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Griffin Dunne on his New Memoir and the Death of his Sister Dominique

Griffin Dunne on his New Memoir and the Death of his Sister Dominique

On a brisk April afternoon in the East Village, Griffin Dunne steps through a portal to his past. He has hustled up the stairs of an East Village tenement too old for elevators despite its gentrified gleam. The hallways are narrow but clean and the doors look modern, new — until we arrive at the apartment we’re seeking. Layers of chipped paint speak of the passage of decades. The threshold is uneven — an entry to an era of slanting wooden floors, fire escape patios and bathrooms the size of closets. Inside, hats of fantastic shapes and sizes dot the blue walls, and everywhere there are books and flyers about Blondie, the Pyramid Club, Candy Darling, David Wojnarowicz, etc. Here is the habitat of a performance artist, impeccably preserved for decades and in fact still very much in use. 

Because he’s trying to help his daughter, the actor Hannah Dunne, find that coveted Manhattan treasure — a sublet with perhaps some legal gray areas — I won’t reveal the occupant’s birth or stage name. Let’s just say we have fallen down a rabbit hole and landed in what could be a set from Griffin’s most famous acting role, as the hapless Paul Hackett stumbling through a downtown dystopia in Martin Scorsese’s 1985 After Hours

 “It was so 1990s!” Dunne says about the apartment. Back on the street, we’re making our way past Tompkins Square Park. The actor-director-producer and now author’s famous eyebrows arch with excitement.

“It was like we went back in time. Hannah is going to love it.”

Griffin Dunne, 69, knows about going back in time. He spent the past two years researching and writing The Friday Afternoon Club: A Family Memoir, a disturbing and hilarious account of his upbringing in a storied Hollywood dynasty. His father was Dominick “Nick” Dunne, the Vanity Fair celebrity scribe and author; his mother was the Mexican American heiress Ellen “Lenny” Beatriz Griffin; his uncle was the writer John Gregory Dunne; and his aunt was the writer Joan Didion. Friday Afternoon Club, published by Penguin on June 11, is about coming of age in the era of Chasen’s, Natalie Wood, The Byrds and Charles Manson. It takes its title from the weekly gathering founded by Griffin’s sister, Dominique, where you might have found a young George Clooney and Miguel Ferrer.

 But more importantly, the book is about Dominique herself. The story pivots on the moment of her passing in 1982. The 22-year-old actress was at the start of a blossoming career — she played a screaming female in Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist — when she was choked to death by her boyfriend in a highly publicized case that raised awareness of domestic violence and victims’ rights, in part because of the killer’s distressingly mild sentence. The murder, the trial, the media coverage — the unthinkable sequence of violence, loss, injustice and rage — devastated a family already rent by alcoholism, disease, divorce and mental illness. 

“I always knew it was going to be about family, and I didn’t know the title, but I knew the subtitle would be ‘a family memoir,’” says the man helping his adult child find a home.  

Happy Drunks, Sad Drunks

“Everybody in my family is a storyteller,” Dunne says. “Whether they’re in the business or not, they know how to weave a yarn.”

We’re eating Moroccan food at Café Mogador, another old East Village haunt. Dunne is explaining how he went from being a high school reject diagnosed with dyslexia to a respected filmmaker, skilled writer and character actor repeatedly called on to portray haute intellectuals, from newspaper editors (The Girls on the Bus) to critical theorists (I Love Dick). Chapter after improbable chapter, Dunne’s book shows he knows how to set up a punch line, then hit you in the gut. 

“He conveys both intimacy and humility, which is quite unusual,” says the writer Susanna Moore, who has known Dunne since he was a child. “The book has the social thickness and richness — the rich body of manners and morals — that is more often the traditional atmosphere of the novel.”

The first half of Friday Afternoon Club is a rollicking, if often twisted, bildungsroman. From his father earning a medal for carrying a wounded soldier off a battlefield in World War II, to mezcal and song at the Griffin family ranch, the writer has ample source material. Both parents came from well-to-do Catholic families, Dominick’s from Hartford, Connecticut, Lenny’s from the Arizona border town of Nogales. Griffin was born in New York, where his father worked in television and his mother struggled to find acting roles. Shortly before they moved to Los Angeles, the family was featured on the Today show in a segment on “a typical New York housewife,” Dunne writes. “Arlene Francis ended the segment by saying, ‘We wish Lenny, Nick and Griffin all the luck in the world as they begin their bright future.’

