The writer of wrongs

There is no hiding place for the rich and privileged when Dominick Dunne turns his pen on them. Susan Chenery met him

DOMINICK DUNNE was a failure once. Here in this town. Down and out in Beverly Hills. Weaving around drunk and stoned, his wife gone in disgust, the phone shatteringly silent. Failed films, substance abuse, the full self-destructo. "After 28 years as a TV executive and studio executive I had a failed marriage I couldn't let go of and a career that had let go of me. I was out of work for several years. I was desperate and broke. I couldn't pay the rent. I was desperate in every way. Hollywood's a very cruel place for a failure to be, I had become known as a failure. They will forgive us our lies, forgeries, cheating, even your murders on occasion. But they will never forgive you for failing." Humiliation after humiliation. At the end there was only one option. He had to get out of town. Fast.

When he came back it was in another incarnation. And when he came back, he came back with a vengeance. His new career would be shaped by the sadness of loss, fuelled by the steepness of his social fall and rise, coloured by all the experiences of his life and driven, finally, by the desire to put things right. When you emerge from your own private hell you are forever changed.

With nowhere to turn, Dominick Dunne drove distractedly into the Oregon mountains and checked into a guest house, suicidal, everything that mattered gone. Thinking his life was over, he instead went deep into himself and began to heal. "I lived on cans of hash because I didn't have much money. I quit drinking and I quit smoking grass. In the loneliness I found that all the bull of Hollywood was bull that I had filled myself with." And he began to write. The perfect occupation for the troubled, broke and alone. But, even so, for Dominick Dunne the pure crusading motivation was still to come. The impelling sorrow that would elevate him from good to great in his late-life career.

On a shelf in his hotel suite is a black-and-white photograph, faded and yellowing, of a young woman. Her thick dark hair swirls around her shoulders, her face is pale and fine, her dark eyes wide, lips slightly parted; she looks out of the frame with untramelled innocent curiosity. Her killer strangled his daughter for five-and-a-half minutes then left her to die. Her father will never get over her death. "I loved her," he says simply. "I think about her every day." Everything he does, everything he writes is atonement for the wrongful death of Dominique Dunne, actress. She had just completed her first feature film, Poltergeist. Filled with promise and choked to death at 22. Her killer got two and a half years. Her father got life. It is his sorrow. To the core. And his anger. Helpless, impotent, towering. May she rest in peace because her father never will.

"It absolutely changed my life. It is impossible to say in words what it did to my life. It made me a totally different kind of person. It was time to get serious. Her's was the first trial I had ever gone to and I began to understand this thing: that the rights of the killer on trial exceed the rights of the victim. The victims are forgotten. My ex-wife is a helpless invalid with multiple sclerosis. The defence even tried to stop her appearing in court in her wheelchair because she would arouse sympathy. When the killer got out of jail I hired a private investigator to follow him. I don't know what I was looking for or what I was going to do. I wanted to kill him. I was like a crazy person. I was obsessed with revenge. Finally I realised I couldn't go on like that. I had to put that rage into a positive thing." Now, like a man possessed, he writes for his life and for hers.

Her photograph stands there as a reminder, perhaps, a touchstone for what became his life's work. That fading face giving him the strength to persist. "I feel she protects me and has helped me. I ask for her help sometimes." The glass has cracked, jagged across her beautiful, porcelain face, seeming to poignantly symbolise the circumstances of her death and its aftermath. Her life was taken so callously by her former boyfriend, a chef with a history of violence towards women, who sweet-talked the jury and pretended to read the Bible through the trial. "He is not in love with me, Dad," Dominique had told her father, "he is obsessed with me."

No wonder her father went after 0J Simpson. A history of obsession and violence towards his slaughtered wife. The 0J case, too, had everything. Money, power, celebrity. A mansion, of course. And finally it had something else. Something against which Dominick Dunne constantly rails in his relentless crusade. The ineluctable fact that the rich in America can get away with murder. Literally. And often do. Everybody has their price. This makes Dominick Dunne really, really mad.

