The Pre-Hollywood Years - 1898-1929
Just a few words
A fact which made this work a little more difficult, because it's the source for some kind of confusion, are those three years Irene "skipped" somewhere between her theatre years and Hollywood.
Born in 1898, her "official" Hollywood year of birth was 1901 or even 1904; this was a common practice for female Hollywood stars, and is highly understandable in a business which was - and still is - such merciless towards actresses of a "certain" age. Moreover, Irene was already in her early thirties when she began her Hollywood career; an actress like Gloria Swanson for instance with a career in the silents was born in 1899. All her professional life, Irene successfully competed with actresses five till ten years her junior - almost a lifetime for an actress of that era! As a result of these justifiably "lost" years, Irene almost never mentioned any year dates- Irene has a charming vagueness about the early details of her life (James Bawden) - the press jumbled up some other dates, and thus to try to nail down especially those early years wasn't the easiest task.
"Our home in Louisville, Kentucky, where I was born on December 20, was one of great happiness."*
On December 20th 1898 Irene was born in Louisville, Kentucky as child of Joseph John Dunn and his wife Adelaide Antoinette Henry Dunn. The Dunns, married in 1896, earlier had a daughter who died in March 1897 shortly after her birth.
On December 26th Irene was baptized in Saint Martin Of Tours Church, one of the greatest Catholic parishes in Kentucky at that time. Those were the days of a high child mortality rate, and little Irene sucessfully fought a pneumonia in the first months of her life, which left her lifelong susceptible to pneumonia.
Irene's father Joseph was a chief engineer on several steamboats, a dark-haired, dynamic Irish man full of stories on the river and knowing every bayou and boat. In contrast his wife, Adelaide, was "fair and gentle,"* the oldest child of the Henrys, a family with a German background. Adleaide's father Charles Henry was a builder of boilers for steamboats and through this connection Joseph and Adelaide met.
Irene and her younger brother Charles were surrounded by a family whose life was coined by the Ohio and Mississippi rivers: "This lazy, charming, lackadaisical atmosphere of the sleepy Ohio and Mississippi River Valley was a wonderful one for Charles and me."* Irene's fondest memories of her childhood were the exciting trips with her father on the river boats.
As this childhood was characterized by this Southern atmosphere it was also one lived in a household in which "Music was as natural as breathing."* Adelaide was an accomplished musician, had studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and early in life taught her daughter the piano followed by singing lessons. Though music was Irene's first love, she learned early in life that art and love is a lot of work:""Whenever I wanted to play with the neighborhood children I had to practice. There were lessons, lessons, lessons, always lessons" (Screenland, June 21 1937). Nonetheless, music became a natural part of her being and a driving force for the things to come.
"She was surrounded by a parent team comprised of great wit and musical showmanship. One of Mimi's earliest memories was her parents singing a duet at the family piano..." ² (Irene's granddaughter, Ann-Marie Streibich, about her "Mimi")
Fitting to her upbringing as practicing Catholic in a religious family, Irene's first school, St. Benedict's Academy in Louisville better known as Cedar Grove Academy, was a convent school. This by the Sisters of Loretto conducted school was not only a place of a pleasant atmosphere but one of high academical standards, and resided on 318 Thirty-fifth Street in the Portland area of Louisville. Here is some further information on the school and the Sisters of Loretto.
When Irene's father got an appointment as an United States Supervising Inspector of Steamboats, the family moved to St. Louis, where Irene consequently attended the Loretto Academy.
According to Irene she "studied the regular grade school curiculum, plus special music and art lessons and, yes, dramatics."* at the Loretto Academy. In later years Irene frequently mentioned her convent education and its influence on her, never really going into details.
I found a text by a former student at Cedar Grove who attended this academy a couple of years before Irene, and gave an interesting description of the atmosphere at this school.
Irene and her brother Charles
In April 1913, Irene was fourteen, her father died of a kidney infection. ("Capt. Joseph J. Dunn Dies in St. Louis" Madison Daily Herald, April 9, 1913). Despite his early death, Joseph Dunn was a formative influence on his daughter, and gave her an advice she treasured all her life and lived up to:
"Happiness is never an accident", he told me. "It is the prize we get when we choose wisely from life's great stores. Don't reach out wildly for this and that and the other thing. You'll end up empty handed if you do. Make up your mind what you want. Go after it. And be prepared to pay well for it. I hope that you'll go after the rooted things - the self-respect that comes when we accept our share of responsibility. Satisfying work. Marriage. A home. A family. For these are the things that grow better with time, not less. These things are the bulwarks of happiness."*
Irene liked to mention "the Irish" in her, thereby relating to her sadly early died father.
