Why Goldwyn Wore Jodhpurs

David Thomson

  • The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper by Dominick Dunne
    Crown, 218 pp, £17.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 609 60388 4
  • Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers by Maria Cooper Janis
    Abrams, 176 pp, £22.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 8109 4130 9

There came a time in the middle and late 1970s when Dominick Dunne knew he was washed up. For most of his life he had been trying to get into Hollywood by acting as more than he was. Or without pausing to ask what he was. As a stage manager for NBC TV he’d been picked to work on their 1952 production of The Petrified Forest – with Humphrey Bogart repeating his classic 1936 role, Henry Fonda doing Leslie Howard, and Lauren Bacall as Bette Davis. The show went well. Bogart, always a bit of a snob, and once chucked out of Andover, was impressed that Dunne had been to Williams College. He invited the nobody kid to a party at his home in the Holmby Hills. Dunne knew he was out of his element there, but he took it all in: Judy Garland and Sinatra singing ‘impromptu’ with a hired piano player. All the stars. ‘Before the night was over,’ he writes, ‘people jumped in the pool in their party clothes. I jumped in, too. I wanted to be a part of it. I thought to myself, this is how I want to live.’

He’d done better still. In 1953, his mother threw a party in Hartford, Connecticut (where the Dunnes came from) for the opening night of a play called Late Love. It was a hit, and the party was fun. That’s where Dunne met Ellen Beatrix Griffin, ‘Lenny’. Her father was rich from cattle in Arizona, but the Griffin family was richer still: they had made most of the railroad wheels in the US. He asked Lenny to marry him, and she did. She was dropped from the Social Register because of it, but Dunne had just become a movie producer, and they became a Hollywood couple – everyone knew, though, that the money, the clout and the class were hers.

Does the Social Register have leverage in Hollywood, the place that fashioned those universal freedoms – the freedom to fantasise, to desire, to envy and to want to be someone else? Is there ‘class’ in such a wide-open place? Is there ever.

Dunne tells a chilling story about how class operated. (And might still). One night, when Dunne was out of town, there had been a party given by Swifty and Mary Lazar at the Beverly Hills restaurant, the Bistro, in which the Dunnes were investors. In public, Frank Sinatra had verbally attacked Lenny Dunne. Yet Dominick was his real object – Lenny was being browbeaten for bringing in an outsider. A couple of weeks later, the Dunnes were at the Daisy – another hot place in town. Sinatra, his two daughters and Mia Farrow (to whom he was then engaged) were at another table. George, the restaurant captain, came over to the Dunnes’s table. ‘I’m so sorry, Mr Dunne. Mr Sinatra made me do it,’ he said, and then he punched Dunne in the head. The Dunnes got up and left, and on the way out, George, sobbing, admitted that Sinatra had paid him $50. How much for a full execution?

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