Elaine Dundy

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Elaine Dundy (1 August 19211 May 2008) was an American novelist, biographer, journalist, actress and playwright.


  • What is always overlooked is that although the poor want to be rich, it does not follow that they either like the rich or that they in any way want to emulate their characters which, in fact, they despise. Both the poor and the rich have always found precisely the same grounds on which to complain about each other. Each feels the other has no manners, is disloyal, corrupt, insensitive — and has never put in an honest day's work in its life.
  • I'd always prided myself on how unlike my books were from each other in settings and subject matter. But not until late in my career did I realize that a single thread ran through them, that I'd used the same strategy to catch the reader's attention. It is the old Western movie gimmick: A Stranger Comes to Town. I am that Stranger. Together with the reader I will discover what's going on in that town whether it be Paris, London, New York, Sydney, Tupelo, Ferriday — or in a women's federal prison. And eventually we will make sense of it.
    • "A Stranger Comes to Town" (c. 2001)
  • Being with Hemingway meant joining in his elaborate game playing as a necessary mark of respect. Tennessee asked only that you be colorful and that you be honest.
    Looking back I still find the 50s the most exhilarating decade I've lived through. The only mistake I made then was in thinking it would go on forever. I keep reading it was all Dull Conformity and I wonder where those people were living. Not on my planet. The fact that we had won World War 2 and that we were alive led to a post-war cultural explosion.
    • "A Stranger Comes to Town" (c. 2001)
  • At some point in my life I realized I knew only celebrities, I didn't know any real people. I think it was a master stroke of Fate that in researching the greatest celebrity of them all, I would at last be meeting real people, finding them more extraordinary than celebrities; fascinated by them all and enjoying enduring friendships with some.
    • Life Itself (2001)
  • Sitting in the impressive high-ceilinged hall, an examiner had just given me the test on my eyes, which I failed again. She was talking to me but I was distracted by a blind man with dark glasses walking at some distance from me, his white cane clattering, echoing as it tap tapped away on the floor. What the examiner was repeating — and these are her exact words — was: "There is no cause and no cure for AMD yet." The dam burst. I began to cry, tears running down my face, sudden, unstoppable, embarrassing. In the restroom, I collapsed. My arms were shaking, my fingers stiffened, froze, and then tingled. My stomach was in an uproar. And I kept crying, knowing that I would never go back to seeing what I used to see.
    I felt hopeless, defenceless; worst of all, I felt timid. I was crying for my dead self. Up to now I'd been congratulating myself for bearing up so well. Now I realised this was because the ophthalmologists always referred to AMD as a disease. For me it meant there would be a cure. Now I knew there would be no new glasses, no medication, no surgery.
    • "Out of the Darkness" in The Guardian (18 March 2006)

The Dud Avocado (1958)

