Dominick Dunne: Late Bloomer

Dominick Dunne: Late Bloomer

You can say, without fear of contradiction, that you are living a full life when:

• Frank Sinatra once paid a waiter $50 to punch you in the face.
• Your parties are attended by the likes of Judy Garland, who cleaned out the family medicine cabinet.
• You begin a new career, as a nationally acclaimed magazine writer, in your mid-fifties, pen a string of bestselling books about the rich and infamous, which are made into TV movies, and at 81 you are completing your sixth novel.

Toss in a weekly show on Court TV about murder most foul and affluent, plus you’re the gossip columnist for Vanity Fair magazine, and there are maybe – maybe – a handful of people in the solar system who can match you story for story.

Without question, Connecticut native and Hadlyme resident Dominick Dunne has attained tenure as America’s Premier Scandalmonger. At the O.J. Simpson trial a decade ago the judge bestowed upon Dunne the best seat in the house in recognition of his status. He was on camera — both inside and outside the courtroom — almost as much as “The Juice.” Just as a shark can sense a droplet of blood from across the bay, this maven of moneyed mores and misadventures has a nose for guilt in high places — not just who done it, but how guilty the gilded guilty truly are, regardless of what the judge and jury say.

A charming and indefatigable conversationalist, Dunne swims affably among society’s über-crust: royals, movie stars, socialites, presidents and their mistresses, captains of industry and commerce – you know, the too, too powerful and the way too rich. He attends their parties and weddings, dines where they dine, swaps gossip with them and their minions.
But every so often, when a dollop of red appears in these rarified waters, Dominick Dunne darts in and takes a big bite out of some scion’s high and mighty hindquarters. He reaches out and touches the Untouchables, brings them to heel even when they otherwise may get off easy or scot-free. Just ask Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel.

Dunne may often float among the très, très riche, but he is not really one of them. “These people who can’t get enough money, do you know what I mean,” he said, leaning forward. “No matter how many billions, it’s always more, more, more,” he continued, waxing theatrical, like a white-haired King Lear on a stormy heath, his grasping left hand clutching the air for lucre. “It’s disgusting what’s happening, the importance of money to these people,” adding, after a dramatic pause, “But I love writing about them.”

There it is, isn’t it? These richer-than-God types can be so damn fascinating. When they screw up, they have such a long way to fall, and most of us want to know every gratifying detail about their excruciating descent. Dunne said he was hooked on the glitterati at the tender age of four. He knew then that Connecticut would be in his rear view mirror. While his peers were trading baseball cards, he was poring over movie mags.

Dominick Dunne was born in 1925 into a large and prosperous West Hartford family who lived in a great stone house with a six-car garage. They summered in Fenwick and Cape Cod. His father was a prominent heart surgeon, and grandfather Dominick Burns owned a grocery store and later became a bank president. Pope Pius XII knighted him for his philanthropic work with Hartford’s needy. Burns, potato famine poor, had left Ireland at 14 and began his ascent as a butcher’s assistant.

“My grandfather was a huge influence on me,” Dunne said. “He was a tough and gentle, never went to school past 14, but he became a millionaire and was one of the most literate people I’ve known. My brother John [Gregory Dunne] and I used to spend Saturday night at my grandfather’s, and he would read the classics to us. John and I both became writers.”

Were it not for being Irish and Catholic, the Dunnes would really have had it made in the shade. Like his family, reeking so of new money, young Dominick didn’t quite fit in either. “I was one of those kids who never made a team,” he said with rising passion. “I never once made a fucking team and it humiliated my father…I was always putting on puppet shows in the basement. I was, from the time I was a little kid, interested in the theater. I just had this sense of glamour. I understood it when I was four. Hartford is a lovely place, and I would never put it down, but I knew I was going to be on the move, that’s all.”

Dunne was nine and a veteran stargazer when his Aunt Harriet took him for his first glorious sojourn to Hollywood. They ate at the Brown Derby, a haunt of Barbara Stanwyck (who was a no-show), and visited Schwab’s Drug Store to see where Lana Turner was purportedly discovered. He had his first close encounter of the celebrity kind at the Coconut Grove, where orchestra leader Eddie Duchin, sporting a white dinner jacket and a deep tan, was presiding. Dunne drank it all in like vanilla Coke.

