Hats, Hunches And Happiness

by Irene Dunne

Hats through the years...

Ten dollars to a teenage girl is a fortune, but none too much to purchase her heart's desire - a new hat. It was large, of silky straw, pale blue with long streamers and extravagantly painted flowers under the brim. I cost exactly ten dollars. The new crisp bill was in my purse - the first I had ever earned, given me for singing in the Indianapolis Baptist Church choir - singing hymns taught me by the nuns. I truly believe that from that day on, I subconcsciouly decided on a career. The hat did it.


A few years later, in New York, a blue hat did it again. Any young girl aspiring to a theatrical career held Florenz Ziegfeld in a awe. When I found myself riding in a lift with the great showman, I was too much too frightened even to look at him, much less get off at the same floor. Imagine my surprise when a few minutes later, I discovered a young women calling after me.

"Stop, stop," she called, "Mr. Ziegfeld wants you, you, the girl in THE BLUE HAT!"

Show Boat was the result.


And then, if it hadn't been for the wig-maker's hat I'm sure I would have lost the test for Sabra Cravat in "Cimarron". That, however is another story.


Hats aren't the only thing that go into the writing of a life story. They can't be when a girl had a father like mine. I was only eleven when he died. Big, handsome, dynamic, Joseph J. Dunne was a man few could resist. Certainly his small daughter was one who could never forget him, nor the words he spoke to her the night before he died. I so well remember that Saturday evening.


"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. "


Our home in Louisville, Kentucky, where I was born on December 20, was one of great happiness. Mother, Adelaide Henry of Newport, Kentucky was gentle, fair, very beautiful and in direct contrast to my dark haired Irish father. Neither Charles, two years my junior, nor I ever tired of hearing about their courtship. 'Twas said that father drove fifty miles each evening behind his spanking team of horses to keep his date with the Southern girl - carefully chaperoned by FOUR maiden aunts. "Truly a courageous undertaking it was my dear", he solemnly told us years later.


This lazy, charming, lackadaisical atmosphere of the sleepy Ohio and Mississippi River Valley was a wonderful one for Charles and me. Father, a supervisor of steamships for the United States Government, spent a greater part of each winter in Washington, during congressional session. His letters home to mother and us children read as fascinatingly as any storybook. I have kept those letters.


No triumph of either my stage or screen career has ever rivalled the excitement of trips down the Mississippi on the river boats with my father. I've always felt kindly towards fate for giving me my first success in "Show Boat". Days and evenings at home were no less enchanting. Mother, an accomplished musician, taught me to play the piano as a very small girl. Music was as natural as breathing in our house.


When I was ten, I entered the Loretto Convent in St.Louis. I studied the regular grade school curiculum, plus special music and art lessons and, yes, dramatics. I felt I had "experience" behind me. Hadn't I, at the age of five, started my theatrical career as Mustard Seed in "A Midsummer Night Dream" - the smallest role in the world?


The girl I left behind me would still be teaching the three R's in a country schoolhouse if I hadn't had a hunch. I'm speaking of the person I might have been. As a matter of fact, I've left more than one girl behind since the day I stepped off a train bound for Gary, Indiana, and school teaching, to enter a voice contest at the Chicago Musical College. I had my diploma, plus a teaching certificate as an art instructor. But I also had the bulletin announcing the contest. On a hunch I entered, and the schoolhouse faded in oblivion. After graduation from the Chicago Musical College came my teaching assignment and the trip which ended in the voice contest. I won the sholarship and the ambition which had lain dormant since childhood, crystalized into a genuine aim to become a singer.


During a vacation trip to New York, I visited with the Paff family, old friends of mother's. Mrs.Paff's daughter, Rosemary, was trying out for a leading role in a road show of the musical comedy "Irene". When she failed to win the role, Mrs.Paff recommended me. To my surprise, I was given the part. But I was still too much the small town girl to "go it on my own". I wired home and mother came right to New York to chaperone me through a twenty-week tour of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Verginia.


...and more hats through the years...

At the end of the run, I took the money we had saved and returned to school. I have always been grateful to my mother for her foresight, for her understanding of my needs and ambitions. She allowed me to make my own decisions and then made me abide by them. My hunch pushed me back to school. Again I studied at the Chicago Musical College and was one of the three students chosen to sing in a contest with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I was as thrilled with this as I was with my Broadway debut, but won only second place. What has happened to the first prize winner I do not know.


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. Eventually I was given the chance to understudy Peggy Wood in "The Clinging Vine". When Miss Wood's father died she left the show and I was given the lead. The following summer I went to Atlanta, Georgia and played a season of light opera. This gave me the opportunity to acquire a repertoire of Victor Herbert, Gilbert and Sullivan and Lehar. I did a similar season in St.Louis. Although I created not great furore, I was playing leads. I never knew the Broadway Chorus line, the chorus dressing rooms, or how it felt to live in a hall bedroom sharing one pair of silk stockings with three other girls. I have much to be thankful for and I am. My hunches have been good for me.


Irene and Frank ca.1936
Irene and Frank ca.1936

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!


I was furious. In vitriolic conversations held with myself, I knew what I would do when he did call. What did I do? I again said "Yes". Three years later, I repeated that "Yes" when he asked me to marry him. The man was Dr.Francis Griffin - my husband. Our courtship bore out the bromide that "true love never runs smooth". 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.


