Well, boys and girls, Van Johnson’s birthday is upon us, on Tuesday, which means it will also be mine. And, well, I feel like celebrating this week which began, for me, with a birthday party and a visit from one of my best and dearest friends who lives about 250 miles away, with some fun with my favorite BFFs of Hollywood.
Of course, what would my list be without Loretta and Irene Dunne? Irene had been a sort of idol of Loretta’s long before they met, and it’s obvious from this article from the August 1948 Photoplay that Loretta adored Irene even more, after they became friends. I think what I love most about both of them is that there’s no competition. They were two ladies who really supported one another. Loretta and Irene with the Life Goals, ladies. Don’t we all want a BFF like this?
I Remember Irene Dunne
Loretta Young, Photoplay, August 1948
Irene Dunne and I are friends and this is a special blessing to me. The quality of this friendship, its warmth and strength are because of Irene´s extraordinary qualities, not mine.
I grew up in the studios and some things I grew realistic about. One was personal friendship between actresses. I accepted, after disappointments, that such friendship could not exist. Dear and pleasant acquaintances were mine by the score – contracts which continued delightfully, socially, as the years progressed. But I was convinced it was too much to expect that the kind of peaceful, giving devotion which true friends have for each other could exist between two feminine members of this competitive business. Irene Griffin was the first to unlock this conviction.
I don’t remember when we first met. I just remembered that shortly after the exciting entrance of Tom Lewis into my life and date-book and future, he said one evening, “I know one of the most charming woman – Irene Dunne.”
There was deep admiration in his tone, his expression. First off, I didn’t like the idea of either. Not too angelic, am I! With the next breath I dismissed the resistance I’d felt. I’d seen Irene Dunne on screen, I admired her work tremendously. Now among the gifts Tom Lewis was to bring into my life was friendship with her and that strong and gentle man who is her husband.
So we met. And I do not remember where or when or what was said. Because it seems today that I have known them always.
The Irene I know is as vague as the absent-minded professor – and as adroit. She’s casual as a Noël Coward heroine and as conscientious as a Salvation Army missionary. She’s as fragile as Dresden and as strong as steel.
Vague and adroit- There is a story Tom and I chuckle over. The teacup story we call it. I had really shopped, one Christmas, to find eggshell thin cups and saucers for the Griffin gift. When I found what I wanted, I was enchanted with them. Months later, one evening, after we’d dined with Irene and Frank, I exclaimed over the cups. Quickly and characteristically Irene said, “I’ll give them to you.” It was obvious she’d forgotten they were my gift to her. Forthrightly, I said, “Why, Irene, I gave them to you!” There was the barest flicker behind her eyes. Then sweetly, calmly, adroitly, “But as you love them so much I was sure you’d let me return them to you.” That´s our girl!
Casual and conscientious- Irene’s invitations are almost toss-offs. “We are having some people in for dinner. If you’d like to come you’ll probably enjoy meeting them and they’ll probably like you, too. Dinner’s around seven or seven-thirty. Wear whatever you like.” So you go. And you dress. And you meet the most expertly selected combination of guests. Folks who strike the conversational spark, whose enthusiasms and information make the evening memorable. The dinner is perfect. And on such occasions Irene’s eyes are alert. Every detail is important – nothing is forgotten.
Calm and determined- No one, friend or co-worker, can quote an argument with the lady. She never says “no” to suggestions no matter how unresponsive she is to it. Her tact is unlimited. She says with the deceptive lack of emphasis, “I just think maybe that isn’t the best thing to do.” It’s a silly person who, hours or days or weeks later, thinks to persuade her otherwise.
Our real friendship dates from the night of a party at Elsa Maxwell´s. My engagement to Tom had just been announced. Congratulations were many and extravagant. Irene’s was typical – warm, straightforward, sincere. Frank stood behind her beaming at me, backing her up as always. “We’ve known Tom a long time and now we know you. This will be a good and right marriage. We are especially happy for Tom.” That was the precise moment I lost my “actresses-can’t-be- friends” theory. She and Frank knew Tom so well- they knew me so little. They made me so welcome in their love for Tom.
