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Living with a Legend

Actress Dunne’s grandson Shinnick
shares what life was like inside the mansion

"Her personal integrity
has been a guiding light to me in my life."
– Mark Shinnick, Irene Dunne's grandson

By Don Ward
Editor

Mark Shinnick had the perfect childhood.
He grew up in a Hollywood mansion amid the splendor of Beverly Hills and surrounded by famous, old-fashioned movie stars – people like Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, Ricardo Montalban, Roddy McDowall and Caesar Romero who frequently dropped by their home.

Irene Dunne

Photo courtesy of Randy Lakeman

Grandson Mark Shinnick accompanies his grandmother, Irene Dunne, to a 1985 dedication of a bust
in her honor at
St. John’s Hospital
in Santa Monica, Calif.

He met famous actresses, such as Loretta Young, and famous directors, such as Bill Freye, both of whom were considered “standards” among Dunne’s regular guests. He sometimes chatted with neighbors, who included film producer Jack Wrather and wife Bonita (Granville), and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, who lived across the street with his daughter, actress Candace, and son, Chris.
He never had to submit himself to the scrutiny of the press or hide from the throngs of autograph seekers and photographers, yet he experienced it first-hand while escorting his grandmother, actress Irene Dunne, to social events throughout the screen legend’s later life.
Born to Mary Frances and Richard Shinnick, Mark and his younger sister, Ann, were practically raised by Dunne after they moved into her Holmby Hills, Calif., mansion, he at age 12 and her a year later. From that point on, he either lived with the actress or kept a room there until her death in 1990 at age 91.
During all those years, Shinnick often heard stories about Madison, Ind., Dunne’s hometown. But he never once got to visit there.
“She often talked fondly about Madison,” Shinnick said during an hour-long telephone interview Feb. 19 from his home in Santa Margarita, Calif. The town is located 200 miles north of Los Angeles on Hwy. 101 near San Luis Obispo.
“We often talked about going together to visit Madison, but we never did. I know she wanted to, but it would have been hard for her to travel.”
Shinnick, 47, said he became very close to his grandmother over the years and remained loyal to her to the end.
Today, Shinnick, who is divorced following a seven-year marriage, is an inventor who is working on several personal patents, including one for a less costly foam-style bed, another for a dental cleaning appliance, one for a lightweight ski boot and another for an automated home fire security system. He is seeking investment to develop these products.
He says the values his grandmother instilled in him had a lasting impression on his life. “For me, she was far more intelligent than me – what a mind she possessed and always exhibiting a stable sense of optimum behavior. Her personal integrity has been a guiding light to me in my life.”
He said Dunne knew how to protect herself from those who wanted to intrude into her private life or try to harm her public image. She did so “mainly by the quality and character of the people she spent her time around.”
When he thinks of his grandmother these days, he remembers the song “Old Man River” sung by actor Paul Robeson in the original version of the movie “Show Boat.” “In many ways, that beautiful song is a reflection of my grandmother, because in her soul was a real understanding of the river (having grown up in Madison on the Ohio River).”

Irene Dunne with Daughter

Photo courtesy of Randy Lakeman

Irene Dunne's daughter Mary Frances Griffin Gage, with Dunne at a 1985 dedication of a bust in her honor at St. John’s Hospital in
Santa Monica, Calif.

After her husband, Dr. Francis Griffin, died in 1965, Dunne lived a quiet life in her mansion and seldom appeared in public or gave press interviews. Her closest personal friend was Daniel Donahue, a non-actor who directed an interfaith foundation in Los Angeles. She spent her time supporting various charities, taking phone calls, reading and writing letters to her many friends and fans, Shinnick said, and he still has the desk at which she sat to compose them.
“It’s one of my most prized possessions,” he said. “I recall the times she walked with me to look up words in her husband’s 1930 dictionary, which she kept on that desk.”
She also left Shinnick her entire library of books. He said Dunne spent most of her time in her library, and it is where she received her visitors.
“Those physical things are all well and good, but it’s the values that she gave me that I’ll always have with me, and that’s the big thing she left me.”
Ann Shinnick married James Streibich and lives in Wilmette, Ill., a Chicago suburb, where she and her husband raise two children.
“She made a complete break from Hollywood a long time ago and has lived the prototypical suburban life,” Mark Shinnick said. She is now studying to become a yoga instructor, he added.
His mother, meanwhile, lives in Los Angeles and is now caring for her ailing second husband, Robert Gage. Mary Frances Griffin Gage, 70, battled alcoholism during her first marriage, he said, “but she is fine now and has been in great shape for quite a while. She eventually married a great guy, and she’s spent most of her time recently being an excellent care-giver to her ill husband,” Shinnick said.
To hear him speak about his famous grandmother, Mark Shinnick sounds just as impressed as her legion of movie fans. Indeed, the devout Roman Catholic had a somewhat strict, Midwestern upbringing in Madison, where she was taught at an early age piano and voice lessons, first by her mother and later by professional instructors. Even at that early age, she seemed destined for a bigger purpose in life, her grandson says.
“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 through a form of divine will combined with the best of human intent,” Shinnick said.
He added that Dunne was a firm believer in prayer. “She made me a believer because I can’t personally explain how it happened that I have survived certain events, other than her prayers for me at the time. Something about this being typically radiated and include a special energy.”

Irene Dunne

Photo by Jack Buxbaum from Margie Schultz's collection

Irene Dunne (seated center) poses in 1985
with her fellow Kennedy Center Honors
recipients (from left) Alan Jay Lerner
and Frederick Loewe; (back row)
Merce Cunningham, Beverly Sills and
Bob Hope. The event marked Dunne’s
last public appearance.

Shinnick says she “is what a legitimate star is all about – a positive affector of other people’s spirits in a wavelength beyond mere charisma.”
The details of her personal life are sketchy, since little was written about it during her lifetime. But Shinnick says her family remains proud of her legend, and he takes pride in promoting the sterling image she left behind.
In 1985, the entire family traveled with Dunne to Washington, D.C., to watch her accept the Kennedy Center Honor for her contribution to the arts. At age 86, the travel was difficult for her, and she became ill and unable to attend the actual ceremony. Shinnick said he later learned that she suffered from low electrolytes in her blood that had they known then could have been easily treated.
She did, however, attend a dinner at the State Department, where her good friend, then-President Ronald Reagan, visited her.
“She had a stable schedule at home, and the travel and time change upset that,” Shinnick recalled.
Dunne died five years later, on Sept. 4, 1990, spending much of her final years with illness and her final month bedridden. The family again gathered for her funeral and interment at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles.
“She had everything (at her funeral) planned, down to the last detail,” Shinnick said. There was a large public funeral held at Good Shepherd Church in Beverly Hills, and a private interment with only family members and close friends at the cemetery. “Your name had to be on the list or you weren’t allowed in,” Shinnick recalled.
One lasting mystery is the actual year of birth. Researchers have confirmed her birthday as Dec. 20, 1898, but some accounts over the years have listed 1901, 1903 and even 1904. On her crypt marker, it reads: “1901–1990.
“She was, bar none, the finest example of character I have ever known,” Shinnick said. “She spoke with proper diction and civility, and she was a seeker of accuracy and fairness. I’ll always treasure the time I was able to spend with her.”

 

 

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