Adelaide moved her family to Madison, Indiana, her hometown, where her father, Charles Henry, operated his business of building steamboat boilers. The Dunns lived next door to Charles Henry, his second wife Rose, and Alice, a younger sister of Adelaide. Though this certainly was a tough time the Dunns had the comfort of familiar surroundings and the nearby family.
Madison was - and looking at photos still is - an idyllic place and Irene had fond memories of her youth in this small town:"We lived a leisurely life in that small town. There was time for everything. Time for me to dream my dreams under the Heaven Tree that stood in our yard, time for music around the piano in the evenings, time for reading wonderful books, time for friendship." ²
The leisurley aspects of life in Madison put aside, Irene was busy with attending the local High School, her musical lessons, and earning for the very first time some money of her own singing Sundays in the First Baptist Church Choir.
St. Michael's Catholic Church where the Dunns attended Mass
Irene took a further academic step and went on a course at the now defunct Oliver Willard Pierce Academy of Music in Indianapolis - a scholarship financed by the Madison Current Events Club.
In 1916 Irene graduated from Madison High School; the yearbook called her "Dunnie" and described her as "divinely tall and most divinely fair" and mentioned her participation in the girls choir and as senior commisioner. Irene's last name is spelled with an additional "e" - the familiar Dunne - and the spelling will vary from now till "Show Boat" played in Chicago in 1929. ³ But even in the Hollywood years the "e" was sometimes missing.
The Madison High School class of 1916 - Irene is at the left side the second from the top
...and it's about time for some steamboats - pictured here are the "Kentucky"(1910) and the "City of Louisville"(1916) both at Madison.
"I'd always wanted a career at the Met..." (Interview with J. Bawden)
Irene's first alma mater was the Indianapolis Conservatory of Music. She studied there for two years and graduated with a diploma and a teaching certificate - "I had my diploma, plus a teaching certificate as an art instructor."* As customary for young musicians, Irene tried to get some performing experience: "Mrs. Philip Zoerches of Whittier Place, Irvington, was hostess for the monthly meeting of Meridian Union Wednesday afternoon... There were vocal solos by Miss Irene Dunne accompanied by Miss Mary Brown of the Conservatory of Music." (The Indianapolis Star, March 16, 1918)
Back in Madison, Irene and four other "young ladies, all recent graduates of musical colleges" gave a concert - foreshadowing Irene's later activities, a charity event in favor of the King's Daughters Hospital. ("Musical Recital a Pronounced Success")
Irene convinct not only with "these difficult arias" but "her charming personality completely won her audience." Miss Dunne's arias of choice for the evening are quite revealing: "Un Bel' Di Vedremo" from "Madame Butterfly" by Puccini and the "Ave Maria" from Verdi's Otello. "Madame Butterfly" had a special meaning for Irene; as a teenager she had the opportunity to attend a performance of "Madame Butterfly" with Geraldine Ferrar in the lead, and in 1936 she remembered that evening like this: "It was as if I'd been asleep all my life...Farrar and the beauty of her singing had awakened me."(Movie Mirror, November 1936).
At last, some music:
Here is Geraldine Farrar - Irene's and the Met's first Butterfly - with "Un Bel' Di Vedremo" ("One Fine Day").
And Renata Tebaldi - simply because she is one of my all time favorite sopranos - with the "Ave Maria" from Verdi's Otello.
At this point it looked as Irene was heading towards a career as teacher, and she already had an appointment in Gary, Ind. On her way to Gary, she visited friends in Chicago and spotted a press note which announced an audition for a scholarship at the prestigious Chicago College of Music:"I won the scholarship and the ambition which had lain dormant since childhood, crystalized into a genuine aim to become a singer."* With this ambition awakened Irene started to make the most of the year at College and studied "voice, sight reading, harmony, Italian and music history."³ Looking at the roles she studied during that time, "Gilda" from Verdi's "Rigoletto" and Juliet from Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette", she developed her voice in the direction of a coloratura soprano. It is certainly no coincidence that Irene turned back to this repertoire when she had the first time the opportunity to sing some opera on the film screen.