All his best-selling books are morality tales around this theme. He may be tiny and tubby and grey and speak in a slightly quavering voice, but he is fearless and forceful: the rich and powerful defendants' dogged worst nightmare. The conscience that they lack.

He follows their trials with morbid forensic fascination. Sits through months and months of quotidian legal argument, sifting through the evidence to make his own case, writing neatly in his little notebook. "When you have a million bucks to spend on your defence attorney you will win. If you can afford a high-priced defence attorney with a huge staff and huge resources you will win. If you have money you can get justice. There is a genuflection to money and fame."

There is something utterly correct about Dominick Dunne. In the cut of his navy jacket. In his old-fashioned morality and integrity. In his work, where he never puts a word wrong. When he chronicles the casual, brutal carelessness of high society, he is writing about curved marble staircases, of country clubs and summers of sailing and tennis, of magnificent rooms with fine paintings, shot silk and high ceilings through which he has walked all his life. He moves through fashionable society. He knows those perfectly proportioned rooms. He knows the smooth athletic arrogance of its youth. He knows how efficiently they can close ranks and cover up unfortunate slips of conduct, regrettable peccadillos, profligate, messy lives.

Beyond the endless, glittering parties of mere movie money, it is a world of power and beauty for whom publicity and scandal are too vulgar to even contemplate.

"My father used to describe them as the kind of people who can keep things out of newspapers," explains the Los Angelean old money heiress, Camilla, in An Inconvenient Woman. "There are about two or three hundred of us who dine together in various combinations, and we rarely widen the circle, and you rarely read about us in the newspapers... we never mix with the movie crowd, and only sometimes with the people from Pasadena, except for civic evenings or certain charities." This was the glowing world of Pamela Harriman, Babe Paley and Betsy Bloomingdale, who ran grand houses and staggeringly rich and powerful husbands with equal elan.

When Alfred Bloomingdale died on the job, so to speak, his socialite wife Betsy, understandably perhaps, abruptly cut his mistress out of his will. But Vicki Morgan did not go quietly. She was a desperate and therefore inconvenient woman. The ensuing scandal, my dear, was mortifying, the sniggering, the humiliation, the newspapers; just too, too awful. So common. Especially for such close personal and pretentious friends and advisors of the Reagans, who were then comically resident in the White House.

Vicki Morgan was later bludgeoned to death, and her male porn star friend found guilty. In An Inconvenient Woman, Dunne makes it clear that he believes the porn star is innocent: Flo got in the way of a rich woman, connected at the highest levels. Broke and frightened, she threatened to expose all in a book. You don't do that and get away with it. No siree. You do not forget your place with people like these. Not when the billionaire lover had questionable colleagues with secrets to keep. Too much, far too much, to lose. The waitress had to go. Simple.

Dominick Dunne speaks in the same clear and measured way in which he writes. Attention to detail. "I come from a rich Irish Catholic family, I come from Connecticut, my father was a surgeon. We were not rich like the Kennedys. We were lower case Kennedys. But I went to the same kind of schools as they did. I have always known them. Jackie and my wife went to this young ladies' school. Jackie was a year ahead of my wife and Lee was a year below. She knew Jackie. I met Jackie but I didn't really know her. I wrote a tribute about her when she died. I went to Bobby and Ethel's wedding. And when I was young and married and lived in Hollywood and Santa Monica, our great friends were Peter and Patricia Lawford, who had been Patricia Kennedy. We were two houses away from the beach in Santa Monica and Jack Kennedy would come in his helicopter and come for lunch when he was President. I mean it was a very glitzy glam time."

The Kennedys don't speak to him any more. Not since he covered the William Kennedy Smith rape trial. And then, as if that wasn't enough, A Season in Purgatory, a damning composite of the Kennedys and a novelistic indictment of their assumption of impunity.

For they are, after all, the model for everything he came to despise. He sees straight through the blinding charisma, always has. "I always thought they were great, the Kennedys. But after Chappaquiddick something happened to them. I just found that one of the most revolting episodes in our history. And then one thing after another happened. The Kennedys don't like me, no."