“As it turned out, we were going to need it.”

Dominick Dunne had been obsessed with movies as a child, a fey trait that earned him repeated beatings from his heart surgeon father. In L.A., he embedded his family among Hollywood royalty as he produced television and films, including Panic in Needle Park and Play It as It Lays (both written by his brother John and sister-in-law Joan). Griffin grew up surrounded by actors, directors, producers, studio executives — a lavish lifestyle documented by his father in snapshots that he compiled for the 1999 book The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name-Dropper. Dominick’s scrapbooks sit on a table in Griffin’s East Village apartment, an almost absurd who’s who of 1960s Hollywood: Audrey Hepburn, Ronald Reagan, Truman Capote, Mia Farrow, etc.

For Christmas photos, Dominick Dunne staged his three children in formal attire, like some haute Norman Rockwell brag. This was stagecraft, a diversion from the fact the proud patriarch was secretly attracted to, and having relationships with, men. (Executive producing The Boys in the Band was a bit of a tell.) Griffin thinks Lenny “found out very early. My mother was never good at confrontation. And her temper never was vocal. It was a cold shutting off, which was far worse. So, I think Dad got used to that frosty look, but I don’t think they ever talked about it,” he says. “And you know, when there is that subtext in a household with three children, that deceit seeps into the woodwork.”

Instead of honesty, there was alcohol. Lenny Dunne used to tell her son that there were two sides to the family: the Irish drunks and the Mexican drunks; the sad drunks and the happy drunks. Dominick’s drinking wrecked his marriage and ended his film career. His brother Stephen committed suicide. Griffin’s brother, Alex, struggled with mental illness for years.

 And then there were the happy drunks. “[Thoughts of suicide] were as remote a planet from my sister and my mother and myself as could be,” Griffin says. “We were managers of other people’s depression. We were the concierge to their sadness, and it was a full-time job.”

From an early age, Griffin struggled with school. He was tracked into remedial classes. “I would just take the same course over and over again. And if that doesn’t make you feel like you’re mentally handicapped, I don’t know what does.” 

His recently divorced parents made the dubious decision to send the 11-year-old to Fay, a boarding school in Massachusetts. There, he learned about hazing, corporal punishment and pederasty: When a teacher “ran a manicured index finger along the outline of my bulge,” Dunne told the older man he was not interested and was reluctantly sent back to his room. 

The major lesson Griffin took away from Fay was self-reliance. 

“I thought, ‘Well, if they’re doing this, I don’t think my relationship with them will ever be the same,’” Dunne says of his parents. “When I would come back, I would be incredibly independent. It’s like one of those kids that go into prison for a minor charge and comes out a hardened criminal. I came back with a very steady pulse and could handle lying, cheating, stealing. My powers of sneakiness really served me well years later in business: the bluffing and the bluster. At the time everything was like, ‘What can I get away with?’”

 A lot, as it turned out. Whether it was getting “deflowered” at age 13 by an older girl obsessed with Anaïs Nin, trying to pick up debutantes at the Beverly Wilshire, or hoping to meet his idol Janis Joplin at a book party for Tom Wolfe at the house of Joan and John, Griffin had a blast when he came home for the summer and holidays. His parents were distracted by their new, single lives.

“We were on our own, we could do whatever we want,” he recalls. “And I was grateful for that sort of freedom.”

“He was also quite wild,” his friend Moore recalls, “and quite irreverent and, despite his need to understand and to make sense of everything that was going around him, he was rebellious.”

Dunne’s second boarding school, in Colorado, started out more propitiously. A teacher convinced him to audition for an Edward Albee play. Speaking the words on the page out loud, Dunne was able to make sense of them in a way that was transformative. He was cast, and so was the die: Acting became his calling.

“It changed my life, I didn’t look back,” he says.

But just before opening night of Othello, in which he was to play Iago, Dunne got busted smoking hash with a friend. He was thrown out of high school, and that was the end of Griffin Dunne’s formal education. 

Downtown Days

Dunne spends most of his time upstate, in rural Rhinebeck, New York, but keeps an apartment on First Avenue because he is by nature a downtown boy. He is a downtown icon, the very personification of louche nightlife in After Hours, which helped draw a generation of would-be artists, actors and nightclubbers to these streets. Dunne, who co-produced the film as well as starred in it, considers Hackett his definitive role. “I will be forever associated, understandably, with After Hours,” he says. “That part and my life merged together at that time.” 