  • It was a hot, peaceful, optimistic sort of day in September. It was around eleven in the morning, I remember, and I was drifting down the boulevard St. Michel, thoughts rising in my head like little puffs of smoke, when suddenly a voice bellowed into my ear: "Sally Jay Gorce! What the hell? Well, for Christ’s sake, can this really be our own little Sally Jay Gorce?” I felt a hand ruffling my hair and I swung around, furious at being so rudely awakened.
    Who should be standing there in front of me, in what I immediately spotted as the Left Bank uniform of the day, dark wool shirt and a pair of old Army suntans, but my old friend Larry Keevil. He was staring down at me with some alarm.
    I said hello to him and added that he had frightened me, to cover any bad-tempered expression that might have been lingering on my face, but he just kept on staring dumbly at me.
    "What have you been up to since … since … when the hell was it that I last saw you?” he asked finally.
    Curiously enough I remembered exactly.
    • Part One, One
  • I’d made a vow when I got over here never to speak to anyone I’d ever known before. Yet here we were, two Americans who hadn’t really seen each other for years; here was someone from "home” who knew me when, if you like, and, instead of shambling back into the bushes like a startled rhino, I was absolutely thrilled at the whole idea.
    "I like it here, don’t you?” said Larry, indicating the café with a turn of his head.
    I had to admit I’d never been there before.
    He smiled quizzically. "You should come more often,” he said. "It’s practically the only nontourist trap to survive on the Left Bank. It’s real” he added.
    Real, I thought … whatever that meant.
    • Part One, One
  • I suppose Larry’s "reality” in this case was based on the café’s internationality. But perhaps all cafés near a leading university have that authentic international atmosphere. At the table closest to us sat an ordinary-looking young girl with lank yellow hair and a gray-haired bespectacled middle-aged man. They had been conversing fiercely but quietly for some time now in a language I was not even able to identify.
    All at once I knew that I liked this place, too.
    Jammed in on all sides, with the goodish Tower of Babel working itself up to a frenzy around me, I felt safe and anonymous and, most of all, thankful we were going to be spared those devastating and shattering revelations one was always being treated to at the more English-speaking cafés like the Flore.
    And, as I said, I was very glad to have run into Larry.
    • Part One, One
  • Slowly his eyes left my hair and traveled downwards. This time he really took in my outfit and then that Look that I’m always encountering; that special one composed in equal parts of amusement, astonishment and horror came over his face.
    I am not a moron and I can generally guess what causes this look. The trouble is, it’s always something different.
    I squirmed uncomfortably, feeling his eyes bearing down on my bare shoulders and breasts.
    "What the hell are you doing in the middle of the morning with an evening dress on?” he asked me finally.
    "Sorry about that,” I said quickly, "but it’s all I’ve got to wear. My laundry hasn’t come back yet.”
    • Part One, One
  • Maybe because I had been out very late the night before and was not able to put up my usual resistance, but it seemed to me, sitting there with the sound of his voice dying in my ears, that I could fall in love with him.
    And then, as unexpected as a hidden step, I felt myself actually stumble and fall. And there it was, I was in love with him! As simple as that.
    He was the first real person I’d ever been in love with. I couldn’t get over it. What I was trying to figure out was why I had never been in love with him before. I mean I’d had plenty of chance to. I’d seen him almost daily that summer in Maine two years ago when we were both in a Summer Stock company. … He was always rather nice to me in his insolent way, but there was also, I now remembered with a passing pang, an utterly ravishing girl, a model, the absolute epitome of glamour, called Lila. She used to come up at week ends to see him.
    Then I heard from someone that he’d quit college the next winter and gone abroad to become a genius. I’d met him again when I first landed in Paris. He’d been very nice, bought me a drink, taken down my telephone number and never called me.
    You’re a dead duck now, I told myself, as I relaxed back into my coma. You’re gone. I looked at him, smiling idly. I tried to imagine what was going on in his mind.
    • Part One, One