But it wasn’t glamour that initially drew Dunne away from Hartford and Connecticut. It was World War II. He was drafted into the Army in the middle of his senior year at the Canterbury School for Catholic boys in New Milford and was in Europe by July 1944. Smallish, shy and 18 years old, Dunne had a stutter and described himself as “un-tough.” He became friends with a fellow preppie, a Choatie, and the quality of their packages from home – like bonbons from Louis Sherry – soon had their fellow grunts calling them “the gold dust twins.”

The twins, however, would soon shock their peers when the platoon was retreating from German fire during the Battle of the Bulge. Dunne’s Bronze Star citation reads: “Informed that 2 wounded infantrymen were in need of aid, Cpl. Dunne and his companion exposed themselves to fierce artillery fire to find and help the wounded men.”

Sixty-two years later Dunne recalled the incident: “Hank Bresky and I looked at each other, and we never said a word. In the dark and the rain we ran back toward the enemy, and we found these two terribly wounded soldiers. How I did what I did I have never understood. I am little, but I carried one of those men, and Hank carried the other, and we didn’t know where the fuck we were going.”

Stateside, after the war, he enrolled at Williams College, where he sang and danced in schoolmate Stephen Sondheim’s very first musical. “That’s pretty good, isn’t it?” he declared proudly. In 1952, Dunne landed his first “glamour” job, at NBC TV in New York, as the stage manager for the “Howdie Doody Show.” In his scrapbook-like memoir “The Way We Lived Then (Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper)”, one of his three non-fiction books, Dunne wrote, “I knew Buffalo Bob, Clarabell the Clown, and Princess Summerfallwinterspring. I seated the kids in the Peanut Gallery, and my name was on the credits. I loved that…but I yearned for drama and stars.”

The stars would appear soon enough. NBC sent Dunne to Hollywood to work on a movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall, but only for a few weeks. In 1957 he went west full time, jumping to CBS and serving as an assistant producer of “Playhouse 90.” He had married ranching heiress Ellen Beatriz “Lenny” Griffin in 1954 (her marriage to Dunne caused her to be dumped from the Social Register), and the couple rented a beach cottage in Santa Monica from Harold Lloyd. It was just down the strand from actor and Rat Packer Peter Lawford, who had married into the Kennedy clan and who would become fast friends with the new arrivals.

Dunne was in Hollywood heaven. It was like living inside those movie magazines. Marilyn would sashay by the Lawfords, and Janet Leigh and Angie Dickinson, not to mention Jack Kennedy, soon to be president. Before long, such people – Natalie Wood, Tuesday Weld, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen etc. – were coming to the Dunnes’ parties, which became legend for their verve and extravagance.

As Dunne rose to the top of the movie business in the 1960s and 1970s, producing such films as “The Boys in the Band,” he took notes and pictures and saved invitations, letters and telegrams to document that the life he was leading was actually happening. At his zenith in Hollywood Dunne was the vice president of Four Star, a production company owned by David Niven, Dick Powell and Charles Boyer.

But all was not swell in Tinsel Town. There were so many parties and a growing family. Two of the couple’s five children died at birth. Life was a blur. Thank God for the cook and the gardener and the Scottish nanny (“who came to us from the Ronald Reagans”). And the booze and various drugs, which helped for a little while until Dunne was arrested for possession of marijuana and later set a hotel room on fire while inhaling amyl nitrate. He also was living beyond his means, and his marriage was crumbling toward divorce in 1971. At one particularly low point he sold his West Highland terrier for $300.

Dispirited and broke, his career a wreck, and contemplating suicide, Dunne fled Hollywood in 1979 for the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, of all places, to dry out and reinvent himself. The reason he picked the Cascades was because the name sounded soothing. Now it was Hollywood that was in his rearview mirror. In the woods, living alone in a cabin for six months with no telephone or television, where no one had a clue who he was or how many swells he knew, Dunne willed himself to become a writer.