Frank hated having me in the theatre. Our battles raged furiously. I was the one to capitulate. My hunch told me so. Also, I remembered the words of my adored father: "Marriage - a home - family. For these things grow better with time, not less. These are the very bulwarks of happiness." I agreed to marry Frank and to leave the theatre.


On a hot summer day with the thermometer hovering near the 100 mark on one of those ghastly, unbelievable hot, moisty days in New York, we married in an old fashioned religious ceremony. My wedding gown was of beige lace with hat to match. It's treasured between layers of tissue paper waiting for our daughter, Mary Frances, whom we call "Missy", to bring her to the same happiness it has given me. After the large and very gay reception, in a haze of confetti and rice, we left for three days to Atlantic City from where we sailed in the Berengaria for a honeymoon in England, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and Holland.

Irene as Magnolia in "Show Boat"
Irene as Magnolia in "Show Boat"

The day after I returned home wearing my beautiful new blue hat was the day I met Florenz Ziegfeld in the elevator. The hat caught his eye and Edna Ferber's glorious "Show Boat" was mine for the asking. Yet I had promised my husband. But I reckoned without my lucky hunches - the hunch that told me Dr. Francis Griffin was "my sort of people". His smile when I told him was as brilliant as my hope. I took the role and since that time there was never any question between us about my career.


Nothing can replace the excitement, the magic and yes the glamour of a Ziegfeld show. To see the great showman sitting in the second row busily writing his telegrams is a thrill no actress can forget. Mr. Ziegfeld never came backstage. His telegrams spoke for him. The opening night of "Show Boat", when I received a congratulatory telegram from Mr. Ziegfeld is a night I'll always remember. Then came the excitement of Hollywood contracts. Broadway offered all I had aspired to. Should I risk it all for an untried medium?


Again, playing a hunch, I turned my back on a stage career and came to Hollywood at the request of William LeBaron. Still ringing in my ears was the caution of a friend "Irene", he warned, "you are too tall for pictures".But I went to Hollywood for the musical version of "Present Arms". It was criticized unmercifully, and rightly so. I was about to return to New York when I heard about the role of Sabra in Cimarron. Then and there I was determined to win the part.

Irene as Sabra - and another hat...
Irene as Sabra - and another hat...

At first there was an astounded gasp from the producers. Sabra, a straight dramatic role, the emotional plum of the year, to a musical comedy star? Nonsense. Nonsense or not, I wanted that role. My father's words again rang in my mind - "Go after what you want." And it took a bit of going after. Came the day of the test. Something was needed. My make-up was perfect. My wig was beyond reproach, but there was something missing. Sitting in the make-up chair I remembered seeing the woman who designed the wigs that morning. She had on the kind of hat I wanted for Sabra. I ran around the lot, and a few minutes before the test, found her hidden away in a corner of the work room. I borrowed her hat.

I'm convinced as much today as I was then that the hat turned the trick.


Incidentally, for the first and only time in my career, my husband coached me in a role. The Sunday before the test he renounced his golf to cue me in my lines and spent the entire day watching me weep through my part. "Cimarron" started an entire new cycle for me. No longer was I a mere singer. From then on I was given a chance at such dramatic classics as the girl in "Magnificent Obsession", "Back Street", "Symphony Of Six Million","The Secret Of Madame Blanche", "The Silver Cord", and so on.


Hollywood and the motion picture fans have been very good to me, but I had the hunch that it was about time to try a comedy. My agend gasped. My friends shuddered. They begged me not to leave a sure success for a doubtful one. Their logic lost to my hunch. Despite those Cassandra warnings I accepted that harum scarum girl of "Theodora Goes Wild". "The Awful Truth" followed and I found myself a comedienne. I enjoyed those roles as much as I did "Love Affair", "Invitation To Happiness", "When Tomorrow Comes" and "Penny Serenade". But once having found the joy of comedy I managed to squeeze in a "My Favourite Wife" every once in a while. Then I returned to emotional drama with M-G-M´s "A Guy Named Joe", opposite Spencer Tracy, and "The White Cliffs Of Dover", and once more comedy with "Together Again".


Perhaps now is time for a musical comedy again - I'm not quite sure whether this is a hunch or not. Now that we have Mary Frances, Doctor allots more time to his Hollywood business than to his New York practice. Mary Frances is our Missy. We adopted her a few days after she was born. She is lovely, all pink and white and gold. Missy is the heart of our Holmby Hills Home.


Remembering my own mother's interest in my music, every day Missy and I have a half hour practice at the pianoy together. She loves to draw and I am keeping her paintings to lacquer on a screen for her blue and white bedroom where her miniature white piano is her pride and joy. She attends school and we are proud parents at their monthly musicals.

Hollywood today is a place teeming with activity. Army hospitals, canteens, parties for the girls and boys in uniform, small dinners for mutual friends, christening a ship in honour of my dear friend Carole Lombard, camp tours, all make up a life which has plenty of satisfaction in it. The glamour of Hollywood has never worn thin for me. I'm just as excited today over autograph fans as I was the day I arrived, and just as dissapointed if I'm ignored. I still chuckle when I think how chagrined I was one morning in church when a girl next to me spotted Dorothy Lamour sitting in front of us. She leaned forward, asked for Dorothy's autograph, then turned to me saying "Isn't it exciting to see a movie star!"


(Picturegoer, February 17. 1945)  



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