Movie Stars, Mobsters, and Memories: Griffin Dunne Tells All in a New, Must-Read Memoir

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Griffin Dunne Tells All in a New, Must-Read Memoir
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There isn’t much that Griffin Dunne hasn’t tried. He’s been an actor and a director, he’s hawked popcorn at Radio City Music Hall, he’s worked with Madonna and Martin Scorsese, been roommates with Carrie Fisher, and gotten stoned with Harrison Ford. But until now, he’s never written a book.

“I’m from a long line of storytellers,” Dunne says on a recent afternoon in his Manhattan apartment. “I’ve had some crazy things happen throughout my life, and over the past 10 years I began to jot them down when I thought, now there’s a story to remember.”

griffin dunne memoir

Dunne’s memoir, The Friday Afternoon Club, is full of stories to remember. The book begins before Dunne was born, telling the tale of a great-great uncle, an heir to a wheel-manufacturing fortune, who died in bed with his mistress on a yacht off the coast of Palm Beach, and whose corpse was dressed and checked into the Breakers before his wife was alerted. Then things get interesting.

“I was always humiliated to be from Beverly Hills,” Dunne says. “I was embarrassed that my parents were so social and gave these parties that were so important to them and that my father kept scrapbooks documenting them.”

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Griffin Dunne, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher at a party at Earl and Camilla MGrath’s place the week that Star Wars opened.Courtesy of the McGrath Estate

Dunne’s parents were Dominick and Ellen “Lenny” Griffin Dunne. He was a closeted Catholic war hero from New Haven whose own father had reportedly performed the first recorded open-heart surgery, she was the daughter of another wheel scion (and a woman whose family ran afoul of the Mexican Revolution) raised in Nogales, Arizona—at least until she shipped off to Miss Porter’s.

Dunne was born in New York City, where his father was working as a stage manager on The Howdy Doody Show, and spent his earliest years on the Upper East Side; a pre-stardom Elizabeth Montgomery was his babysitter. The family moved to Los Angeles—thanks in part, you might not be surprised to learn, to both Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra—and the Dunnes and their brood (Griffin was joined by a brother, Alexander, and a sister, Dominique) made themselves at home.

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What comes next could have ended up a rich-kid memoir full of gold-plated names, but instead The Friday Afternoon Club offers something different. Dunne’s sharp wit, warm mien, and finely tuned bullshit detector allow him to tell stories about a world he was in but not always of. He writes about his parents’ parties and their friendships with movie stars and studio heads, but not without noting the transactional nature of the relationships, the waning notoriety of the guests, and the fin de siecle feeling of the entire operation.

“My parents’ social world in Hollywood exactly mirrored the movies that were being made at the time, which were being made by the great directors of the 1940s and ’50s whose best years might've been behind them,” he says. “The ’70s were right on their heels, and they were going to be deemed irrelevant the moment Easy Rider came out.”

But for young Griffin, his parents’ world provided essential lessons in being observant and developing an appreciation for the absurd. “The things that I remember from a very early age have always been very vivid,” he says. “From driving with my father as a five-year old and him pretending he was having a heart attack. I don’t remember that as a traumatic incident, I remember that as a hilarious example of his sense of humor and how I got my sense of humor, which could be dark.”

John Burnham Schwartz, the editor of Dunne's memoir says, “Griffin’s almost the last man standing in this extraordinary family, and that’s something that I think sits with him very meaningfully. He takes that responsibility seriously, but at the same time he's got this great sense of humor—that sort of black Irish humor that he inherited, albeit maybe in a warmer degree, from John and Nick. All of that makes the book special and really meaningful.”

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Griffin Dunne with Madonna during the filming of Who’s That Girl?Vinnie Zuffante - Getty Images

Traumatic incidents do, of course, make their mark in the book. Dunne covers his father’s battles with addiction and his sexuality (one passage finds a young Griffin dropping acid and fooling around with one of his dad’s boyfriends; the drugs agreed with him, the guy did not), his mother’s experience with multiple sclerosis, the bruised egos and grudges of family feuding, and the 1982 murder of his sister—and the subsequent trial of her killer.

“Writing about the trial was hard, but not in an emotional way as one would expect,” Dunne says. “It was hard in almost a technical way. I wanted to get the facts right, I wanted people to understand the pettiness of the players in the judicial system and how they bring their own personal feelings to decisions, and how a jury looks at the family of the victim's personality instead of the crime itself.

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Griffin Dunne with his father and aunt at the 2007 Broadway opening of The Year of Magical Thinking.Bruce Glikas - Getty Images

Nothing in Dunne’s life, or that of his family, feels off the table, and in the places he does hold back, it isn’t for the sake of propriety. “It was more for balance, when there was too much of a sad trajectory, like with my father’s decline,” he says. “In this book, my family members were sort of like characters in a movie, and I would see their arc. I knew where they were going to end up, so I could talk about—me included—flaws, weaknesses, deficiencies, and hardships, because I knew we were all going to come out on the other side and that we were going to grow out of pain.”

(Dunne has told tales about his family before. In 2017, he directed the documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold about his aunt. “We'd had a great time doing a short movie to promote [her book] Blue Nights,” he says, “and we had so much fun that she let me take it to a feature length and extend our time shooting together. Because I knew her, she knew that I would be coming from the inside out as opposed to the outside looking in her, so she didn't think twice about that. I felt compelled to show this aspect of her because nobody else would ever get it, just as nobody else would ever be able to describe or know my family the way I did.’)

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Griffin Dunne with Christopher Walken and David Bowie at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival. Patrick McMullan - Getty Images

Dunne’s brother Alexander, the only living member of his immediate family, plays a large part in the story and encouraged Dunne not hold back when it came to their battles. “I didn't want to start writing until I got his permission, because I had to talk about his hardships,” Dunne says. “And he said, ‘you say whatever you want about me, Griffin, just have it come from a place of love.’ That was great direction that didn’t just apply to him but to everyone. I knew I could show my family warts and all because I love them, and I am proud of how they all came out.”

<p><a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>The Friday Afternoon Club: A Family Memoir</p><p></p>

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The Friday Afternoon Club: A Family Memoir

The overall tone of the book isn’t as much macabre as it is mischievous, however. For example, even during the trial, Dunne reports that on the set of his film Johnny Dangerously, a particulary connected colleague offered to help sort out his sister's killer—an offer that Dunne declined. “I found writing [the book] incredibly fun,” Dunne says. “I made myself laugh out loud writing about Carrie [Fisher], and I'm very proud of that part. I was just talking to Fisher Stevens who made the documentary about Carrie, and he said, ‘Oh my God, it was like she was alive.’ It wasn’t only Carrie, either; with pretty much everyone in my family, I would get into a zone where it felt like they were in my company.”

In fact, Dunne says, the most difficult part of writing about his life was when the writing process finished. “The hardest part was not having to go into my office when I was finished, or going into my office for any other reason than writing the book,” he says. “I really missed the damn thing—it kept the family alive somehow.”

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