Like jazz music and go-go dancing, funny women are one of America’s most slept-on natural resources. From Anita Loos to Dorothy Parker, Dawn Powell to Alison Lurie, to be a smart, funny, and female writer in America means you inevitably get forgotten, overlooked, or otherwise sidelined, personally or professionally, for daring to be talented and witty.
Add Elaine Dundy, who passed away May 1 at age 86, to that esteemed list. Born somewhat well-off in 1920s New York and educated better than most, biographies have the teenage Dundy treating Manhattan as her own personal playground, learning the jitterbug with Piet Mondrian and riding topless in taxicabs. She eventually lived and loved in Paris for a spell, dubbing French movies into English, before relocating to London for radio and television acting. There, she met and eventually married emerging critic Kenneth Tynan, who started reviewing plays for the London Evening Standard in a 1950s theater world soon to bear witness to the seismic work of John Osborne and Samuel Beckett. Tynan’s success put Dundy in the plush company of London’s literary and dramatic jet set.
Dundy introduces the unflappable Sally Jay Gorce in her semi-autobiographical 1958 debut The Dud Avocado as a young American woman wandering through a postwar Paris morning in an evening dress and with hair dyed a shocking pink. Over the ensuing 250-odd pages, Gorce tells her own ridiculous story, about a cavalieryoung American who wanted to see what was out there before she had to decide what to do with herself. Dundy invests Gorce with a voice that is a disarming mix of a freewheeling young woman who’s old enough to know better than to do some things — but occasionally does them, anyway — and a world-weariness that borders on cynicism yet never retreats into bitterness. Instead, Gorce faces her madcap dilemmas — romantic and financial, political and practical — with the same blithe composure with which she defends a morning strolling in evening formal wear: It’s the only thing that’s clean.
Widely praised, Avocado became a best-seller in the UK, and Dundy’s rising literary star only further complicated her already strained marriage to Tynan. The usual affairs and mutual abuse ensued, compounded by more unusual problems — him wanting to whip her as foreplay, his suicidal threats should she not comply with his wishes. They finally divorced in 1964, the same year her second comic novel, The Old Man and Me, was published.
Such contemporary events were more than poetic symmetry: Writing gave Dundy the financial means to support herself, and she contributed articles to the New York Times, Esquire, and Vogue before moving to biography in the 1980s. Throughout, she never lost the infectious combination of acute observation and insightful humor that marked her perfectly timed comic voice. The Dud Avocado remains her key work, for, as Terry Teachout pointed out in his introduction to the novel’s 2007 reissue, it’s less the mother of all contemporary chick lit to come, but the older, smarter, funnier sister toward which it should all strive.