Actor, author,” says his entry in Who’s Who, and rarely has a separating comma signified so much. Ten years have passed since Tom Tryon abandoned a relentlessly mediocre acting career in Hollywood. “I was unemployed, unhappy, living alone in a Bel Air mansion complete with swimming pool, Lincoln Continental, servants, gardener—and no food in the refrigerator,” he remembers. “My job, money and credit had all run out.”
He was 42 then and undergoing a massive midlife crisis. Instead of cracking up or immersing himself in booze, Tryon managed to turn his life around in 18 months. He borrowed some money from his family, began reading Colette, Somerset Maugham and E. B. White and by March 1971 had published a best-selling novel, The Other. By now he’s written three more, each with lucrative paperback, movie or television spin-offs—and frequent panning from critics. A four-hour TV special based on his novel Harvest Home (starring Bette Davis) is scheduled for Jan. 23 and 24. Tryon’s most recent success, Crowned Heads, will be made into not one but four separate films. The first of these, Fedora, a Billy Wilder offering with Marthe Keller in the lead, is due for release this spring.
The author lives in a 14-room Manhattan apartment, once the home of the late Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times. Because much of Tryon’s work is elaborately gothic, it is appropriate that his dressing room closet has a secret passageway into a writing sanctuary. There, starting at 4:30 most mornings, Tryon puts in 12-hour days in undistracted solitude. He can soak away writer’s block in the master bedroom tub, which is raised like a throne. Publisher Ochs used to read the Times there and gaze out across Manhattan.
“Tom is a really good writer,” says Robert Gottlieb, his editor at Knopf. “He knows how to combine a strong story with lots of suspense. He has 10 books in his head at every moment, and,” Gottlieb adds, in both admiration and despair, “he’s obsessive to a degree that is almost, yes, unhealthy.”
Tryon’s fiction often reflects his New England beginnings. His father ran the family clothing business in Hartford, Conn., and his two brothers still do. After Navy service during World War II Tom enrolled at Yale, swam the butterfly in intercollegiate competition and wound up with a degree in fine arts. Work in summer stock on Cape Cod led him to a couple of Broadway plays and eventually to Hollywood.
Film directors found his rugged 6’3″ good looks ideally suited for playing war heroes and cowboys, “mostly kissing horses instead of leading ladies,” he recalls. He was married once, to Broadway production assistant Ann Noyes, for two years. She remarried twice after their divorce and later killed herself. Tryon keeps her photograph in his apartment and speaks of her with affection and sadness. Living alone now, he rarely socializes publicly but does entertain friends like Leontyne Price and Ruth Gordon with haute cuisine dinners he cooks himself.
His interests these days range from piano to photography, from collecting mercury glass to learning foreign languages. “Tom catalogues his life,” says a close friend. “When he gave up acting, that was it. What is he going to do when he gives up writing?”
There’s no sign that he will, despite the pressure, much of it self-imposed. “I’m supposed to sit down and write another best-seller,” Tryon moans. “I dare not fail.” But then he adds, “Why the hell shouldn’t I? I have a right to fail as much as anybody else.”