My Musings

America’s First Lady!

America’s First Lady!

She was born in Louisville, Kentucky, to a riverboat engineer and his musician wife in 1898. She learned to love music and wanted to teach it. In 1918, a voice contest intercepted her and sent her on an amazing journey through Chicago, New York, and Hollywood.

Near the end of her journey, in 1985, Irene Marie Dunne (1898 – 1990) was awarded the highest possible honor bestowed upon a performing artist for her contributions to the arts and humanities: The Kennedy Center Award. At the White House reception for the honorees, President Ronald Reagan aptly said, “You have enhanced life—you have moved us and made us laugh, made us cheer and made our souls soar.”

Dunne grew up with the Mississippi riverboat culture. She later recalled, “No triumph of either my stage or screen career has ever rivaled the excitement of trips down the Mississippi on the river boats with my father.” This changed when her father died in 1909 and the family moved to Madison, Indiana, where she was remembered by a neighbor as “a friendly and happy girl.” Well-grounded in her Catholic faith, in patriotism and in Hoosier values, Irene grew up to became one of the greatest screen performers of all time, excelling in serious drama, screwball comedy and musicals.

In 1928, Irene met and married Frank Griffin, a New York dentist, to whom she remained devoted until his death in 1965. She never removed her wedding ring as an actress, regardless of the part. They adopted a baby girl in 1936.

Always a gracious, elegant and dignified professional, she invariably elevated her audience’s notion of American womanhood like no celebrity in our history. She soon became known as The First Lady of Hollywood.

When the screwball comedy genre surfaced in Hollywood, exciting new rolls opened up for women. In some cases, leading men were reduced to puppets under the sway of a headstrong independent woman complicating his life. For others, it was a ditzy blonde or a hot bombshell causing him fits. However, Irene Dunne topped this genre with a one-foot-in-reality approach that combined a quick wit with a rich dignity.

In all her roles, she depicted emotionally stable and strong women who do not take that strength at the expense of men. Leading men didn’t get the best of her but they got the best of themselves from being with her. Her strength was not limited to her acting roles. In one case when she was subjected to disgusting and disrespectful harassment from a major co-star, she stood up to the nonsense and threatened to walk off the project. She w was no milquetoast victim.

Dunne’s off-screen life was above reproach. Following her film career, she turned to Republican politics, business and flourished in philanthropic and charitable efforts for her church, the American Red Cross, American Cancer Society, Boy Scouts of America and many other causes on behalf of the underfed, underprivileged and disinherited. Her highest charitable priority was St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California. She raised more than $20 million as President and then supporter of the St. John’s Hospital Foundation. In 1963, she harnessed all the biggest names in Hollywood to help make the classic western How the West Was Won and to donate proceeds to St. John’s. The Irene Dunne Guild is instrumental to this day in supporting St. John’s.

Dunne received three honorary doctorate degrees in recognition of her work in music, cancer research and for her fidelity to the principles of her faith in public and private life. She once said, “Trying to build the brotherhood of man without the Fatherhood of God is like having the spokes of a wheel without the hub.” She obliterated any pseudo distinction between being good and being nice. Unable to disparage her decency, the best that the more prurient side of Hollywood could do was ignore her. Thus, her memory has been poorly kept. As one hungry tabloid journalist said of her, “She is bad copy but a delight to know.”

Film Highlights:

  • 1931 – Cimarron earned Irene the first of five Academy Award nominations.
  • 1936 – Showboat featured her exceptional singing talents and built her confidence for trying romantic comedy.
  • 1937 – The Awful Truth displayed a stellar comedic chemistry between Dunne and costar Cary Grant.
  • 1939 – Love Affair teamed her with the debonair Charles Boyer and is one of the most engaging romances ever filmed. It garnered six Academy Award nominations in the most competitive year in the history of the Academy.
  • 1941 – Penny Serenade portrayed how parenthood can challenge a marriage. It also dealt with the joys and struggles of adoption, something with which Dunne identified closely. Also in 1941, she sold war bonds and became a founding member of The Hollywood Victory Committee, organizing efforts to entertain and encourage troops. She also appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and performed with the Philadelphia Symphony.
  • 1944 – The White Cliffs of Dover was a war-time salute to our British allies. Dunne said, “I don’t think it smacks of propaganda, but if it does then I am glad.”
  • 1948 – I Remember Mama is my favorite. Irene plays the pennywise matriarch of an immigrant Norwegian family in 1910. Never has motherhood been more elevated on film than by Dunne in this down-to-earth “philosopher mom” role.
  • Her Legacy in Charitable and Civic Causes.

  • 1949 –Notre Dame presented Irene Dunne with The Laetare Medal, the highest honor bestowed upon a Catholic layperson. She was also named vice-chairman for the American Red Cross.
  • 1951 – Presented with the Lateran Cross.
  • 1953 – Received the Award of Merit from the Sister Elizabeth Kenny Foundation for raising funds to fight polio.
  • 1957 – Appointed by President Eisenhower as a special US delegate to the United Nations. She addressed the General Assembly on October 4, 1957 on behalf of refugee relief efforts.
  • 1958 – Named Indiana Woman of the Year.
  • 1965 – First woman elected to Technicolor’s board of directors. She was also the first woman to receive the Bellarmine College Medal for her contribution to the arts.
  • 1967 – Governor Ronald Reagan appointed her to the board of the California Arts Commission. Her 3-year tenure elevated the arts in many realms, especially for the handicapped–as seen in her efforts supporting sculpture for the blind.
  • 1968 – Named one of Colorado’s Women of achievement.
  • Her Legacy in Quotes:

  • “Audiences grew to know exactly what to expect from a film star. Joan Crawford would more than likely be a fallen woman; Garbo, a woman of mystery; Irene Dunne, a charming well-bred always loveable lady.” ~ Katherine Hepburn, actress.
  • “The sweetest woman with whom I have ever acted. She is an actress to her fingertips and radiates a charm I have never found in all my 25 years of acting.” ~ Maria Ouspenskaya (1876 – 1949).
  • “Her quality, refinement, gorgeous sense of humor, lovely singing voice… we could always pint to her outstanding example as a woman and a star… always the lady, charming and fun.” ~ Joan Leslie, actress.
  • “Her womanly charms will endure through the ages.” ~ Andrew Sarris, film professor.
  • “A beloved public figure, not in the fantasy sense but as a poised, intelligent and gracious vision of American womanhood.” ~ Walter James, 1990.
  • “She is the best, up there in a class by herself.” Jimmy Stewart, actor.
  • “Losing her is like losing a member of the family. She is a special lady who will live in our hearts forever.” President Ronald Reagan, 1990.
  • “She spoke of having a sense of purpose greater than herself; of living life ‘in a state of grace’ as though she could live as an instrument by which other’s lives might be improved… She was, bar none, the finest example of character I have ever known.” ~ Mark Shinnick, grandson.
  • “If Irene Dunne isn’t the First Lady of Hollywood, then she’s the last one.” ~ Gregory LaCava, Director.
  • All in all, she was a class act.


    Photo Credits

    Irene in The Awful Truth

    Irene Dunne


    About the Author:

    Joel graduated from Pepperdine University with a B.A., completing two majors: Art and Religion. He went on to earn the Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.