June 2010
Elizabeth Gumport

Laughing A Lot, And Often Over Nothing Much

Novelist Elaine Dundy, chick lit’s wicked stepmother, knew that freedom, for “Angry Young Women,” was inextricably tied to wit.

Discussed: Yare Tugboats, Yare Women, Arson, Nice Laughter, Topless Taxi Rides, Flagellation as a Form of Affection, LSD, False Cognates of “Lawyer,” Montaigne’s Alternative to Horror

“My, she was yare,” goes one of The Philadelphia Story’s most famous lines. The speaker is Tracy (Katharine Hepburn), and the “she” is the True Love, the boat Tracy sailed with her former husband, Dexter (Cary Grant). Yare, in her words, means “easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, bright—everything a boat should be.” Later, Dex repeats the phrase, and when, inevitably, they reunite—for they are Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and what they should be is together—Tracy promises to be yare. Be whatever you want, he tells her, and they are married.

In 1952, twelve years after the film was released, the novelist Elaine Dundy named her daughter Tracy after Hepburn’s character and asked the actress to serve as her godmother. Hepburn agreed, explaining that she herself had chosen the name Tracy for her role in honor of the J. M. Tracy tugboats that chugged determinedly up the East River, and which seemed to her so yare.

Dundy’s daughter’s christening was one of the moments most explicitly influenced by cinema in a life full of moments influenced by cinema and theater, and the Hollywood comedies of the 1930s and ’40s in particular. To be a screwball heroine, Dundy felt, was her vocation: “I will never forget my utter relief when I first came upon these characters,” she wrote. “I knew at once I would have to be like them because I could not be like anyone else.” Since her teenage years in Manhattan’s velvety theaters, Dundy had been moved by “a passionate desire to emulate” these witty, self-possessed women who were men’s equals—or betters. Hepburn scaling the skeleton of a brontosaurus, Barbara Stanwyck bopping Henry Fonda on the head with an apple, Irene Dunne merrily rolling her car into a ditch, women transforming the whole world into a playroom: these were the images that shaped Dundy’s imagination.

From Hepburn to “Tracy” to Dundy to Tracy: the line that leads from screwball comedies to Dundy’s life and fiction may also be a path to understanding how art transforms daily experience. The stories we see shape the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. What Dundy learned from the Hollywood comedies is that comedy is a choice, one related to both the public movement toward female independence and the private working of the individual will: whether an event is funny or sad depends not on the event but on our response. This, at least, remains in our control. Do not cry when you can laugh: do not make your life harder than it has to be. Comedy is serious business, for being amused—amusing ourselves—is a way of insisting on ourselves, a way of resisting what is forced upon us. Whatever possibilities life forecloses, there remains in all of us an inviolate mind, a mind free always to react one way rather than another. Fun is freedom.

From Hepburn to “Tracy” to Dundy to Tracy: the line that leads from screwball comedies to Dundy’s life and fiction may also be a path to understanding how art transforms daily experience.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Elizabeth Gumport has written for the New York Observer and This Recording. She lives in New York City.

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