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The Users was an unmitigated flop that was torn apart in The New York Times. But, Dunne was a changed man. He was simply thrilled to be reviewed in The New York Times. It signaled that he was a professional writer.






In Memoriam...

Dominick Dunne -- 1925-2009

Author, journalist and filmmaker Dominick Dunne died August 26th, 2009 of complications due to bladder cancer. He was 83 years old.

Vanity Fair magazine gave Dunne a beautiful obituary: “Dominick Dunne, a best-selling author and special correspondent for Vanity Fair, died today at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.”

During the 1960s Dominick Dunne was on top of the world. A successful television producer, Dunne was also at the epicenter of Hollywood's social scene, something to which he had aspired since childhood.

A legendary host and unrepentant namedropper, Dunne was totally consumed by his lifestyle, which he memorialized by neatly pressing notes, telegrams and invitations from his famous friends into immaculate scrapbooks.

"I got caught up in all that Hollywood shit," says the 76-year old Dunne on the phone from his Manhattan apartment.

Being "somebody" in Hollywood meant everything to him. Then, just like some Aaron Spelling miniseries, it all started to unravel.

One night, while dining at a posh L.A. eatery Dunne was tapped on the shoulder by the restaurant's captain.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Dunne," said the man, "But Mr. Sinatra made me do this." The captain decked him in front of the celebrity crowd. Sinatra sat at a nearby table smirking. He had paid the man $50 to put Dunne in his place.

That night was a harbinger of things to come. During the next decade, overcome by his insecurities, Dominick Dunne hit bottom. He lost his wife and his career. He became an alcoholic and a cocaine addict. Worst of all, he was a "nobody" in Hollywood.

"When you're down and out, there's no meaner place to live than Hollywood," Dunne says, "You can get away with your embezzlements and your lies and your murders, but you can never get away with failing."

In 1979 53-year old Dominick Dunne literally fled Hollywood. He would never live there again.

Since that time, when his life seemed all but over, Dominick Dunne has carved out an incredible career as a bestselling novelist and a special correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine covering an area that has become his own special provenance: the criminal entanglements of the rich and famous.

In novels, like The Two Mrs. Grenvilles and People Like Us, he has skewered those in society's upper reaches with knowing portraits that demonstrate an innate understanding of how the other half operates during the worst of times. And, at Vanity Fair, he has given readers his unique inside account of several high-profile cases including the murder trials of Claus von Bulow, the Menenedez brothers, Ethel Kennedy's nephew Michael Skakel and O.J. Simpson.

It was the Simpson trial that brought a different Dominick Dunne back to L.A. in 1995. Returning to the city of his epic failure, Dunne was suddenly sought out by precisely the type of folks who had shunned him when he was down and out. He became Hollywood's most desirable guest, gladly accepting invitations to share the scoop on O.J. in dining rooms all over Beverly Hills.

One of those nights he was invited to Gregory Peck's house where he was the center of attention -- overshadowing a petulant, sulking old singer named Frank Sinatra.

"Life" says Dunne "Is too perfect for words."

That life began in Hartford, Connecticut, where Dominick was the second of five children, that included writer John Gregory Dunne, born to a prominent heart surgeon and his heiress wife. From the beginning, Dunne's existence had all the trappings of wealth: a big house, servants, private schools and the like. It also had the kind of problems that money can hide, but can't erase. Disappointed in his son's lack of athletic prowess and his keen interest in dance and theater, Dr. Dunne beat Dominick with wood coat hangers leaving the boy without hearing in one ear.

Dominick sought solace in movie magazines, dreaming of a glorious life rubbing elbows with Hollywood stars. On a fateful trip to L.A. at the age of nine, he sat up front on the bus tour of the star's homes and ate at the Brown Derby. He knew Hollywood was where he belonged.

At boarding school, Dunne developed an interest in the ugly side of wealth and celebrity. In 1943, when a gold-digging hustler named Wayne Lonergan was accused of murdering his socialite wife (the daughter of his gay lover), Dunne couldn't get enough, risking expulsion on a daily basis by sneaking off campus to read accounts of the sordid trial in the New York papers.

After graduating from Williams College and serving in World War II, he moved to New York hoping to find the glamorous life he so craved. He landed a job in the fledgling world of television, first as floor manager for The Howdy Doody Show and later with Robert Montgomery Presents. Each Monday night at eight Dunne would stand before the cameras and call out "One minute Mr. Montgomery" to the star. From his perch on a balcony Montgomery would reply, "Thank you Nick and good evening ladies and gentlemen." Dunne was hooked.

"How I loved that job," Dunne wrote in his book The Way We Lived Then.

Around the same time he met an elegant young woman named Ellen (Lenny) Griffin at the Hartford train station. Within six weeks the two were engaged and before long Lenny gave birth to their son Griffin (the actor, best known for An American Werewolf in London and After Hours).

Making a name for himself in television, Dunne moved to Los Angeles where he would direct the acclaimed Playhouse 90. His dreams were coming true and his young family settled into a Santa Monica beach house next door to Peter and Patricia Kennedy Lawford. When the family grew (son Alex and daughter Dominique) and he became a vice president at Four Star Pictures, the Dunne's moved to a mansion on Walden Drive in Beverly Hills. There the parties began.

Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Kirk Douglas, David Niven, Liz Taylor, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Roddy McDowell (himself a central figure in Hollywood social life) Paul Newman, Loretta Young, Audrey Hepburn, David Selznik and innumerable other stars and big shots were frequent guests at the Dunne's house. There were backyard barbeques, birthday parties and even a 1964 "Black & White Ball" to celebrate Dominick and Lenny's 10th anniversary. Two years later, Capote threw his famous version of the ball at New York's Plaza Hotel. The Dunne's were not invited.

