Leave it to Dominick Dunne to die in good company. He certainly lived among the best and the brightest. When news arrived that Nick Dunne had died on Wednesday morning, after a two-year-long and stoic battle with bladder cancer at 83, the announcement seemed overshadowed by the fact that Senator Ted Kennedy had expired the day before. But what struck me was a much odder coincidence -- the startling fact that Dominick Dunne had died so close on the heels of the 25th anniversary of Truman Capote's death. (Capote died at 59 on August 25, 1984.)
I can't imagine a more fitting irony for Dominick Dunne, since so much of his literary career was a reflection of, if not a deliberate response to, the life of Truman Capote. The similarities are striking. First off, Dunne's most famous (and best) novel The Two Mrs. Grenvilles was based on the notorious Woodward murder scandal that Capote had referred to in his career-killing novel Answered Prayers. It was the gossip and innuendo in an excerpt from it in Esquire, "La Cote Basque," that got Capote into all that hot water, then left him hanging like forgotten laundry out in the cold.
The enfant terrible of cafe society was dropped by his adored "Swans," having allegedly stabbed them in the back by exposing their deepest and most cherished secrets. Capote was washed up. He never finished that novel. But Dominick Dunne, in a way, did. He wrote the Grenvilles novel that picked up where Capote left off. And Dunne did it with a true storyteller's panache, spinning a captivating yarn of high society intrigue, sexual obsession, greed and murder. It was a formula he mastered in his subsequent romans á clef: People Like Us; An Inconvenient Woman; A Season in Purgatory (ironically, set in a Kennedyesque world of ruthless sex and politics). In The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, which was made into a marvelous mini-series starring Claudette Colbert and Ann Margret, Dunne paid homage to Capote by creating a narrator named Basil Plant who bore a striking resemblance to the author of In Cold Blood. And yet, Dunne was also that character. He was the man on the outside looking in, absorbing, documenting, and ultimately chronicling. He was the secret sharer. The confidante. The man everyone trusted.
Dunne's parallels to Capote were not just on the literary scene. Dominick Dunne craved the spotlight just as much as Capote, and surrounded himself throughout his wildly checkered life with just as many socialites and celebrities. Dunne even threw his own "Black and White Ball" in Hollywood that rivaled Capote's legendary fête at the Plaza. Dunne always claimed he had the idea first (although his was a far less grand affair). He celebrated its memory in his nostalgic, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, coffee table book of photographs The Way We Lived Then (Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper). That was part of Dunne's charm. He never tried to exaggerate his importance or his cachet. In fact, he never let you forget what a miracle it was for him to even be a part of the great cavalcade he was witnessing firsthand.
The differences between the two were equally striking. Dunne was a pragmatist. Capote was a dreamer. Dunne was ambitious. Capote was a shameless schemer. Dunne was a journalist. Capote was one of the literati. If Dunne sold more copies than Capote it was because he was a born entertainer. He had a skillful commercial streak. Dunne might sacrifice subtlety to achieve his message. He could be blunt and even crass. He snorted when he was bowled over with laughter. But he was always a gentleman who didn't take himself too seriously. Capote, on the other hand, was deluded by his genius. He didn't see when he was being tacky or self-destructive. And yet, like Dunne, he was a gentleman at heart. Watch the Dick Cavett interview in which Groucho Marx attacks Capote. The comic makes tactless homophobic jibes at his masculinity. Capote, who could be as bitchy as the next queen, rose above the fray and came across as a better person for it. Dunne was also like that. He never forgot the struggles he'd endured. And was generous and kind to everyone. He was known to never pass a beggar on the street without giving a dollar or two. He knew that "there, but for the grace of God, go I."
Born in Hartford to a prominent Irish Catholic family (his father was a well-known heart surgeon), Dunne went on to be awarded a Bronze Star for saving the life of a fellow soldier during the Battle of the Bulge. Graduating from Williams College, after the war, he moved into the then-emerging world of television, working as a stage manager on The Howdy Doody Show. He befriended Humphrey Bogart during the TV production of The Petrified Forest that also starred Lauren Bacall and Henry Fonda. Fascinated by Hollywood, Dunne spent a number of years as vice-president of a film studio, then began producing on his own, including Boys in the Band; Play It As It Lays; and Panic in Needle Park, starring Al Pacino in his screen debut.
His big break as a writer came unexpectedly in the early 80s. Tina Brown had just taken over Vanity Fair and was injecting a great deal of spice and sex into its mix to rid it of its former reputation for being a bathroom-read for aging pedants. One of her first and most important coups was getting Dunne to write a trenchant and emotionally devastating account of his daughter Dominique's murder. The young star of Poltergeist, she had been brutally slain by a former boyfriend. Dunne attended the subsequent sham trial in which her slayer got off with a slap on the wrist. His essay "Justice," about his reaction to this second crime, took the world by storm.
