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Laughing A Lot, and Often Over Nothing Much

Novelist Elaine Dundy, chick lit’s wicked stepmother, knew that freedom, for “Angry Young Women,” was inextricably tied to wit.
DISCUSSED
Yare Tugboats, Yare Women, Arson, Nice Laughter, Topless Taxi Rides, Flagellation as a Form of Affection, LSD, False Cognates of “Lawyer,” Montaigne’s Alternative to Horror

Laughing A Lot, and Often Over Nothing Much

Elizabeth Gumport
9 Snaps

My, she was yare,” goes one of The Philadelphia Story’s most famous lines. The speaker is Tracy (Katharine Hepburn), and the “she” is the True Love, the boat Tracy sailed with her former husband, Dexter (Cary Grant). Yare, in her words, means “easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, bright—everything a boat should be.” Later, Dex repeats the phrase, and when, inevitably, they reunite—for they are Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and what they should be is together—Tracy promises to be yare. Be whatever you want, he tells her, and they are married.

In 1952, twelve years after the film was released, the novelist Elaine Dundy named her daughter Tracy ­after Hepburn’s character and asked the actress to serve as her godmother. Hepburn agreed, explaining that she herself had chosen the name Tracy for her role in honor of the J. M. Tracy tugboats that chugged determinedly up the East River, and which seemed to her so yare.

Dundy’s daughter’s christening was one of the moments most explicitly influenced by cinema in a life full of moments influenced by cinema and theater, and the Holly­wood comedies of the 1930s and ’40s in particular. To be a screwball heroine, Dundy felt, was her vocation: “I will never forget my utter relief when I first came upon these characters,” she wrote. “I knew at once I would have to be like them because I could not be like anyone else.” Since her teenage years in Manhattan’s velvety theaters, Dundy had been moved by “a passionate desire to emulate” these witty, self-possessed women who were men’s equals—or betters. Hepburn scaling the skeleton of a brontosaurus, Barbara Stanwyck bopping Henry Fonda on the head with an apple, Irene Dunne merrily rolling her car into a ditch, women transforming the whole world into a playroom: these were the images that shaped Dundy’s imagination.

From Hepburn to “Tracy” to Dundy to Tracy: the line that leads from screwball comedies to ­Dundy’s life and fiction may also be a path to understanding how art transforms daily experience. The stories we see shape the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. What Dundy learned from the Hollywood comedies is that comedy is a choice, one related to both the public movement toward female independence and the private working of the individual will: whether an event is funny or sad depends not on the event but on our response. This, at least, remains in our control. Do not cry when you can laugh: do not make your life harder than it has to be. Comedy is serious business, for being amused—amusing ourselves—is a way of insisting on ourselves, a way of resisting what is forced upon us. Whatever possibilities life forecloses, there remains in all of us an inviolate mind, a mind free always to react one way rather than another. Fun is freedom.

*

Dundy—née Elaine Brimberg—was born in 1921, second of three daughters in a wealthy New York Jewish family. Her grandfather, an immigrant from Latvia, invented the self-­tapping screw, whose sharp edges could cut into metal (no need to drill a hole in advance!) and which eventually found its way into the Spirit of St. Louis’s engine and the restored Statue of Liberty. His daughter Florence, Dundy’s mother, founded a preschool before marrying Dundy’s father, who made his fortune in clothing manufacturing. In the 1920s, Manhattan was wild with money, dollars as dense and ever-blooming as the leaves on the trees in Central Park, which Dundy and her family saw from their apartment at 88 Central Park West. Here, governesses, cooks, and chauffeurs tended to the children.

During the Depression, ­Dundy’s father lost his business. The near-broke Brimbergs briefly retreated to Long Island until Dundy’s father bought a controlling in­terest in Universal Steel and the family emerged triumphant onto Park Avenue. The girls attended the progressive Lincoln School in Harlem, where Dundy learned what she called “the light-hearted Lincoln approach to the world of the solemn, the pompous, and the sacerdotal. I learned the joy of laughing a lot, and often over nothing very much.” When Dundy bungled a presentation (arson, she announced, was a type of chemical), her classmates laughed. It was, Dundy recalls, “nice laughter. And instead of feeling disgraced and discredited, I felt happy to be the source of their enjoyment.”

