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Author John Gregory Dunne dies

Best-selling writer often collaborated with wife Joan Didion
/ Source: The Associated Press

John Gregory Dunne, the best-selling author of “True Confessions” known for his biting critiques of Hollywood and frequent collaborations with his wife, Joan Didion, has died. He was 71.

Dunne died Tuesday night at his Manhattan apartment after sitting down to dinner with Didion, said his older brother, acclaimed writer Dominick Dunne. The couple had just returned from visiting their seriously ill daughter at a hospital, he said.

“My belief is it was all such a strain on his heart,” said Dominick Dunne. “He had a pacemaker already. He just sat down, had a heart attack, and died.”

Said friend and fellow writer David Halberstam: “His work was quite distinguished. I saw him a couple of nights ago, and he had the same zest for life as always.”

While eventually earning fame as a novelist, screenwriter and literary critic, Dunne began his career as a journalist. He turned his piercing literary eye to the worlds of television and film, beginning with “The Studio” (1969), the result of a year spent observing in the studios of 20th Century Fox.

In the 1970s, he and Didion worked together on screenplays including “A Star is Born” (1976), the rock ’n’ roll remake of the Hollywood classic starring Barbara Streisand.

Dunne’s breakout novel came the next year with “True Confessions,” a tough, bleak account of a woman’s brutal murder and its connection to two brothers, a policeman and a priest.

The novel sold more than 1 million copies, and he and Didion collaborated on the 1981 film adaptation starring Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro.

Dunne was born in Hartford, Conn., one of six children. He turned to writing to help cope with a childhood stutter.

“If you feel that you can’t be a lawyer or a brain surgeon, I think you begin to think about what you can do,” he said in a 1989 interview with The Associated Press. “It’s interesting the number of devices people use to get by stammering. You never stammer if you’re singing, for instance.”

Colorful careerA 1954 graduate of Princeton University, Dunne wrote for Time magazine for five years. He married Didion, the author of “Play It as It Lays” and “A Book of Common Prayer,” in 1964.

A frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, Dunne was known for colorful descriptions of writing and the creative process; in a 1986 Esquire article, he called writing “manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.”

“Writers read differently than other people, they read at rather than read. They’re interested in how it got there and how certain effects are done,” he told the AP.

Dunne followed the success of “True Confessions” with critically acclaimed novels including “Dutch Shea, Jr.” and “The Red White and Blue,” which featured a former reporter turned Hollywood screenwriter as its protagonist.

He turned his eye on his own life in the semi-autobiographical “Harp,” an account of travels, family history and health problems.

In the 1990s, Dunne published another Hollywood-themed novel, “Playland” (1996), and worked with Didion on a screenplay dramatizing the life of troubled television reporter Jessica Savitch.

The script became the 1996 “Up Close and Personal,” a romance starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer that bore little resemblance to Savitch’s story. Dunne then rehashed the process in “Monster.”

Dunne is survived by his wife and daughter, Quintana Roo.