Pages Open for Dunne, Didion : Celebrated Literary Duo Plotting New Directions

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Times Staff Writer

As John Dunne sees it, a writer’s life has two states: writing and having written. Right now Dunne is in the latter one and relieved. He finished his book, “The Red, White and Blue,” on April 6, 1986, at 2:06 in the afternoon, he says with his passion for factual precision. “And that was a Sunday, I believe,” he adds.

Now he is waiting for March publication. In the interregnum, he is at loose ends, feeling “awful,” writing about writing for Esquire magazine to keep going; he calls publication “the afterbirth”--an anticlimactic emptying necessary before gestation of another book can begin.

Down the hall in her white shoe box of a space, Joan Didion’s fingers tick over the keys of her IBM typewriter, as hour after hour she heads toward a March deadline. She is on a regime of 20 pages of rewrites a day for “Miami,” a nonfiction book about the city’s Cuban community, scheduled for appearance in September. She is working eight hours a day, seven days a week. To relax in the afternoon, she drinks lemon grass tea, brewed from fresh stalks from her vegetable garden. When she breaks off at 7 p.m., she is tired and stiff.


One of the country’s most celebrated literary sets, Dunne and Didion have been married for 23 years, and during that time have shared the exhilaration and frustrations of their metier in a rare, harmonious collaboration, with only an errant slip toward dissolution.

For as many years, Dunne and Didion have lived in Los Angeles. As novelists, screenwriters and journalists, they have long mined the contemporary issues and cliches that inform the East Coast’s standard text on Southern California. In a prose style that is eloquently chic and bleak, Didion has described the alienation and disquiet that is particular to Los Angeles; Dunne’s narratives, as unsparing as the local subtropical sun, have transfixed the netherworlds of Los Angeles crime, Hollywood and Las Vegas.

Yet in more recent years--in “Democracy,” “El Salvador” and now “Miami”--Didion has expanded her horizons to examine the sociopolitical impact of United States relations with less powerful peoples. In his new novel, Dunne also branches out, drawing an ambitious panorama of America in the ‘60s and the decade’s aftermath.

As their literary interests move afield, Dunne and Didion are considering a change in residence--pulling up stakes in Brentwood and focusing their lives from their New York beachhead, closer to the material of future work. “I may be wrong,” Dunne says, “but I think I’ve written everything I have to say about Los Angeles. I feel tapped out about it.”

At 54 and 52 years old, respectively, Dunne and Didion say they are also seeking a quieter life than the one they are known for as bicoastal celebrity writers.

But the change is more a mutation than a break in their lives, which have always been a hybrid of personae and places.


On a springlike winter’s day, there is no indication of a writer’s anguish in Dunne’s demeanor. He welcomes a visitor into his donnish, book-lined office with the bulldog gregariousness of a tavern keeper. He is a large, robust man with a florid face and a hearty laugh, who thinks of himself as “gutter Irish.”

A tale is forever tickling the tip of his tongue. Hardly have greetings been exchanged than he’s telling how artist Robert Graham gave them the black bouvier des Flandres named Casey, who trots at his heels. Graham also gave a police dog to Dunne’s neighbor Norman Lear; the first bouvier he and Didion saw belonged to the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Jane Kramer.

This is unadulterated Dunne--the kind of garrulous, urbane rush of names and places that overlays his books. Yet, lightly laced through the banter are traces of a doubting childhood stutter and an unwinking eye that fixes life’s darker pockets and the secret sins of its inhabitants.

Charting the world of Irish Catholic Americans “playing life in the dark keys,” Dunne writes in a blackly comic Celtic voice magnetized to misfortune.

Yet, in the here and now of palm trees and limousines, he and Didion appear to lead exemplarily happy, leisured lives.

On this afternoon, Dunne wears khaki pants and a shirt the color of a bruise. Hanging over an office chair is a vintage tweed jacket, custom-tailored at Tartaglia in Beverly Hills.


Small, waiflike and initially shy--though “tough as nails,” Dunne affirms--Didion was brought up in Sacramento, a fifth-generation Californian, an Episcopalian, a Berkeley graduate. She gardens, “a new fashion” she says, and keeps Penelope Hobhouse’s “Color in Your Garden” on the coffee table; she is also well-known for her cooking, an activity that “wipes everything clean,” she says.

