Some old artists of distinction I have known… and inadvertently learned from

Some old artists of distinction I’ve known: Ann Dunnigan, a translator, and an actress, and a classy human being.


It might have been more than two years ago now. I was driving on a country road on a winter day in northern California, an inconspicuous day of no particular note, when I heard a voice from the past. I determined very soon that I wasn’t hallucinating. I was listening to San Francisco station KPFA and they were rebroadcasting commentary from a decades-old reading of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” on their sister station WBAI in New York. The voice was interested and interesting, dulcet, mellifluous, with the perfect American English of the dramatic stage. Ann Dunnigan had died in 1997, but here she was, as I had known her, still alive in her work.

Ann Dunnigan was a re-creator, that is, a translator, who made the first American translation of Tolstoy’s monumental work. I’d never thought about it before, but she must have come late to the art of translating. As a young woman she pursued a career in the theater, appearing in more than one Broadway play. I know she married a doctor, but I’m not certain what happened to him: they had a son, John. Since her first publication was in 1960 – she would have been 50 – she must have been in her forties when, a lover of Chekhov, she learned Russian and turned translator. She went on to translate most of Chekhov’s work and much of Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s.

I was a little surprised by Ann; I didn’t expect someone who looked like Celeste Holm and was the very picture of sophistication and elegance, to befriend a rather clumsy, lost soul like me.

Sorry. I couldn't find my one sole picture of Ann, so here's Celeste Holm! Photo by Perfect Show in Flickr. Creative Commons license.

After all, she was also a good friend of E.L. Doctorow. But we had dinner with her, we sat in her apartment, admired her book-lined walls, and shared a cocktail. I remember she and I passed an hour or two in Central Park watching people. (It was one of her favorite pastimes.) We even went to the Met’s “Boris Goudonov” together, eating first, as befit the occasion, at The Russian Tea Room.

Boris teaches his son about the extent of his empire.

My partner, who had the same literary agent as Ann, once told me that she’d claimed her father had been a gun runner in pre-Communist China. Even though she never mentioned it to me and her obituary says nary a word about it, I believed it. She had that kind of glamour, the kind you only see in the thirties and forties movies where gun-runners were not that unusual.

Ann wasn’t afraid to make a fool of herself. She and a group of other unlikely actors (they included Ronnie Elliot who I knew as a singer with the Weavers), appeared in a contemporary version of “Antigone” at the New York Shakespeare Festival production of the play at the Public Theater in 1982. From our point of view, it was a slightly ridiculous “Antigone,” but Ann treated the experience with aplomb.

Ann and I worked together on a project that never quite got off the ground, a collection of sayings from the very wise. She had grown up a Christian scientist and was a disciple of Joseph Campbell. She was confident in the reality of the spiritual, and I think she probably died as gracefully as anyone I’ve ever met.

Ann Dunnigan always treated me as if I were her equal when I knew, because it was just so obvious, that she worked with a discipline, precision and passion that I could only dream about then. She was a wonderful model without ever intending it.