Dominick Dunne dies at 83; author and former Hollywood producer
Dominick Dunne, the bestselling novelist and Vanity Fair writer who chronicled the misdeeds of the rich and famous with wicked glee -- most memorably in his highly personal accounts of the trials of Claus von Bulow, the Menendez brothers and O.J. Simpson -- died Wednesday at his home in New York City. He was 83.
The cause was bladder cancer, according to the Vanity Fair website, where his death was announced.
Dunne had recovered from prostate cancer in 2001 but was diagnosed with bladder cancer last year. Although ill, he covered Simpson’s recent armed robbery trial in Las Vegas, which resulted in a pronouncement of guilt -- a verdict that Dunne awaited for more than a decade.
Covering the last Simpson trial capped an extraordinary career that had bloomed from tragedy. Dunne was a television and film producer for two decades until drugs and alcohol ruined him. He had started life over as a writer when his daughter, Dominique, was slain in 1982.
Dunne wrote an article for Vanity Fair magazine that raged at the injustice of the crime and the leniency of the killer’s punishment. The story propelled its author into a new career reporting from the intersection of celebrity, society and scandal. He filled the niche with panache, becoming, according to the Cambridge History of Law in America, “one of the nation’s premier popular chroniclers of notorious criminal trials and lawsuits involving celebrities.”
He wrote a column, “Dominick Dunne’s Diary” and hosted a Court TV program, “Power, Privilege and Justice.” His absorption with money and privilege led one writer to call him the “Boswell of the bluebloods,” while another less charitable critic dubbed him “the Jacqueline Susann of journalism.”
What was indisputable was that Dunne -- with his silver hair, tortoiseshell glasses and Turnbull & Asser finery -- became a celebrity in his own right, sympathizing with crime victims, skewering the perpetrators and riding in limousines to his front-row seat at their trials.
He unabashedly declared his belief that Simpson was guilty of the 1994 slayings of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Lyle Goldman. He disparaged Erik and Lyle Menendez, the handsome brothers convicted of shooting their parents to death at their Beverly Hills mansion. Dunne slyly dissected Phil Spector, the eccentric record producer convicted of murder this year, calling him “a drama queen, albeit straight.”
When Dunne wasn’t covering a sensational trial, he was writing intimate profiles of movie stars, socialites and newsmakers -- “the only person writing about high society from inside the aquarium,” former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown once said. Many of his subjects were friends from his previous life, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Gloria Vanderbilt. Others were highly placed friends of friends, such as former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos, who gave him an exclusive interview shortly after she and her husband took up life in exile, and Lily Safra, the international jet-setter whose banker-husband Edmond was killed in a suspicious fire.
Like Truman Capote, another social chronicler, Dunne often bit the well-manicured hands that fed him. A friend of Alfred and Betsy Bloomingdale of the department store fortune, he turned Alfred’s relationship with his mistress, Vicki Morgan, into a roman a clef, “An Inconvenient Woman” (1990). Similarly, Dunne, who had been a guest at the 1950 wedding of Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Skakel, turned his theories about the culpability of Ethel’s nephew, Michael Skakel, in a long-unsolved slaying into another novel, “A Season in Purgatory” (1993). Skakel ultimately was tried and convicted. His cousin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., blamed Dunne for the conviction and told talk show host Larry King that the writer was “not a journalist. He’s a gossip columnist.”
If, as Capote said, all literature is gossip, Dunne was a believer. He loved to “dish,” giving rumor equal time with news in his Vanity Fair reports. His story on the Safra slaying, for instance, was an engrossing brew of fact and rank speculation as only Dunne could produce. He repeated hearsay and used unnamed sources liberally, such as a “well-connected woman once married to a prominent figure in the film world” or “a waiter serving me risotto” at a dinner party. Dunne had everyone whispering in his ear.
His willingness to entertain nearly any source made him the target of an $11-million defamation lawsuit by former California Rep. Gary Condit after Dunne told a bizarre, unsubstantiated story on national television and radio programs that implicated Condit in the 2001 disappearance of Washington intern Chandra Levy. He apologized to Condit and paid an undisclosed sum to settle the lawsuit in 2005.
