Obituary: Kathleen Tynan

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Kathleen Jeanette Halton, journalist, writer: born London 25 January 1937; married first Oliver Gates (marriage dissolved), 1967 Ken Tynan (died 1980; one son, one daughter); died London 10 January 1995.

Kathleen Tynan brought out her selection of the letters of her late husband, the critic Kenneth Tynan, on 10 November; a party at George Weidenfeld's was followed by a dinner, and people remarked that, 14 years after the death of Tynan, she could now go on and have a life of her own. She looked a little wan to some; only a handful of people knew that Kathleen Tynan had been ill with cancer since 1992. A combination of pride and dignity had made her keep this a secret known only to a handful of intimates- most of whom lived abroad.

The reviews for her second Tynan book were even better than the first, which had been great. As a stunning beauty of high intelligence and an infinite capacity for making people feel good, feel witty, interesting, attractive, important, she found herself, probably from childhood, surrounded by besotted admirers, with a few carping jealous critters in corners. The last three years of her life proved as the earlier years might have intimated, that she had a heroic, warrior gallantry - a stoicism with the kind of smile that could light up a room.

She had what one of her friends, Leon Wieseltier (the literary editor of the New Republic) called "inner poise" ("You always think poise comes from the outside but with Kathleen it comes from the inside out"). This manifested itself in her ability to start a screenplay sitting gracefully at a small table dead centre of the living room of the Tynan house in Thurloe Square, clad in an immaculate white sweater, a leather miniskirt, and ankle boots, a tall glass of cassis-laced white wine at her wrist - no housecoat hysteria for her. She could handle large groups of people, terrifying cocktail parties, the solitude of writing - six years on her landmark biography of Ken Tynan, published in 1987 - the raising of two extraordinarily acute, aware, brilliant children (Roxana, 27, and Matthew, 23), she could handle friendship with some of the most demanding people on earth, and most of all she could handle great love. Twice.

The first time was with Kenneth Tynan; she had married straight out of Oxford, Oliver Gates, and gone to work on the Observer, where the married Tynan courted her. The travails and the drama of that first passion are well documented in her Tynan biography. They had Roxana and Matthew, moved from Mount Street to Thurloe Square, he from critic to dramaturge to inventor of Oh Calcutta!, she from journalist to novelist (The Summer Aeroplane, 1975) to screenwriter (Agatha, 1977), and both, in 1976, t o Los Angeles. Tynan, ill with emphysema, died there in 1980.

She met, and was pursued by the Franco-Swiss director Barbet Schroeder, now a successful A-list director in the United States, then a maker of a startling documentary on Idi Amin (he'd made the tyrant direct it himself) and a poetic renegade who had lived in the ghetto in Venice, California, and was not afraid of street gangs.

I knew her through Barbet; had been dazzled, as everyone, by the golden blonde apparition in a gold Missoni dress at Pat Harmsworth's sometime in the Seventies, and being somewhat less dazzling myself, was critical. One day in 1983 Barbet told me how he felt about Kathleen. Knowing his regard for passion, I figured she wasn't just an icy princess on the media tree, and we became friends.

Kathleen saw passion as the immutable absolute of life, the only standard, the only reason to live. She was a romantic with a classic mind who lived for the strongest feelings and then tried to knit a logic out of her emotions. The dialogues about passion with one of the most seductive women of the 20th century were spent either at the window-seats of bad Mexican restaurants on Third Avenue, or late at night in living rooms or hotel lobbies, while we waited for the objects of our passions to return fromtrips or manifest themselves on the telephone. In 1987 she had moved back to London, after six years in New York, and took back the Thurloe Square house. Matthew was going to Oxford; Roxana, having completed Yale, was working in American politics. Kathleen worked on Lulu in Love (her screenplay on Ken Tynan's relationship with Louise Brooks); she had given a great deal, perhaps too much, to the scrupulous biography; she began selecting the letters. She still wore the wedding ring.

In 1992 she found out she had cancer; an operation that April made her fell she was cured, and could go on to that thing that people call "a new life". She signed the contract for the letters book and delivered it while she was ill. She always kept her word, a measure of her dignity.

A year ago, in New York, I took her to a party where Stephen Sondheim explained to her that his next work was a musical called Passion, based on an Italian story; it is about a man in love with a furiously ugly woman. The story fascinated her; Roxana andMatthew were reading to her from the original book just before she died.

She talked about wanting to start a novel, and said she already had a title for it, a title she would not tell anyone, because, she said, "This will really be my book, and the title tells its all." She had not told anyone the title before she died, but she had taken off the wedding ring.

Joan Juliet Buck

Comments