Tracy is an artist and costume designer, who has worked on movies such as The Big Easy, Great Balls of Fire and Tuesdays with Morrie. She is the daughter of Kenneth Tynan, who was a renowned “dandy” and a theater critic for the Evening Standard, The Observer, and The New Yorker, and Elaine Dundy, a successful novelist. She grew up in London in the 1950’s and 60s, where her life was filled with celebrity-packed parties and her parent’s famous friends—including Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, and Orson Welles. Cecil Beaton and Katharine Hepburn were Tracy’s godparents.
When Tracy came into my class at UCLA, she had the desire to write a memoir about her highly unusual life, and not much of an idea where to start or how to do it. It was a tough challenge – because sometimes, people with the most dramatic life stories actually have the hardest time finding their way into their own story.
You can’t write about everything that ever happened to you, and you can’t rely on external drama to provide the meaning. On top of that, Tracy didn’t want to write a biography of her famous father. She wanted to tell her own story.
I believe that, in writing as in many other things, form follows function. If you want to write a sweeping multi-generational epic fantasy, you will necessarily need multiple narrators or an omniscient narrator. If you want to write a self-help book about getting divorced, you will necessarily need to break the process down chronologically. The first thing I do with any writer I work with is to try to get them to understand their point. What are they trying to say? That almost always leads to a clear understanding of the shape and structure that would best contain the tale.
Tracy’s belief is that what we wear can inform our identity and transform our lives. Her famous and eccentric parents used clothing to tell one story and as she grew into herself, Tracy used it to tell another.
One of the first pieces she shared in my class was a story about a pair of apple green leather shoes that were one of the first purchases she made for herself, at age 14 – an extravagant and expensive purchase her mother disapproved of. Tracy knew, however, what those shoes represented and why she had to have them. “Those green shoes were only the beginning of a love long affair with shoes,” she writes in her book, “They also were the beginning of walking on my own two feet, walking away from my parents and towards freedom.”
Tracy devised a Table of Contents around clothing – The Lemon-Yellow Underpants, The Brown Wellington Boots, My Mother’s Pucci Dress, The Striped Silk Socks, The Black Trend Coat. It worked beautifully to shape and contain her story. Her memoir is rich in detail, entertaining, moving, and deeply authentic – a tough trick to pull off in the midst of all the sensationalism she had at her fingertips.
She has received wonderful reviews from everyone from The Wall Street Journal to Harper’s Bazaar. They all refer to the unusual structure of the book, and they all attest to the truth that the form of a thing serves to amplify its message – which is as true of a piece of clothing as it is of a book. Here is Liesl Schillinger's summation of that message from her review in the New York Times:
“As you read, you marvel at the author’s resilience; the girl with the apple-green shoes acceded to a bigger role than she had ever expected, and found that she knew how to dress the part.”