The pleasure of laughter was also the lesson of the movies she saw on weekends: like the Lincoln approach, screwball heroines were “light-hearted,” and their merriment both sanctioned and shaped Dundy’s behavior. It was the summer of 1939, and the golden era of Hollywood comedy: The previous year had seen the release of, to name only a handful, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, You Can’t Take It with You, and The Mad Miss Manton. The next year brought His Girl Friday, My Favorite Wife, and, of course, The Philadelphia Story. Giddy and drunk and inspired by her favorite stars, Dundy would raise herself through the sunroofs of taxis, strip to the waist, and soar up glittering Park Avenue. Perhaps because in those days “they were as wrapped up in the cinematic screwball world,” as she was, nobody—not dates, not drivers, not doormen—ever remarked upon her topless rides.

*

Dundy’s romance with Kenneth Tynan, Tracy’s father, proceeded like something from one of her favorite films. After college and a stint as an army cryptographer, Dundy decided to pursue a career as an actress. She moved first to New York, where she attended the same school as Tony Curtis, then Paris, and finally London. It was in London that she first met Tynan, one of England’s best-known drama critics, and the first man to say fuck on the BBC. Dundy told him she admired his book and he asked her to lunch. “Who is he?” her friend asked. “Part of a plot,” Dundy responded.

Lunch was followed by a matinee, the matinee by champagne, and champagne by a proposal, all in a single day. “I am the illegitimate son of the late Sir Peter Peacock,” Tynan told her. “I have an annual income. I’m twenty-three and I will either die or kill myself when I reach thirty, because by then I will have said everything I have to say. Will you marry me?” Dundy at first demurred, but soon the pair was living together, and a few months later they married at Marylebone Town Hall. Like the wedding of Tracy and Dex in The Philadelphia Story, Dundy and Tynan’s celebration was covered enthusiastically by the press.

On the surface, their marriage looked like a movie, rich with London theater, trips to New York, bullfights with Hemingway, vacations with Tennessee Williams, friends like Gore Vidal who shared the same “screwball heritage.” One night Ava Gardner appeared at their apartment holding a broken umbrella she had smashed over the head of her lover. This was, for Dundy, proper screwball behavior.

The happy years, however, would not last. Central to Dundy’s dissatisfaction was Tynan’s interest in sadomasochism, particularly spanking. (“Of course Englishmen love flagellation,” Cyril Connolly told her. “It’s the only time they ever get touched as children.”) His preferred instrument was a headmaster’s cane; if Dundy refused to submit, Tynan would stand on the windowsill and threaten to jump.

Also destructive was Tynan’s response to Dundy’s success as a writer. It was he who proposed  that Dundy write a novel. The book became The Dud Avocado, the story of Sally Jay Gorce, an American girl on the loose in postwar Paris. Insofar as Sally Jay knows what she wants, she wants to be an actress; while seeking stardom, or at least an antidote to boredom, she tangles with all elements of Parisian society: European officials, American artists, cross-dressing dancers, villainous passport thieves. Tynan even suggested the title, which Dundy loved: to her, the avocado symbolized Sally Jay, and all things American exported abroad. After reading a draft, Tynan told Dundy the book would be “a colossal best seller.”

Yet when his prediction came true, he revolted. After a night out with his friends, he returned home to find Dundy reading a copy of her manuscript; in a fury, he flung it out the window. “The awful truth was not so much that his tormentors had pressed upon him the idea that his wife had ‘competed’ with him and ‘won,’” Dundy wrote, “but that he was buying into it. Except for the screwball comedies, where women were allowed some equality in regard to jobs, professions and careers, we females were taught by endless example never to seem to have even the appearance of competing in any way with our husbands.” Tynan told Dundy he would divorce her if she ever wrote another book. The next morning, she began work on what would become her second novel, The Old Man and Me.