He had some help. “I wasn’t one of his great friends, but during my down period in Oregon, Truman [Capote] wrote me a letter, and I was amazed because I knew him, but we weren’t letter-writing buddies,” Dunne recalled. “He had heard I was living in a cabin, and he wrote me this letter. I had ceased to believe that I mattered, that’s how low my spirits were, and his letter kind of turned things around for me.”

His first opus, “The Winners,” was an unmitigated flop that was savaged by The New York Times, but the author by now could look on the bright side: after all, he’d written a book that was published, and the “paper of record” had seen fit to review it. In 1982 Dunne was back east in New York City working on his second novel when news of his daughter Dominique’s death at the hands of her ex-boyfriend reached him. Just 22, she was already an accomplished actress, having appeared in the movie “Poltergeist” and in several network television series.

With the encouragement of fledgling Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, Dunne would chronicle the trial of his daughter’s killer, who had a history of violence against women that the judge saw fit to keep from the jury. John Thomas Sweeney was charged with murdered but served less than three years in a minimum security prison after his conviction for voluntary manslaughter. For a time Dunne kept tabs on Sweeney to make sure that any new people he encountered were aware of his past.

He also wrote his first Vanity Fair piece about the case, focusing on what he saw as a travesty of justice. This time it was Dunne doing the savaging: “I thought I could get even with this prick judge and I did.” It would be the start of a relationship with the glitzy magazine as well as a commitment to victim’s rights that continues today. His articles — part investigative, part commentary, part raw gossip — about murder, mayhem and epic courtroom battles followed in rapid succession: Claus Von Bülow, O.J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers, William Kennedy Smith, and Michael Skakel. He is up front about the gossipy parts, leading off one of his many articles on the Simpson trial this way: “A reporter I know who’s a friend of a deputy who’s a friend of another deputy who’s connected to the jury…”

Dunne also would mine such real life drama for the plots and characters in his novels. His fiction could have forwards that read: remarkable similarities between the characters herein and the real people they closely resemble are no coincidence. Basil Plant in the “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles,” his first bestseller, is Truman Capote. Augustus “Gus” Bailey, protagonist in several of his novels, is a dead ringer for the author himself. His 1993 bestseller “A Season in Purgatory” was patterned closely on the case of Martha Moxley, the Greenwich teenager who was bludgeoned to death with a golf club in 1975, and it is credited with reviving interest in what was then an unsolved murder, leading to the eventual conviction of Michael Skakel in 2002.

Dunne, in fact, played a direct role in the real life denouement. Rushton Skakel, Michael’s father, had commissioned a secret report to clear the name of his son Thomas, who had been mentioned most often as a possible suspect by Dunne and others. The report did exonerate Thomas, but elevated his brother Michael to prime suspect. Someone who had been involved in writing the secret report gave a copy to Dunne, who dutifully handed it to the Greenwich police.

Connecticut’s long reformed prodigal son has returned, if only on weekends and in the warmer months to take refuge from the urbane social vortex of New York City. The living room of his Hadlyme retreat, where his Court TV segments are filmed, is “grand and cozy.” Virtually all of the many dark-wooded tables are piled high with books, magazines and DVDs. Dunne is a longtime Academy Award voter and gets all the latest films, which he donates to the Lyme Library after viewing them. A pillow placed prominently on the couch facing the fireplace sports the legend: “I Don’t Repeat Gossip — Listen Carefully.”

The novelist’s attire, similar to the room, is elegant yet comfortable: a dark blue blazer with gold buttons, khaki pants, a blue-and-white striped shirt with a white collar, no tie, gold cufflinks and bedroom slippers. The grand tour includes a stop in an adjacent room that is decorated with multi-layered red lacquer paint that resembles wallpaper – and remarkable photos from his high profile life. To scrap the surface: There are shots of his three children meeting the Beatles in 1964 and of Dunne greeting Princess Diana, posing with Elizabeth Taylor and sitting at a dinner party with Monica Lewinsky. A note she wrote him afterwards thanking him for his graciousness sits on the table beneath the photo.

And while the Hadlyme social scene isn’t New York, it does have a pulse. Dunne’s friends here include the artist Tim Lovejoy: “You ask Dominick for dinner and he’ll say ‘Great, I’ve got a scoop for you.’ That’s his contribution to the dinner. He’s very wined and dined. He always says he doesn’t know anyone here, but he does. He does not cook or shop, people make things for him to warm up.”

