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DOMINICK DUNNE, A TOUGH MAN FOR TOUGH TIMES

JH: You were born in Hartford, Connecticut. Tell us about your early years and your family.

DD: There’s a whole Irish Catholic thing that’s very important here. My grandfather, Dominick Burns, was a potato famine immigrant; 1860 something I think. He lived the Horatio Alger story of all time. He never went beyond 14-years-old in school. He made his money in the grocery business, and then he became a bank president. He married well, as they say. My mother was of that union. She and her sister were of that union.

JH: Were you named after him?

DD: Yeah, yeah. I used to hate being called Dominick as a little kid in the waspy schools I went to. Of course, now, I just cherish the name.

JH: What was he like?

Dominick Burns was the most amazing man. His great friend was the Reverend Ogilvy, the Episcopal head of Trinity College in Hartford. And their point of overlap was literature and poetry. Both my brother (John Gregory Dunne) and I were literarily influenced by my grandfather. Every Friday night, two of the six of us had to go and spend the night with my grandfather. We would just hate to do it; hate to be bored because he would read to us from the classics. But, of course it sunk in. And he’d pay us 50 cents, which was a lot of money back then. This guy, who had no education—it was just amazing.

JH: Did he write at all himself?

DD: No.

JH: Tell us about your family.

DD: My father came from Derby, Connecticut, and he went to Harvard Medical School and became a very famous surgeon. He was the first—I think the first—to hold a human heart in his hands way before Debakey and all those people. He also removed a bullet from the heart of a black child, and the kid lived. When we were little kids, on Christmas, we always went to visit this kid whose life my father saved.

My father was the president of St. Francis Hospital at the same time that my recent neighbor, Miss (Katherine) Hepburn’s father was the president of the Hartford Hospital. They knew each other.

JH: What was your first recollection of family life?

DD: Well I suppose the old fashioned thing of family dinner every night, except Thursday night. My father and mother always went out to dinner on Thursday to the Bond Hotel alone. It was their romantic night, and we were left with the cook. But we always had a family dinner, and that’s gone out of style. Family dinners are a really wonderful thing:"What did you do today"? and "What did you do today"? and everybody knows.

We were a strange family in that we were rich Irish Catholics in an all wasp town. We were in the clubs. We were in the private schools. We had the summer houses, you know all this, but we were never quite there. It wasn’t until Jack Kennedy became president that Irish Catholics became acceptable. Now, I cherish that. I think that has given me insight in my writing about class.

JH: Did you like school, and if so, what was your favorite subject?

DD: Yeah. I was always drawn to English and books. And I used to write plays and they did them at Beach Park School. They did a puppet show based on a play I wrote about a covered wagon—two sisters, Polly and Molly, in the covered wagon. And that was fabulous.

Beach Park was the most wonderful school from kindergarten through sixth grade. We all remember the kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Emhoff, and the names of all of the teachers through the sixth grade. Just recently I went and spoke at one of those retirement villages in Avon, Connecticut, and about half of my class from Beach Park School is now in that village.

JH: When did you start writing plays?

DD: It was about the fifth grade. Just writing plays for puppet shows. It was a disappointment to my father that I was always putting on the shows.

JH: But, that gave you an interest in theatre?

DD: Right from the start. I was interested in the glamour of the theatre. My interest in movies didn’t come until a little later. After school I would sometimes sneak to the Central Theatre to see…I remember seeing Now Voyager with Bette Davis. I can still tell you the lines from that movie.

It had a message which meant so much to me—it’s kind of camp to say Bette Davis and Now Voyager, you know what I mean? But she changed her life as the character with that movie. She was unattractive, then the third daughter of a domineering mother, and was settled into that life, and she went away on a trip and she changed herself totally, completely, locked away, found the right clothes and got into a romantic situation. And the mother she was so afraid of, she became combative with her. That was a revelation to me. I was never satisfied with who I was. I wanted to be something different. And so the movie...I saw it five times, and I don’t mean over the years. I mean at that period.

JH: You say you weren’t satisfied with what you were. Why?

DD: I was a disappointment to my father and I was aware of it. I am a very sensitive person even still after all the hard knocks of life. I am still very sensitive. I was a terrible athlete and became the butt of jokes at the dinner table. I got to the point where I always had a keen, observing eye and I also can be funny. But, perfect humor was camp nature, and that enraged my father.

JH: Your father wanted you to be more athletic. Did you like sports, and were your brothers and sisters athletic?

DD: My brothers yes, my sisters, no. The girls never. I was never athletic. I was bad at it, which was the point.

JH: And that displeased your father?

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Edmund Wilson quote, The Great American Bathroom Reader, Copyright © 1997 by James Charlton Associates.


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