  • He put his hand over mine, the one with the dead cigarette crumbled in it, and gave me a wonderful smile. "Easy, child, easy. I’m only teasing you. Don’t think I disapprove for Christ’s sake. Live it up, I say. Don’t say no to life, Gorce, you’re only young once.”
    We were on last name terms, Keevil and I.
    • Part One, One
  • My thoughts were chasing each other all over the place, but nothing seemed to sort itself out. Advice, I thought. Ask his advice. On love? Finance? Career? Better stick to love, I decided, it’s what’s on your mind anyway.
    And with that my mind went blank.
    • Part One, One
  • The sun shone on: the shade of the awning vanished in the hot, white, shadowless midday. In that blaze of heat I was loving Paris as never before.
    And there sitting opposite me, stretching himself luxuriously in the sun, his eyes lazily examining his half-empty drink, was Larry, the one I loved the best … sensationally uninterested.
    • Part One, One
  • I stumbled across the Champs Élysées . I know it seems crazy to say, but before I actually stepped onto it (at what turned out to be the Étoile ) I had not even been aware of its existence. No, I swear it. I’d heard the words "Champs Élysées," of course, but I thought it was a park or something. I mean that’s what it sounds like, doesn’t it? All at once I found myself standing there gazing down that enchanted boulevard in the blue, blue evening. Everything seemed to fall into place. Here was all the gaiety and glory and sparkle I knew was going to be life if I could just grasp it.
    I began floating down those Elysian Fields three inches off the ground, as easily as a Cocteau character floats through Hell. Luxury and order seemed to be shining from every street lamp along the Avenue; shining from every window of its toyshops and dress-shops and carshops; shining from its cafés and cinemas and theaters; from its bonbonneries and parfumeries and nighteries.… Talk about seeing Eternity in a Grain of Sand and Heaven in a Wild Flower; I really think I was having some sort of mystic revelation then. The whole thing seemed like a memory from the womb. It seemed to have been waiting there for me.
    For some people history is a Beach or a Tower or a Graveyard. For me it was this giant primordial Toyshop with all its windows gloriously ablaze. It contained everything I’ve ever wanted that money can buy. It was an enormous Christmas present wrapped in silver and blue tissue paper tied with satin ribbons and bells. Inside would be something to adorn, to amuse, and to dazzle me forever. It was my present for being alive.
    • Part One, One
  • Judy lived in my hotel. She was just seventeen, and what she was doing in Paris was supposedly chaperoning her younger brother, a fully fledged concert pianist of fifteen, who was studying there with one of the leading teachers. In view of their combined and startling innocence, however, this was a rather useless arrangement. Their last name was Galache, and they were the issue with which the highly unlikely union of a Quaker woman from Philadelphia and a dreadfully dashing Spaniard (now, alas, dead) had been blessed. Naturally their upbringing, up to this point, had been strict and very sheltered. … Judy was so different from me that it was really ludicrous. Whereas I was hell-bent for living, she was content, at least for the time being, to leave all that to others. Just as long as she could hear all about it. She really was funny about this. Folded every which way on the floor, looking like Bambi — all eyes and legs and no chin — she would listen for ages and ages with rapt attention to absolutely any drivel that you happened to be talking. It was unbelievable.
    • Part One, Two
  • Ridiculous as the idea may have been for her bluestocking mother to send brother and sister over alone like this, the fact was that Judy was protected as much by her curiosity as by her innocence. And then there was this other thing about her, too. You know all that razzle-dazzle about people being born in Original Sin and all that rot? Well, maybe it’s rot and maybe it isn’t. I mean I wouldn’t slit my throat from ear to ear, just because I’d found out for sure that most people are. But she wasn’t. That was the thing. She simply wasn’t. I’m positive of that.
    • Part One, Two
  • There are, I know (it was in our philosophy course in college), at least a hundred different reasons why some particular event takes place. So I thrashed about again trying to find some other truth and in the instant that it flashed through my head, I think I got as close to my raison d’etre as I ever have.
    • Part One, Three
  • I mean, the question actors most often get asked is how they can bear saying the same things over and over again night after night, but God knows the answer to that is, don’t we all anyway; might as well get paid for it.
    • Part One, Eight

