We look back at John Gregory Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, once the hottest literary couple in America.
It’s almost impossible to write about John Gregory Dunne in death without also writing about his wife, Joan Didion. Although each wrote best-selling books, they collaborated on screenplays for such movies as “The Panic in Needle Park” (starring Al Pacino, 1971), “A Star is Born” (Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, 1976), “Play It As It Lays” (Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins, 1972), and “True Confessions” (Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro, 1981).
“By the late 1980s, John Gregory Dunne … and his wife, Joan Didion, were the hottest literary couple in the United States,” declares an article in The Guardian, “Up there in The New York Times best-seller lists, prolific and highly paid journalists and collaborators.” According to Wikipedia, they “travelled together on journalism assignments, and established a working pattern that served for the next 40 years, a constant advising, consulting and editing collaboration.”
Didion said the two were “terrifically, terribly dependent on one another.” After Dunne’s death, she wrote about her grief in a powerful and compelling, and also also sweet and nostalgic, book about the impact of his life and death. “The Year of Magical Thinking” won the 2005 National Book Award for nonfiction and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
“This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed,” Didion writes. “Weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”
Dunne died 10 years ago today, Dec. 30, 2003, at age 71, as he was sitting down to dinner in the couple’s Manhattan apartment. “Nothing Lost,” his 10th book, was published the following year.
His other books include hard-hitting reporting in “Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike” (1967), autobiography in “Harp” (1989), and novels including “True Confessions,” “The Red White and Blue,” and “Playland.” Dunne also wrote two books about Hollywood: “The Studio” and “Monster: Living Off the Big Screen.”
In “Monster,” Dunne wrote about his heart-related collapse while walking in Central Park in 1988. “When I regained consciousness, I was stretched out in the middle of the road rising behind the Metropolitan Museum, a stream of joggers detouring past without looking or stopping, as if I were a piece of road kill.”
Dunne was one of six children born to a prominent heart surgeon in Hartford, Connecticut. He grew up Catholic in a life of privileged comfort: big stone house, country club, private school, dance classes, Ivy League education (Princeton ’54). As a child, John stuttered severely and resorted to writing, rather than speaking, to communicate.
His older brother, Dominick (1925 – 2009), also a writer, wrote in Vanity Fair that he and John had “a complicated relationship over the years. … I have always enjoyed my brother’s writing, even when we weren’t speaking.” Dominick photographed John and Joan’s 1964 wedding in Pebble Beach, California, and later wrote that the couple had “a life of total togetherness that was nearly unparalleled in modern marriage. They were almost never out of each other’s sight. … They were one of those couples who did everything together, and they were always in accord on their opinions, whatever subject was under discussion.”
In the mid-1990s, both brothers covered the O.J. Simpson trial: John for The New York Review of Books and Dominick for Vanity Fair.
John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion adopted a daughter, Quintana Roo, in 1966. The couple had just returned from visiting their very ill daughter in the hospital when John died suddenly. Quintana died two years later in 2005 at 39, after a series of illnesses.
Didion’s eloquence on death and grieving was certainly written from firsthand experience. “I know why we try to keep the dead alive,” she wrote. “We try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called “Living with Grief.” Find her on Google+.