LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : John Gregory Dunne : Dominick Dunne : Experiencing L.A. Through the Eyes of the Writer

<i> Steve Proffitt is a producer for Fox News and a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." He spoke in a conference call with John Gregory Dunne, in New York, and Dominick Dunne, at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. </i>

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Dominick Dunne and his younger brother, John Gregory, pretty much owned this town. Sons of a well-to-do Connecticut family--"We were like minor-league Kennedys,” Dominick once wrote--they came to Los Angeles and prospered. Dominick became a movie producer. John, with his wife, writer Joan Didion, crafted novels and screenplays, earning literary kudos and lots of Hollywood lucre. Dominick produced Joan’s “Play It as It Lays,” as well as “Panic in Needle Park,” written by Didion and her husband, who also wrote the remake of “A Star Is Born.” Both brothers eventually left Los Angeles, but each remains wedded to it.

By the end of the ‘70s, Dominick Dunne’s drinking had gotten out of control. He abandoned the city and his career as a producer. “I sold everything,” he remembers, “even my shirts.” He emerged, sober, after six months of isolation in Oregon, and recast himself as a writer. His first book, “The Winners,” was a sequel to Joyce Haber’s Hollywood potboiler, “The Users.” Critics abhorred it, but it sold well enough to earn him a sizable advance for his next effort, “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.” Then, in short order, his youngest brother, Stephen, committed suicide, and his daughter, Dominique, was murdered by her boyfriend. Dominick took notes throughout the trial, which became the basis for a Vanity Fair article, “Justice.” He has since written dozens of pieces for the magazine--his latest is about the trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez.

Meanwhile, John Gregory Dunne and his wife had become among the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood. They also created powerful essays and fiction; Joan wrote “Salvador” and “A Book of Common Prayer,” while John skewered Hollywood mores in “The Studio” and spent four years writing the novel “The Red, White and Blue.” Then, in 1988, after 24 years in Los Angeles, they shocked their friends, and themselves, by picking up and moving to New York. John says, “I’d written nine books, each of which touched on Los Angeles, and I felt tapped out. We weren’t working and needed a goose.”


Today is John Gregory Dunne’s 30th wedding anniversary. He’s 61, the proud father of a photographer daughter who works for Travel and Leisure. His latest novel, “Playland,” will be published this summer. Dominick, 65, has been in Los Angeles for six months, covering the Menendez trial--he experienced the fires last fall and rode out the Northridge earthquake in his room at the Chateau Marmont. Each man speaks about the city as one might of a longtime lover, with the kind of longing one has for someone cherished and too casually spurned.

Question: You’ve both experienced many of the modern calamities we’ve been through in Los Angeles. What stands out in your memory?

John Gregory Dunne: Joan and I went into South-Central during the Watts riots of 1965--we wrote about that. In 1971, we were thrown out of bed by the Sylmar quake. We were living in Malibu at the time, and got a really good shake. We went through three major fires while living in Malibu. So we were aware of nature and its discontent.

I have one strong memory from the Watts riots. We went down to South-Central and we wrote about what we saw there. But my memory goes back to something far away from the scene of the action. We lived, at the time, in Portuguese Bend, at the very tip of Palos Verdes. And I remember our landlord showing me a shotgun he had just bought. He said, “I’m going to be ready in case people come out here.” The idea of buying a shotgun in Palos Verdes to stop the hordes seemed most bizarre--and these were days when people were not so likely to buy guns as they are now. This was a shotgun that could have brought down a goddamned elephant. That is my most striking memory of the Watts riots.

Q: Dominick, how does the Northridge earthquake rate in your pantheon of Los Angeles disasters?

Dominick Dunne: I have been through others, of course, but this was the worst. I did not do that smart thing that you are supposed to do--hop up and get under a table. I just lay there and thought, “Well, this is the end of the line.” I collected myself, said my little prayer and watched my television set fly out onto the floor. I was extremely calm.

When it stopped, I began to think of what I wanted to have with me, and I began to collect my things--my glasses, my wallet, my watch. It was pitch dark. And I took the latest draft of my article and stuck it in my back pocket, and made my way down the stairwells.

All the guests gathered out on the lawn in front of the hotel, and then we realized there was a surreal light above us. It was coming from the huge Marlboro sign in front of the hotel, there on Sunset Boulevard. Somehow, the Marlboro man was the only thing left shining in the whole city. That was truly strange--something I will never forget.

Finally, the sun came up, I returned to my room, and I started working. I wrote all day, and the next day as well. I think I was like many people--I just wanted to get things back to normal, and I threw myself into my work. So I didn’t have time to have a reaction for several days.

But I’m almost embarrassed to talk about my own experience, when so many others experienced things so much worse.

J.G. Dunne: People talk about how this wasn’t The Big One. But I think it would have been plenty goddamned big if it had happened during rush hour.

Q: Some people have remarked that Angelenos face these disasters--fires, mud slides, earthquakes--with a great deal of equanimity. Is there something in our nature that prepares us for disaster, or do we simply learn to deal with it?