She whisks stray auburn bangs from her forehead as she pads across the wide-boarded floor of the den, serving tea in a Haviland china service decorated with birds and flowers. She wears her writer’s “work clothes”--tennis shoes, sweat pants and a baggy sweater. On a chain around her neck hang her wedding ring and the baby ring of their adopted daughter, Quintana Roo.

In the rustically homey rooms around her, “shards of memory,” of the kind that would torture Dunne-Didion protagonists, comfortably mark the course of their marriage: maps of where they’ve been (even Quintana is place-specific, named for the Yucatan state), photos of people they know and a filing room the size of a small-town newspaper morgue, packed with letters and journalists’ notes. The white two-story house is so traditionally Eastern that when Didion found it she exclaimed to Dunne, “Your mother will love it!”

But Dunne and Didion are characteristically unsentimental about the house where they have lived for the last eight years. “Home is probably overrated anyway,” Didion says in her soft, almost inaudible voice that so unexpectedly shatters conventional thought. “I could be in South Africa here.”

Dunne has always liked the city better than Didion. “I’ve always thought that Los Angeles was very badly written about by people from the East who seemed to think that it radiated out from the Beverly Hills Hotel.” Like Didion he will only allude to his view of the city’s conservative power base. “If you want to understand Los Angeles, you’d better start in San Marino,” he says.

Dunne’s particular perception as a writer lies in his acute, skeptical portrayal of the workings of power in both high and low places. He has applied this gift, along with a historical bent, a mordant wit and an Irishman’s ear for the curiosities of speech, to explaining Los Angeles and its environs. From the status of free-lancer, Dunne launched into books with “Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike,” published in 1967. In “The Studio,” he wrote a widely praised account of movieland’s foibles as seen at 20th Century Fox under Richard Zanuck. In “Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season,” 1974, he took on “the dark side of the American funhouse” in what he considered his first novel, though the genre was disputed. It was also the book in which he discovered his Catholic material. “I don’t know anything about theology,” he says now. “But I’m a Catholic. It’s absolutely inculcated in my life.”


Set in Los Angeles and inspired by the gory 1947 “Black Dahlia” murder case, “True Confessions,” was, as Didion has described it, “almost a tableau vivant of venality.”

However, the Los Angeles Dunne writes about is crossed with Hartford, Conn., where his family rose “from steerage to suburbia in three generations.” His roots are in Frog Hollow, then the town’s Irish ghetto, where his immigrant grandfather opened a grocery store, and in his now-lapsed childhood Catholicism, which has provided his view of man’s imperfections.

“I have no interest in WASP life,” he says, sitting in his sunny office, overlooking a tree house. “I’m not a WASP; I’m a WASC.”

One of a surgeon’s six children, Dunne was raised in the affluent suburb of West Hartford, Conn., and attended the exclusive Portsmouth Priory School in Rhode Island and Princeton University. Writer Alfred Kazin has dubbed him a “Rhode Island Catholic,” and longtime friend and New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin quips that the ideal critic to understand his literary raunchiness is “a Princetonian who learned to talk dirty.”

Dunne’s lowlife characters and hard-boiled dialogue are largely the fruits of military service. “I’ve been making a living off the U.S. Army for 30 years,” he quips in a typical one-liner. During a two-year peacetime stint as a private first class in a gun battery division in Germany, Dunne “got out of the stalag of the middle class.”

His acquaintances today include a clutch of cops and priests. Reaching for a police file on his bookshelf, Dunne pulls out a handful of photos of a murder victim, beaten and drowned in her bathtub. “I use these (reports) to get the terms right,” he says.

‘Taste of Lighter Fluid’

Comic grotesquerie in Dunne’s fictional world is of the sort that, critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt has noted, “leaves one with the taste of lighter fluid in the mouth.”

In “Dutch Shea, Jr.,” a terrorist bomb, lobbed in a London restaurant, decapitates the title character’s daughter, sending her head into “a cut-glass Waterford bowl of lemon sorbet on the sweets trolley. . . .” In the new novel, another missing head is eventually located tucked inside a dead girl’s belly.


For Dunne, his gruesome comedy reflects a characteristically Irish sensibility. “A friend of mine once wrote that the two things the Irish would think are wonderful are, one, kissing the Blarney Stone and, two, slipping and falling when you’re kissing the Blarney Stone and cracking your head open.”

