Irene Dunne

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Irene Dunne
from the film Love Affair (1939)
BornIrene Marie Dunn
(1898-12-20)December 20, 1898
Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.
DiedSeptember 4, 1990(1990-09-04) (aged 91)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
OccupationActress and singer
Years active1922–1962
Francis Dennis Griffin
(m. 1927; died 1965)
ChildrenMary Frances (b.1936) adopted[1]

Irene Dunne (born Irene Marie Dunn, December 20, 1898 – September 4, 1990) was an American film actress and singer of the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s. Dunne was nominated five times for the Academy Award for Best Actress – for her performances in Cimarron (1931), Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939), and I Remember Mama (1948). In 1985, Dunne was given Kennedy Center Honors for her services to the arts.

Early life[edit]

Dunne was born in Louisville, Kentucky, to Joseph John Dunn (1863–1913), a steamboat inspector for the United States government, and Adelaide Henry (1871–1936), a concert pianist/music teacher from Newport, Kentucky. Irene Dunne would later write, "No triumph of either my stage or screen career has ever rivalled the excitement of trips down the Mississippi on the riverboats with my father." She was fourteen when her father died on April 6, 1913.[2] She saved all of his letters and often remembered and lived by what he told her the night before he died: "Happiness is never an accident. It is the prize we get when we choose wisely from life's great stores."[3]

Following her father's death, Irene, her mother, and her younger brother Charles moved to her mother's hometown of Madison, Indiana. Dunne's mother taught her to play the piano as a very small girl. According to Dunne, "Music was as natural as breathing in our house."[3] Dunne was raised as a devout Roman Catholic.[4] Nicknamed "Dunnie", she took piano and voice lessons, sang in local churches and high school plays before her graduation in 1916.

Dunne earned a diploma to teach art, but took a chance on a contest and won a prestigious scholarship to the Chicago Musical College, where she graduated in 1926.[5] With a soprano voice,[6] she had hopes of becoming an opera singer, but did not pass the audition with the Metropolitan Opera Company.


Irene, after adding an "e" to her surname, turned to musical theater. She toured several provincial cities in 1921–22 playing the lead role in the popular play "Irene",[7] before making her Broadway debut in 1922 in Zelda Sears's The Clinging Vine.[8] The following year, Dunne played a season of light opera in Atlanta, Georgia, though in her own words Dunne created "no great furor". On July 16, 1927, Dunne married Francis Griffin, a New York dentist,[9] whom she had met in 1924 at a supper dance in New York. Despite differing opinions and battles that raged furiously,[3] Dunne eventually agreed to marry him. Dunne later moved to Hollywood with her mother and brother and maintained a long-distance marriage with her husband in New York until he joined her in California in 1936.

By 1929, she had a successful Broadway career playing leading roles. Dunne's role as Magnolia Hawks in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat was the result of a chance meeting with showman Florenz Ziegfeld in an elevator the day she returned from her honeymoon. She was discovered by Hollywood while starring with the road company of Show Boat[10] in 1929. She signed a contract with RKO and appeared in her first movie, Leathernecking (1930), a film version of the musical Present Arms. Already in her thirties when she made her first film, she would be in competition with younger actresses for roles, and found it advantageous to evade questions that would reveal her age. Her publicists encouraged the belief that she was born in 1901 or 1904, and the former is the date engraved on her tombstone.[10]

During the 1930s and 1940s, Dunne blossomed into a popular screen heroine in movies such as the original Back Street (1932) and the original Magnificent Obsession (1935) and re-created her role as Magnolia in Show Boat (1936), directed by James Whale. Love Affair (1939) is the first of three films she made opposite Charles Boyer. She starred, and sang "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film version of the musical Roberta (1935).

