Tuesday, February 20, 2007

John Gregory Dunne

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion at an after-screening party of The Hour. December, 2002.
In Memoriam. 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 mogul.

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 and starstruck.

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 York.

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 hellos.

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 loss.