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The Hollywood Screenwriter from Squirrel Lake

Winifred Dunn
Michael A. Dean
/
Wikipedia Public Domain
Screen writer Winifred Dunn

Winifred Dunn was born in May 1898. Many sources claim she was born in Vilas County, but her birthplace was Chicago. Her Oxford-educated father, an English immigrant and former secretary to British Prime Minister William Gladstone, moved the family to an isolated cabin on an island in Squirrel Lake when Winifred was still very young. It was an unusual location for such a distinguished family. Winifred was related to the actor Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, and the British politician Lord Charles Russell.

Winifred’s childhood in the Northwoods has been described as cloistered. She was socially isolated, rarely saw people other than her parents, and grew up with only her dogs and the local wildlife as her companions. This early upbringing instilled in her a lifelong love of solitude and empathy for the suffering of animals. Winifred did not attend public school from her island home in Squirrel Lake; rather her father took on the role of an Oxford tutor and used his own literary training to teach her about the verities of life’s eternal drama. He taught her to be an independent thinker and to view herself as an equal in all things without gender limitations.

As a teenager, Dunn moved to Chicago and put the writing exercises her father had given her in the Northwoods to good use. She discovered a natural talent for written drama, and in 1914, at the age of 16, Selig Polyscope in New York produced her screenplay, a two-reel feature called Too Late. When Dunn turned 18, she translated a German play into English and adapted it for the American stage, and in 1919 she published a screenplay for seven reels in book form entitled The Menace of a Nation.

By early 1922, Dunn moved to Hollywood and in 1923 was hired as a scenario editor for MGM. She became one of the youngest screenwriters in the entire industry. Dunn also became one of the most prolific writers with an ability to craft quality work in any genre. She was in demand and wrote for some of the biggest Hollywood stars of the day, including Mary Pickford and Colleen Moore. She even helped write the screenplay for a movie called Dropkick, which featured a then unknown actor named John Wayne. In all, she is credited with nearly 40 screenplays.

Dunn’s Squirrel Lake upbringing left her with few social skills and in Hollywood she was considered an ingénue; nevertheless, in 1928 Dunn took on the duties of chairman of the Women's Executive Committee of the Southern California Olympic Games. She was inducted into the writer's executive committee for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as the only female. And in December 1928 she married the famous sculptor, Harold Swartz.

After 1934, Dunn moved to New York and transitioned from movies to radio screenplays. In 1940, she worked as the ghostwriter for Osa Johnson’s book, I Married Adventure. In the book Dunn wrote about women’s lifelong struggle to prove themselves equal to men.

Dunn divorced Swartz in 1942 and left screenwriting altogether after that. She died in Minnesota in 1977.

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In addition to being a historian and educator, Gary R. Entz serves on WXPR's Board of Directors and writes WXPR's A Northwoods Moment in History which is heard Wednesdays on WXPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.