with a Legend
Dunnes grandson Shinnick
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
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.
courtesy of Randy Lakeman
Mark Shinnick accompanies his grandmother, Irene Dunne, to a 1985
dedication of a bust
in her honor at
St. Johns 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 Dunnes 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 legends 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., Dunnes 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
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
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).
courtesy of Randy Lakeman
Dunne's daughter Mary Frances Griffin Gage, with Dunne at a 1985
dedication of a bust in her honor at St. Johns Hospital
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.
Its one of my most prized possessions, he said. I
recall the times she walked with me to look up words in her husbands
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 its the
values that she gave me that Ill always have with me, and thats
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 shes 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 others lives might be improved through
a form of divine will combined with the best of human intent,
He added that Dunne was a firm believer in prayer. She made me
a believer because I cant 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
by Jack Buxbaum from Margie Schultz's collection
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 Dunnes
last public appearance.
Shinnick says she is what a legitimate star is all
about a positive affector of other peoples 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
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
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 werent allowed in, Shinnick
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: 19011990.
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. Ill always
treasure the time I was able to spend with her.