Wear and Tear: The Threads of My Life

A memoir by Tracy Tynan

Scribner | 2016 | 302 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

Beware of Being Born to Artists

book cover

Tracy Tynan uses the universal medium of clothing to tell the highly specific story of her bohemian British upbringing, and she does so with wit, candor, and yes—style.”

̶ Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham’s cover blurb summarized this book quite nicely. For me, however, the clothing aspects of Wear and Tear takes a decidedly back seat to the often-horrific home environment that the author had to grow up in, being the only child of renowned theater critic Kenneth Tynan and novelist Elaine Dundy.

One was a chain-smoking drama queen, the other a bi-poplar unpredictable mess. Both were chronic alcoholics, with her mother also becoming a pill popping drug addict. But both could be extremely charming, and well dressed, and social, and loved parties and witty, famous people; people they collected the same way some people collect stamps, or first editions of novels.

Tynan writes, “I lived in a flat with my often irritable, unpredictable mother and my nervous, chain-smoking father, who was forever struggling to meet writing deadlines. We never ate dinner, or any meal together. My mother did not cook. Very occasionally we ate together at restaurants, but these were usually large social occasions where I just happened to be included. Most of the time I ate alone or with the au pair, who probably would’ve preferred to be out with friends her own age.”

After I read a few more chapters, not knowing what else to expect from this book, I kept thinking Scottie, Scottie. And soon, there it was on page 42:

“My parents frequently separated. My mother even got an apartment of her own for a while. I always stayed with my father and an au pair at the Mount Street flat. During one of the separations, my father went to Malaga for the bullfighting festival. A few days after he left, my mother followed, checking into the same hotel, the Miramar, and immediately taking up with a handsome Scottish laird, Peter Combe. I can only attribute her choices to the fact that both of my parents seemed to revel in humiliation in front of each other and in public, trying their best to be the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald of the 50s. Epic fights took place, which exhausted their friends. Once my father broke my mother’s nose…”

Poor, Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald, the only daughter and child of F. Scott and Zelda, had to endure much of the same things that Tracy Tynan endured, including seeing her mother end up in a mental hospital, as had Scottie’s.

What I found most interesting, is that growing up with all the craziness, the non-stop celebrity parties that her parents were always attending or throwing in London, and in New York City two years, when Kenneth Tynan was theater critic for The New Yorker, Tracy lived a very grounded life, although she once flirted with cocaine and pot, and once considered herself a hippie.

It was clearly her love of interesting clothing that kept her centered. In the very first chapter she makes this crystal clear: “I think I was destined to be obsessed with clothing, genetically speaking. My middle name is Peacock. My father, Kenneth Peacock Tynan, was a writer and theater critic, but before he had ever published a single sentence, he was known for his unique style of dress… The writer Paul Johnson, in his book, Modern Times, described my father as a ‘tall, beautiful, epicene youth, with pale yellow locks, Beardsley cheekbones, fashionable stammer, plum-colored suit, lavender tie and ruby signet-ring’.”

Tracy also pointed out that her mother “was no slouch in the clothing department, either.”

This love of walking the streets of London, and later New York City and Los Angeles, looking for something different, clever, and exciting to wear, led Tynan into a career in film as a costume designer. Her credits include The Big Easy, Blind Date. Great Balls of Fire (which her husband, Jim directed), and Tuesdays with Morrie.

This is a most interesting book.

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