‘The Studio’ Author John Gregory Dunne Dies

Times Staff Writer

John Gregory Dunne, the journalist, screenwriter and novelist who chronicled the Hollywood movie industry in his book “The Studio,” then went on to write for film, died unexpectedly Tuesday evening as he sat down to dinner with his wife, author Joan Didion. He was 71.

Dunne died of a heart attack in the couple’s New York City home, where the longtime residents of California had been living, his wife said.

Dunne’s first books were works of hard-hitting journalism: The first, “Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike,” appeared in 1967 and followed Chicano labor leader Cesar Chavez. His second, “The Studio,” was published in 1969 and detailed the inner workings of Twentieth Century Fox. In 1974, “Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season” explored the author’s depression after a nervous breakdown.


Dunne found equal success in fiction. He chronicled the tormented sensibilities of the urban American Irish Catholic experience in “Dutch Shea Jr.” and “The Red, White and Blue.” He did much the same in “True Confessions,” but in the style of a detective novel.

A native of Hartford, Conn., and the brother of writer Dominick Dunne, John Gregory Dunne once described the literary process this way: “Writing is manual labor of the mind -- like laying pipe.”

Journalist David Halberstam, a longtime friend of Dunne’s, said, “He was smart, edgy, talented and straight. He hated fraud and duplicity. He could go on for hours about sunshine patriots, who were enthusiastic about war but had never heard a shot fired in anger. In fact, that hypocrisy was a passion of his. He was writing a book on that subject when he died.”

Dunne was born May 25, 1932, the fifth of six children of Richard Edward Dunne, a surgeon, and Dorothy Burns Dunne. As Dunne put it, his family had risen “from steerage to suburbia in three generations.”

He had fond memories of his maternal grandfather, Dominick Francis Burns, who emigrated from Ireland at age 10 and became a prosperous grocer and banker in the working-class section of Hartford known as Frog Hollow, then the city’s Irish ghetto.

“John was very Irish -- or more precisely, very Irish American,” Halberstam said.

A childhood stutterer who lived in fear of being called on in school, Dunne expressed himself well on paper, even at an early age. He also developed a keen ear for the speech of others, and was adept at mimicking such speech, according to the book “Current Biography.” The skill would contribute to his mastery of dialogue as a writer.


“His eye was so keen that you were honored when it fixed on you,” said Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Leslie Abramson, a friend of Dunne and his wife for more than a quarter of a century and who served as model for the radical lawyer Leah Kaye in Dunne’s novel, “The Red, White and Blue.”

“I was flattered that he found me interesting enough to provide material for one of his characters,” Abramson said. Dunne, she said, “was so clear about people, so funny, so impossible to fool and so morally rigorous. He was always concerned about getting it right, whether in his journalism or his fiction.”

Dunne received his preparatory education at Portsmouth Priory School in Rhode Island, an elite Catholic boarding school attached to the Portsmouth Priory, a Benedictine monastery. He graduated from Princeton University in 1945 with a bachelor of arts degree. Following two years in the Army, he moved to New York City, where he worked for an advertising agency and a major trade magazine before beginning a five-year stint as a staff writer with Time magazine.

In New York, Dunne met Didion, a native of Sacramento, who was writing merchandising and promotional copy and editing features at Vogue magazine. After five years of close friendship, the two moved into an apartment together in 1963. They married a year later.

Three months after their marriage, the couple took leaves from their jobs to visit Southern California. Dunne became “an instant Westerner,” and they decided to remain in Los Angeles and make their living by freelance writing.

One writer dubbed the couple the “The First Family of Angst.”

Dunne’s ear for the spoken word was keenly evident in “The Studio.” It is regarded as one of the most detailed and accurate reports on the workings of a major film studio ever written. Dunne spent a year observing and interviewing behind the scenes at Twentieth Century Fox with the permission and cooperation of Richard Zanuck, the studio’s head of production.

Eventually, Dunne and his wife collaborated on screenplays. Their first such project was the screenplay for the Cannes Film Festival award-winning “The Panic in Needle Park,” co-produced by Dunne’s brother, Dominick.

“John was prolific and accomplished,” Halberstam said. “ ‘True Confessions,’ though a novel, is one of the very best political books I’ve ever read. Ostensibly, it’s about two brothers and the Catholic Church. But it’s really about politics and the uses of power and the way in which influence is leveraged in our society.”

Like many friends, Halberstam found it difficult to consider Dunne apart from his wife of many years.

“John and Joan were a formidable couple,” he said. “Together, they lived by words and ideas as few people do these days. Both in New York and in Los Angeles, they were at the heart of a marvelous world of people who also cared about those things and they both were much loved for it.”

Halberstam noted that, in recent years, Dunne had solidified his reputation as a master of the contemporary essay, mainly through his work in the New York Review of Books.

“John was a wonderful essayist -- unpretentiously learned, intellectually sharp. He could take your head off and always was fun to read. Some of those qualities are on display in his last book, which is in galleys now ... a profound meditation on the corrosive quality of celebrity in our society and on the diminution of the authentic.”

Dunne is also survived by his daughter, Quintana Roo.