Authors: John Gregory Dunne

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist, screenwriter, and journalist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

True Confessions, 1977

Dutch Shea, Jr., 1982

The Red White and Blue, 1987

Playland, 1994

Screenplays:

Panic in Needle Park, 1971 (with Joan Didion)

Play It as It Lays, 1972 (with Didion)

A Star Is Born, 1976 (with Didion)

True Confessions, 1981 (with Didion)

The War, 1994 (with Didion)

Up Close and Personal, 1996 (with Didion)

Teleplays:

Hills Like White Elephants, 1990

L. A. Is It, 1991

Nonfiction:

Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike, 1967, revised 1971

The Studio, 1969

Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season, 1974

Quintana and Friends, 1978

Harp, 1989

Crooning: A Collection, 1990

Monster: Living off the Big Screen, 1997

Biography

The affluent world into which John Gregory Dunne was born in 1932 interests him less than the working-class world about which he often writes. The son of Dorothy Burns and Richard Edwin Dunne, a physician, Dunne grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut. He received a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in 1954 and was a freelance writer before joining the staff of Time magazine, where he worked for five years before resigning shortly after marrying writer Joan Didion in 1964.{$I[AN]9810001878}{$I[A]Dunne, John Gregory}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Dunne, John Gregory}{$I[tim]1932;Dunne, John Gregory}

For the next ten years Dunne kept afloat by working on screenplays with his wife and by contributing to magazines; he and Didion were regular columnists for some, including The Saturday Evening Post. Dunne’s first book, a nonfiction account of the California grape pickers’ strike in 1962, grew out of a journalistic piece he had written about the strike. Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike established him as one of an emerging breed of participatory journalists. Dunne’s focus was on César Chávez and his organizing California’s grape pickers into the National Farm Worker’s Association.

Although this documentary work evoked favorable criticism, it did not sell well. A ready market existed, however, for more investigative books by someone of Dunne’s obvious ability, so he spent a year doing on-site observations at Twentieth Century-Fox for his next book, The Studio, which examined the workings of film studios. Although the book elicited critical acclaim, including Robert M. Strozier’s comment that it was “probably the best nonfiction book that’s ever been written about Hollywood,” Dunne tired of the book before he finished it, disliking it so much that he had Didion read and correct the galley proofs.

Dunne fell into a depression and suffered from writer’s block for some months. To thwart his depression, he decided to go to Las Vegas for the summer to write a book about that city. This decision marked a major turning point in his career: When the book he intended to write began to remind him of The Studio, he began to look into himself.

Dunne tapped a rich vein of experience during his summer in Las Vegas. By combining an account of his own breakdown with what he had learned about the city’s unique milieu through a prostitute, a down-at-the-heels entertainer, and a private detective he met there, Dunne produced Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season, a singular book. In its three main characters he uncovered unimagined depths of experience and understanding that put him in touch with his inner self and brought him face to face with the mother lode of his past experience.

Having achieved this breakthrough in a book that his publisher promoted as a “fictionalized memoir” rather than a novel, Dunne now struck out with self-assurance into the writing of fiction. His first novel, True Confessions, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, was quickly made into a film, for which Dunne and Didion wrote the script. The hardcover edition of the book sold over fifty thousand copies, the paperback version over a million.

Based loosely on the famous Black Dahlia murder case of 1947, True Confessions drew on the Roman Catholic background Dunne knows so well. Two Irish Catholic brothers, Tom Spellacy, a policeman, and Des Spellacy, a Roman Catholic priest, confront moral dilemmas when a severed head is found in a parking lot and all the evidence points to a pillar of Des’s church as the murderer. Rather than settling for being merely a conventional murder mystery, True Confessions digs beneath the surface, showing convincingly how an event can affect a broad community of people related to it in various ways.

Dutch Shea, Jr. deals with a milieu similar to that of True Confessions. Shea is an attorney who represents the moral reprobates in society, down-and-outers whom no one else will defend. The story’s climax is precipitated when Shea’s adopted daughter, Cat, is killed in London by a random bombing by the Irish Republican Army. During Shea’s emotional dissolution following Cat’s death, it is revealed that he is an embezzler who now must pay for his crime. As in True Confessions, Dunne explores the shock waves that emanate from an irrational act of brutality. For Shea, they cause an emotional implosion and a personal disintegration that Dunne depicts flawlessly.

The Red White and Blue focuses on the Brodericks, a San Francisco family of enormous wealth whose story is told by Jack Broderick, a reporter on the newspaper his father owns; Jack has also become a screenwriter. Jack’s ex-wife, Leah, an attorney much loved by all the Broderick men, provokes the turning points in this novel that traces two decades of conflict within a prominent family. Playland is a complex novel about the Hollywood of the 1940’s, when a petulant child star, Blue Tyler, is the rage. Blue disappears in disgrace at twenty and is not heard from until the 1990’s, when she reappears as a bag lady who lives in a trailer park outside Detroit. The Red White and Blue’s Jack Broderick, reappearing as Playland’s screenwriter-narrator, finds the aged Blue accidentally and constructs a story that comments darkly on contemporary American society.

BibliographyDunne, John Gregory. Harp. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989. Dunne’s memoir is the best source for both biographical information and insight into the sources and the themes of his fiction.Fanning, Charles. The Irish Voice in America: Irish-American Fiction from the 1670’s to the 1980’s. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993. A comprehensive scholarly work that includes a discussion of Dunne.Thomson, David. “Playland.” The New Republic 211, no. 8/9 (August 22, 1994): 35-39. Although Thomson is highly critical of the novel, he provides an astute assessment of Dunne’s style and his handling of Hollywood themes.Winchell, Mark Roydon. Joan Didion. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Includes several pages on Dunne and on the Dunne-Didion marriage. Chapter 1 provides a good overview of how Dunne and Didion react to the East and West Coasts in their writing.Winchell, Mark Roydon. John Gregory Dunne. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1986. This pamphlet in the Boise State University Western Writers series is a solid introduction to Dunne’s biography and to the backgrounds of his fiction. Winchell discusses only the first two novels and Dunne’s early nonfiction. Includes a useful bibliography.
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