The article ignited the public's imagination like a lightning strike. People knew he could write (he had co-written The Winners, with Joyce Haber, a sequel to The Users) but no one knew he could write with such passion and pathos as he did in this unsparing attack against injustice. It was a difficult piece for anyone to do, and in the hands of a lesser man, it might have seemed like an exercise in narcissism at a time when he should be mourning.
But Dunne had a genius for getting to the heart of a tragedy or a crime and exposing the human element that everyone could relate to. This would serve him well later when he got his own crime show on Court TV. He was not a fussy author, not a "writer's writer." That terrain belonged to his talented and then more successful brother John Gregory Dunne, married to Joan Didion, who was the darling of the literary world at that time. But Dominick Dunne's heartfelt screed was a call to arms. It was as potent in some ways as Emile Zola's famous "J'accuse!"
Dunne's career took off in a completely new direction. He finished the novel he had put aside, which became The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, he wrote hilarious and scathing accounts of the rich and infamous, most notably the Von Bulows, Imelda Marcos, Joan and Jackie Collins, the louche ladies who luncheon in Palm Beach, and screen diva Elizabeth Taylor. Many of these juicy tales were compiled in Fatal Charms, and The Mansions of Limbo. Then came the suite of bestsellers and his column in Vanity Fair, which was the first thing everyone turned to when the issue arrived. Dunne seemed to top himself with each new assignment. He was the only journalist to make sense of the wacky Menendez Brothers trial.
His recounting of the O. J. Simpson case blazed a bright new trail in crime journalism. He may have crossed a few lines of journalistic integrity. Dunne became a central figure in the story. He was no longer covering it; he was creating it. But no one else told it like it was in such brutally honest and compelling prose. He became for many of us a voice of reason and sagacity amid the tumult and insanity. Even if you thought the entire case was preposterous, you couldn't help but be mesmerized by Dunne's blistering reportage.
I first met Dominick Dunne when I saw him sipping water at the fountain in the corridors of Conde Nast. I introduced myself, and lobbed a few compliments his way. I was somewhat in awe even then. But he immediately treated me like a colleague, not some lowly upstart. And we proceeded to get to know each other over the years during lunches at Mortimer's or at cocktail parties thrown by the likes of bons vivants Diego del Vayo, George Trescher, Sean Driscoll and countless others. Across Manhattan, Dominick Dunne was inescapable. I also got to spend a memorable weekend with him at his beautiful house in Connecticut.
I turned the tables on him when I interviewed him for Quest magazine just after his crackling novel People Like Us debuted, and had gotten him into some very deep hot water of his own. Women's Wear Daily had done an expose of the book, hinting that Dunne's penchant for modeling characters on real life people had raised some high society hackles. He had been snubbed by the very same social X-rays who had turned their backs on Capote. "It likened me to Truman Capote in a pejorative way," he told me. "They said I had bitten the hand that fed me. Well, that just ain't true." He related how gossip columnist Aileen Mehle (aka "Suzy") had "curled her lip" at him on two occasions. And how one socially prominent lady who had invited him to accompany her to a swank dinner party had called to say she felt compelled to ask her hostess's permission first. Dunne declined to attend. But most of that brouhaha was smoke and mirrors, and to cynical eyes, just very good publicity. The furor died down as soon as the book hit the bestseller lists. Those who were annoyed at what they perceived to be unflattering thumbnail sketches of themselves in its pages were now gloating over their newfound notoriety. And Dunne's defense of that book went a long way to disarming his detractors.
People Like Us owed more to Trollope than to Capote. "I based it on The Way We Live Now," Dunne told me, "which is a picture of London in the 1850s. When I read it for the first time, I was struck by how incredibly similar it is to life in New York today. In it, there's a billionaire character named Augustin Melmott who is this gross, cigar-smoking, incredibly rich man who comes out of nowhere, yet sets himself up in the biggest house in London. I thought, Jesus, this could be any of the people who have appeared in the '80s, who are enormously rich and heading up the charitable, social and financial worlds of New York." People Like Us also dealt with AIDS and the hypocrisy of the upper crust set who might donate large sums to AIDS charities but disown their children simply because they were gay. Dunne was not afraid to take risks with his books. He often tackled thorny issues with a fervor and boldness that were actually ahead of their time.
Nor did he shy away from controversy. In A Season in Purgatory (later made into a TV-movie with Patrick Dempsey), there is a rather shocking gay sex scene in the upstairs bedroom between the narrator and the male protagonist who killed the young girl at the heart of the story (the book is based on the Martha Moxley case which Dunne had helped to reopen). When I ran into Dunne at the book party for it, I blurted out that the book was such a great read that I had read it "all in one blow." He laughed, smiled and said with a wink, "I'm not surprised." That was Nick Dunne in a nutshell: Witty, candid and charming.
Even at the end of his life, when the party was winding down, and Dunne knew he was deathly ill, he never lost his sense of humor or his gratitude for his good fortune. He never forgot the depths to which he had fallen, and luckily never faltered, or lost his way, unlike Capote who fought similar demons but who was ultimately undone by them. Life was an endless party to both men. But Dominick Dunne never overstayed his welcome.
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