Dunne was apprehensive about attempting her first comedy role, as the title character in Theodora Goes Wild (1936), but discovered that she enjoyed it.[11] She turned out to possess an aptitude for comedy, with a flair for combining the elegant and the madcap, a quality she displayed in such films as The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940), both co-starring Cary Grant. Other roles include Julie Gardiner Adams in Penny Serenade (1941), again with Grant, Anna and the King of Siam (1946) as Anna Leonowens, Lavinia Day in Life with Father (1947), and Marta Hanson in I Remember Mama (1948). In The Mudlark (1950), she was nearly unrecognizable under heavy makeup as Queen Victoria.

The comedy It Grows on Trees (1952) became Dunne's last screen performance, although she remained on the lookout for suitable film scripts for years afterwards. The following year, she was the opening act on the 1953 March of Dimes showcase in New York City. While in town, she made an appearance as the mystery guest on What's My Line?[12] She also made television performances on Ford Theatre, General Electric Theater, and the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, continuing to act until 1962.

In 1952–53, Dunne played newspaper editor Susan Armstrong in the radio program Bright Star. The syndicated 30-minute comedy-drama also starred Fred MacMurray.[13]

Dunne commented in an interview that she had lacked the "terrifying ambition" of some other actresses and said, "I drifted into acting and drifted out. Acting is not everything. Living is."[14]

Later life[edit]

Dunne was present at Disneyland on "Dedication Day" in 1955 and was asked by Walt Disney to christen the Mark Twain River Boat, which she did with a bottle filled with water from several major rivers across the United States.

In 1957, President Eisenhower appointed Dunne one of five alternative U.S. delegates to the United Nations in recognition of her interest in international affairs and Roman Catholic and Republican causes.[15] In her retirement, she devoted herself primarily to civic, philanthropic, and Republican political causes.[16] In 1965, she became a board member of Technicolor, the first woman ever elected to the board of directors.[17]

Personal life[edit]

Dunne remained married to Dr. Francis Griffin until his death on October 14, 1965. They lived in Holmby Hills, California, in a Southern plantation-style mansion they designed. They had one daughter, Mary Frances (née Anna Mary Bush), who was adopted in 1936 (finalized in 1938) from the New York Foundling Hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity of New York.[18] Both she and her husband were members of the Knights of Malta.

Dunne was a devout Catholic who became a daily communicant. She was a member of the Church of the Good Shepherd and the Catholic Motion Picture Guild in Beverly Hills, California.[19] She was good friends with actress Loretta Young and remained close to others like Jimmy Stewart.[20]

One of Dunne's last public appearances was in April 1985, when she attended the dedication of a bust in her honor at St. John's (Roman Catholic) Hospital in Santa Monica, California, for which her foundation, The Irene Dunne Guild, had raised more than $20 million. The Irene Dunne Guild remains "instrumental in raising funds to support programs and services at St. John's" hospital in Santa Monica.[21]


Crypt of Irene Dunne at Calvary Cemetery (notice incorrect birth year)

Dunne died at her Holmby Hills home in Los Angeles on September 4, 1990,[22] and is entombed in the Calvary Cemetery, East Los Angeles. Her personal papers are housed at the University of Southern California.[23] She was survived by her daughter, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.[24]

A bronze bust of Dunne is on display at St. John's Hospital. The artwork, commissioned by the hospital from artist Artis Lane, has a plaque reading "IRENE DUNNE First Lady Of Saint John's Hospital and Health Center Foundation."[25]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Dunne is considered one of the best actresses to never win an Academy Award.[26] She received five Best Actress nominations during her career: for Cimarron (1931), Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939) and I Remember Mama (1948).