Afterword to The Dud Avocado (2006)

Afterword to a 2007 edition (11 December 2006)
  • I look back in wonder at The Dud Avocado: in wonder at its initial reception and at the many times it’s been reissued — for years it was even republished alongside of every new book of mine that came out. I look back in wonder at the 1950s. The dull conformity of those years as they are generally imagined is something I don’t recognize. I look back in wonder at London in particular, where whole areas destroyed during the Second World War still lay in rubble. But London was in the midst of a renaissance for artists. In literature and playwriting the Angry Young Men were making their splash and new young actors like Richard Burton, Peter O Toole, Albert Finney, and Peter Finch were coming into their own. London was an orderly place where it was safe to take risks. Optimism was the rule of the day and I was there.
  • In London, aside from bit parts, I was unlucky in my career but I was lucky in love. There was a theatrical club much frequented by all the young lions on their way up. They all gathered to eat inexpensively and be made blissful by the lethal house cider. It was there I met Ken Tynan, recently down from Oxford, and already the enfant terrible of Britain’s drama critics. Mutually magnetized, we married three months later. I sent a wire to my parents in New York: "Have married Englishman. Letter follows." I was madly in love with him and stepped happily into the Wonderland of his fame.
  • Halfway through writing the book, I still had no title. It came wonderfully into being when I complimented my host at a party on his flourishing avocado plant. I said, I’d kept trying and failing with my own avocado pits. Someone said, what you’ve got is a dud avocado, and Ken said, that’s a good title for a novel. I thought, this title is mine, and it was. Ken and I had the same agent, and for a publisher we decided on Victor Gollancz, who was so good with first novels. Wonderfully, he accepted it, but with several caveats. He didn’t like the title. It sounded like a cookbook. He also wanted me to write under my married name. I said no to both. He accepted. He decided it needed a subtitle, "La Vie Amoureuse of Sally Jay in Paris." I said, Oh no, no! He said, this was the first time in his experience that an unknown writer had complained about a book cover. However, he did put on the book’s jacket that the subtitle was the publisher’s. Ken read it in proof and said, "You’ve got a thumping great best-seller here." Curiously, the first thing I felt was relief. I believed him. No one could predict how a play or novel would be received by the public like Ken could. And only then was I set free to let excitement take hold of me.
  • The reviews were excellent and the book quickly went into a second printing. Then one night Ken came home and threw a copy of the book out the window. "You weren’t a writer when I married you, you were an actress," he said angrily. Obviously his colleagues had been riding him because of the attention I was receiving. I was shattered. The next day, he said, "I’ve been rereading your book. There’s love on every page." And then he gave me a beautiful red leather-bound copy of it with the inscription: "From the Critic to the Author." Looking at it I felt a pang. I wondered if it was his admission of what I’d done that he had not.
    To my wonder and, it appeared, his annoyance, the book wouldn’t go away.
  • The Big Personalities weighed in. Soon after its publication Irwin Shaw wrote to me praising it. Terry Southern, calling me "Miss Smarts," said I was "a perfect darling." Gore Vidal phoned one morning saying, "You’ve got the one thing a writer needs: You’ve got your own voice. Now go." Ernest Hemingway said to me, "I liked your book. I liked the way your characters all speak differently." And then added, "My characters all sound the same because I never listen." All this, and heaven too. Laurence Olivier told me that now that my book was making a lot of money we could elope and I could support us. The Financial Times ran an item which read, "Such and such stock: No dud avocado." Groucho Marx wrote me, "I had to tell someone how much I enjoyed The Dud Avocado.… If this was actually your life, I don’t know how the hell you got through it." When people ask me how autobiographical the book is I say, all the impulsive, outrageous things my heroine does, I did. All the sensible things she did, I made up.
  • My success took another road. I complained to Rod Steiger, "The book’s hardly been out and everyone wants to know what I’m going to write next. I mean, don’t I get to rest on my laurels?" In fact I had no idea of writing a second novel. "No," said Rod, answering my question. "Succeeding only means you get another chance to try to do it again."
    I thought about it, and then Ken said to me, "If you write another book, I’ll divorce you." I sat down and started my second novel and wondered that I knew its beginning and its end. I put it aside to write a play which went on in London.… I went back to my novel and finished it. It was published to good reviews but now there were a couple of stinkers. I tore them up and flushed them down the toilet. I’d become a writer.
    In 1964 Ken and I got divorced. Well, we did bad things to each other. Now, some three decades later, I look back in gratitude at him: I look back in wonder.

Quotes about Dundy

Alphabetized by author
  • I don't make the habit of writing to married women, especially if the husband is a dramatic critic, but I had to tell someone (and it might as well be you since you're the author) how much I enjoyed The Dud Avocado.
    It made me laugh, scream and guffaw (which incidentally is a great name for a law firm).

    If this was actually your life, I don't know how on earth you got through it.
  • It is the destiny of some good novels to be perpetually rediscovered, and Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, I fear, is one of them … it bobs to the surface every decade or so, at which time somebody writes an essay about how good it is and somebody else clamors for it to be returned to print, followed in short order by the usual slow retreat into the shadows. In a better-regulated society, of course, the authors of such books would be properly esteemed, and on rare occasions one of them does contrive to clamber into the pantheon … but in the normal course of things, such triumphs are as rare as an honest stump speech.
    The Dud Avocado is further handicapped by being funny. Americans like comedy but don’t trust it, a fact proved each year when the Oscars are handed out: our national motto seems to be Lord Byron’s "Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter/Sermons and soda-water the day after." To be sure, The Dud Avocado is perfectly serious, but it preaches no sermons, and what it has to say about life must be read between the punch lines. That was what kept Powell under wraps for so long — nobody thought that a writer so amusing could really be any good, especially if she was also a woman — and it has been working against Elaine Dundy ever since she published The Dud Avocado, her first novel, in 1958.
    • Terry Teachout, in the Introduction to a 2007 edition of The Dud Avocado
  • Her life among the lions on both sides of the Atlantic is not only witty but wise as she brings into focus one husband Kenneth Tynan, one Orson Welles, the one and only Elvis Presley, and not least of all, the lioness herself, surviving all.
    • Gore Vidal, as quoted in press release for Life Itself (2001)
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