John Gregory Dunne Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John Gregory Dunne, born on May 25, 1932, in Hartford, Connecticut, was the fifth of six children born to Richard Edward and Dorothy Burns Dunne. In many ways, Dunne’s family enjoyed the typical immigrant success story. His maternal grandfather arrived in the United States from Ireland shortly after the American Civil War, an uneducated boy who could not read. He became a grocer and then a banker in Frog Hollow, Hartford’s Irish ghetto. Dunne grew up with stories about his Irish ancestors’ assimilation in America and with a sense of being a “harp,” a derogatory term for the Irish, who were considered inferior by the city’s Anglo-Saxon establishment.

An indifferent student, Dunne nevertheless managed to complete four years at Princeton University and earn an undergraduate degree. Not knowing what to do after graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, a decision he credits in Harp, his autobiography, with helping to ground him with a sense not only of society’s complexity but also of its very rich resources in humanity. Had he remained in the elitist milieu of Princeton, Dunne suggests, his career as a writer would have been seriously limited, if not entirely vitiated, by the lack of worldly experience he deemed necessary for a writer.

Dunne’s development as a novelist proceeded slowly. He began writing short pieces for newspapers before landing a job on the staff of Time magazine. There he labored for six years in New York City, meeting writer Joan Didion, whom he married on January 30, 1964. Although she was already an accomplished journalist and novelist, Didion found herself undergoing a creative crisis, and the couple decided to move to California, where Didion had grown up and where Dunne hoped to find the material to begin writing both fiction and nonfiction. Husband and wife also began collaborating on screenplays as a way of supporting themselves while they worked on longer fiction and nonfiction projects. After two decades of residence in California, Dunne and Didion moved back to New York City, continuing to collaborate on screenplays as well as working separately on their fiction and nonfiction. Dunne continued to write essays for The New York Review of Books. He suffered from a heart condition that worsened during the last decade of his life, and he died of a heart attack at his Manhattan home on December 30, 2003.