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.

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