Watching a television documentary about ballet on New Year’s Day, where Margot Fonteyn was featured, reminded me of the time when my dear friend, Princess Dina Abdu’l-Hamid invited my wife and I to a private dinner with the famous ballerina. Watching the television brought back early memories of the summer of 1989 when one of Quartet’s books was Keiran Tunney’s Interrupted Biography that incorporated the text of his play Aurora, which for various reasons had never been published or staged. I first met him the year before.
He was proposing to write a portrait of Margot Fonteyn as a follow-up to the success he had had on both sides of the Atlantic in the early 1970s with his bestselling life of Tallulah Bankhead, Tallulah, Darling of the Gods. Before our encounter I knew nothing of the rather engaging man who walked into my office one morning, having had to climb four flights of stairs and being as a result visibly out of breath. He conveyed a sense of vulnerability which was gently tempered by an old-fashioned, rather distinguished manner seldom found in more recent generations. The old romantic values were there; the glamour and glitter of the Noël Coward era, and the appreciation of beauty and excellence shone through his tired frame. I tried to imagine what it must have been like in those glorious 1930s: favoured with good looks, endowed with wit and humour, the world at one’s feet. Kieran was certainly in the
midst of it all then: youthful, debonair and talented, with a great zest for living. A portrait of Margot Fonteyn was not the sort of book normally associated with Quartet, but I felt a compulsion to commission it because I was enchanted with the idea. I could only attribute this to the romanticism we both shared.
The months went by and progress on the book was slow. Kieran had to undergo a series of operations that left him extremely weak. He had the energy neither to research the book nor put pen to paper. With great sadness the project was abandoned. Despite his shortage of funds, he returned the advance at great sacrifice to his own needs. I was deeply touched by this gesture and the dignity he showed. In today’s world, everyday pressures tend to lead to an undervaluing of tradition and personal honour. Six months later, Kieran was restored to health and ready to resume writing. This time it was his autobiography. Two chapters had been written and submitted to Robert Lantz, his agent in New York, who was highly encouraging in his response to them. When Kieran then approached me with his new project,
I, too, was supportive and urged him to complete it as soon as possible. But again his health deteriorated and he found himself unable to sustain the original impetus.
Rather than throw in the towel again, Kieran then had an idea. Why not publish Aurora along with the two chapters, since they in part related to the play? I felt some deep misgivings since Quartet had never published a play text before and could not visualize any obvious link between it and the two chapters. Then I read the play and my attitude changed. It was a beautifully crafted surrealistic concept, unlike anything I had read before. The central
character, Aurora, was on the face of it almost uncastable, but I felt exhilarated by the play’s mystery and originality and the strength of its dialogue. I was seduced not only into publishing the project but also into dreaming of being able to realize the play on stage, with its potential for vivid imagery, whatever the formidable difficulties might be.
When the book came out the reviews were mixed. Shaun Usher in the Daily Mail was ecstatic:
Salute a supremely romantic venture and quixotic gamble . . . publisher Naim Attallah has turned just two chapters of a fascinating figure’s life story, plus a piece of theatrical treasure trove, into a unique book. The treasure is Kieran Tunney’s gorgeous comedy of manners, updating Sleeping Beauty to high society in the roaring twenties. Written some forty years ago, its wit, originality and charm won praise from Shaw, Coward and Somerset Maugham, all of whom read it in manuscript.
Hugo Vickers, on the other hand, under the headline ‘What’s in a Name Dropper?’ in the Spectator, was very dismissive. His opening line, ‘Only Naim Attallah could have published this book’, was clearly meant to indicate that no one else would have done so, not because it was controversial but because of its contents. His tone at the end became increasingly damning:
I wonder if Naim Attallah will stage it. Aurora has slept for twenty years, the play has slept for forty. If he gives the critics enough Brandy Alexanders before the curtain rises, they’ll find some smart lines to laugh at. In conclusion the part I admire in all this is Mr Tunney’s determination to press on against all odds.
Diana Mosley in the Daily Telegraph was equally unconvinced. She called the autobiography ‘a name-dropping exercise of extreme triviality’.
It is only partly redeemed by the writer’s worship of the most beautiful woman of her time, Greta Garbo. With none of the vulgarities of Cecil Beaton when he ‘told all’ about his affair with the lovely actress, Kieran Tunney recalls worship from afar . . . When the play was written more than forty years ago, the bomb loomed more menacingly than it does now. London is still here, getting uglier year by year. The scene in the cave no longer convinces. All the actresses suggested for the part of the heroine died long since. Naim Attallah, however, is so taken that, not content with publishing the play he also intends to put it on the stage.
Diana’s concluding sentence was perfectly accurate. I did try to stage it, but no one would collaborate on the grounds that it was dated and could have no appeal for a modern audience. No director worth his salt was willing to undertake such a project. To go it alone would have been impossible. Maybe everyone else was right in their assessment of the commercial viability of the play; maybe I was wrong. Because it never happened the verdict must remain open and I am happy to be left with a vision of what might have been.
All that needs to be added is to report that my first enchanting encounter with Margot led to a sustained friendship which I have never forgotten.