`I've been married to Joan Didion for over 31 years... If I'm not competitive with her, I'm not competitive with anyone'
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
John Gregory Dunne is desperately keen to let you know that he knows everyone. Everyone, that is, who matters in Hollywood and Manhattan. And yes, his skills as a screenwriter, journalist and novelist have earned him the smartest of invitations, and the place he covets on Tina Brown's

`Sunday list'. So what, asks DOUGLAS KENNEDY, is eating Dunne?

Ask any New York cop about the police precinct known as the "One- Nine", and he'll tell you that it's probably the most desirable beat in the city. For unlike, say, Harlem or the South Bronx, the One-Nine is not the sort of district where a policeman spends too much of his time thinking that he's in an urban remake of Apocalypse Now.

On the contrary; the epicentre of this precinct - 61st to 86th Streets between Fifth and Park Avenues - is the smartest real estate on Manhattan island, a district where all the buildings have doormen, and where the local haberdashers have names like Armani, Versace and Ralph Lauren. In short, to live in the One-Nine is to announce to the world: "I am a big winner in the American game of life." Which means that it is also the perfect address for anyone who likes to drop names.

Ding-dong. You're sitting just off Madison Avenue and 71st Street, in the living room of a writer and journalist, when his doorbell rings. He's dressed like an ageing public schoolboy (a button-down shirt, khakis, a red Shetland jumper stretched over his paunch) and he has a pleased schoolboy's smile on his face as he excuses himself to answer the door, saying "That must be our edition of the New Yorker."

It's Sunday, so you wonder aloud why he's getting the magazine hand-delivered on a weekend morning. And it's clear that you've asked exactly the right question, for he smiles again and explains: "We're on Tina's Sunday list."

Tina, of course, is Tina Brown, editor of the New Yorker. And in a town where magazine editors are treated like demigods, Ms Brown is, without question, the Dalai Lama. So to be on "Tina's Sunday list" implies that you must be one of the anointed, too.

When it comes to name-dropping, John Gregory Dunne has always been a champion. Consider the final sentence of his 1974 Atlantic Monthly essay on screenwriting: "Why then write for films? Because the money is good. Because doing a screenplay is like doing a combination jigsaw-and-crossword puzzle; it's not writing, but it can be fun. And because the other night, after a screening, we went out to a party with Mike Nichols and Candice Bergen and Warren Beatty and Barbra Streisand.''

Name-dropping is a pastime favoured by the terminally insecure - people who desperately need to prove their credentials. But sitting in Dunne's spectacular living room - a room half the size of a football pitch, crammed with books and works of art - you cannot help but wonder why he needs to prove anything. After all, at the age of 63, he is one of America's most successful jacks-of-all-literary-trades: a bestselling novelist (his books include True Confessions); a much-in-demand screenwriter (who, rumour has it, commands $150,000 a week as a rewrite man); and a first- rate journalist (his recent essay on the OJ Simpson case in the New York Review of Books is the shrewdest analysis of that saga yet written).

What's more, he's married to Joan Didion, one of the true heavyweights of contemporary American letters, and his brother is Dominick Dunne, whose reporting of murders-among-the-rich-and-stupid for Vanity Fair (the Menendez brothers, the von Bulow affair) has made him one of the most sought-after journalists in the US. After nearly three decades in Los Angeles, he is now living smack-dab in the middle of the One-Nine, in an apartment that most New Yorkers would sell a kidney for. And finally, his new novel, Playland, has received the sort of "love it/hate it" reviews that make a writer feel he must have written something of note.

So why does this accomplished and well-heeled man need to spout names all the time - to tell you that a script he and his wife first worked on seven years ago is finally going into production this year ``starring Bob [Redford] and Michelle [Pfeiffer]''? To pop in an anecdote about "Otto [Preminger]''? To make sure you know about dinner with ``Nick [Pileggi] and Nora [Ephron]''?

You sense that the non-stop references to his celebrity chums and his renowned cantakerousness ("My friend David Halberstam [the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist] says that I'm the only person he knows who is more cantankerous than he is") stem from of an ailment which Americans always deny exists within their society: class- consciousness. For, as he readily admits, "There was a time in my life when I really wanted to be a Wasp."

But instead of being raised a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (America's true ruling class), John Gregory Dunne grew up Irish, and Catholic, in Hartford, Connecticut - the insurance capital of America. Although his grandparents were emigrants from Roscommon, Dunne wasn't raised in some Cagneyesque ghetto. His father was an eminent surgeon who sent Dunne to Portsmouth Priory, a respectable Catholic boarding school, and Princeton.

But Dunne has always made it clear that he still felt an outsider, to the point that he called the autobiographical memoir he wrote in 1989 Harp - a derogatory term for an Irish Catholic. "The Kennedys defined a certain kind of Irish," Dunne wrote in Harp. "Don't get mad, get even, was the commandment to which they swore allegiance - Irish to be sure, but gentrified. I am cut from a rougher bolt of Irish cloth: Get mad and get even is the motto on the standard I fly." No wonder his attempts to reinvent himself as a Wasp failed ("Blessedly the cultural transplant did not take place. The gutter Irish spleen rejected the faux Yank cells").

After Princeton, there was a stint in the US army, followed by a journalistic apprenticeship at Time magazine, during which he met an aspiring young novelist named Joan Didion. They married and moved west to her home state of California, setting up house in Los Angeles. And though they have always collaborated on screenplays (Panic in Needle Park, the remake of A Star is Born, and True Confessions), Didion has consistently outpaced Dunne when it comes to critical appraisal for her novels and reportage - something that he graciously acknowledges.