She was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1958.[27] Other honors include the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame in 1949, the Bellarmine Medal from Bellarmine College in 1965 and Colorado's Women of Achievement in 1968. Received the Kennedy Center Honor in 1985. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6440 Hollywood Blvd. and displays in the Warner Bros. Museum and Center for Motion Picture Study.[28]


Year Title Role Notes
1930 Leathernecking Delphine Witherspoon
1931 Cimarron Sabra Cravat Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
The Stolen Jools Herself Film produced for charity by the Masquers Club
Bachelor Apartment Helene Andrews
The Great Lover Diana Page
Consolation Marriage Mary Brown Porter
1932 Symphony of Six Million Jessica
Back Street Ray Smith
Thirteen Women Laura Stanhope
1933 No Other Woman Anna Stanley
The Secret of Madame Blanche Sally Sanders St. John
The Silver Cord Christina Phelps
Ann Vickers Ann Vickers
If I Were Free Sarah Cazenove
1934 This Man Is Mine Tony Dunlap
Stingaree Hilda Bouverie
The Age of Innocence Countess Ellen Olenska
Sweet Adeline Adeline "Addie" Schmidt
1935 Roberta Stephanie
Magnificent Obsession Helen Hudson
1936 Show Boat Magnolia Hawks
Theodora Goes Wild Theodora Lynn/Caroline Adams Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
1937 High, Wide, and Handsome Sally Watterson
The Awful Truth Lucy Warriner Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
1938 Joy of Living Margaret "Maggie" Garret
1939 Love Affair Terry Mckay Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Invitation to Happiness Eleanor Wayne
When Tomorrow Comes Helen Lawrence
1940 My Favorite Wife Ellen Arden
1941 Penny Serenade Julie Gardiner Adams
Unfinished Business Nancy Andrews
1942 Lady in a Jam Jane Palmer
1943 Show Business at War Herself
A Guy Named Joe Dorinda Durston
1944 The White Cliffs of Dover Susan Dunn
Together Again Anne Crandall
1945 Over 21 Paula "Polly" Wharton
1946 Anna and the King of Siam Anna Owens
1947 Life with Father Vinnie Day
1948 I Remember Mama Martha "Mama" Hanson Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
1950 Never a Dull Moment Kay Kingsley Heyward
The Mudlark Queen Victoria
1951 You Can Change the World Herself Produced by The Christophers
1952 It Grows on Trees Polly Baxter

Television credits[edit]

Radio appearances[edit]

Year Program Episode/source
1935 Lux Radio Theater Secrets
1936 Lux Radio Theater Bittersweet
1938 Lux Radio Theater Theodora Goes Wild
1939 Lux Radio Theater The Sisters
1940 Lux Radio Theater Love Affair
1940 Lux Radio Theater Show Boat
1941 The Screen Guild Theater My Favorite Wife
1941 Lux Radio Theater Unfinished Business
1941 The Screen Guild Theater Penny Serenade
1941 The Cavalcade Of America Cimmarron
1946 Lux Radio Theatre Together Again[29]
1952 Family Theater The Crossroads of Christmas[30]

In popular culture[edit]