Joey Soloway, who directed Griffin in the 2017 Amazon series I Love Dick, remembers the impact of After Hours and what they call its heroine’s — not hero’s — journey. 

“If you’re not a man, you’re not always getting what you want. You’re falling into problems,” says Soloway, creator of Transparent. “The heroine’s journey is going in a circle, in a spiral, and that’s what After Hours was to me, this nightmare that I think I have every night, of this story without a plot. The harder you try to get home, the deeper you fall into a dream state.”

Griffin had decided to be an actor, but he wanted to be a stage actor, not one of those Hollywood stars he had grown up surrounded by. In 1974, he moved to Manhattan to study acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse; after several misadventures, including getting arrested for shoplifting at a store across the street, he was not invited back for a second year. 

The 19-year-old, well-trained in deception, told people that he was 22 and had gone to college. One of the few people who knew the truth was his roommate Carrie Fisher, also a dropout. The two became fast friends in L.A.; their relationship was platonic, though Dunne did nobly deprive Debbie Reynolds’ daughter of her virginity at her request, arguably inventing the concept “friends with benefits.” They studied for the GED together but, in true After Hours fashion, were out late the night before the test and in the morning decided to stay in bed. (This is one of the many stories that did not make it to the 400 pages of The Friday Afternoon Club.) Dunne said their shared lack of a diploma was actually an asset. 

“It was an incredible engine to motivate us,” he says. “I see the connection of how I ended up producing a movie at 23 because I was a high school dropout. Just in terms of drive, we found ourselves at a pretty early age.”

Carrie at a party my mom gave for me on Crescent Drive when After Hours was released.

Courtesy of Connie Freiberg

It was during this time that Fisher shot a science fiction film by a guy named George Lucas, a role that would change her life and the history of movies. These chapters are Dunne’s favorites, replete with tales of him selling popcorn at Radio City Music Hall and partying with Fisher’s many celebrity suitors in their tchotchke-filled apartment in the legendary Hotel des Artistes. He was struggling to make it as an actor but finding himself as a young man. For one thing, in order to keep up with the conversation at dinner parties, the erstwhile dyslexic became a voracious reader. 

“It just went away,” he says of his learning disability. “As soon as nobody called me stupid, I went, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I’m smart.’ Once I got that authoritarian voice out of my head, it all went pretty easily.”

Dunne decided to become a master of his own destiny. He began producing films with Amy Robinson, starting with Chilly Scenes of Winter. “At the age of 23, I found it easier to produce a motion picture for United Artists than I did to get a role in an off-Broadway play,” he writes. In 1981, with his co-starring role in An American Werewolf in London, Dunne’s acting career took off. 

Tired of playing wingman to Princess Leia, he had moved into his own apartment, in his favorite part of town: the East Village. “For the vast majority of the time I’ve been here, since ’75, I’ve never lived above 14th,” he says. 

His dad and brother also moved to New York. Lenny, who had been diagnosed with MS, and Dominique stayed in L.A. The men were in Manhattan on the fall day when Lenny called Dominick, then put a policeman on the line: Their daughter was on life support after being strangled by her estranged boyfriend.

After Dominique

Most of the second half of The Friday Afternoon Club is about Dominique’s death, the trial, and the life-changing effect of it all on all of them. It wasn’t just Dominique’s killer on the stand; the Dunne family, and the glamorous, elite, decadent lifestyle they allegedly represented, were also on trial. 

“The defense quite brilliantly made it about feelings, and they also made it about class. She was from a very loving family, but yes, we were from Beverly Hills. And Dominique was an actress, with a career that just would have gone on and on and on,” Griffin says. 

“That’s one of the other great heartaches to me, is I would have loved us being in that sibling category. Every time I see the Bridges and the Penns having worked with or had parallel careers to their siblings, I just always think, ‘Well, that was our future.’”

Dunne writes with searing, unsentimental, sometimes shocking honesty. He was living in Malibu at the time of the trial, acting in Johnny Dangerously, a film about a gangster. He would go from set to court and back again. On the weekends, Griffin, Alex and their friends took acid, surfed and danced. One day, a film extra playing a mobster a little too realistically offered to have Dominique’s killer murdered in jail. Dunne considered it, for 24 hours.

“What we didn’t know was that we were actually pretty much crazy — clinically insane, like the way insane people don’t know they’re insane,” he recalls. “We would have a conversation about the best way to kill someone but without a trace of irony or humor, like we were pitching ideas. It was really a season of madness.”