"As a writer I've never been competitive," he says. "I mean, I've been married to Joan Didion for over 31 years, a woman whom your news-paper recently called `one of the glories of American letters'. So if I'm not competitive with her, I'm not competitive with anyone."

Dunne may claim not to be competitive as a writer, but he has always demonstrated a talent for lacerating observation. The Studio (1968) was a small masterpiece - an unapologetically cruel and amusing portrait of one year behind the scenes at Twentieth Century Fox. Similarly, Vegas (a semi-fictitious, semi-autobiographical trawl through the low-life underside of that town) is, without question, the best book ever written about the capital of American glitz - even though it is also a showcase for Dunne's fascination with the life of John Gregory Dunne. And in true, confess- all American style, he didn't shy away from sharing the fact that he was unable to father a child - "My only child [a daughter, Quintana, now aged 28] was adopted and there was no chance that anything produced by my genes could come close to equalling her" - so underwent a sperm- count: "The doctor's nurse gave me a natural lamb-skin rubber prophylactic and the directions to the men's room. I sat in the stall trying to coax some heft into my flaccid member..."

This placing of himself -and his medical problems -centre-stage has often made Dunne the target of critical Exocets - like the one lobbed at him and his wife by John Lahr: "As with the rest of the California middle class who jog, exercise, diet, sunbathe, and search for inner peace and awareness, Dunne and Didion are obsessed with themselves,'' Lahr wrote in his collection of essays, Automatic Vaudeville. ``In a society without a mission, they are their own heroic projects, and this self-absorption manifests itself in style. `I hate to ask questions,' Dunne admits, his selfishness very much a part of his journalistic posturing. `In any event I am not interested in the answers. What I do is hang around.' This could be called the surfer school of journalism, where the laid-back reporter simply goes with the flow."

Dunne laughs grimly: "There was a time when we were a cottage industry for John Lahr. But I didn't take offense. I simply bided my time and waited for the right moment to respond."

That response came in "Critical", an essay in which Dunne argued that writers should never reply to their reviews, yet managed to land a counter- punch on Lahr's jaw: "At least in one instance, Mr Lahr has shown himself to be a very acute critic of fiction, in that he seems to have abandoned the writing of novels, a discipline in which he demonstrated no discernible gift. Before he became preoccupied with our general inferiority, he did write two novels and sent advance copies of both, each accompanied by a flowing personal entreaty for favourable comment, this before he had sharpened the pin with which to puncture the balloon."

In the same essay, Dunne also managed to disembowel the critic James Wolcott, who had written a particularly vindictive assessment of Harp in Vanity Fair: "Mr Wolcott's career offers a cautionary tale to those embarking on the literary life," Dunne noted, and pointed out that, according to the Vanity Fair contributor's page, Wolcott was "working on a first novel", and that the novel had yet to materialise in the six years since he first announced it.

"I got Wolcott," Dunne cheerfully admits - further proof of his "gutter Irish spleen". And although he refuses to be drawn on the subject, rumour has it that he is on less-than-speaking terms with his brother Dominick.

"We have a complicated relationship, Dominick and myself," Dunne says quietly. "And when the BBC asked me to appear in a documentary they were making about him, I faxed him to ask if he wanted me to take part. It would be proper to say that he wasn't wildly enthusiastic..."

There's no doubt that, in America today, Dominick is by far the bigger celebrity (especially as he's now covering the Simpson trial for Vanity Fair and appearing nightly on tele-vision as a star correspondent for CBS News). Might John Gregory be just a little bit jealous?

"Absolutely not," Dunne says. "I'm glad his success happened...and I don't mean that to sound patronising."

But while Dominick may now be the better known of the two brothers, there's no doubt that John Gregory is by far the better writer - a brilliantly punchy stylist with outstanding narrative gifts. It's an opinion shared by Bill Buford, the outgoing editor of Granta and Dunne's publisher in Britain: "I think John is an exceptional American journalist. He's a real storyteller, who knows how a story works and how to trick you into being carried along by his narrative. And that's a quality you just don't see in American journalism any more. I also think that Playland is exceptional - and as close as a novel can come to a great work of journalism."

But why did Playland take four years to write? Dunne's reply perfectly summarises the man as a mortal and social being: "I lost a year to medicine. During the Christmas of 1990, I fainted at Honolulu airport. It was only for a few seconds, but when I got back to New York I went to see my doctor. It turns out I had an aeortic stenosis; the same thing my father died of at 51 - which meant that I had to have an operation. So I got a second opinion and this time the doctor told me, `You have two options: you either have this operation or you die.'

"That's when I called my friend Philip Roth, who'd had the same operation, and told me what to expect. Do you know how long I was out on the operating table? Five hours and 37 minutes. I know this because the anaesthetist charges you by the minute."

Anyway, Playland is a picaresque epic which concerns a screenwriter's quest to discover what really happened to a one-time Hollywood child star of the Forties. But, at heart, the novel (part-murder mystery, part-brilliant recreation of a bygone Los Angeles) is a sprawling, raunchy tour through the gimcrack underside of Tinsel Town, and one which also targets, with bullseye accuracy, that most specious of American religions: the cult of celebrity.

Dunne may mock the crassness of celebrity, but his own endless namedropping inevitably prompts the suspicion that he, too, worships at the altar of stardom; and that he considers his remarkable gifts as a writer secondary to the fact that he knows a lot of fabulous people.

"You know,'' he says, ``Tina had invited Joan and me to a party that she and Harry [Evans, her husband] were throwing for John Lahr. But when I told Tina's assistant that Lahr had been mischievous about us, we were invited to a party for Clive James instead."

Well, maybe not all that fabulous...

`Playland' is published by Granta at £14.99