The Friday Afternoon Club, by Griffin Dunne (Penguin Press, 400 pp., $30)

In Woody Allen’s Coup de Chance, the French writer Alain describes his forthcoming book. “It’s really about irony. How ironic life can be,” he says. “How we’re ruled by chance and coincidence. And what a farce life is—a black farce.”

This could describe actor, director, and producer Griffin Dunne’s irony-haunted new memoir, The Friday Afternoon Club, in which he reflects on chance encounters and mystical coincidences from his 1960s childhood to the 1990 birth of his daughter (named after the lead character in Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters). Dunne is known for recent acting roles in The Girls on the Bus and This Is Us but also for 1980s cult films, including An American Werewolf in London and After Hours. The latter, directed by a then down-on-his-luck Martin Scorsese, turns Lower Manhattan into a nocturnal theater of the absurd. “The misadventures of Paul Hackett, the main character, could only have happened to me,” writes Dunne in his family-centered book.

The black comedic vignettes of Dunne’s memoir, befitting a Nathanael West novel, feature the ascendant, fallen, and broken stars of an era when celluloid was still currency. Dunne was “raised in the land of make-believe,” he writes—first in New York, where Elizabeth Montgomery, a struggling actress before she played Samantha in Bewitched, was his babysitter, and then in Los Angeles, where Sean Connery saved him from drowning in a pool. (“A wee bit early for the deep end, sonny,” said James Bond.)

Dunne’s cinephilic and literary family made possible these early Tinseltown encounters. His parents, Dominick and Ellen (Lenny) Dunne, were Hollywood’s mid-sixties “‘it’ couple, invited to every party and hosting their own, big and small,” including a black and white ball that inspired one attendee, Truman Capote, to throw his own more famous one, in 1966. His uncle John Gregory Dunne married the up-and-coming writer Joan Didion; it was at their home that Dunne saw the W-shaped palm trees from a favorite childhood movie, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and assisted a young carpenter, Harrison Ford, in building their deck.

Didion, the subject of nephew Dunne’s documentary film The Center Will Not Hold, once said, “Writers are always selling somebody out.” This isn’t the case in Dunne’s memoir. Star-studded names are just the extras and supporting cast for his vivid and loving presentation of his family, which had its share of tragedy and misfortune. Descended from the manufacturer of wheels for Pullman train cars, Dunne’s Irish-Mexican mother, Lenny, is an elegant figure, who stoically endures years of confinement to a wheelchair in her struggle with multiple sclerosis. Dunne’s brother, Alex, experienced a years-long struggle with mental illness and, after stints in the psych ward, “learned how to live with the burden of his lonely secrets.”

An underlying theme of Dunne’s book concerns his father Dominick’s secret life as a gay man. Nick, as his father was known, is best remembered today as a star Vanity Fair reporter who covered high-profile crime stories, including the Menendez brothers murder case and the O. J. Simpson trials. He met the woman who would become his wife when he was stage manager of the Howdy Doody show in New York and realized that Lenny was “someone he could open his heart to.” In Hollywood, he compared himself and Lenny with Gerald and Sara Murphy, the Roaring Twenties socialites who inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. The comparison held a deeper meaning: in a 1931 letter to Archibald MacLeish, Gerald alluded to his own lifelong struggle in the closet—or “defect,” as he called it. For Nick, the struggle dated to his childhood relationship with his father, an accomplished doctor who performed the first recorded open-heart surgery. But when the doctor “wasn’t mending hearts, he was breaking my father’s, with routine beatings from a Brooks Brothers belt,” Dunne writes. An abusive father and austere Catholic upbringing fired an enduring rage in Nick.

As Dunne remembers, his father “did a terrible job” of hiding his secret life. (Though Nick and Lenny divorced after a decade, he continued to call her “my wife.”) After all, he had produced William Friedkin’s 1970 gay-themed film, The Boys in the Band, and brought home miniature poodles named for Oscar Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. But as Dunne learned later, his father was also a World War II hero awarded a Bronze Star for saving a seriously wounded man behind enemy lines at the Battle of Metz. (“It took me many years to understand what it meant to be a man,” he writes, “and by then I realized I’d been raised by one all along.”) In 2008, visiting his dying father undergoing cancer treatment in Munich, he was reacquainted with Nick’s decades-long male companion. “It makes perfect sense that you know nothing about me and I know everything about you,” the artist Norman Carby told Dunne.

Dunne’s sister, Dominique, had long ago played matchmaker between her father and Carby, her close friend. “That was so Dominique, to be entrusted with a secret and not even share it with her brothers,” he writes. Thoroughly exposed to her father’s alcoholism and drug abuse, Dominique “was the only one he trusted with his secrets, and the only person who could talk him off the ledge.” His sister, “who was born knowing who she was and what she wanted,” is the focus of the memoir’s anguished second half. 

The youngest of Nick and Lenny’s children, Dominique moved with her mother to a new home to accommodate her multiple sclerosis. She took acting lessons, cared for stray pets, and began a weekly tradition called the Friday Afternoon Club—a backyard gathering of friends (including George Clooney) after class. In 1981, at lunch with her uncle John and aunt Joan at the exclusive Ma Maison in West Hollywood, she met John Sweeney, the sous-chef. During this period, Dunne co-produced Baby It’s You, a John Sayles film about a troubled working-class boy who falls for an upper-class girl who outgrows him, throwing him into a rage. Dominique and Sweeney attended the rough-cut screening in New York; in a conversation that night with Dunne, Sweeney disturbingly compared himself with the working-class character.

Dominique was in a troubled relationship with the possessive and insecure Sweeney, and she soon became a victim of his domestic violence. She “was seeing less of her gang from the Friday Afternoon Club because their burgeoning careers [she had a starring role in Poltergeist] made Sweeney feel like a failure . . . which he took out on her,” writes Dunne.

It ended in horror on October 30th, 1982, when Sweeney strangled the 22-year-old Dominique on the driveway of her home. Dunne recounts the aftermath, including the high-profile trial of Sweeney in a Santa Monica courthouse. He presents scenes from the trial, which the family attended and at which his father “kept meticulous notes.” Dunne’s father managed to hate the defense attorney “even more than he hated Sweeney.” Then there was the judge, whom Dunne’s father would later describe as giving “the impression of a man greatly pleased with his good looks.” These dark chapters leave the reader appalled—especially Sweeney’s conviction for voluntary manslaughter rather than murder (he served a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence). Dominique’s story—and the trial—were later chronicled by Dunne’s father at Vanity Fair. Dunne adds: “Every cover story of his thereafter caused the magazine’s sales to soar.”

Griffin’s book is less a memoir than a reflection on family and friendship, from his boarding school days to living with his friend, the actress Carrie Fisher, who was to star in “some science fiction movie shooting in England” with an “older guy”—Ford. It’s also a revealing portrait of the richness of life before the pixels on smartphones wrenched our attention away from the real world. Dunne’s description of night-time film shoots captures the era’s mystique. “The later the hour, the more a spell of intimacy overcomes the crew,” he writes. “Secret histories and personal details are shared that would never be spoken in daylight.” Now they’re shared on social media.

One can’t help but keep turning the pages of Griffin’s memoir, hoping to talk to these interesting figures—or at least to listen. As he worked on the memoir, “Their presence was so vivid that the pictures of them on my corkboard actually shimmered with life.”

Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images


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