Still, they could not give each other up. Both drank heavily and had affairs. Each time they separated, Tynan would beg Dundy to come to him, promising peace at last. When she arrived, the battles would begin again. It is often easier to hate someone than to let them go; to fight with someone is to fight for them, to keep them in your life. What is worse than shouting is silence, especially to theater types like Dundy and Tynan, for whom dialogue was not just a passion but their profession. Rage was a way to rescue what remained of love.

The Old Man and Me was at last published in 1964, the year Dundy and Tynan finalized their divorce. Dundy moved to New York, where she took great quantities of Ritalin during the day and Seconal at night. In 1968, she went to rehab for the first time. A few years later, she woke up in a London hospital to find a priest standing over her, giving the last rites. Dundy flew back to Manhattan and made out her will.

Shortly after her return to New York, however, Dundy began to recover, which she credited to electroshock treatment. She began work on the first of her nonfiction books, a biography of ­Peter Finch. It was during the 1980s, while working on a book about Elvis and his mother, that she “found getting educated more to my liking than getting experienced”: experiences may repeat, but there are always new ways of looking at them.

In 1986, she relocated to Cali­fornia, in order to be near her daughter and because of her “lovely memories of Hollywood.” She published her autobiography, Life Itself!, in 2001, four years before The Dud Avocado was reissued and seven years before her death. Dundy ends the story of her life on an image of the autumn sunset “pulling out all its stops. I share in its exhilaration,” she wrote, “and am content.”

*

Dundy stated in her auto­biography and prefatory notes that she wanted her fiction to respond to the group of authors known as the “Angry Young Men” and their brash, tradition-busting antiheroes. Nobody, she felt, had yet captured the “complications and contradictions going on inside the contemporary girl,” and so she presented to the world herAngry Young Woman,” the opinionated and ambitious American girl. Her protagonists have college degrees, work at magazines or in theater, and want fame or money. Their nights are wild, drunken romps, their hangovers as bad as Jim Dixon’s. “I don’t like books just about boys,” sulks Rilla Blackman in The Injured Party, ­Dundy’s third and final novel; surely she would have appreciated Dundy’s.

To capture what the Angry Young Woman thought, Dundy faithfully documented how she thought. Her characters are fond of slang, and the original texts were dense with casual tics like oh, um, and well, most of which she pruned away for the reissued editions. What remains is vital to the organism, for Dundy’s strength is voice, as literally as that can be meant in reference to writing. Her style is conversational, her sentences often tumbling over themselves or stopping short, and her narrators think very much like they speak. Theirs is the talk of the first generation to be raised since youth on talkies, in particular the rapid-fire, ricocheting dialogue of screwball comedies. They are members of the first generation that, consciously or not, tried to talk like people did in the ­movies, the first girls for whom stardom was bound up with speech, and specifically with wit. “She was easily the most effective-looking woman in the room. Effective like Garbo, I mean, like Hepburn”: high praise from one of Dundy’s heroines.

Part of the Angry Young ­Woman’s ambition is sexual: freely she seeks and speaks about physical pleasure. Dundy’s editor objected to her description of Sally Jay’s orgasm, but the recent reissue restores it to all its matter-of-fact glory: “I mean I came,” Sally Jay says, and on we go. As the ’50s gave way to the ’60s and ’70s, Dundy’s writing became increasingly frank. “When we were finished we were covered, absolutely covered with each other,” Betsy Lou Saegessor crows after sleeping with the old man in The Old Man and Me. Sentenced to a women’s reformatory after her husband’s death, Rilla first has sex with one of the other inmates. Then she has sex with the warden.

Although Sally Jay eventually stumbles into marriage, Dundy’s­ novels for the most part subvert the traditional structure of comedy, in which a wedding in the final act signals the restoration of order and the resolution of both individual and social unrest. Unrest, of course, is precisely what Sally Jay craves, and what she resents is “everybody telling me to stop drifting, and start living in this world; telling me to start cooking, and sewing, and cleaning, and I don’t know what. Taking care of my grandchildren.” Marriage, in screwball fashion, appears as yet another adventure, especially when it means a trip to Japan.

