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James T. KeaneJuly 09, 2024
John Gregory Dunne (Wikimedia Commons)

My summer reading these days is a fascinating new book by Griffin Dunne, The Friday Afternoon Club. Dubbed a “family memoir,” the book extensively treats Griffin’s famous literary family, including his father Dominick Dunne, his aunt and uncle Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne and his sister Dominique Dunne. The book is worth reading for Griffin’s own stories—he is an accomplished Hollywood director and actor—but it is also a treat for fans of his famous kin.

Griffin Dunne’s stories brought me back to 2000, just three short years before his uncle John Gregory Dunne died. At the time, I was researching a book on the Southern California housing pioneer and philanthropist Fritz B. Burns, and came across a novel by John Gregory Dunne, True Confessions. I knew Dunne’s name a little, mostly because of his marriage to Didion and his brother Dominick’s star turn as a commentator on the O. J. Simpson trial a few years before, but hadn’t read any of his books.

I loved True Confessions, which was loosely based on the “Black Dahlia” murder in Los Angeles and was later made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall. I was also curious: One of the characters was a suburban housing developer in Southern California who was a prominent donor to Catholic causes and good buddies with the archbishop of Los Angeles. In every development he built, he deeded land for a Catholic church and a parish school. This, I thought, actually is Fritz B. Burns. So I did what twenty-something aspiring writers do: I wrote John Gregory Dunne and asked.

Lo and behold, a few months later, I received a typed letter from him. No, he claimed, the developer was based on similar characters Didion had known growing up in Sacramento. I still don’t believe him, but I was flattered to get the letter, and was by then deep into Dunne’s other writings. They were many: novels, nonfiction explorations, long literary essays, screenplays and more.

Born in 1932 in Hartford, Conn., Dunne attended the prestigious Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island. His relatives included the Chicago humorist Finley Peter Dunne and George H. Dunne, S.J., the Jesuit priest known for his work for racial justice and civil rights. He graduated from Princeton University in 1954. After a brief stint in the Army, he moved to New York City, where he worked for an advertising agency and then for Time.

He married Joan Didion in 1964, and the two settled in California. They collaborated on writing assignments for decades after (including the screenplays for “True Confessions,” “Panic in Needle Park” and a 1976 remake of “A Star Is Born”). In 1982, The Saturday Review dubbed the couple “The First Family of Angst” for their journalistic search for indications of America’s self-understanding—and their sometimes-clinical explorations of the ins and outs of marriage and parenthood.

In a 1977 America review of Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer, Elizabeth Woods Shaw wrote that Didion “uses language and controls structure so artfully that from the welter of futile speech and action she dramatizes so vividly comes a clear statement on the human condition.” The same was true of Dunne’s writing, including in books like True Confessions, The Studio, Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season and Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, where characters real and fictional conducted lives of great virtue and startling vice without seeming contradiction. There were no saints in Dunne’s America, though sinners could find a sort of salvation.

In a 1992 America review of Dunne’s novel Dutch Shea, Jr., Thomas Gannon noted that “its author’s gifts lie in the areas of comedy and social observation; he finds sardonic hilarity in the gritty texture of his characters’ lives.” Gannon also noted that “Dunne has a sharp eye for certain aspects of Catholic life. What Catholic has not, at one time or another, either ducked out, or wished he or she had ducked out, of a wake before the rosary began?”

Dunne’s obituary in The New York Times noted that he chose Harp as the title of a semi-autobiographical novel because he liked the bluntness of the slur against the Irish; it was “short, sharp and abusive.”

Dunne could be the same. He had a reputation for truculence—he was often described as “an Irish brawler”—that extended to his relationships with his own colleagues and relations. He and his brother Dominick, Griffin Dunne notes in The Friday Afternoon Club, didn’t speak for decades until finally running into each other at the doctor’s office a few years before the former’s death. “What I secretly longed for was to have a father like my hotheaded uncle,” Griffin Dunne writes.

John Gregory Dunne died in 2003 in New York City of a heart attack. Didion published a memoir about the experience of mourning him in the aftermath, The Year of Magical Thinking, that won the National Book Award in 2005. (It was reviewed in America in 2006 by Bill Gunlocke.) Never did Dunne come across as more lovable than in his wife’s recollections, including of the moment after the funeral when she found herself wishing everyone would go home so that she and John could talk about the day’s events alone.

One final note: About 20 years ago, after I wrote a (mostly negative) review of Dunne’s novel Nothing Lost, I ran into a former publishing executive in Manhattan who told me the review reminded him of a dinner party he had attended years before, where John Gregory and Dominick Dunne were the guests of honor. What followed was a wild story that ended with fellow guest Gore Vidal deliberately insulting Dunne’s Irish-American heritage, and John Gregory Dunne punching Gore Vidal in the face.

My friends, we were born too late.

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Animals,” by Hannah Ahn. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Members of the Catholic Book Club: We are taking a hiatus this summer while we retool the Catholic Book Club and pick a new selection.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

Father Hootie McCown: Flannery O’Connor’s Jesuit bestie and spiritual advisor

​​Who’s in hell? Hans Urs von Balthasar had thoughts.

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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