It is such horrific events that force Dunne’s detached protagonists to take stock of their unexamined lives and to realize that, in the end, “everything connects.”

Detached Medium

In “The Red, White and Blue,” the author views the ‘60s and ‘70s through the detached medium of narrator Jack Broderick, a man who describes himself as “a human Switzerland.” The Delano grape strike, the Vietnam War, a Latin American dictatorship, a radical woman lawyer, a worldly priest, a tycoon in San Francisco’s Catholic upper crust, an unassassinated Jack Kennedy living in ennui--all are pitched together in a fast-paced, elaborately recounted melee of a two-decade era, until a double assassination brings Jack Broderick to declaim in a classic Dunnian epiphany: “I was, it turned out, the trigger of my misfortune.”

The most autobiographical of Dunne’s novels, it is also the most difficult book he has tackled, taking four years to complete. “Technically it was a real struggle,” says Dunne, “because you had a non-involved narrator and, because he’s non-involved, a lot of things happen off camera and you have to figure a way to tell what happens off camera.”

His seventh book, “The Red, White and Blue” also puts Dunne on production parity with his spouse--at least in the interim before “Miami” is published.

“I really got on her case the other day,” he says, grinning. “I said I finally drew even with you.”


Has he felt overshadowed by her literary reputation? Dunne leans forward in his swivel chair and raises an instructional finger. “You go back and look; I’ve probably gotten better notices than she has. That’s not to say we keep score; we don’t.”

Didion did have a head start up the literary ladder, however. Her first book, the 1963 novel, “Run River,” met with admiring reviews. Dunne’s critical and financial bonanza came with “True Confessions,” published in 1977 and produced in 1981 as a movie.

The couple has collaborated on film scripts, mainly of their own books, since 1969, when Dunne’s brother Dominick co-produced “Panic in Needle Park,” an adaptation of a book about New York drug addicts. They have written columns together in the Saturday Evening Post in the ‘60s and later for Esquire, and regularly edited each other’s books.

“We’re always talking about our work. We’re each aware of how the other writes,” Dunne says. He admires Didion’s concise clarity; his books, he says, “are probably too full. I throw in everything.” He cautions her about being too elliptical. “I’ve gone back over and pulled stuff up,” she says. “But my natural instinct is to make it almost hard to read, bare, making the reader fill in. John has pointed out that sometimes it is an expression of hostility.”

Gave Her Two Titles

He has actually charted her time shifts in “A Book of Common Prayer.” She cannot imagine how he kept the narrative of “The Red, White and Blue” in his head. (She even types food preparation steps when she’s having guests--”do broth for risotto, build fire, vinaigrette”--so she won’t forget.) He gave her the titles for “Democracy” and “A Book of Common Prayer,” and she told him how hard his new novel would be to write using a narrator to replay the action, a technique she had twice employed.

She says, “You are what you write.” He agrees and dismisses her reputation for angst with an offhand profanity. “I think she’s terribly funny. She takes realism and gives it an extra turn.”


But despite their solidly mutual support, the couple came close to splitting up just five years after they moved from New York to Los Angeles. It was 1969 and Dunne was suffering an 18-month writer’s block before finding the opening sentence of Vegas, “In the summer of my nervous breakdown, I went to live in Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada.”

No Guarantee

In “Quintana and Friends,” his collection of magazine journalism, Dunne wrote, “We have been married for 15 years. I do not guarantee that we will be married 16.” Didion noted in an article from Waikiki for Life, “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for a divorce.”

Yet among their closest circle of friends the trauma went unobserved. Says novelist Brian Moore, “When we read that, we were stunned. We never saw any signs of it.”

Asked to comment on her husband, Didion now says, “I couldn’t describe him. It would be like describing myself. I’m too close to him.”

Dunne amplifies, “We have a similar attitude toward our work and our life. We’re both terribly wary. Wariness is the virtue we both prize most. You’ve always got to know the down side of any situation. Try not to be surprised. It’s almost a theology with us.”

