I met Dominick Dunne almost 20 years ago in Los Angeles. Across the street from Spago, actually. No, the original location, on Sunset, southwest on the boulevard from the now-shuttered Tower Records Hollywood. He was signing his latest roman a clef, An Inconvenient Woman – sounds like an Edgar Award-winning mystery thriller, doesn’t it? – and I was parked in an inconvenient spot, illegally, near the restaurant.
I was quite the Dunne groupie at the time, having already devoured his first two best-sellers The Two Mrs. Grenvilles and People Like Us, gossipy tantalizers which appealed to my inner Vanderbilt, but hardly highbrow literature. Anyhow, my copy was signed by the cordial if reserved Dunne, and it remains on my sagging bookshelf today, kept company by the Vanity Fair writer’s other tomes, and patiently awaiting Dunne’s upcoming – and perhaps last – novel, A Solo Act, which seems destined to become the Chinese Democracy of the publishing trade.
Although already a successful novelist, Dunne became a household name to the public-at-large on the backs of a now-disgraced former running back named Orenthal James Simpson. O.J.’s “crime of the century” murder trial riveted bored, celebrity-crazed Americans, exposed racial fault lines in our post-Cosby Show culture, and plastered Dunne all over the evening news. In the new documentary just out on DVD, Dominick Dunne: After the Party, directors Kristy de Garis and Timothy Jolley examine – with their subject’s full participation – the rather amazing life and times of a man whose own obsessions with fame and appearances foreshadowed the tell-all “infotainment” journalism we seem to be stuck with.
In the film’s opening, Dunne, looking somewhat cadaverous in his octogenarian years, recounts the oft-told story of being sucker-punched by a maitre d’ at a tony Hollywood nightspot at the behest of Frank Sinatra who, for reasons that remain unclear, detested Dunne, and chose to take his enmity out on Dunne’s then-wife Lenny. Dunne explains the humiliation he felt seeing Sinatra doubled over with laughter during this incident, and apparently, Dunne’s early life was one quite acquainted with humiliation.
Dominick Dunne was raised in patrician surroundings in leafy Greenwich, Connecticut, the son of a pioneering heart surgeon who ascended to the position of president of his hospital. Dunne has claimed that the family were outsiders in East Coast society, due to their Irish Catholic underpinnings, however, it should be noted that the Dunnes still enjoyed the trappings of privilege, with country club lunches, private education, and servants on hand to keep things spiffed up.
Dunne speaks, convincingly, of his respected father’s distaste for him. It seems that Daddy Dunne considered Dom a “sissy”, and reminded the boy of this at every conceivable opportunity, subjecting him to abuse both emotional and physical. How ironic, then, that this same utterly disrespected boy would later serve in the Second World War, copping a Bronze Star for bravery.
In a 1944 photo, we see Dunne in wartime regalia, a handsome young man, with a glint of sadness around the eye. We never do learn if Dunne’s father had a change of heart after Dom’s trial-by-fire, but Dunne clearly relishes his wartime achievements as much as he resents his dad’s scorn. One is reminded, too, of Dunne’s theory that one of the infamous Menendez brothers was a homosexual, that being the root of Jose Menendez’s disappointment with him, or the sexually ambiguous character Harrison Burns in Dunne’s 1993 Kennedy-skewering novel A Season In Purgatory – he does come up with sensational titles, don’t you think? – who laments his own late father’s disgust with an insufficiently masculine son.
An adult Dunne, Ivy League degree in hand, had the great good fortune to land a television job just as that new medium was taking off, working as a stage manager for New York-based NBC. Dazzled by show biz, he soon dragged wife Lenny, a slender, doe-eyed heiress, to Los Angeles, following the slow migration of the TV industry, and enjoyed a quick rise in Hollywood, becoming an executive producer of numerous specials and nursing a deep infatuation with Tinsel Town’s film stars.