Here is Irene Dunne with the, unfortunately shortened, "Waltz Song" from "Romeo et Juliette" ("The Great Lover" 1931).
Of course in between was some time to gather more experience and show some "Hoosier commitment."
Irene was awarded a senior diploma in June 1919, and her vocal degree included proficinecy in harmony, sight reading, language, muscial history and pedagogy.³ One fond memory of Irene from that time was her participation in the college's annual contest:"When I graduated I sang in the Auditorium Theatre - believe it or not, with the Chicago Symphony. I was one of the three competiting medalists and sang 'The Shadow Song' from 'Dinorah.' When I hear it performed today, I can't believe I sang it because it's so coloratura. They gave a diamond, gold and silver medal. I won the silver. It was a night I'll never forget." (Chicago Tribune, "Screening The Past: A Rare Interview With Irene Dunne" May 12. 1985)
The Auditorium Theatre in Chicago - view from the balcony/ view from the stage into the auditorium. No wonder that Irene never forgot that night!
To give you an impression of what Irene was talking about, here is an Italian version of the "Shadow Song" sung by the famous - and in the US around that time well-known and admired - Italian soprano Amelita Galli-Curci.
Amelita Galli-Curci - Dinorah_ Ombra Leg
MP3 Audio File [9.7 MB]
The next period, about two years, is mainly covered by a serial of letters Irene wrote to a friend of hers, Fritz Ernst, from Madison; a member of a well-off family and about 20 years older than Irene. Obviously Irene tried to start a career in New York City as soon as summer 1919, and auditioned for Oscar Hammerstein II which he and Irene remembered quite differently:"It led to a story he loved to tell later. Not true, of course. Well true, but quite exaggerated. He said he couldn't use me, and I said: "What do you mean?" and burst into tears. He patted me on the shoulder and saw me to the elevator and then - this is what I think is quite untrue - said he watched me from the window, walking sadly up the street, dragging my little sweater behind me." (Los Angeles Times, "Critic At Large: Irene Dunne: Always A Lady Of The House" Dec. 12, 1985)
In an interview with James Bawden from the 70s, Irene mentioned two auditions at the Met - her dreamed of goal - which she both "flunked." I assume that she gave the Met a try as soon as possible; and why shouldn't she with the successful time at the Chicago Musical College in the background? However, the Met rejected her - too young, too unexperienced - and probably the main reason - too slight a voice. Those flunked auditions consequently led Irene to musical comedy and thus to Hollywood.
The time between summer 1919 and 1921 was one of further studies - not only singing, Irene took dancing lessons, too - auditions, different offers, time in Madison, all kind of activities with friends and family (Irene was already an enthusiastic golf player), and thinking about what to do next. Irene hoped for some concert work to give her the chance to stay completely in New York; she knew that if something would happen career-wise, this would be the place. In spring 1921, Fritz proposed to Irene but was not accepted; at this point Irene cleary decided on a career. Nevertheless they shared a life-long friendship and corresponded till Fritz' death in 1959.
Obviously Irene didn't want to submit to the chorus line:"The Chicago Musical College had been founded by Florenz Ziegfeld Sr., and that helped open the door to Ziegfeld Jr.'s office when she reached New York. "He wanted to put me in the 'Ziegfeld Follies' at first. Well, I wasn't having any part of that." (Chicago Tribune, "Screening The Past: A Rare Interview With Irene Dunne", May 12, 1985) Looking at Irene's educational and family background this decision - not to give in such easily - makes absolute sense. This patience and endurance was rewarded when Irene managed to get the lead in one of the road companies of "Irene" in late summer 1921.
"Although I created not great furore, I was playing leads." *
That's an honest, quite sober summing-up of those years. Irene started with a lead - "Irene O'Day" in "Irene" - and it weren't all the way along leads, but she was early an understudy or took over the leading part during a running production. When she returned after this first road tour - which was a successful experience - Irene had the hope that "Back in New York I thought that with my experience on the road and musical education it would be easy to win a role. It wasn't." * She still had to struggle, and only landed the small role of "Tessie" in "The Clinging Vine"(1922) and the understudy of Peggy Wood (Irene replaced her in January 1924 during the road tour of this production).