“Did you ever read ‘A Book of Common Prayer?’ ” Didion picks up the conversation later over tea in the den. “This novel of mine in which there was a character whose mother and father had died when she was quite young and she said that ever since then she had tried to keep death in her line of sight, like a rattlesnake where you try to keep it out of the underbrush. So nothing much after that surprised her. That’s not unlike how we think about things.”


Didion settles her teacup in the saucer and goes out to the garden to pick a lemon for cooking dinner. It is tough-skinned, bred for transport, though juicy inside. She remarks that it must be a hybrid.

Dunne values toughness. “My mother was strong-minded and strong-willed and I am, too,” he says. In their last conversation before her death she told him, “There’s one good thing I can say about dying; I won’t have to hear about Patty Hearst and Richard Nixon anymore.”

Her death deeply touched him, as did the suicide of his brother, Stephen.

“Everyone’s life is trying to get through desperation successfully,” he says, “or unsuccessfully. Life’s not a barrel of laughs, a bed of roses. There’s no such thing as perfection. There’s always something one wants to be better.”

But just as Dunne’s protagonists are down, but too buoyant to be really out, the writer is not self-pitying. “One has a view of the world, but that doesn’t mean you have to be in the dark gloom.” A place friends would never think to look for him.

Social animal, storyteller, telephone addict, gossip, wit--he is a man about whom friends speak with a chuckle. “Whenever I hear a good one, I think, wait until John hears this,” writer Nora Ephron says.

“He’s a fantastically creative gossip,” Trillin notes. “He makes a real art of it. He doesn’t just pass on information.”


A Dunne-Didion list of acquaintances could likely fill the telephone book of a decent-sized city: the likes of Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books, anchorman Tom Brokaw, and Norman Mailer in the East; movie director Tony Richardson, producers Irvin Winkler and Norman Lear in the West.

Notes literary observer James Atlas on their status among the New York literati: “They’re modest but very worldly. They’re celebrity literary figures and very enviable. They lead two different lives, so they’re not utterly dependent on the New York publishing scene for their reputations or for their livelihood.”

Since 1984, they have kept an apartment overlooking Central Park where they spend five months of the year. Family ties include Quintana, a student at Barnard College; a brother, sister and an elderly aunt of Dunne in Hartford; and Dominick, author of last year’s best-selling novel, “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles,” from whom he has been estranged for several years.

Film Script Planned

Work is drawing them eastward, as well. This spring Dunne and Didion plan to write an original film script for Sydney Lumet about the ‘50s in New York. It was the time when they met: he a young journalist, she a fresh face at Vogue. Dunne remembers their first encounter on a double date at Didion’s basement apartment in Manhattan; she cooked red beans and rice and his date passed out. Says Didion almost wistfully, “There’s a kind of romance to it in our minds.”

Also on the agenda after March is a trip to Israel, a likely target area for Didion’s work. Dunne wants to travel in Africa and, after 15 years of novels, hopes to write a nonfiction book. “I’d love to do what Joan’s doing in ‘Miami’ or ‘El Salvador,’ ” he says. “But I can’t seem to get a handle on a subject. Joan’s very good about getting a feel of a place. I’m not; there has to be more narrative.”

No timetable has been set for a move, and Dunne says a decision will depend on finding a larger, suitable apartment in New York. Yet, contemplating an eventual departure, Dunne already dips into elegiac nostalgia.


“I love California even as I’m slowly relinquishing it,” he says. “I loved, e d , Los Angeles. I got a high from the city. I loved East Los Angeles. I loved downtown, I loved that whole Raymond Chandler part of Los Angeles. I loved driving through Hancock Park; it’s out of another age.” Dunne pauses. “But I’d find it difficult to write about Los Angeles again.”

To a certain extent his and Didion’s lives have changed. The Lears have gone separate ways, ending the ritual Sunday night screening party where guests such as Anne Bancroft, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and songwriters Marilyn and Alan Bergman would gather. Recently diagnosed as a borderline diabetic, Dunne has gone on the wagon, drinking what Didion calls his “odd waters.” “Very tedious,” she says.

“We live more quietly now,” says Dunne. “We’re getting older.”

As dusk settles over suburbia, low rows of lawn lamps click on, illuminating the house’s white facade. Inside, a fire whispers up the chimney and Didion and Dunne sit down for a weekend dinner, tete-a-tete. Says Dunne, “Joan and I are perfectly happy to be alone.”