Dominick Dunne: The human anecdote

The writer, who has died aged 83, chronicled the worlds of celebrity and criminality with equal relish
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The Independent Online

It is a testament both to Dominick Dunne's sense of theatre and the clattering snobbery which made him the best-connected and most famous journalist in America that when he died of cancer on Wednesday, aged 83, his family attempted to keep the death secret.

A spokesman initially refused to confirm that the great socialite, raconteur and novelist had died, hoping the news could be withheld for 24 hours, so that Dunne's obituaries would have run less risk of being overshadowed by coverage of Senator Edward Kennedy's death.

In the end, that was not to be But the request did at least ensure that nothing became Dominick Dunne quite so splendidly as the manner of his parting. Put simply his uniquely colourful life, and topsy-turvy career, was one big anecdote.

Dunne, the author of two decades-worth of crime stories about the rich and famous, whose gilded world he also inhabited, became a household name as the dapper Vanity Fair scribe who sat at the front of the courtroom throughout O J Simpson's murder trial.

"Anyone who remembers O J Simpson trying on the famous glove probably remembers a bespectacled Dunne, resplendent in his trademark Turnbull & Asser monogrammed shirt, behind him," wrote the magazine's editor Graydon Carter on Wednesday. "We will not see his like anytime soon, if ever again."

By the end of his life, Dunne had written 10 books, including five best-selling novels, two collections of essays, and a staggeringly indiscrete memoir subtitled: "recollections of a well-known name-dropper."

As a journalist, he churned out a Vanity Fair column for more than a decade, and interviewed myriad celebrities, in splendidly acerbic fashion, for the magazine's feature pages. At the height of his fame, he also hosted a Court TV program: "Power, Privilege and Justice."

Dunne's unique selling-point was his ability to combine lofty social status with the mischeviousness of a gossip columnist. Though friendly with a slew of the Hollywood elite, from Humphrey Bogart and Mia Farrow to Michael Jackson and Liz Taylor, he wasn't afraid to have an adversarial relationship with their peers.

In one legendary incident during the 1960s, Frank Sinatra – with whom he had feuded for several years - paid a waiter at Daisy, the Beverly Hills nightclub to walk up to Dunne's table and punch him in the face. Yet however glamorous Dunne's background, his literary success stemmed from tragedy. His career effectively began in 1982, when his daughter Dominique was strangled to death by her former boyfriend, John Sweeney, who received a 6 year sentence for voluntary manslaughter.

Shocked by the sentence, of which Sweeney served just 2 years, Dunne was persuaded by Vanity Fair's then editor, Tina Brown, to vent his spleen in print. The article was a huge hit, and led him to chronicle almost every great society court case of modern times, including the trials of Claus von Bulow and Phil Spector, the Princess Diana inquest, and the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

Unsurprisingly, given his experience of the court system, Dunne was a lifelong advocate for victim's rights, taking the view that defendants were guilty until proven innocent..

Most famously, Dunne always believed that O J Simpson was guilty of murdering his wife. When the famous "not guilty" verdict was delivered, in front of a TV audience of 100 million, he was visible in the background, gasping in disbelief.

Last year, after covering the Las Vegas kidnapping trial that finally landed Simpson in prison, Dunne recalled: "I had quite a few chats with O J. I found him to be a lonely figure with a wrecked life. This is the verdict that should have come 13 years ago."

Known to childhood friends as Nick, Dunne grew up one of six children of a wealthy Connecticut surgeon. One of his brothers was John Gregory Dunne, the writer husband of Joan Didion.

After serving in the army in the Second World War – he won a Bronze Star at the Battle of Merz – "the only thing I can ever remember doing that won any admiration from my father", he moved to Hollywood in the early 1950s seeking fame and fortune. An initially successful show-business career, in which he rose from stage manager on the Howdy Doody Show to the producer of films including The Boys in the Band, The Panic in Needle Park, and Play It as It Lays, hit choppy water when Donne began drinking excessively and abusing drugs.

In 1969, he was arrested for marijuana possession. By 1973, his film career was over. The final blow came when he told a crude joke about Sue Mengers, a powerful agent, and The Hollywood Reporter printed it.

"[The head of Paramount Pictures] Bob Evans called and said, 'You're over in Hollywood'. I was. And I knew it," he recalled.

In the ensuing years, Dunne divorced his wife, the heiress Ellen Griffin (mother of his five children, of which two sons survive) and fell into deep depression. At one point he sold all his possessions including, for $300, his West Highland terrier.

It took the suicide of his brother Stephen, in 1979, to convince Dunne to move to New York and try writing. His first novel, The Winners, had moderate success. Then, after Vanity Fair hired him, he published bestsellers such as People Like Us (1988), An Inconvenient Woman (1990) and Another City, Not My Own (1997), based on the Simpson trial.

In declining health he travelled to Germany for experimental stem-cell treatments for bladder cancer, staying at the same clinic as actress Farrah Fawcett. One of his final articles carved-up Phil Spector, calling him "a drama queen, albeit straight".

"I've lived this dramatic life, with high points and terrible low points," he said. "Nothing has been ordinary... 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."

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