According to Francis Ford Coppola's audio commentary on Bram Stoker's Dracula, Columbia used Dunne's image on the familiar logo. In Mad Men the character of Peggy Olson is compared to Irene.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Good Night, Irene Dunne; Hollywood Loses An Airy and Elegant Gal from Film's Golden Age". People. September 17, 1990. Retrieved May 8, 2016.
  2. ^ Indianapolis Star, April 7, 1913, p. 5
  3. ^ a b c Irene Dunne (February 17, 1945). "Hats, Hunches and Happiness". Picturegoer Magazine.
  4. ^ Stafford, Jeff. "Thirteen Women". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2010-08-12. Irene Dunne, a devout Catholic,...
  5. ^ Gehring, Wes D., Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006, p. 15.
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-12-09. Retrieved 2013-12-09.
  7. ^ Logansport Pharos-Tribune, March 18, 1922
  8. ^ The Clinging Vine, Internet Broadway Database
  9. ^ The Indianapolis Star, July 31, 1927, p 57
  10. ^ a b The Irene Dunne Site: The Pre-Hollywood Years – 1898–1929 Archived 2013-12-05 at Retrieved August 18, 2015.
  11. ^ Robert Osborne, Turner Classic Movies introduction to the film.
  12. ^ What's My Line? (6 October 2013). "What's My Line? - Irene Dunne (Feb 1, 1953)" – via YouTube.
  13. ^ Dunning, John. (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-507678-3. Pp. 119–120.
  14. ^ Shipman, David. Movie Talk, St Martin's Press, 1988, p 37
  15. ^ "Ike Appoints Irene Dunne to U.N. Post" (August 10, 1957). Palm Beach Post, p. 4.
  16. ^ Gehring, Wes D., Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006, pp. 168–170.
  17. ^ Gehring, Wes D., Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006, p. 176.
  18. ^ "Irene Dunne Adopts Baby: Actress Formally Becomes Foster-Mother of Girl, 4", The New York Times, 17 March 1938, p. 17
  19. ^ "Our History - Church of the Good Shepherd". Church of the Good Shepherd.
  20. ^ a painting of James Stewart and Irene Dunne together is displayed in the James Stewart Museum in Indiana, PA:
  21. ^ See
  22. ^ "Irene Dunne, Leading Star of '30s and '40s, Dies at 88". Los Angeles Times. September 5, 1990. Retrieved May 9, 2016.
  23. ^ "USC Cinematic Arts Library's Archives of Performing Arts: Collections List". USC Libraries Research Guides. Retrieved May 9, 2016.
  24. ^ Peter B. Flint (September 6, 1990). "Irene Dunne, a Versatile Actress Of the 1930's and 40's, Dies at 91". The New York Times. Retrieved May 9, 2016.
  25. ^ "Irene Dunne (sculpture)". SIRIS. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 26 September 2017.
  26. ^ Milton, Michael. "Neil Postman, Irene Dunne and Living" (accessed 21 August 2010)
  27. ^ Vanity Fair Archived 2013-07-12 at the Wayback Machine.
  28. ^ Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library, 2000, Gifts of Vanna Bonta
  29. ^ "'Together Again' With Irene Dunn [sic] Next 'Lux' Drama". Harrisburg Telegraph. December 7, 1946. p. 19. Retrieved September 12, 2015 – via open access publication – free to read
  30. ^ Kirby, Walter (December 21, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 44. Retrieved June 8, 2015 – via open access publication – free to read


  • TCM Film Guide, "Leading Ladies: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actresses of the Studio Era", Chronicle Books, San Francisco, California, 2006.


  • Pursuits of Happiness, by Stanley Cavell, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1981.
  • The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s, by Elizabeth Kendall, New York, 1990.
  • Irene Dunne: A Bio-Bibliography, by Margie Schultz, New York, 1991.
  • Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood, by Wes D. Gehring (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2003).
  • Irene Dunne: a bio-bibliography, by Margie Schultz (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991).
  • Fast-talking Dames, by Maria DiBattista (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001).
  • Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System by Emily Carman (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2015). ISBN 978-1477307816


  • "I'm Still In Love With Irene Dunne", by Wes D. Gehring, USA Today, July 2003
  • "Irene Dunne – Elegant Leading Lady of the Golden Age", by John Roberts; Films of the Golden Age (Fall, 1998, Issue #14).
  • "We Remember Irene," Film Comment (New York), by Richard Schickel, March/April 1991.
  • "Irene Dunne: Nominee for The Awful Truth," Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), by Richard Schickel, April 1990.
  • "Irene Dunne (1904–1990): A Bright Star," Filmnews,by Peter Kemp November 1990.
  • "Irene Dunne, Top-rank Film Star of the '30s and '40s, Dead at 88," Variety (New York), 10 September 1990.
  • "Irene Dunne: The Awesome Truth," Film Comment (New York), by James McCourt January/February 1980.
  • Interview with J. Harvey, Film Comment (New York), January/February 1980.
  • "Irene Dunne," interview with John Kobal, in Focus on Film (London), no. 28, 1977.
  • "Hats – Hunches and Happiness" by Irene Dunne Picturegoer, (England) February, 1945.
  • "Irene Dunne: Native Treasure", Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book, DeWitt Bodeen, edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
  • Irene Dunne, in Films in Review (New York), Madden, J. C., December 1969.

External links[edit]