Dominick Dunne always wanted to be famous, but he didn't achieve it until he stopped trying.
Growing up in Hartford, son of a prominent heart surgeon and the second of six children in a large Irish Catholic family, Dunne wanted to be like the movie stars he read about. On a trip to Hollywood at age 9, he sat at the front of a tour bus taking in the lifestyles of the rich and famous and ached to be part of it all.
Writing about that trip in his lovely photo memoir "The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper," he says Hartford was "a city that I knew from the age of 4 would not be the city of my life."
"We were the big-deal Irish Catholic family in a WASP city," he says in the memoir, adding that his younger brother John Gregory Dunne "once wrote that we'd gone from steerage to suburbs in three generations." Their grandfather Dominick Burns, for whom Hartford's Burns Elementary School is named, was a well-to-do grocer who went on to become a bank president and philanthropist.
But for most of his first 50 years, Dominick Dunne was on the outside looking in, a perpetual passenger on a tour bus that circled close but never got inside.
It wasn't for lack of trying.
After tours at college and in the military, Dunne made a beeline for New York, where he landed a job as floor manager for "The Howdy Doody Show" and eventually found his ticket to Hollywood, the town he felt was his destiny. Dunne married an heiress, Ellen "Lenny" Griffin, whom he had met at the Hartford train station, and they had two children. He left stage-managing for a career as a TV writer and producer.
Despite the demands on Dunne's personal and professional life, he and Lenny maintained a vigorous program of entertaining designed to put them in the center of Tinseltown's glitterati - Dunne wanted more than to work with stars, he wanted to be one of them. But in the midst of this circus - with the likes of Merle Oberon, Billy Wilder and David Selznick in his living room - Dunne always felt he was "a B-level producer on an A-level social list."
The efforts of Dunne's social striving and the insecurities began to wear him out. He was propping himself up with alcohol and cocaine. He was drunk or stoned most of the time.
Then the house of cards Dunne had constructed began tumbling down. His marriage ended, and he lost his family and his career. He was arrested for marijuana possession. In 1979 at age 53, he took himself to Oregon to dry out and begin his life all over again.
It was a harrowing period, exacerbated by the murder of his beloved daughter Dominique, who was killed by an abusive former boyfriend, and the news that his ex-wife had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Dunne returned to Los Angeles for the trial of his daughter's killer. Outraged by a legal process that he believes gives the defendant more rights than the victim, Dunne began a crusade that continues to this day. In stories on the pages of Vanity Fair that led to TV appearances and his new cable program, Court TV's "Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice," the diminutive man in the owlish spectacles gradually became the country's No. 1 advocate for victim's rights in cases involving the rich and famous.
He made his career covering a certain element and deals with similar personalities and themes in his fiction, including the novels "An Inconvenient Woman," "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" and "A Season in Purgatory."
Dunne turned his life around when he sobered up and started making good use of the old insecurities, outsider status and feelings of personal inadequacy, which he traces to a difficult relationship with his father.
He now operates inside and outside the milieu about which he writes. He goes to A-list dinner parties, but he no longer needs to strive purely to be sought after, because his work guarantees that he is at the center of things.
Dunne became famous the minute he stopped trying to be those people whose lives he envied and started, instead, to be himself.
It might make a good plot for one of his books.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times