A DUNNE DEAL

Byline: Merle Ginsberg

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion are heading for the Hamptons this weekend, like thousands of other New Yorkers--but they're not all that happy about it.
"I think we are the only people on the Upper East Side who don't go away in the summer," sighs Dunne from his favorite chair in his spacious apartment off Madison Avenue. "I hate second houses. When Joan and I lived in Los Angeles, for a while we kept an apartment here on 58th Street and Seventh Avenue. Then we always felt this obligation to go there, and you should never feel obligated. Once a year we go to the Hamptons and stay with Nora Ephron. I feel no compulsion to go more."
This weekend serves a purpose: Dunne is heading out to promote his new Random House novel, "Playland," a gritty Hollywood saga set in the Forties, with an intricate plot about a child star, a mob boss, a studio head and various other tawdry types. It's like a combination of Raymond Chandler, David Mamet and Julia Phillips.
He'll give a reading and sign books at Book Hampton in East Hampton on Saturday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and then be feted at a party hosted by Catherine and William Rayner on Sunday evening.
"There are two parts of a writer's life: writing, which is fun, and having written--which is the donkey work," says Dunne.
Didion and Dunne have been working themselves to the bone ("neither of us has had one day off for five months") in their four years back in Manhattan after 24 years in Los Angeles, where both produced novels, articles, essays and the inevitable screenplays, on which they collaborate.
"That's the main reason I didn't want this novel to be set in contemporary Hollywood," Dunne admits. "I didn't want it to be perceived as a roman à clef. Basically, Hollywood still supports us."
While Dunne and Didion seem the quintessential literary New Yorkers--their apartment's light decor is almost entirely obscured by a blizzard of books, on shelves, tabletops, the floor--they miss the L.A. life, particularly Dunne."I loved it there," he says wistfully. "I loved it as much as I ever loved any place. I loved the summers. We'd write till four, then Joan would garden and I'd read, standing up by the pool. We moved because we were both tapped out there in the end; we needed a jump-start. After we moved, Joan told me she didn't really love it there as much as I did. Then she went out to write some essays about L.A. for The New Yorker, and said, 'Now I realize why I didn't love it. It's because you did all the driving."'
"Playland" takes a pretty dark view of the studio system, the days when Dunne says Hollywood was "a hermetic society."
"The stars did what they were told," he says. "People could get away with anything. You have to remember, and this is still true, that membership in the Motion Picture Academy is never revoked for moral failings."
The book is spiced throughout with short sex scenes, so lacking the sugarcoating of romance or emotion that they are jarring. "My feeling about sex scenes is this," says Dunne: "Do them fast. I don't like sex scenes. [John] Updike writes them elaborately, with movement. I'm not sure anyone else can do that--or should. I once taught a creative writing class and told them I only had one rule: They couldn't write about their first sexual experiences, their most recent or any in between."
Dunne and Didion have two movie projects in various stages of production right now: a TNT film called "Broken Trust," starring Tom Selleck and Elizabeth McGovern, shooting in Vancouver, which they originally penned for Tri-Star, and "Up Close and Personal," which Scott Rudin is hoping to produce. It was meant to be a story of television newswoman Jessica Savitch, but, as Dunne says, "Disney said no cocaine, no sexual deviancy, no husband hanging himself. So it's not about her any more."
Clearly, this is the rare example of the couple that works together, stays together. "I think in our case it's that we knew each other for six or seven years before we began keeping company," Dunne says. "We were both with other people when we first met. So we were in like before we were in love. Liking gets you over the bad spots. Marriage is no day at the beach, you know. "We've been married 30 years. And you know what?" he asks, as Didion breezes by to answer the phone. "It's nice being married forever."

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