Dunne settles into his spacious Second Avenue apartment with its view of the Empire State Building to talk about the trial, family — the hard stuff. A vintage map of Los Angeles hangs on the wall behind him, an inheritance from John and Joan that was part of the set of the movie True Confessions. Griffin’s dog keeps asking for his attention. “She’s the most empathetic dog I’ve ever seen,” he says. “She knows when someone’s sad — and I’m not sad, by the way.”

Dunne’s voice does break a few times: Once, when he recalls his mother’s frosty stares; another time when he remembers the day the verdict came in. He was on set. Michael Keaton, the lead in Johnny Dangerously, saw his co-star’s face and asked what had happened. Griffin told him, and Keaton immediately called a wrap to the day’s filming. “I’ve never forgotten that, ever,” Dunne says. “It’s about the empathy, the kindness, the understanding.”

It was a warm moment in a chilling day. The family, and most observers, were shocked by the verdict. Dominique’s killer, John Sweeney, was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and misdemeanor assault, not the first-degree murder the prosecution initially sought. Sentenced to six years and six months in prison, he served three and a half years. Victims’ rights groups and many media and legal observers criticized the judge for not allowing the jury to hear testimony about Sweeney’s previous abusive behavior. The Dunne family was livid.

“People can’t believe to this day, particularly younger people, that that was an acceptable verdict,” Griffin says. “It transformed all our lives.”

There’s no silver lining in the violent death of a loved one. “My whole family loathes the word closure,” Dunne says. 

And yet, their lives went on. Griffin’s career was gaining momentum, sometimes despite his own antics: “In the mid-’80s, booze and blow were so­cial accessories, so to stand out as someone who partied too hard took a lot of work, but I managed to get that reputation anyway,” he writes. His filmography includes producing such popular romps as Joe’s Apartment and Baby It’s You; directing the rom-com Addicted to Love, the dark drama Fierce People and the romantic fantasy Practical Magic; and starring in Who’s That Girl and Dallas Buyers Club

Despite her crippling MS, Lenny became a victim-rights activist. Alex, the only family member who had warned his sister about Sweeney and the most sympathetic character in Friday Afternoon Club, became a teacher and moved back to L.A. 

Of them all, Dominique’s father’s life was most dramatically changed by her death. In 1972, Dominick Dunne had gotten himself exiled from Hollywood after making a rude comment about the powerful agent Sue Mengers in a room full of industry people, including a reporter. “The joke Dad told that night in Cortina was that if they ever made a musical of Sue Mengers’ life, it should be called When the Fat Lady Sings. I guess you had to be there, and also very drunk,” his son writes. Dominick fell so completely from grace that he wound up in a cabin in Oregon. He detoxed there and began to reinvent himself as a writer, starting with a pulp fiction about Hollywood called The Winners, published in 1982.

 That was also the year Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown suggested Dominick keep a journal of Sweeney’s trial then turn it into an article. “Justice: A Father’s Account of the Trial of his Daughter’s Killer,” published in 1984, is a powerful story of what it’s like for a family reeling from tragedy to slam into the American justice system. Dominick Dunne built his second act in life — covering celebrity trials from O.J. Simpson to Claus von Bülow, and writing high-society novels including The Two Mrs. Grenvilles and People Like Us — on its foundation. 

“What a remarkable, remarkable piece of reportage this is,” says his son, who quotes “Justice” heavily in his own book. “Every word is perfect. That tone, which I consciously or subconsciously tried to emulate — not self-pity, just describing the horrible things that happen. And you know that whoever has taken the time to describe them to you feels enraged, as the reader is enraged to read it. I became so proud of that article, that and of my father for writing it.”

Whenever Griffin met someone who he sensed was going to be important in his life, he would give them a copy of the article and say, “You don’t know me until you read that.”

A Place of Love

Now, Dunne can give them The Friday Afternoon Club.

Dunne’s own second, or maybe third, act in life began several years ago, thanks to the disruptions of streaming and the pandemic, when he landed a couple of key roles and created a much-lauded documentary. 

In I Love Dick, Dunne plays a writer who doesn’t merely let his wife pursue a cowboy artist named Dick — he gets off on it. Dunne has a track record of playing this kind of damaged, desperate, debauched, even dead (Werewolf) men; they tap into something about his passive but ever-persistent passion. 