Though the Internet Broadway Data Base states Irene as "credited as replacement" in "Irene," one of the very few occasions that Irene mentioned a year date concerning those early years of her life was in the aforementioned interview with James Bawden:"Well, I'd been on Broadway starting in 1922..." The first Broadway run of "Irene" ended in 1921, hence the production Irene was referring to must have been "The Clinging Vine" - Irene's Broadway debut.
Still some time till first billing...but at last a Broadway billing!
And Irene lost the Dunne "e" again!
The further progression of Irene's career after this debut is described in detail on the theatre page of this website.
Despite not "creating furore" she was constantly working - really no matter of course in the theatre business - in a range of different productions. In later years she liked to remember in interviews the two seasons of light opera she did in St. Louis and Atlanta - a reminsence of her initial wish for an opera career.
But even for an ambitious young singer, life is not all about work, and in 1924 Irene met her future husband, successful New York dentist Dr. Francis Dennis Griffin, at a supper dance. The story of this encounter turned up in the press in slightly different versions, but I think that's the kind of story Irene should tell herself:"Then I attended a supper dance at the Biltmore Hotel in New York with John Valentine, a singer and good friend. I was terribly excited. I felt this evening was important to me in some way. My dress was new, a bright red taffeta with a billowing skirt. I was dancing when I noticed a nice, well set-up, interesting man, wearing a grey suit, watching me from a doorway. I noticed he stopped first at one table, then another. Later I learned that he was trying to find a mutual friend to introduce us. He succeeded, but not until late. We danced and he asked if he might call. I knew better than to say "Yes" immediately, but say "Yes" I did. All my southern-belle training was for naught. He gravely wrote down my telephone number, thanked me for the dance and went his way. He didn't call me for six weeks!"* Well, at last, Frank did call and it took them another three years to get married - there was a lot to discuss:"He was a successful dentist living a gay, bachelor existence. He didn't want to fall in love. He had his clubs, his friends, his freedom. Also, as a native of Northampton, Massachusetts, where his family had been next-door neighbors to Calvin Coolidge, he had been brought up to believe that actresses were unknow quantities. With everything against us, we fell in love." *
Howsoever, Irene and Frank made a go out of the situation, and managed a lifelong happy marriage. Frank hated that Irene was at the theatre but got adjusted to her career through the years and became a bullwark of support. In 1958, Frank Griffin spoke for once with the press, and this article sheds an interesting light on this marriage - " 'Be A Trailer' Irene Dunne's husband says" (Daily Boston Globe, April 27. 1958).
On the 16th July of 1927 the wedding bells were ringing and the newly-weds soon embarked on a extensive honeymoon in Europe. Frequently 1928 is given for the wedding but Irene simply wouldn't have had time for the by her described honeymoon trip: a three days stay in Altantic City, and travels through England, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and Holland. Considering Irene's theatre schedule, there was time for that kind of voyage in 1927 but not in 1928 when Irene was already busy with the try-outs for "Luckee Girl" in early September.
The Griffins knew how to travel appropiately - and it was really about time for another ship! - the "Berengeria," Irene's and Frank's cruise liner of choice.
Perhaps Irene earnestly thought about leaving the theatre during the courtship or in the early days of her marriage - something she told in later years - but the fact remains that she was already busy again on Broadway with "She's My Baby" in January 1928. This production was followed by "Luckee Girl" in late summer of the same year. This was the first time that Irene premiered in the lead on Broadway, but unfortunately this musical comedy was not exactly a hit.
But the next production was a hit and at last she did make furore! Florenz Ziegfeld planned a road company for the long-running Broadway success "Show Boat," and Irene gained the role of "Magnolia."
The road tour of "Show Boat" was not only a huge personal success for Irene but she was spotted by talent scouts during the run, and ultimately signed a contract with RKO. In early summer of 1930 Irene Dunne left the theatre and set off for Hollywood.
Notice: Once again this is a compilation from many sources. Quotations are either directly mentioned or from the following sources:
* Irene Dunne "Hats, Hunches And Happiness" (Picturegoer, Feb. 17., 1945
² "Ann-Marie Streibich speaks about her Mimi, Irene Dunne"
and ³ the soever helpful Margie Schultz "Irene Dunne A Bio-Bibliography"
A special thank you goes to my German fellow Dunne enthusiast, Janine Wild, who not only generously shared her Dunne material with me but took her time for detailed discussions on Irene! Thanks, Janine!