1/7/04 - I
met John Gregory Dunne on my first trip to
California in August 1970 when my wife at the time and
I went to visit Erik Preminger and his
then wife Barbara.
One night we were invited to dine at the Bistro with Erik’s father, Otto
Preminger, his wife Hope, and Dunne and his
wife Joan Didion. The Didion/Dunnes had been hired or
were about to be hired by Otto to write a screenplay for his latest project
based on Lois Gould’s novel Such Good Friends.
To this first-timer, it was an entirely Hollywood moment. The Bistro
was the restaurant in the movie colony, bankrolled by Billy Wilder and
a host of other luminaries. Otto Preminger at that time had a seven-picture
deal with Paramount that was the most lucrative ever signed by a director
and a studio, and he was (because of his frequent presence on television
talk shows), besides Alfred Hitchcock, the most famous
movie director in America. Hope Preminger, a former fashion model, tall,
willowy and elegant, was the perfectly cast consort for the flamboyant
And Joan Didion had just published the best-selling, Play It As It
Lays, deeming her the hottest writer in America. Her husband and
partner was, alas, unknown to us civilians, until that night. I say “alas” because,
to be a writer, married to a famous, highly praised, hot writer of the
moment must be a challenging and emotionally daunting experience, to
say the least.
At dinner I was seated between my hostess and Ms. Didion. Her “importance” in
the room that night was palpable from the moment she and her husband
entered. Otto, no doubt, was aware beforehand that it would be. He too
was drawn to “names” and hot talent and always hired them
for his projects.
I cannot be sure all these years later exactly how she looked under that
special lens, but memory, however faulted, provides the following image:
A tiny, delicately constructed woman, open faced but serious with simply
cut, almost shoulder-length light brown hair, a minimum of makeup, she
was wearing a crisp and cool blue and white cotton dress with belt; elegant
in understatement. She was the antithesis of the smooth and creamy tinsel
and glitz that was, and still is, haute Hollywood, and which
filled that room that night.
She looked like a super-cool, best-selling author. It was a charismatic
presence, almost remote on first sight, yet warm and unassuming on meeting.
As soon as the eight of us were seated one of the captains passed by
and discreetly slipped her a single, folded pad-sized note from another
guest in the room. Just as discreetly, she opened it, then as quickly
closed it and put it away. A nothing moment yet under the circumstances,
entirely cinematic to this observer.
It was a singularly glamorous night in my life, one of several on that
trip that later influenced the course of my own future. I was in awe
After dinner we got into our cars and drove out to Paramount Studios
in Hollywood to see a new film, much-hyped, and much talked about, that
was about to be released, The Diary of a Mad Housewife, starring
another hot new talent, Carrie Snodgrass.
They ran the picture for just the eight of us in a large studio screening
room. However, I was more rapt by the company I was keeping and where
I was keeping it.
After the picture was over, we adjourned across the lot to Otto’s
offices. They were a mogul’s offices – sprawling, gray-on
gray, chrome, tall, marble, leather, modern art – an exact replication,
it should be noted, of his offices in the penthouse of 711 Fifth Avenue,
then the Columbia Pictures Building, now the Coca-Cola Building, in New
Hope served drinks and Otto, sitting behind his long wide desk in his
high back leather chair, wanted to talk about the picture, especially
with Didion and Dunne.
John Gregory Dunne sitting on the other side of Otto’s desk, off
to the corner, emerged and took over the conversation with all the required
subtle (and not so) deferences to the mogul behind the desk. The conversation
was basically business and celebrity gossip passed between two pros – Preminger
and Dunne – who were in its thrall.
John was a fairly big guy, taller and wider, compared to his wife, with
a very assertive and enthusiastic personality, his hot to her cool. She
said very little but mainly listened to the two men. On the ride home,
however, talking about the evening, my wife made several references,
despite being corrected each time, to the “Didions.” An error
reflecting the perception of the moment.
I saw the Didion/Dunnes a few times after that, in passing, at Otto’s
office in New York. I’m not sure if they were the final writers
on the film. Otto was famous for going through writers by the score.
But in the years just following, their careers blossomed and flourished.
John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion went on to become the most distinguished
husband and wife writing team in America, individually and together,
mutually and separately prolific, and productive — creatively,
intellectually and financially.
Twenty years later, when I came back to New York after living in Hollywood
myself for more than a decade, I would occasionally see them at restaurants
or cocktail parties, although our relationship never extended beyond
The initial perception of them that night in Beverly Hills thirty-four
years ago at the Bistro was only a memory of a past in sharp contrast
to the present. Now they were John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion. John
had a large, at times seemingly brooding presence that combined with
his wife’s seeming diffidence, gave them a mutual charisma (Ed.
Note: you must remember, these are fan’s notes).
Besides his books, and their screenplays, he wrote often for the New
York Review of Books where the sight of his name on the cover page
promised an informative, opinionated and trenchant review or recollection.
The most recent NYR has his review (and recollection) of a new
biography of Natalie Wood. Ultimately, turned out, John
Gregory Dunne’s assessment added substantiveness and gravity to
the life of the movie star.
Highly popular with the media and social sets, the Dunnes were a formidable
presence — living together, working together, mutually interested
in all matters political and literary and theatrical. One could idealize
and imagine that they nurtured each other’s talent and both grew
from it. It certainly looked that way to a fan. They were a team, in
the ideal sense.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many share my view of the
couple. So there must have been many as startled and saddened as I, on
learning on New Year's Eve that John had died suddenly the night before.
I could only think of Joan who was present. I thought of this brilliant
and sensitive woman and how I have no experience to even calculate her