Mostly, however, marriage is introduced as a means to money, or a prison to be escaped: Rilla kills her husband, albeit somewhat accidentally, and Betsy Lou attempts to murder her lover, C. D. McKee, old man of the title and a famous British author. McKee is also the second husband of Betsy Lou’s stepmother, Pauly, who inherited Betsy Lou’s father’s fortune when he died. ­After Pauly’s death the estate carried over to C. D. Betsy Lou wants her money; therefore, C. D. must die. Disclosed along the way is the fact that as a child Betsy Lou tried and failed to break up her father’s marriage to Pauly, and that in college she seduced her best friend’s ­fiancé—yet still she charms the reader. Dark, perhaps, but funny, and best appreciated by those willing to allow humor to emerge from any situation, however plain or perverse. The author Dawn Powell (whom Gore Vidal called, along with Dundy, the funniest female writer) was one such fan: The Old Man and Me, she wrote, read as if “it was bled not written. Deadly murderous comedy.”

Critics have suggested Dundy might be the matriarch of chick lit, but reading her novels it is clear that she is at best the genre’s wicked stepmother. It is not only her treatment of marriage that sets her apart, but her understanding of what it means to “treat” something in fiction at all. Dundy herself allowed that Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones shared with her characters “a sense of adventure” and a tendency to attract one problem after the next. “1, 2, 3, 4,” she said. “They’re what we call picaresque.” Still, she disavowed Bridget as Sally Jay’s heir. It is those problems that are the problems: unlike ­Dundy’s fiction, many chick-lit novels are nothing but plot. If they are comedies in any sense other than their treatment of marriage as peace-restoring resolution, they are largely situational comedies, relying on slapstick (Bridget in a bunny suit) or sympathy (hungover, heartbroken Bridget eating muesli from the box). In chick lit, humor derives from what happens; in Dundy, in spite of it. What matters is her characters’ response to what happens, and the pithy, filthy, fiercely funny terms in which they express these reactions. When at the end of The Old Man and Me it emerges that C.D. has not had a stroke, Betsy Lou laughs: “We two poor crazy nuts—what gothic nightmares had we not dreamed up?” She can’t even kill an old man waiting to die, she says to him in his hospital room, and he laughs as well. “Never mind,” he tells her. “At least you made me very ill.”

It was after the publication of The Old Man and Me that Hollywood recognized in Dundy a dutiful student: George Cukor, director of The Philadelphia Story, wanted to adapt the novel. Cukor lost the project when the script sold to MGM, where it was to be produced by A. Ronald Lubin. A year after the sale, Dundy met Lubin and Cary Grant in a hotel room at the Plaza. Grant, fresh from the shower and dressed only in a towel, told Dundy that LSD was less harmful than cigarettes, and that he wanted to play McKee. The next week Grant was injured in a car accident. The film was never made.

*

Gore Vidal called The Dud Avocado “Daisy Miller’s Revenge,” and in many ways Dundy’s privileged American girls set loose in Europe’s ancient capitals are modernized Daisies and Isabel Archers. The similarities are more than structural or geographic. Published exactly eighty years before The Dud Avocado, James’s Daisy Miller is the story of a New York girl arrived in Europe for the first time and accompanied by her brother and permissive mother. Upon their first meeting in Switzerland, Daisy tells Winterbourne, an American who has long lived abroad, that she “had never been in so many hotels in my life as since I came to Europe. I have never seen so many—it’s nothing but hotels.” But, James continues, “Miss Miller did not make this remark with a querulous accent; she appeared to be in the best humour with everything.”