After meeting Humphrey Bogart one day at the studio, Dunne realizes his Lucy Ricardoesque fantasy of schmoozing with countless movie actors at Bogie’s pied-a-terre. Curiously, he and Humphrey became quick soul-mates; this quintessential tough guy actor was, in life, the scion of a prominent New York family, and attended exclusive private academies throughout his youth. Anyhow, Dunne was off and running, and that was the beginning of the end.
Griffin & Dominick Dunne
Venomous Little Writer
Dom and Lenny began a relentlessly social existence, leaving the kids with minders, as they cemented friendships and moved up the ladder. Dunne’s eldest son Griffin, himself a veteran actor and film producer, talks about his folks’ constant partying, and Dominick’s frightening obsession with not just keeping up with the Joneses—but surpassing them. Dunne maintained elaborate scrapbooks of party invitations, dressed his kids personally for soirees at home, and crafted personal Xmas card photos that would make Ralph Lauren drool. The one-time stage manager was apparently art-directing the life of his own family!
As Diane Keaton uttered memorably in The Godfather Part II, “All this must end!” After Dom and Lenny held an elaborate black-and-white ball to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary – inspiring Truman Capote to do the same two years later, excluding the Dunnes – Lenny, weary of endless socializing and her husband’s insecurity-rooted mood swings, requested a separation.
Dunne, lapsing into alcoholism, nonetheless made the leap into feature film production, churning out some significant films of the ‘70s, including the landmark gay drama The Boys in the Band, and Al Pacino’s debut leading role, in The Panic in Needle Park, an often overlooked touchstone of grimy, vibrant New Hollywood cinema. However august some of his productions were, they were not generally commercial successes. This fact, combined with Dunne’s unease in dealing with studio brass, his deepening addictions, and a flap with super-agent Sue Mengers, banished Dunne to the proverbial cornfield by the late ‘70s.
He repaired to a borrowed wilderness cabin in the Pacific Northwest, with the offbeat and unenviable task of preparing a sequel to Joyce Haber’s film colony potboiler The Users. The book stiffed, but a review – albeit a negative one – in The New York Times was suitable impetus for Dunne to keep writing. The pendulum swung him back towards the abyss, however.
During his six-month stint in the Oregon woods, he learned of his brother’s suicide and Lenny’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. In 1982, Dunne’s adult daughter, Dominique, was strangled by her enraged ex-boyfriend, and removed from life support a few days later at Cedars-Sinai. Inexplicably, the killer, a celebrated local chef named John Sweeney, only served about three years before being released. Dunne’s voice grows steely as he talks of the delight he took in a personal vendetta against Sweeney’s trial judge, whose career went down the toilet; Dunne claims to have ruined the jurist, but it’s never made clear precisely how.
Vanity Fair doyenne Tina Brown soon took the newly minted author under her wing, encouraging him to write about the legal process of his daughter’s case. The article he produced would become his first piece for the magazine, beginning a relationship which endures to this day. A string of hot-selling books followed Dunne’s anointing by Vanity Fair, and Hollywood’s Charlie Brown found himself back in the high life. More recently, Dunne hosted a documentary series – a la American Justice – for the A & E network titled Power, Privilege & Justice.
Covering trials for America’s preeminent ruling class glossy – often dismissed as an A-list tabloid – has naturally garnered Dunne some enmity. Hotshot attorney Leslie Abramson, who locked horns with Dunne when she defended the Menendez boys, denounces his Vanity Fair coverage as “venomous little pieces”, and of his novelistic work, declared him “Judith Krantz in pants”.
Robert Kennedy, Jr.,—seen in the film dismissing Dunne as a “gossip columnist”—has damned the writer for helping to re-open the 1970s Moxley case, which ultimately placed Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel behind bars. And the disgraced Gary Condit sued Dunne for libel, which seems to have loosened his standing with the magazine, though Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter insists that the author is still welcome in his spring-scented pages. Dunne himself is refreshingly contrite about the incident.
