“Make up your mind what you want. Go after it. And be prepared to pay well for it. I hope 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.” – Joseph Dunn, United States Steamboat Inspector, 1913
Irene was just 14 when her father died in St. Louis, Missouri, of a kidney infection, but she never forgot the words he shared with her on his death bed. A robust, dark-haired man of Irish lineage who loved to regale his children with colorful stories about the rivers he loved, Joseph Dunn was the proud father of Irene and her younger brother Charles.
As dynamic and vigorous as Dunn was, his wife Adelaide was just the opposite. Adelaide’s family was of German descent and Irene described her as “fair and gentle.”
Adelaide Dunn was an accomplished musician and Irene recalled that she was “surrounded by a parent team comprised of great wit and musical showmanship.” Irene also confided that “music was as natural as breathing” in the Dunn’s Louisville, Kentucky household.
Irene’s mother taught her piano and gave her singing lessons at an early age, a lifelong passion that later served as a steppingstone to a glamorous career well beyond what the small devout Catholic family ever imagined.
Good as Done
After the ultimate passing of Joseph, Adelaide moved her family to her idyllic hometown of Madison, Indiana, where her father operated his own business building steamboat boilers on the Ohio River.
In Madison, Irene who was nicknamed “Dunnie,” continued her piano and voice lessons, sang at local churches and performed in school plays before graduating from Madison High School in 1916. Her high school yearbook listed the 5’5” Irene as “divinely tall and most divinely fair.”
In appreciation of her musical talents, a local civic club sponsored her scholarship to an Indianapolis music academy. She graduated two years later, also earning a teaching certificate as an art instructor.
While visiting friends in Chicago she learned of an audition for a scholarship at the prestigious Chicago College of Music. Remembering the words of her father to “make up your mind on what you want and go after it,” she won the audition and focused on developing her soprano voice for a career in opera.
Easier Said Than Done
In 1920 Irene moved to New York City to pursue a music career on Broadway. She auditioned with the Metropolitan Opera Company, but they rejected her as “too young, too inexperienced, too slight, too everything.” Undaunted, she did what any self-respecting, aspiring professional would do – she altered her surname by adding an “e” and pursued roles in musical theater.
In 1921, in an ironic twist of fate, Irene landed a leading role on tour in a musical by the same name, Irene. The next year she made her Broadway debut in the musical comedy, “The Clinging Vine.” After that, she landed Broadway musical roles on a regular basis. But what happened in 1924 almost derailed her career for good.
In 1924, at a supper dance at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, Irene met New York dentist Frank Griffin. Late in the evening, after looking hours for someone to introduce them, Griffin asked Irene to dance. She joked years later that she forgot her southern-belle manners and gave him her phone number when he asked, only to have the busy dentist not bother to call for six weeks.
Griffin was a successful dentist whose office was in the Lincoln Building opposite Grand Central Station. Aside from his own successful career in the smiles business, Griffin had another unique claim to fame: his Northampton, Massachusetts parents lived next door to Calvin Coolidge. Of course, Coolidge wasn’t there much at the time because he was temporarily living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, serving as America’s 30th President.
Dr. Griffin, DDS, was attracted to Irene, but disdained show business. The couple dated for three years, frequently engaging in arguments over their odd couple situation.
“After we decided to get married I was kind of opposed to Irene continuing her stage career,” Frank Griffin told the Boston Globe in 1958. “Also I didn’t like the moral tone of show business.”
Finally, Irene relented and agreed to leave the theater. The couple was married on July 16, 1927 and after a three-day stay in Atlantic City, set sail for Europe.
Leaving the theater was a tough decision for the budding musical actress, but her father’s dying words remained with her. ”Marriage. A home. A family…these things are the bulwarks of happiness.”
Irene’s intentions may have been good, but a chance encounter with Florenz Ziegfeld of the Ziegfeld Follies the day after she returned from her honeymoon caused her to rethink her promise to leave the theater life that she loved.
What Irene did next changed both her and Frank’s life forever…
What did Frank and Irene do after learning of Ziegfeld’s offer?
Was Irene able to have her show business cake and keep her dentist husband too?
Who is Irene and what is she best known for today?
Check back with Agent Straight-Talk next week for answers to these questions and more. In the meantime, for more interesting tales reflected through the prism of a dental mirror, follow us on social media at Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, or LinkedIn.
Sources: meredy.com, wikipedia.com, tmc.com, biography.com
Photo source: home2hollywood.wordpress.com, roundaboutmadison.com, s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com
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