The lavish lifestyle, however, put a pinch on the Dunne's finances and took a toll on their lives. Dominick drank heavily to overcome his insecurities. And when he drank he got loud, saying outrageous things at the expense of others. At one party, he made a funny, but cruel, comment about a prominent L.A. matron. He paid the consequences when it was reported in the gossip columns.

Alcohol was the least of his addictions. His obsession with social details, appearances and his Hollywood lifestyle began to dominate everything. He was completely addicted to socializing. Lenny couldn't take it any more and asked for a divorce.

Devastated personally and failing professionally throughout the 1970s (his films Ash Wednesday, and Play it as it Lays were box office flops) he drank more and started using cocaine. At his lowest moment he was arrested for marijuana possession at a California airport as two of his children stood by and watched.

Then, in 1979, Dunne got in his car and drove north. He didn't stop until he got a flat tire in Oregon's Cascade Mountains. Dunne rented a cabin and remained there for six months, drying out and doing his best to exorcise the trappings of his former life. Broke and without prospects, he briefly considered moving to Portland to become a shoe salesman. A strange image, to put it mildly.

"But, that's how I thought of myself then," Dunne says.

While at the cabin, Dunne was asked to write a sequel to Joyce Haber's The Users, a tawdry novel about life in Hollywood. When the book was finished, Dunne sold everything he had and moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village. He was going to be a writer.

The Users was an unmitigated flop that was torn apart in The New York Times. But, Dunne was a changed man. He was simply thrilled to be reviewed in The New York Times. It signaled that he was a professional writer.

"Fuck it that it was a terrible review," he laughs.

The bad times weren't over. One morning in 1982, he received a call from Lenny. Twenty-two year old Dominique was in a coma, having been strangled by John Sweeney -- her ex-boyfriend. Dunne flew to L.A., but Dominique (an actress who appeared in Poltergeist) never regained consciousness. She was taken off life support. Dunne returned to New York and awaited Sweeney's trial.

The night before his return to L.A., Dunne attended a Tex-Mex dinner party where he sat next to a young Englishwoman named Tina Brown. He had no idea she was about to change his life.

The next morning Vanity Fair writer Marie Brenner, who had hosted the dinner, told Dunne that Brown wanted to have lunch with him that day. Dunne waffled, but rescheduled his flight and went to his meeting with Brown, who was about to take over Vanity Fair.

Brown told Dunne that he should be writing for magazines. She was impressed by his storytelling abilities and his social contacts. These were things you couldn't teach. She told him to keep a journal at the trial and come see her when it was over.

In 1984, "Justice: A Father's Account of the Trial of his Daughter's Killer" appeared in the first issue of Vanity Fair edited by Tina Brown. She called Dunne into her office the day before it ran and told him that he belonged to her magazine and no other.

"I had been on my ass for so long," Dunne says, "It was the beginning of me all over again."

"Justice" features the kind of moments that make Dominick Dunne a compelling writer. He captures poignant scenes, such as a media horde swarming an MS-stricken Lenny at Dominique's funeral and courthouse regulars wondering who Sweeney is on trial for killing. One thinks she is a movie star "Dominique somebody," he says. "Never heard of her," replies the other.

Though he lacks formal journalistic training, Dunne has a natural nose for detail and showing not telling, giving these anecdotes real power.

In 1985, Dunne followed "Justice" with The Two Mrs. Grenvilles a novel based on the infamous 1955 murder of socialite Billy Woodward by his former showgirl wife. Here Dunne shows his understanding of how the very rich deal with crisis by closing ranks and even siding with a killer to keep their names out of the paper.

In a 1990 New York Times review of People Like Us, author Jill Robinson aptly described Dunne's knowledge of wealthy folks and their behavior.

"There's more to it than getting the labels and the street names right. He shows he knows by the way he tells you how his people feel, the way they listen, the things they cover up and the things they don't."

In his role as high society Zelig, Dunne gives the sense of being a fly on the unattainable reaches of the wall, and is able to extract telling and hilarious details that would certainly be missed by a more hard-bitten journalist.

In one particularly memorable Vanity Fair article, Dunne sat on the corner of Sunny von Bulow's bed with Claus's thrice-married girlfriend Andrea Reynolds and asks point blank if there's any truth to the rumor that she's been wearing the comatose socialite's jewelry.

"Not true!" Reynolds exclaimed, "I have far better jewels than Sunny von Bulow ever had. I've had fantastic jewels all my life."

"I do get into all of that shit," Dunne says, "There's no two ways about it."

The moment with Reynolds also illustrates one of the most amazing gifts Dunne has. People love to tell him things. They seek him out. At a book signing he was approached by a woman with never before seen autopsy pictures in the Michael Skakel case. People have flown from Brazil to give him information about the death of billionaire Edmund Safra. The day before we spoke, he received a call from an American businessman who had been in Dubai and was given information about the Chandra Levy case. These are the kind of things that happen to him on a regular basis.

Ultimately, Dunne has made a career out of being an insider. As much as anyone, he has lived in and among both the bluebloods and Hollywood royalty. He loves it unabashedly. But he also retains the perspective of an outsider. That's what makes it work.

And perhaps most importantly, as Jill Robinson writes, "He also knows there's nothing up there in society to envy."

Having been on both sides, he knows that most of all. | December 2001


Josh Karp is a freelance writer is Evanston, Illinois.