Fragile and strong- There is, of course, the obvious physical contrast in this category. Irene is slender, unhurried, feminine. And surprisingly, one of the sturdiest, athletic golfers in town. I know that her game is the envy of most of the rabid males who chase that capricious ball over the courses. But it is not this physically and fragile and strong contrast that I admire. It’s the delicacy with which she lives her philosophy and the stamina she brings to proof it.
Frank and Irene have been married more than a little while. They are tried and true partners. Frank’s smile is sweet and warm, reflecting his deep and uncritical affection for human beings. His quiet, his unobtrusiveness makes him the kind of person one takes for granted.
So, on the day, a few years ago, when he was suddenly stricken, she shock was shattering. “Not Frank!” That anything could happen to Frank was unbelievable to all of us. And most of all – to Irene.
It was in the long weeks and months which followed that Irene played her greatest role. Her career did not exist. She lived for two weeks at the hospital. Her world lay still in the adjoining room. A man’s heartbeat measured the passing hours. It was while Frank was, in manner of speaking, absent from the scene, that Hollywood came aware of his stature. Recognized his strength and fineness. Understood his wife’s devotion.
Frank came slowly back from the far places and Irene breathed normally again. Our hearts rejoiced. Everything was as it was before. No, I can´t say that. On the surface, maybe. But underneath we’ve all a new appreciation of Frank. A valuation of his infinite capacity for interest and concern for every one of us – from our son Christopher, his godchild, to Miss Shankey, our housekeeper.
When Tom and I got to our room the night of the Academy Awards, I found a note on my pillow. It was signed “Frank and Irene” and its content, brief and forthright, is to close to be shared. Earlier that day, we’d had a four-way phone conversation and I assured Irene there was no chance of my winning.
When we got home from church the next morning the Griffins were parked in the driveway. They were bubbling with happiness. The famous Griffin calm was nonexistent. I know if the Oscar had been in Irene’s possession they would have been calm. But their delight for me had unbridled excitement in it.
Seems, night before, the Griffins had gone to bed early with the radio tuned to the Awards program. They were relaxed and ready to go to sleep as soon as the final announcement was made. When the surprise of my name hit their ears they jumped from their beds, rushed to their dressing rooms, dressed frantically.
Then ensued the one incoherent scene in my memory book of them.
“We’ll get right down there,” they said as they met, fully dressed, in their room.
“Yes,” the chorused as Frank found his car keys. “We’ll have to hurry,” said Irene.
“They’ll expect us,” said Frank. They started down the stairs.
“We’d better go right backstage.” – Irene.
“She’ll be awfully busy.” – Frank.
“Maybe we’d better go right to Mocambo.” – Irene.
“Nobody expects us at that party.” – Frank.
“What party?” – Irene.
“I don’t know.” – Frank.
They were at the door now. They turned blankly towards each other as their hands met at the doorknob. They burst into hilarious laughter. “What are we doing here?” Irene giggled as Frank boomed. “Where do we think we are going, anyway?” They laughed and laughed and sank on the steps – and laughed some more. Then, Frank, rebolted the door, turned out the lights and they went back upstairs chuckling. Irene called our house, dictated that little note, asked that it be put on my pillow. And then, lights out, they talked back and forth, picturing my surprise, delight, excitement.
By the time, they finished the recounting we were all at the breakfast table. Irene kept looking at me. “You deserved it,” she repeated. “You deserved it.” And, “I’m glad – glad.”
The sincerity, the heartwarming unselfishness in her eyes brought a lump to my throat. Because I knew, somehow, she’d have said the same, “You deserve it,” out of her loyalty and affection and understanding, though in a different tone of voice, if I hadn’t come home with Oscar clutched in my hand.
She is a person of importance, my friend Mrs. Frank Griffin. She is an actress of rare and authentic ability, my friend Irene Dunne.