Kenneth Tynan smoked like a maestro, an aficionado of his own smooth technique. As the stripper sings in Gypsy, 'Ya gotta have a gimmick,' and photograph after photograph shows Tynan squiring a cigarette between the tips of his middle and ring fingers (his trademark), each puff drawing attention to the languid elegance of his long, slender, concert-pianist hands. Cigarettes were key props in the Ken Tynan legend assembly-kit, along with the Mickey Mouse watch and effete-aesthete Anthony Blanche outfits he wore at Oxford, and, later, the poolstick collection of headmaster's canes he kept handy to beat women's bottoms. The cigarettes eventually killed him, but it is only with one in his hand that he looks fully activated, in character. In London, creating a sensation as a theatre critic, he's as trim, sleek and transparently avid as Laurence Harvey on the make in Room at the Top, but more convivial and amused - an amiable shark. No one looks that eagerly young anymore. Two decades after his death, Tynan is still getting the star treatment, a rare thing for any writer; even rarer for a critic, whose work tends to date fast. The morbid, sexy idolatry usually reserved for rock stars, dead poets and suicide blondes is being lavished on him. The front cover of Tynan's Letters, published in 1994, features a portrait taken by David Bailey, itself a sign of pop status. The front cover of The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan is a close up of its subject inhaling, eyes shut, fingers splayed; its back cover, three shots of him in different stages of smoking - an action-sequence of sorts. How did Tynan become such a cool dead daddy? True, he remains a pleasure to read: his float-like-a-butterfly, sting-like-a-bee style has lost none of its panache, his witty concision is still quotable (on Gielgud in modern dress: 'The general aspect of a tight, smart, walking umbrella'), much of his excitement outliving the occasions that produce it. But there have been other theatre critics with dapper styles and deep commitments whose names faded once their work slid out of print, once-prominent tastemakers such as Stark Young and James Gibbons Huneker. Tynan's review collections have joined theirs in the second-hand stores, but he himself stays hot copy. Words aren't enough to sustain a journalistic legend; neither are looks, photogenic as he was.
LRB 13 December 2001 | PDF Download