Born Oct. 29, 1925, he was the second of six children in a wealthy Hartford, Conn., family. One of his brothers was John Gregory Dunne, the late screenwriter and novelist who was married to another literary celebrity, Joan Didion.
His early life was marked by a poor relationship with his father, a prominent heart surgeon, who belittled his son for being a sissy. Dunne himself professed astonishment when he earned a Bronze Star during World War II for rescuing a wounded soldier at the Battle of the Bulge.
TV stage manager
After earning his bachelor’s degree at Williams College in Massachusetts in 1949, he moved to New York and found work as a stage manager for the “Howdy Doody Show” and later for “Robert Montgomery Presents.”
In 1954, he married Ellen Griffin, an heiress. They had two sons, Griffin and Alexander, in addition to Dominique. Two children, both girls, died within days of being born.
Ellen Griffin Dunne, from whom he was divorced in 1965, died in 1997. He is survived by his sons and a granddaughter, Hannah.
In 1957, Dunne moved to Los Angeles to work on the CBS showcase “Playhouse 90.” Two years later he was executive producer of the ABC drama “Adventures in Paradise.”
By 1970, he was producing films. His credits include “The Boys in the Band” (1970), “The Panic in Needle Park” (1971), “Play It as It Lays” (1972) -- based on the Didion novel of the same name -- and “Ash Wednesday” (1973).
He and his wife hosted lavish parties at their Beverly Hills home, most notably a black-and-white ball for their 10th wedding anniversary in 1964 with a guest list that included Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Natalie Wood, David Niven, Billy Wilder, Gina Lollobrigida and Capote, whose fame was about to peak as the author of “In Cold Blood.” The party inspired Capote to give his own black-and-white ball two years later at New York’s Plaza Hotel, a legendary affair that included 500 of the biggest names in literature, Hollywood and society. “He didn’t invite us,” Dunne noted whenever he told the story.
Another favorite Dunne story took place at the Daisy, a Rodeo Drive club popular with the Hollywood set. He was dining there one night in the 1960s when Frank Sinatra, with whom he’d had a testy relationship, paid a waiter to punch him in the face.
Although Dunne led a famous person’s life, he felt like an impostor whose success did not match that of his peers. “Within me, I knew I would never be a first-rate producer. I wasn’t tough enough,” he wrote in Vanity Fair’s 25th anniversary issue last October. His social ambitions ruined his marriage, and he began drinking excessively and abusing drugs. In 1969, he was arrested for possession of marijuana.
The final act in his self- destruction was when he told an offensive joke about the powerful Hollywood agent Sue Mengers and the Hollywood Reporter printed it. That was when he knew that “my demise as a film producer was imminent.” He had no more work and was so broke he sold his dog.
“When you’re down and out, there’s no meaner place to live than Hollywood. You can get away with your embezzlements and your lies and your murders, but you can never get away with failing,” Dunne said years later.
In 1979, he left Hollywood and drove to Oregon. He decided to stay, stopped drinking and using drugs, and contemplated his failures. One night he went to bed with a knife beside him, intending to kill himself, only to be jarred awake by a phone call telling him that his youngest brother, Stephen, had committed suicide.
After his brother’s funeral, Dunne decided to start over in New York as a writer. He had gotten the idea a few years earlier, after a chance encounter in the Beverly Hills Hotel with a Washington Post writer who went to college with Stephen. The reporter came to Los Angeles to investigate reports that David Begelman, then head of Columbia Pictures, had been embezzling funds by forging the signatures of some of its top stars -- most notably Cliff Robertson -- on studio checks. No one in Hollywood would return the reporter’s calls so he asked for Dunne’s help.
“Nothing could have pleased me more,” Dunne recalled in his 1999 memoir, “The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper.” “I knew all the players. I knew all the phone numbers. I knew everyone’s back story. And I was furious that I had become a reject.” He found the investigative work exhilarating and told himself that he “could do what these reporters do.”
His first assignment was to write “The Winners,” a sequel to gossip columnist Joyce Haber’s popular novel “The Users.” Released in 1982, it was poorly reviewed but for Dunne it wasn’t a bad start.