In Rome, this accent offends other Americans. Warned she will be talked about if she rides unchaperoned with an Italian man (a lower-­class lawyer, or cavaliere av­vocato; in Italian, as in many Romance languages, the words for lawyer and avocado are false cognates, resembling each other but etymologically unrelated), Daisy laughs. She does not understand why a carriage ride would be source for scandal, and does not want to: “I don’t think I should like it.” After her death, Winterbourne tells his aunt “it was on his conscience that he had done her injustice,” for “she would have appreciated one’s esteem.” Innocence, James suggests, depends not on action but on attitude. Daisy suffers not because of what she does but because her attitude toward her behavior differs from the attitude of others.

The increased economic and sexual freedom enjoyed by Dundy’s heroines permits them another: the freedom to be “in the best humour with everything.” Daisy’s posture toward the world is now permis­sible. “It was a hot, peaceful, optimistic sort of day in September,” The Dud Avocado begins—shades of the exhilarated sunset in Life Itself!—and in this novel it is not dangerous to attribute one’s own optimism to the world at large. Sally Jay is safe to indulge her curiosity—curiosity being, she tells us, “my answer to the question what’s your strongest emotion, if you ever want to ask me.”

No longer does laughter lead to the grave. Rather, it is a way of living in the world, a way Dundy learned from the “nice laughter” of the Lincoln School, and from the movies. “Screwball behavior,” she wrote, “was what I understood to be the proper reaction towards the events in my life.” Screwball is a “reaction” to our experience, a position one can choose to take—or not. For Dundy and her characters, the comic inheres not in events but in our response to events, and thus whether something is a comedy or a tragedy is a question of attitude, and of personal freedom. Comedy depends not on happenstance events but on choices that must be made freely and repeatedly: it is a constant working of the will, of the heliotropic soul.

In Pursuits of Happiness: The Hol­ly­wood Comedy of Remarriage, a study of seven screwball comedies from the 1930s and ’40s, the philosopher Stanley Cavell sets out a definition of these films’ philosophy that suits Dundy’s work as well:

I have had occasion in speaking of the career of Othello to invoke Montaigne’s horrified fascination by the human being’s horror of itself, as if to say: life is hard, but then let us not burden it further by choosing tragically to call it tragic where we are free to choose otherwise. I understand Montaigne’s alternative to horror to be the achievement of what he calls at the end a gay and sociable wisdom. I take this gaiety as the attitude on which what I am calling diurnal comedy depends, an attitude toward human life that I learn mostly from Thoreau, and partly  from Kierkegaard, to call taking an interest in it. Tragedy is the necessity of having your own experience and learning from it; comedy is the possibility of having it in good time.

This is Sally Jay’s “curiosity”; this is Dundy’s declaration that “in choosing frivolity I was simply following my family’s basic tradition of self-invention.” In Dundy’s novels and her beloved screwball comedies what matters is not “the reception of new experience,” as Cavell puts it, “but a matter of a new reception of your own experience, an acceptance of authority as your own.”

As self-invention liberates, so does it burden: we must learn to trust ourselves, and to be worthy of that trust. Dundy’s bubbly optimism could overflow into delusion, which is a kind of lazy incuriosity: one ceases to test the sea­worthiness of one’s judgment, and acts automatically. Rote reaction is perhaps why Dundy’s relationship with Tynan lingered on so long. Remember her description of Tynan’s fury after the publication of The Dud Avocado: the fact that he believed his rage to be legitimate was, in her words, “the awful truth.” The Awful Truth is also the title of Leo McCarey’s celebrated 1937 screwball that stars Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as sparring spouses counting down the days until their divorce is finalized. In Cavell’s interpretation, “the awful truth” Dunne realizes is that Grant, her ex-husband, is the only one with whom she can lead a life of laughter.

It is not that the lessons learned in movies cannot be applied to life—they can. Honoring the authority of our own experiences means honoring our experiences of these movies, and of fiction. But such wisdom cannot be stuck on sloppily and with blind hope; not all divorces ought to end in remarriage, and there are some ­people with whom you cannot forever share “nice laughter.” The ­awful truth is that life is not The Awful Truth. 

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