading-men, along came Kenneth Tynan, enfant terrible
of 1950s English critical journalism. He carried a fearsome, bullying swagger reminiscent of Dundy's violent and abusive father. While she wanted to be a character created by Tennessee Williams, she fell in love with men written by "Papa" Hemingway. So she married Tynan.
Life Itself! is most intriguing in its depiction of Dundy's relationship with Tynan, though the details of his sado-masochistic "Oxford practices" have been well documented elsewhere, in his second wife Kathleen Tynan's The Life of Kenneth Tynan. Life with Ken, a Barbie in her flurry of frocks and socialising, saw Dundy circulate with a gilded cast of associates, rarely dull and never unknown: Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Cyril Connolly, Marilyn Monroe, Henry Green and Gore Vidal make frequent appearances, as she commiserates with the wives of Peters Brook and Ustinov how hard it is for actresses with illustrious partners to find work. Once the heart stops bleeding, what redeems passages of flapper frippery are when the screwball wit kicks in, or she pauses to allow her writing the space it cries out for, and justifies when allowed. When she finally left Tynan, after a brutal attack and serial psychological sadism, she produced mediocre plays, reasonable journalism, fuelled by the pills and booze which nearly ended her life. Rescued by electro-therapy and a discovered love of Elvis (of whom she wrote a respected biography, Elvis and Gladys), one hopes she is allowed to live out her days in California with peaceful reflections and calmer syntax. --David Vincent
Elaine Dundy has written her autobiography. Its an absolute treat, by turns jaunty, pleasingly self-knowing and unexpectedly moving. -- India Knight, Sunday Times June 24, 2001
A wonderfully entertaining confession. Her autobiography depicts her anarchic pursuit of pleasure with unflinching candor -- Patrick Skene Catling, Irish Times, June 23rd 2001
Dundy has a superb memory for detail, -- Kate Kellaway, Observer, June 2001
Summer reading should be like summer wines; light, refreshing, insouciant. Life Itself! is all that and more. -- Richard Morrison The Times July 27, 2001: Summer Reading Choices
what makes this book such a breath of fresh air is its complete lack of self pity. -- Lynn Barber, Daily Telegraph, June 2001