Then came the tragedy that would define the second half of his life: His actress-daughter, Dominique, 22, was strangled by her boyfriend, John Sweeney, a chef at a tony West Hollywood restaurant.
The day before Dunne flew to Los Angeles for Sweeney’s trial, he attended a dinner party where he met Brown, who had just taken over as editor of Vanity Fair. She asked him to keep a journal during the trial and come see her when it was over. “If I hadn’t kept that journal, as Tina suggested, I would have gone mad,” Dunne later wrote. “What I saw in the courtroom filled me with the kind of rage that only writing about it could quell.”
The 1984 article that his journal became, “Justice: A Father’s Account of the Trial of His Daughter’s Killer,” was a powerfully dry-eyed indictment of the legal proceedings that found Sweeney guilty of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. Vanity Fair reports
Dunne signed a long-term contract with Vanity Fair but also tackled fiction again, this time producing a bestseller, “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles” (1985), based on the sensational Woodward murder case in 1955. His last novel, “Too Much Money,” is scheduled for release in December.
But his trial coverage became his signature.
“He was unique,” veteran Associated Press trial reporter Linda Deutsch told The Times recently. “He always said, ‘I’m for the victims.’ ”
Dunne wore his sympathy for victims of heinous crimes like a badge of honor. “I made no pretense of doing balanced reporting about murder,” he wrote in his memoir. “I was appalled by defense attorneys who would do anything to win an acquittal for a guilty person.”
He reported the juicy details that others ignored -- how Menendez defense lawyer Leslie Abramson strode down a courthouse corridor giving the finger to the swarm of photographers following her and how fans sent bouquets to Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark. He also was a wily analyst of character, revealing mores, conceits and other flaws through well-observed details and scenes in which he was as much a participant as a reporter.
After Von Bulow’s acquittal in a 1985 retrial on charges he attempted to kill his wife with insulin injections, Dunne interviewed the aristocratic former defendant at the opulent apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue that he was then sharing with the woman Dunne described as his “self-proclaimed” mistress, Andrea Reynolds. In a surreal scene, Dunne found himself following Reynolds into Sunny von Bulow’s former bedroom, where Reynolds had expensive garments laid out on the bed. It seemed to Dunne the appropriate moment to ask about the rumors he’d heard: Was it true that as Sunny Von Bulow lay unconscious in a nursing facility Reynolds wore her clothes and jewels?
“Not true!” she told Dunne. “I have far better jewels than Sunny von Bulow ever had.”
Dunne’s stories were filled with revelations such as these. “He was a great listener,” said New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, who became friends with Dunne during the first Simpson trial. “People just loved to talk to him.”
When the Simpson trial opened in 1995, Dunne’s sympathy for the victims was so well-known that Judge Lance Ito assigned him a front-row seat in the courtroom. Reporters for major newspapers, including The Times, were relegated to the rear. One annoyed reporter called Dunne “Judith Krantz in pants.”
Privileged or not, Dunne worked very hard, always arriving at the courthouse early and recording every wink and nod.
Dunne’s insider accounts of the Simpson trial for Vanity Fair and commentaries on Court TV elevated him to a new echelon of celebrity. He covered the proceedings by day and dined out on them at night, entertaining the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Nancy Reagan and Princess Diana with stories from the so-called trial of the century. “O.J. Simpson improved my social position,” he told USA Today in 1997.
His obsession with the case inspired “Another City, Not My Own” (1997), a “novel in the form of a memoir” based on his involvement in the Simpson murder trial.
Dunne felt it was fitting that Simpson’s armed robbery trial should be the last one he would cover. The octogenarian attended the trial against doctors’ orders, unable to resist what promised to be the final curtain in a protracted saga.
“I’ve lived this very dramatic life, with high points and terrible low points,” he told a London paper as the trial drew to a close. “Nothing has been ordinary, and I want to have the experience of the last breath. I want a little drama to it. I don’t want to die under anesthesia. I’d rather be shot to death in the Plaza or Monte Carlo by Lily Safra. I want something in the papers.”
The view from Sacramento
For reporting and exclusive analysis from bureau chief John Myers, get our California Politics newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.