By Tom Teicholz
On a recent Saturday afternoon in Brentwood, as the heat dome made Southern California uncharacteristically humid, and the nearby Sand fires turned the sky grey, the air thick with ash, and the sun an apocalyptic shade of pink, movie producer Carol Baum and Tom, her writer and screenwriter husband, held a book party in their backyard for Tracy Tynan’s memoir “Wear and Tear; The Threads of My Life” (Scribner’s). Drinking Pimm’s Cup cocktails and lemonade, snacking on cucumber, salmon and egg salad finger sandwiches were a coteries of Los Angeles’ film and literary firmament, including novelist Marisa Silver, director Ken Kwapis, journalist Ann Louise Bardach, and legendary movie producer Marcia Nasitar who at 90, shows no signs of slowing down.
Tynan, an accomplished movie costumer, is the daughter of Kenneth Tynan, the much-beloved theater critic, literary manager of Britain’s National Theater, producer and co-writer of the sex farce “Oh Calcutta!” who late in life wrote a series of much-lauded profiles of show people such as Mel Brooks and Johnny Carson for The New Yorker magazine; and Elaine Dundy, novelist, memoirist and biographer. The couple whose social-climbing, alcohol-soaked and infidelity-filled marriage ended in divorce when their daughter was 13, were never much present as parents, having the nanny raise her and shunting her off to boarding school. When they were involved the effect could be traumatizing. For example, for her 21st birthday, her father arranged a screening of Sammy Davis, Jr.’s personal copy of “Deep Throat,” shared a few bumps of cocaine and held a party filled with her parent’s celebrity friends.
Kenneth Tynan’s life of cigarettes, sex, drugs and alcohol brought him to an early grave in Los Angeles at 53. She grew closer to him in his last years; and perhaps even more so, many years later when she arranged for the publication of his diaries (edited by John Lahr) and their transformation into a one-man play. Her mother she endured at arm’s length but, after her passing, found comfort in the comments and eulogies of her mother’s friends who revealed her mother to her in ways their own relationship could not.
As her parents were to a great extent, peripheral if highly influential figures in her life, the greater part of the memoir is devoted to Tynan’s discovering her métier as costume designer for films (Breathless, The Big Easy, Tuesdays with Morrie), her courtship and eventual marriage to the film director Jim McBride, their difficult path to parenthood (and two healthy children) and the widening scope of family, as step-children bring the family together in totally unexpected ways.
The book’s literary device has each chapter featuring a specific item of clothing and uses it as a framing device for the story told (hence the title “Wear and Tear”). In later chapters, it feels a little forced but is a charming device nonetheless. Which brings me back to my overall feeling about the book, much like the book party’s English garden party calm on an otherwise oppressive and threatening day, Tynan (and her memoir) deserve praise for its equanimity. It is surprisingly non-judgmental and free of the gossip or revenge-taking that fills many a “child of” or Hollywood memoir.
Restraint is not the word one usually associates with such memoirs yet Tynan tells her story honestly and with a great amount of decorum. One could attribute this to her English upbringing, or having had to be the adult when her parents behaved like children, but I think there’s more to it than that. At several points in the book, Tynan speaks of her study of Buddhism, and attending meditation retreats – and it is this quality of being present yet detached that characterizes Tynan’s account – and no doubt informs her ability to tell these stories in a compassionate way.
Clothes may make the man but in Tynan’s “Wear and Tear,” they tell the story of finding one’s place in the world and creating a family with grace and, yes, restraint.