I must confess that my own rose-tinted fandom for Dominick Dunne has hardened into a more skeptical view of him as a snooty name-dropper who wants to be perceived as a crusading populist, while writing envy-mongering books and essays about blue-blooded Republicans. It’s near impossible to conclude that he’s an outsider in those circles. If that was the case, he’d hardly have the ears – and trust – of a veritable who’s-who of Page Six denizens.
Dunne has stated that the glittery galaxies of entertainment bigwigs and country club habitués don’t mingle, but they certainly do in his self-serving Another City, Not My Own, an alleged diary of his involvement with the Simpson debacle, which presents Dunne’s alter ego “Gus Bailey” as a heroic defender of truth and justice, beloved by every celebrity he stumbles across for churning out poison pen pieces about the monstrous O.J. One comes away from reading it in wonderment that public figures will even chat with him, considering the endless parade of private conversations littering its pages.
It also seems that Dunne can hardly be called an objective journalist, but rather a victims’ advocate. A lofty goal, but unquestionably incompatible with thorough journalism. How can one criticize the O.J. jury for letting Simpson walk, then go nightclub-hopping with the strident Bruce Cutler, who is notorious for protecting capo di tutti capi John Gotti, the infamous Teflon Don? If Dunne wants to be self-righteous, he should exercise caution with his own associations.
These are the sort of challenging issues skirted in the film. Dunne is asked about his love life, and this scene is quite touching, as he concedes some highly personal details about his private affairs in a wistful, philosophical tone. Indeed, for a man so wedded to the social walker, Dunne’s romantic life has always seemed rather shadowy.
A wealthy, renowned divorcee who’s never remarried, nor claimed to have any female companions, but nevertheless enjoys great friendships with notable women, including Nancy Reagan, Liz Taylor, and widow Betsy Bloomingdale, whom Dunne roasted – somewhat – in the same book he signed for me. One could be forgiven for imagining that Dunne is gay, especially considering that his novels generally feature prominent homosexual characters, but corroborating evidence seems non-existent.
The directors intercut footage of the Phil Spector trial, said to be Dunne’s last for the magazine. Spector himself sports a ludicrous fright wig, more suitable for Tim Burton’s announced remake of Alice in Wonderland than Los Angeles Superior Court. We also see numerous clips of Lana Clarkson, the C-list blonde bombshell who met her untimely demise at the Wall of Sound producer’s hilltop castle perch just east of the city.
I felt a déjà vu watching Clarkson stride across the screen, reminded of another dream factory starlet felled by male violence, Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten. Stratten was slain by gunshot by a maniacal control freak who happened to be her husband, her tale immortalized is in Bob Fosse’s final picture, 1984’s Star 80.
Extras featured in this DVD amount to interviews conducted – separately – with de Garis and Jolley, both Australian nationals. The filmic style used evokes screen tests, and oddly, both filmmakers are asked identical questions. We also get a rather lengthy trailer, perhaps giving away too much of the movie.
I’m also struck by a certain irony in Dunne’s white-hot feud with Kennedy, Jr. Both men are prominent Irish Catholics from the Northeast, both lives marred by tragedy. Robert’s grandfather, and probably his ambitious dad, felt the sting of being snubbed by their social “superiors”, and Dunne’s family, despite their genteel existence, also felt keenly that they were slightly out of focus in prim BlueBloodLand.
Of course, that didn’t prevent Dunne from becoming a tout le monde media star – which he’s always craved – shuttling in chauffeur-piloted luxury between his Park Avenue penthouse and tastefully appointed country home in semi-rural Connecticut. And who else but Dominick Dunne would use a Turnbull & Asser tie to locate a vein for shooting up, as he did during his Hollywood exile?
Some pundits have spoken – floridly—of a Kennedy curse, a supernatural force determined to punish these arrivistes for their hubristic ambitions, not to mention Joe’s criminal transgressions. Have the ups-and-downs of Dominick Dunne’s roller coaster life also been the result of a mysterious hex anxious to cut him down to size? I can’t say if Dominick Dunne would agree with that, but his own story has all the requisite tragic-romantic elements of any personality he’s written about. That much I’m sure he’d agree!