Historical marker #1899 in Louisville (Jefferson County) celebrates the career of actress and singer Irene Dunne, who was nominated five times for an Academy Award for her performances.
Dunne was born in Louisville, KY, on December 20, 1898, to Joseph Dunne, a steamship inspector, and Adelaide Henry, a musician who inspired her daughter to enter the arts. The Dunne family alternated between living in Louisville and St. Louis due to Joseph’s work offers. However, Joseph died in April 1913 from a kidney infection and following his death, the family relocated to Adelaide’s hometown of Madison, Indiana.
Dunne’s mother taught her to play piano at a very young age and her first school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream began her interest in the dramatic arts. She would continue to perform at local churches and in her high school’s productions until her graduation in 1916. Wanting to become a music teacher, Dunne earned diplomas from the Indianapolis Conservatory of Music in 1918 and Chicago Musical College in 1926.
Hoping to become a soprano opera singer, Dunne traveled to New York City and twice auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera Company, although she was unsuccessful. She continued to take singing and dancing lessons to prepare for a hopeful career in musical theater. While on vacation in New York, Dunne auditioned for a musical and eventually earned the leading role in Irene, which went on to tour major cities across the nation.
Dunne continued to perform in musicals until she was scouted by RKO Pictures and made her Hollywood debut in 1930 in Leathernecking. Her other notable films include Show Boat (1936), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), and I Remember Mama (1948). Her last major movie role was playing Polly Baxter in 1952 in It Grows on Trees.
After pulling away from performing, Dunne began to focus on the many charities and public works she championed, as well as spending time with her family. In 1957, she was appointed as a special US delegate to the United Nations during the 12th General Assembly by President Eisenhower, where she advocated for world peace and refugee-relief programs. She received numerous philanthropic awards, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Notre Dame and a papal knighthood. Dunne was also awarded a Kennedy Center Honor, which is given to those in the performing arts for their lifetime contributions to American culture, in 1985.
Dunne died of heart failure on September 4, 1990. Her personal papers are housed at the University of Southern California. This marker was dedicated in 1992. It reads:
Born in Louisville, this actress appeared on Broadway in 1920s and then starred in forty-one comedy, dramatic, and musical films of the 1930s and 40s. Nominated five times for an Academy Award. Her noted films included "Show Boat" (1936), "Anna and the King of Siam" (1946), and "I Remember Mama" (1948). Irene Dunne received Kennedy Center Honors in 1985.