J.G. Dunne: We learn. When Joan and I lived in Malibu, we began to know exactly what we would take with us. Once we heard about a fire, we would place our car so it was facing out the driveway. We would bring out what we were working on, we would bring photographs, and we would bring Joan’s old family silver, and cram it all in the car. We were ready. But I wouldn’t say we were particularly calm. We were spooked by fires.

D. Dunne: I was always baffled how, after terrible fires, people would rebuild on the same site. That’s something I could never do. Then, while covering the Menendez trial, I met a man--he was a witness--whose house had burned to the ground in the Malibu fire. He explained to me that the only way he could collect on his insurance was to build on the same site. So it turns out all this rebuilding may be more about finances, and less about resilience and tenacity.

J.G. Dunne: There’s a curious thing about these quakes and fires. We tend to want to place blame on someone, rather than believing that nature is acting naturally. I’m often skeptical about claims that these fires are the work of arsonists. But then, in some ways, even the arsonist who sets a fire may be part of that natural cycle.

Q: The question of the moment--the one we get in phone calls from back East--is, why do we live here? Why do we live in this desert that shakes and burns and slides?

J.G. Dunne: Most anyplace one lives is essentially dangerous. There are floods in the Midwest, and tornadoes. There are hurricanes along the Gulf. In New York, you get mugged. All life is inherently dangerous. But beyond that, Los Angeles is just a wonderful place to be.

Q: So you think the storied hordes who are making their exodus from the state are making a big mistake?

J.G. Dunne: Well, I remember a story Joan wrote about a fundamentalist minister who moved himself and his entire congregation to Tennessee because he was terrified of earthquakes. They moved lock, stock and barrel--and one month later, they had a terrific earthquake in Tennessee.

D. Dunne: I left Los Angeles in 1979, in what were less than favorable circumstances. I had pretty much single-handedly wrecked my career because of a problem with drinking. A few years later, I had a terrible tragedy in my family. And I developed a feeling about Los Angeles, something more than a strong dislike. I simply never wanted to come here again. Over the years, I came back to write about various things, but I did my work, and left as quickly as possible.

This time, I came here to cover the Menendez trial, and expected to stay about eight or 10 weeks. It’s been over six months now, and I have once again fallen in love with Los Angeles. I realize there are so many people here who I love. And then this earthquake happens. It has not in any way shaken my faith, or disturbed my new love for this city. I truly feel like I’m part of Los Angeles again, and I love that feeling.

J.G. Dunne: I liked Los Angeles for odd reasons. For one, there was no sense of community. You were really left to your own resources, spending this inordinate amount of time alone in a balloon of an automobile. I liked that a lot.

Q: When coupled with the state’s economic malaise, has this extraordinary series of natural and social disasters meant that the California dream is over? Does California no longer represent that place where anything is possible?

J.G. Dunne: I resist and resent the idea of California as a metaphor. It’s something thrust upon us, usually by people in the East. Even though I left it, I suppose I loved Los Angeles more than any place I’ve ever been. I loved the idea of being alone. People say the city has no street life, but I think that street life is highly overrated. What sort of street life did William Faulkner have in Oxford, Miss.? And my wife, Joan, said she never realized how much she loved Los Angeles until she left, and returned to do some reporting. When we lived here, I always did the driving. It wasn’t until she came back, and drove herself around, that she realized how much she loved the place. So being behind the wheel is very much part of the experience.

D. Dunne: I went to a party the other night, and people were so desperate to be there, just to talk with other people and tell their own experiences with the quake. This was a real Beverly Hills group of people--and even these people were devastated by all of this. I didn’t hear anyone saying they wanted to leave the city. But I did hear people questioning the way they’ve gone about their lives acquiring wealth and possessions. An earthquake can be very humbling in that sense.

But it is virtually the only topic of conversation. I was at the Golden Globe awards last week, and I heard the word “God,” more than I’ve heard it in a long time. “Thank God we’re here,” “thank God we all survived.” I was impressed with that, from that sort of jaded group.

Then, I was in a restaurant, in Beverly Hills, having lunch, when we had a strong aftershock. Everyone stopped and became silent. But no one headed for the exits. We all looked up at this great, huge chandelier and watched it stop shaking. In 30 seconds, everybody went right back to making their deals. It made me love the spirit of this town, the lack of hysteria.

J.G. Dunne: You know we have no real memory of pain. If you slam your thumb with a hammer, you have terrible pain. But once it goes, you have memory of the event, but the pain doesn’t reoccur. So you go on, and try and get your life back on track as quickly as you can.

Still, the experience of these kinds of catastrophes can be very invigorating in a way. After we heard about the quake, Joan said she sort of wished we had been there for it. And I said, “Babe, we’ve been there. We lived through the Sylmar quake. We’ve had that experience.”

But in my heart of hearts, I wish I had been there, too. When you do what we do, when you are always looking for a powerful experience, it’s always nice to be there. There is a sense which is almost like jealousy when people like us miss an event like an earthquake.