He Never Swore to Tell the Whole Truth
For a hotel that he had trashed, the place is spotless.
Of course, Dominick Dunne is hardly a rocker. When Dunne destroys, he does it with far more precision--stiletto-sharp words. And in his latest gossipy novel, “Another City, Not My Own” (Crown), he had neatly done in the Beverly Hills Hotel, sniffing that “the chandeliers and the gilded chairs in the lobby look like imports from the Sultan of Brunei’s palace, which is not high on my list of good looks in interior decorating.”
But while traveling on his publisher’s dime during a recent book tour, Dunne doesn’t find the Beverly Hills Hotel quite so declasse. A room there does quite nicely as a perch for interviews. The irony isn’t lost on him.
“It wasn’t so hot what I said,” he says with a hoot. “Now here I am staying here and so far nobody’s noticed.”
Thank heavens for small favors. Dunne, 72, is holding court at the Beverly Hills to promote his “novel in the form of a memoir,” a Dunne-crafted term that has not escaped notice.
Indeed, some critics have taken Dunne to task for his odd hybrid book, which traces his stint covering the O.J. Simpson trial for Vanity Fair by day and regaling the most rarefied dinner parties by night. In the book, he uses mostly real names and real speculation that whirled around the trial. Only a few characters, such as his alter ego Gus Bailey, trot around with pseudonyms.
“Was it to protect himself somehow from the wrath (and litigation) of the countless people he tells tales out of school on here, so that he could always offer the defense that he never said anything in the book was true,” groused Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. “Or could it be that some of the true-sounding stories are untrue? And if so, where does the truth leave off and the untruth begin?”
Dunne insists his hybrid is his literary prerogative. “It’s got a strange form to it, but it’s also like Los Angeles,” he says. “It’s neither this nor that. It’s not a true city but it’s a great city. There’s a whole false part of it as Andrew Cunanan is a false figure. I have taken great liberties with the form, but then the O.J. trial took great liberties with the law.”
Dunne says the rest of the book is true, although he says he dressed up the conversations, which “might not always have been so smart.” Still, the ambiguity has already plunged Dunne into hot water with some of his well-placed friends. He says producer Ray Stark was miffed when Dunne placed Cunanan in his home--even though neither man had ever met the serial killer. (He introduced Cunanan into the mix as a plot device.) “He’s quite right,” Dunne says. “I can’t fault him for that.”
Of course, Dunne is used to ruffling highly placed feathers on the social circuit he travels and writes about. His metier has been crime among the upper crust, particularly when the crust gets away with it. The appeal of his eighth book--No. 2 on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list after three weeks as No. 1, and No. 4 in the New York Times--is the socialite’s view of the O.J. trial.
“O.J. improved my social position,” he says dryly, his craggy face impassive beneath a boyish shock of gray hair.
In fact, Dunne was among the cast of characters who basked in what he calls “O.J. fame”--that tasty but transient commodity that lasted the length of the trial. Judge Lance Ito appears as a celebrity sycophant. Dunne skewers Robert Shapiro initially for signing autographs, famous because two people are dead, but later on Dunne softens as the lawyer reaps the consequences of his involvement with Simpson, finding himself ostracized in his own community.
Because of his ringside seat in the courtroom, Dunne was then the city’s dinner party guest par excellence, titillating film and British royalty with tales from the front.
Dunne had weekly liaisons with Elizabeth Taylor, with whom he’d worked during his earlier incarnation as a movie producer. He also lunched regularly with Nancy Reagan. He writes about running into the former first lady with Betsy Bloomingdale when he was dining at the Bel Air Hotel with Heidi Fleiss.
“I can’t f------ believe what just happened,” Fleiss told Bailey/Dunne after he made introductions.
Later, Bailey/Dunne entertains a dinner party at Norman Lear’s with tales of O.J.’s father’s drag queen proclivities--only to learn that Simpson’s son Jason was the catering cook for the party and had probably heard all.
“These overlaps just seem so L.A. to me,” Dunne says. “I don’t mean that as a put-down. Just the bizarreness of this wonderful city, and it is a bizarre city. That’s part of the appeal.”
Dunne’s delight in L.A. was hard won, and the book also describes how his 15 minutes of O.J. fame transformed his life. He had left town years before as a failed producer and father of a murdered child, vowing never to return. He returned to L.A. from his New York base a best-selling novelist and magazine writer. Ironically, he returned because of someone else’s murdered children--Nicole Simpson and Ronald Brown.
Dunne writes about how his daughter Dominique’s death at the hands of a batterer 17 years ago helped ignite his recklessly impassioned response to Simpson’s acquittal. He was the first to go on TV saying a murderer had been set free, only to face a threatening mob outside the courthouse.
In real life, Simpson tried to shake hands with Dunne during the subsequent civil trial. “I put my hands behind my back,” Dunne says. “That bull, that cheap charm, I ain’t falling for that. He killed two people. He ain’t going to charm me.”
The parallels between Dunne’s life and the O.J. case also brought his family redemption. In one missive for Vanity Fair, Dunne wrote about the man who’d gone to prison for killing his daughter--John Sweeney. As a result, the father of Sweeney’s then-girlfriend telephoned Dunne. He wanted to know whether his daughter’s fiance was the same John Sweeney.
The young woman brought home the copy of Vanity Fair that included Dunne’s reference to Sweeney. “[Sweeney] just saw Vanity Fair,” Dunne says. “He didn’t have to see any more than that to know it involved Dominick Dunne, and he took it and threw it on the floor. And he said to her, ‘That was a long time ago, and I have been in therapy ever since.’
“So the father said, ‘Do you think my daughter’s safe?’ I just about lost it. I said, ‘Are you out of your f------ mind? This is your child. Men who beat women, that’s not a one-time thing. He had done it before, many times, and he’s going to do it again.”
That scene appears in the novel. Dunne adds that his son, Griffin, finally persuaded the woman to leave Sweeney. “My son said to me, ‘You know you may have saved somebody’s life,’ ” Dunne says softly.
His other son, Alex, disappeared for several days while hiking during the trial, which became a big media event. His ex-wife Lenny, with whom he’d remained close, died in January after decades fighting multiple sclerosis. And in yet another tragic twist, his nephew Richard Dunne was killed in a small plane crash on Thanksgiving.
Dunne’s recorded family trials also include a long-simmering feud with his brother, John Gregory Dunne, who dedicated his novel “Playland” to Dominick’s nemesis, defense lawyer Leslie Abramson.
“I truly felt that it was less an homage to her than a slap at me, considering how strongly I feel about the justice system and being the father of a murdered child,” he says. “A book involves your talent and several years of your life, and to hand that over to somebody whose job is--you know it’s a very legitimate job--but whose job is to win acquittals for killers, I can’t tell you how deeply that hurt.”
Dunne is sick of dealing with murder and experiencing the violent emotions it incites in him. He’s so tired of it that he kills off his character Gus Bailey, signaling his demise in the first chapter.
“I’ve used Gus Bailey in two other of my books as my alter ego, and each time he was at murder trials where justice was not done. I’ve made my point and I’m not going to keep beating that theme. I’m not going to cover any more murder trials. Hence the death of Gus Bailey.”
The operative word here is murder, not trial. Bailey may have passed on, but Dunne is alive and writing. Ready for his take on Paula Jones?
Besides that, he’s working on a coffee table book about Hollywood in the late ‘50s, before “the wild ‘60s, when it was still a very dressy time.” He’s also planning what he calls “a Somerset Maugham-type of novel, another rich-people novel.”
The prospect makes him laugh. “I always write about rich people, as you may have gathered.”
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