Dominick Dunne: Writer who anatomised Hollywood and chronicled the trials of America's rich and famous

For decades Dominick Dunne sat in courtrooms, leather notebook in hand, chronicling the criminal trials of the rich and famous of America, appraising the performances of defendants up to and including O.J. Simpson. He was no ordinary reporter: not an impartial observer but a minor celebrity who made no secret of his strong convictions of who was innocent and who was guilty.

He was a war hero who had been beaten by his surgeon father; a best-selling author; a one-time movie mogul who was unceremoniously ejected from Hollywood; a socialite with famous acquaintances but also powerful enemies such as Frank Sinatra.

But most remarkable of all was that he first took to the courtroom to witness the trial of the man who strangled his daughter, Dominique Dunne. The short sentence handed down to the killer generated in him a sense of outrage which changed the course of his life.

He wrote about his daughter's case in the 1984 story Justice – a father's cccount of the trial of his daughter's killer. With it he found, in his late 50s, a niche at the nexus of low crime and high society. He went on to spend decades writing on the trials which America found riveting. These ranged from Claus von Bulow to the William Kennedy Smith rape prosecution, to the case of Erik and Lyle Menendez, who were accused of murdering their millionaire parents.

His articles, which appeared in Vanity Fair magazine, have been described as "brilliant, revelatory chronicles of the most famous crimes, trials, and punishments of our time – mesmerizing tales of justice denied and justice affirmed."

Dominick John Dunne was born in 1925, one of six children of a heart surgeon in Hartford, Connecticut. "We were a rich Irish-Catholic family in a Waspy town," he recalled. "This was before Jack married Jackie, before Irish became respectable. We were never a part of things. We were like minor-league Kennedys."

He had an unhappy relationship with his father, who he said beat him with a riding-crop and a coat-hanger. He remembered: "Something about me drove my father crazy. I was a rotten athlete and I was kind of a sissy. I always had a campy sense of humour, even though it was 20 years before I'd heard the word 'campy'. I think he was terrified I would turn out to be gay."

Dominick did something to redeem himself even in his father's eyes when he returned from the Second World War two with a medal for rescuing a wounded colleague in the face of advancing German troops during the Battle of the Bulge. After the war he went into the television industry, first as a stage manager and assistant to a production assistant. His legendary networking skills helped him rise, first in the TV world, and then took him to Hollywood: he entitled a 1999 memoir The Way We Lived Then – Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper.

In Hollywood he both gave and was invited to the most dazzling parties. He always remembered going to Humphrey Bogart's house: "Sinatra sang, Judy Garland sang and Lana Turner lived next door. Spencer Tracy was there that night and David Niven was there and Hank Fonda. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven."

But the movies Dunne produced were not smash hits and he became locked in a downward spiral. He used cocaine, he admitted, and became "a hopeless alcoholic." His wife asked for a divorce. When he made a film about Hollywood itself, the movie world turned against him. Getting the message that in effect he would never eat lunch in that town again, he drove off at random into rural America, broke and apparently finished in his mid-50s.

Tucked away in Oregon he wrote one badly reviewed book, The Winners, but, reviving a boyhood fascination with crime, started another telling the story of a sensational 1950s murder. The Two Mrs Grenvilles was to sell two million copies.

But his life was transformed when his 22-year-old actress daughter Dominique was strangled by a former boyfriend. When the murder charge was reduced the killer served only a few years in prison. Dunne, enraged, felt the court had been taken in by a performance by the defendant: "He came dressed like a sacristan at a Catholic seminary," he recounted bitterly. "He held a Bible and he read it piously and it was all an act. What I witnessed in that courtroom enraged and redirected me."

In a highly unusual move, the Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown had commissioned Dunne to cover the trial. His lengthy and powerful account of the proceedings led her to employ him at the magazine, a relationship which lasted almost three decades. "Tina Brown literally discovered me," he was to say. "She found something in me that I didn't know I possessed."

Brown, who had just taken over the running of the magazine, recalled: "Dominick had a voice that was so personal, that spoke to you right off the page. He just buttonholes you as soon as he starts, in his first sentence. He became our first star writer and, really, the defining voice of the magazine."

In the years that followed he became a familiar figure at the biggest and most sensational US trials, especially those which featured that distinctly American mix of the law and performance art. He had a talent for establishing relationships with, and of course extracting information from, figures in the sometimes overlapping worlds of the law and celebrity.

One friend tried to explain: "As he aged, his unimposing appearance helped. Small, rotund and bespectacled, walking with what might be described as a waddle, he never looked or felt remotely intimidating." Dunne generally reckoned that those in the dock were guilty: as one of his editors said, he never pretended to be objective in covering trials. Dunne described himself as "prosecution oriented."

The O.J. Simpson murder trial raised his profile considerably, with television dwelling on his outsized glasses and dapper appearance. He concluded that Simpson was "guilty from day one."

Last year, in defiance of the orders of doctors who were treating him for cancer, he insisted on flying to Las Vegas to cover Simpson's trial on charges of kidnap and armed robbery. He wrote after Simpson's conviction: "I had quite a few chats with O.J. during the Las Vegas trial. This is the verdict that should have come 13 years ago. I found him to be a lonely figure with a wrecked life."

Some might conclude that Dunne himself could have had a wrecked life, given his childhood unhappiness, his addiction to alcohol and cocaine, the collapse of his movie career, the death of his daughter and a long struggle against cancer. Instead, he remained active and committed to writing until his last days.

David McKittrick

Dominick John Dunne, journalist, author, film producer: born Hartford, Connecticut 29 October 1925; married 1954 Ellen ("Lenny") Griffin (marriage dissolved 1965, two sons, three daughters deceased); died New York 26 August 2009.

News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Travel
travel
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations should be regarded as an offensive act
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices