Dominick Dunne, a best-selling author and special correspondent for Vanity Fair, died today at his home in Manhattan. He was 83. His son, actor – director Griffin Dunne, said the cause of death was bladder cancer. Dunne had recovered from prostate cancer in 2001 but was diagnosed with bladder cancer last year. Although ill, he covered OJ Simpson’s recent armed robbery trial in Las Vegas, which resulted in Simpson’s conviction – a verdict Dunne had waited more than a decade for.
I am terribly saddened by this news. As an avid reader, I’ve read Dominick Dunne’s column in Vanity Fair for over 15 years in addition to every book he has ever written, twice. His captivating reporting on the shocking crimes of the rich and famous was addictive, making the high society scandals seem stranger than fiction. His colorful demeanor and storied mesmerized listeners, making him a sought after dinner guest. This gave him access to a world that wouldn’t talk to journalists.
His assignments took him to London to cover the inquest into Princess Diana’s death and to Monaco to look into the mysterious death of billionaire Edmond Safra.
Dunne, who joined Vanity Fair in 1984 as a contributing editor and was named special correspondent in 1993, famously covered the trials of O. J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers, Michael Skakel, William Kennedy Smith, and Phil Spector, as well as the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. He wrote memorable profiles on numerous personalities, among them Imelda Marcos, Robert Mapplethorpe, Elizabeth Taylor, Claus von Bülow, Adnan Khashoggi, and Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.
His first article for Vanity Fair was an account of the trial of the man who murdered his 22-year-old daughter Dominique shortly after she finished filming her first movie, “Poltergeist.” Sweeney was convicted only of voluntary manslaughter, not murder, and was freed after serving less than four years of a six-year sentence. The verdict was seen as a major victory for the defense, and Dunne bitterly told the judge in court, “you withheld important information from this jury about this man’s history of violent behavior.” He later told the Los Angeles Times the sentence was “a tap on the wrist.”
“If you go through what I went through, losing my daughter, you have strong, strong feelings of revenge,” Dunne said in 1990 in discussing his novel, “People Like Us,” in which the protagonist shoots the man convicted of killing his daughter. “As a novelist, I could create a situation in which I could do in the book what I couldn’t do in real life. I intended for Gus (the character in the book) to kill the guy. But when I got to that part I couldn’t write it. He wounds him and goes to prison himself for a couple of years.” Throughout his life, Dunne was a vocal advocate for victims’ rights.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, on October 29, 1925, Dunne was awarded the Bronze Star, at age 19, for his service in World War II. In 1949, he graduated from Williams College with a B.A. In April 1954, Dunne married Ellen Beatriz Griffin, who went by Lenny. 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 Lollabrigida, Loretta Young, Angela Lansbury and Truman Capote. 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. Dominick and Lenny’s marriage ended in divorce in 1965.
Dunne began his career in New York City as the stage manager of The Howdy Doody Show, and in 1957 he moved to Hollywood, where he became the executive producer of the television series Adventures in Paradise. He then moved on to producing feature films, including The Boys in the Band, Panic in Needle Park, Play It as It Lays, and Ash Wednesday.
But by this time drugs and alcohol had part of his life, and in 1975 he drove himself up to the woods in Oregon to face his demons. Living alone in a cabin, he became sober and at age 50 began to write.
In 1980, Dunne moved back to New York and saw five of his novels become bestsellers. His books include The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, Fatal Charms, People Like Us, An Inconvenient Woman, A Season in Purgatory, and Another City, Not My Own. A collection of essays, Fatal Charms, was published in 1987, and his memoir, The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Droppe, was published in 1999. Justice, a collection of articles that had appeared in Vanity Fair, was published in 2001. And his last book, Too Much Money: A Novel, is scheduled for publication in December 2009 by Random House.
Dunne often bit the well-manicured hands that fed him, turning his high society relationships into fictional stories. 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.” 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 murder into another novel, “A Season in Purgatory.” 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.”
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.
The documentary series Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege and Justice premiered on Court TV in June 2002. “I am openly pro-prosecution and make no bones about it,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle that year. “I don’t think there are enough people out there sticking up for victims.” Dominick Dunne: After the Party, a documentary about his life, premiered in 2008.
Dunne was beginning to write his memoirs and, until close to the end of his life, he posted online messages on his own Web site commenting on events in his life and thanking his fans for their constant support.
Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter praised Dunne as a gifted reporter who proved as fascinating as the people he wrote about. “Anyone who remembers the sight of O.J. Simpson trying on the famous glove probably remembers a bespectacled Dunne, resplendent in his trademark Turnbull & Asser monogrammed shirt, on the court bench behind him,” Carter wrote in a statement released Wednesday. “It is fair to say that the halls of Vanity Fair will be lonelier without him and that, indeed, we will not see his like anytime soon, if ever again.”
Dunne was part of a famous family that also included his brother, novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne; his brother’s wife, author Joan Didion; and his son, Griffin. In addition to his son Griffin, of Manhattan, Dunne is survived by another son, Alex, of Portland, Oregon, and a granddaughter, Hannah.
“I’ve lived this very dramatic life, with high points and terrible low points,” he told a London paper as one 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.”