“Griff has that kind of guilelessness, that childlike smile where you’re like, ‘OK, he is the modern American beta male,’” Soloway says. “He doesn’t bring even one ounce of any kind of masculine privilege into the conversation. He’s just so allowing of women and females and the feminine. He’s almost like a traitor for men.” 

Dunne played another kind of antihero — the drunk, then sobered, uncle — in the series This Is Us. Ironically, it’s what Soloway calls the actor’s “essential bottomness” that also makes him a ladies’ man: nonthreatening yet sexual. Plus, that mischievous Cary Grant grin.

Griffin Dunne with his aunt on location while shooting Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold.

Courtesy of Ray Foley

It was a movie he directed that clinched Griffin Dunne’s cultural and literary bona fides and paved the way for Friday Afternoon Club. John Gregory Dunne died of a heart attack in 2003. In the 2010s, Joan Didion was on her own, and beginning to show the symptoms of Parkinson’s. Griffin crowd-sourced the funds to make a documentary about his aunt. Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold captures the legendary writer with her intelligence and humor very much intact, but her body painfully thin and tremulous. As trusted family, Dunne was able to document the famously taciturn intellectual with an intimacy and warmth that introduced her to a new audience in 2017. 

“He held space for her to age and for us to be with her as she aged,” says Soloway.

Didion died in 2021, following Dominick in 2009, and Lenny in 1997. For years, Griffin would tell stories of his famous family, wild childhood and tragic loss, and people would tell him to write a book. He kept a list of these anecdotes. With his parents and his substitute parents gone, Griffin felt both a freedom to tell his story and an obligation to legacy. But first, he called Alex.

 “‘You are the one who will be alive to read it,’” he said to his brother. “‘And I don’t feel comfortable writing it unless you give me the go-ahead.’ And he says, ‘I don’t need to read it. As long as it comes from a place of love, you write whatever you want.’” 

Alex did read the book and “he’s incredibly proud” of it, Griffin says.

Friday Afternoon Club comes from a place of love, and wit, and horror, and acid, and cocaine. The proposal launched a bidding war, won by Penguin books editor John Burnham Schwartz. The[ME1]  dyslexic dropout took to the pen like a pro. Instead of answering to a set full of producers, directors and actors, it was just Griffin and his manuscript. 

“I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I’d be on a set. They’d turn the camera around, and I’d run back to my dressing room because I left in the middle of a sentence.” 

Only he wasn’t really alone. He got to visit with Dominique. Lenny. Dominick. John. Joan. Carrie. The family’s many cats and dogs. He wrote with his dad’s firmness, his uncle’s humor, his aunt’s sense of character.

“I never put a judgment on anyone in my family or on myself, and if I did it was in a self-deprecatory way. Even when I’m talking about the saddest things, I would then do a pass where I’m looking for signs of self-pity. It was always my intention to describe what happened and use my inner life very sparingly, so that I didn’t sound like I was blaming or feeling sorry for myself.”

The director also understands pacing. For every dark scene of alcohol abuse or miscarriage of justice, there’s a humorous story of being saved from drowning by Sean Connery or Robin Williams miming buggery. 

“We were talking about happy drunk, sad drunk. The journey of the book is happy, sad, happy, sad, happy, sad, happy, sad, or you know, funny, sad, funny, sad,” the author says. The heroine’s journey.

There are a lot of names dropped in Afternoon Club, but it never feels gratuitous; they are real characters in an extraordinary, and not necessarily enviable, life. You close the book feeling as much shock as awe.

“I did the audio book last week. There you’re forced to actually see what the fuck you’ve done in one long stretch. And it was exhausting. Sometimes people have read it, and go, ‘Jesus, you’ve been through a lot,’ and I go, ‘ha ha ha.’ But I didn’t get it until I actually read it all the way through and went, ‘Jesus.’ Not just me, but all the people I love.”

Dunne is enjoying the spotlight of being a well-reviewed author. 

“I’ve promoted movies I’ve been in and directed and produced, and very proudly, but all those projects took a village; I’ve never done anything on a solo flight.”

Griffin’s agent, David Kuhn, is already talking sequel. The book ends not long after the trial, before the adult daughter whom he now helps find an apartment was even born. “The only sad part was finishing it. I just felt the presence of my family so much, in a good way. But talking here, now it’s going to another chapter, and so they’re coming alive in my eyes all over again. They’re never far from my thoughts, in any case.”

The article was first published here

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