In Vanity Fair he wrote of the Smith rape trial: "The verdict, not guilty, was a disappointment to some, a cause for delirium to others, but a surprise to no one." Certainly not to Dominick Dunne. A Kennedy in jail? Unthinkable.

"It was so strange in Palm Beach after the trial. The Kennedy sisters were like dowager archduchesses of a royal house, believing in the divine right of kings, or Kennedys. They knew how to play it. The court was like a church. I was on one side of the aisle and they were on the other. I know them all and we never spoke. But I think the William Kennedy Smith trial was shaming for them all. Whether he got acquitted or not. It was a shameful episode of public tawdriness. I think it is a wonderful thing the way they all stick together when one of them is in trouble. They all arrive, the whole parade of the family was utterly fascinating. But somebody told me that they would stick by him through thick and thin, but after it was all over, when they were alone, they would have kicked the shit out of him."

The rape trial scandal may have been over for a Palm Beach not entirely unused to sex scandals and a titillated public but it would go on to star, thinly-disguised, in A Season in Purgatory. Well, you can't let the playful high spirits of golden youth get in the way of a commanding future, now can you? Not for a little thing like murder. The narrator is a writer, of course, doomed to live as an outsider, but who as a poor but bright schoolboy is shown largesse by a dazzlingly rich, glamorous and mesmerising large Irish Catholic family. Largesse for a price, that is. The price of silence. Harrison Burns is a bought and paid-for family retainer. The deal? His school fees are paid if he never speaks of the sex murder he has witnessed, committed by his beautiful, witty, charming friend, scion of the family.

"I really love A Season in Purgatory. That is the closest thing to me," Dunne confesses smiling, an oddly rare event.

He met Tina Brown, the editor of Vanity Fair, at a dinner party in New York just as he was about to go to Los Angeles for the trial of his daughter's murderer. "She commissioned a piece about it, she told me to keep a diary. It was the first article I ever wrote and it was her first issue. She is my dear friend. I came in with her from the first issue on. I work exclusively for Vanity Fair and have done for 12 years. It was the best place, it still is, I love it there".

People Like Us, my personal favourite, is a satirical expose of New York society and the ascent and crashing descent of the ridiculous, self- conscious, vulgar and grasping nouveau riche on a collision course with jail, scandal and financial ruin. Published in 1988, it was a prescient parable to say the least. "It is absolutely about the Eighties. You know, I read what is absolutely my favourite novel by Anthony Trollope, called The Way We Live Now. It is one of the most fabulous books I have ever read. It is about the nouveau riche in London in 1860 and about a family that took over and how the old guard of everything got sucked into it because of the wealth and the kind of person they loathed but needed.

My God, I thought, that is New York now, today, that is it. And that is what gave me the impetus to do that. I moved in those circles. If you are a well-known person and people read your books and everything, they just invite you to all those things. So I went to all those billionaire things. I was fascinated. You know, I thought, 'I can do this'." So, of course, he betrayed them, as the writer must. "It got me into a lot of trouble. It was a very interesting learning experience. It scared me a bit at first and then I realised I don't care."

Because the writer, in the end, must be true to himself. Must find the truth and tell it. Cannot crave to be loved. Must be able to walk away.

Dominick Dunne moves uncomfortably in his chair. "I have walked a narrow line ever since I started to write." Because he is not a ghost at the feast. He is not like the rest of us journalists, glimpsing a world we can never inhabit, our noses pressed against the glass, to look but never touch. He is one of them.

In the end, though, he is essentially alone. A writer. Lunching alone at the Waldorf Astoria. Talking every day to his ex-wife and sons Griffin, an actor, and Alex, a writer. Writing, always writing.

Nearly 70, strong and vigorous, pondering the nature of evil. "I think there is a lot of evil around us, I truly do. I am not holding myself up as any bit of perfection because God knows I am not. I just believe in right and wrong. I truly do. It is getting all forgotten around us. Everything is corrupt everywhere. Ethics and morality seem to have gone out of our lives."

Susan Chenery will soon join the Independent on Sunday. This article is taken from her book, Talking Dirty, published in Austrtalia in 1997

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