Others in his rural posse are fellow gossip columnist Liz Smith, who has a home in Old Saybrook, and Peter and Colette Harron of Essex. He is a noted photographer, and she traffics in high-end real estate. “We became close when he moved back to Connecticut,” said Colette. “He’s just the sunshine of my life, he’s my sounding board. He gives me advice on everything. I love him for his values and his humor. He’s been through a lot in his life, and he is not at all bitter — you know how people can go either way when they are afflicted with tragedies. Dominick is totally generous and inclusive.”

The last two years, while he has been trying to finish his latest novel that was originally scheduled for publication in 2004, have been somewhat bumpy for the author. In 2005, former U.S. Congressman Gary Condit, who had sued Dunne for $11 million over remarks he made on a radio program implicating him in the disappearance of Chandra Levy, won an undisclosed amount of money in an out-of-court settlement.

At the time the lawsuit caused a rift between Dunne and Vanity Fair, which declined to assist its longtime writer. So last fall Dunne cancelled the 80th birthday bash the magazine was planning for him and threw himself an epic party at New York’s Union Club. Martha came and the Ford sisters, several Vanderbilts, Michael Caine, Barbara Walters and just a slew of the usual crème de la crème suspects. Living well is alleged to be the best revenge.

Despite a brief health scare this spring, attributed to fatigue after his return from the Cannes Film Festival, Dunne is fit and continuing a demanding schedule of writing, socializing and swapping gossip. His stories, whether spoken or written — accumulated through his remarkable access to humans great and small, much as a wise, patient priest harvests sins in the confessional — are rich delicacies to be savored. He served up this one on an early fall Sunday:

It is the late 1990s and Dunne was in Houston, Texas for a literacy fundraiser sponsored by Barbara Bush. Waiting to go on stage and read, he is seated next to the former First Lady and her son George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, making small talk. The son abruptly informed his mother that he can’t stay for the gala dinner afterwards. Nearly a decade later recalling the awkward moment, Dunne launched into an Oscar-quality impression of mother Bush’s reaction: “What do you mean, George, you can’t stay? I sold these $50,000 tables because I told people you would be here…” While the Texas-sized tiff was escalating, Dunne said he was praying that his turn to read would come soon. “I was as close to them as you are to me, and I didn’t know what the fuck to do,” he said. Later, at the dinner, he watched as Mrs. Bush walked the future president from table to table, her right hand clasped firmly on his left arm.

Dunne and Vanity Fair have reconciled, but he has taken the fall off from magazine writing to finish his novel, “A Solo Act,” which is now due out in 2007. The author has resuscitated alter ego Gus Bailey (he died in a previous novel), and he described the book as being set among New York society and the nouveau riche — somewhat similar to “People Like Us,” with some of the same characters but fifteen years later.

Dunne expects to be writing his monthly “Diary” column for Vanity Fair early next year. Who else can chronicle the sad saga of Brooke Astor with the insightful zest that he does after the grand dame of New York City society hit the tabloid front pages this summer: “Disaster for Mrs. Astor.” Her grandson is accusing his own father — Astor’s only child, Anthony Marshall – of neglecting to properly care for the 104-year-old woman while receiving a multi-million dollar fee as her guardian.

Dunne, of course, had attended Astor’s grand soirées until his 1988 novel “People Like Us,” which laid bare the swell set’s seamy side, offended so many on her A-list guests that she was obliged, reluctantly, to stop inviting its author. The two have remained cordial, however, and he has patterned a character in his upcoming novel on her. This fancy family feud is likely fodder for the plot as well.

The internecine nastiness will no doubt rage on for months if not years, but the verdict according to Dominick Dunne is already in. He closed his column in the October issue of Vanity Fair thusly: “And when the great lady dies, which could be at any minute, imagine how difficult the funeral is going to be, with legions of her friends not speaking to her son and his wife.”

[Note: This profile was published in 2006 in Connecticut Magazine. Dominick Dunne died in 2009 at age 83.]