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.
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...
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