The Master of Celebrity Crime
In 1982, Dominick Dunne recieved the phone call all parents fear. His twenty-two year old daughter, Dominique, was in a coma. She had been strangled by her ex-boyfriend; she never regained consciousness. In two and a half years, her killer was a free man. Anger at the justice system was the catalyst that created the Dominick Dunne of today, who chronicles the rich and famous, the dark and wealthy, and their trials and tribulations in and out of court.
Born in 1926, in Hartford, Conecticut, Dunne sought not for the comforts of wealth, thanks to a father whose business was heart surgery. While there was wealth in one hand, there was abuse in the other. Unable to reach certain fatherly expectations, young Dunne was the receipient of beatings; beatings with wooden coat hangers, which left Dunne deaf in one ear. It was his imagination which allowed him to survive; he envisioned a wonderful, glamorous life, like those depicted in the movie magazines he devoured. What seemed like a dream at nine years old, was in fact a real trip to Los Angeles, where he ate at the Brown Derby (an infamous Hollywood eatery at the time) and rode on the bus tour of Hollywood homes. Dominick Dunne felt destiny pulling.
Dunne's earliest interest in the psychopathic side of societies higher strata, appeared in 1943, while at boarding school. His obsessive interest in a socialite's murder at the hands of her "gold-digging hustler" of a husband, had Dunne skipping school and risking expulsion in order to stay abreast with the goings-on in court. He went on to graduate from Williams College before serving in WWII, where he was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery. Afterwards, Dunne decided to try his luck in New York, where he quickly found his niche in the infancy of television. In a somewhat inauspicious beginning, Dunne became the stage manager for the Howdy Doody Show, an immensely popular TV program for children which ran in the 1950's. I know; I remember how thrilled I was when meeting the show's clown, Clarabell, at a shoestore in Atlanta. It was also during this time that Dunne met his future wife, Ellen (Lenny) Griffin, at the Hartford train station. She would shortly thereafter become his wife and the mother of his children to be.
As Dunne's involvement in television grew, so did his latent desire to mingle with the "real" stars and they lived nowhere else, or so he thought, but in Hollywood. With wife and new born son Griffin in tow, Dunne moved to Santa Monica Beach and began that long dreamed about opportunity to hobnob with the stars. Initially a director of the TV series, Playhouse 90, Dunne added credits and children (Alex and Dominique) to his resume and in no time at all, Dunne was a vice president at Four Star Pictures.
His next move was to a mansion in Beverly Hills with backyard barbeques and parties with all the trimmings, including the likes of Natalie Wood, Kirk Douglas, Audrey Hepburn, Paul Newman and Truman Capote. While his star was seemingly on the rise, Dunne's personal life was on the skids.
Dunne's rendition of the lifestyles of the rich and famous was fueled by alcohol to cover his insecurities and to prop up an ego gone awry in order to maintain the necessary bravado. But a drunk Dunne was not a fun Dunne, and his loud obnoxious behavior, often with a touch of cruelty to boot, offended many and kept the gossip columnists gossiping. His obsession to be the creme de la creme, while simultaneously spinning out of control, became a bit to much for his wife, who asked for a divorce. A devastated Dunne turned even deeper into drugs and was arrested at a local airport for marijuana possession, while in possession of his children. It was the bottom he needed to hit.
Dominick Dunne left town; he escaped. Unsure of a destination, fate intervened with a flat tire and Dunne rented a cabin in the woods, in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Clean and sober and six months later, Dunne sold everything and moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where an opportunity had presented itself for Dunne to become a writer. When he had finished a sequel to The Users, a novel by Joyce Haber about life in Hollywood, he was almost a new man. But it was here in 1982, when he received word that Dominique, his daughter, lay in a coma after being strangled by John Sweeney, her ex-boyfriend. Dunne flew to L.A., but it was too late, Dominique was gone. This would indeed be the seed that would produce the new Dominick Dunne.
Before returning to New York for the trial of his daughter's killer, Dunne's fortune would take another turn; He was introduced to Tina Brown, who was about to become editor of Vanity Fair Magazine. Impressed by his reversal of character, his writing and storytelling abilities, and his social contacts, Brown virtually offered him a job at the magazine. Told to "keep notes" at the murder trial of Dominique, Dunne was off. In 1984, in the first issue of Vanity Fair with Brown as editor, Dominick Dunne's article, Justice: A Father's Account of the Trial of his Daughter's Killer appeared. Dunne would now be a permanent fixture in Vanity Fair. In the ensuing two decades, as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Dunne has covered every major trial of the rich and famous, including Claus Von Bulow, William Kennedy Smith, the Menendez brothers, O.J. Simpson and Martha Moxley.
So what makes Dominick Dunne any different than any other investigative journalist? Well, obviously it begins and ends with the murder of his daughter, Dominick;
When I attended the trial of the man who killed her, I had never been to a trial before, let alone a murder trial, and I was shocked by what I saw. What I realized in the courtroom is that the rights of the victim do not equate to the rights of the defendant. Anything can be said about the dead person, whereas, pertinent information about the man who killed my daughter was kept from the jury....He was costumed like a sacrosanct in a Catholic seminary. He read a Bible piously. It was all bullshit, the whole thing. He got two-and-a-half years in prison. I had moments of murderous thoughts--of hiring someone to have him killed. I truly did. But I knew I'd go to prison for life. So I thought,I can make the public aware... I'm able to express outrage..So the whole direction of my life became covering trials.
You might also call Dunne's reporting, slightly biased
. He makes it clear, in no uncertain terms where he stands. Described as judgmental, passionate and opinionated, Dunne doesn't disappoint. During the O.J. Simpson
trial, Dunne imparts, Personally, I'm sick of people coming out of the woodwork to get rich off the mutilated bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, the forgotten victims of the Simpson trial.
But Dunne is also perceptive and entertaining; At the same trial, he writes, On the first day, the Simpson women were all dressed in shades of yellow, which, we were informed, is the color of hope.
And of Mark Furhman
, Dunne adds, You may hate this man with every fiber in you, but he has an aura about him....there was a deadness in his eyes as if he knew that people were staring at him with loathing.
The New York Times
credits Dunne with "a special gift for sidling up to the rich and privileged while indignantly championing the rights of victims." Nobody does it better.
Currently, Dunne presents his work in a Court TV series called, Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege, and Justice, where Dunne uses the small screen instead of, or in addition to, his written word, in order to present the newest wrinkles to the newest trials, and he appears monthly in Vanity Fair.
Works by Dominick Dunne: