Dominick Dunne biography
SynopsisDominick Dunne was born October 29, 1925, to a wealthy family in Hartford, Connecticut. He worked in television in New York and later produced films in Hollywood. After a battle with alcoholism and drug abuse, he began writing novels. He wrote about the trial of his daughter's murderer for Vanity Fair and then covered other trials for the magazine, including O. J. Simpson's. Dunne died in 2009.
Journalist, novelist. Born October 29, 1925 in Hartford, Connecticut. The line between the personal and professional life of Dominick Dunne has always been blurred. Erudite and wealthy himself, the writer has chronicled the misfortunes and criminal acts of his peers within privileged America. His fiction has dissected the rich, the famous, and the corrupt while his nonfiction has dealt with the trials of such figures as Claus Von Bulow, William Kennedy Smith, and the Menendez brothers. Dunne even reported on the trial of John Sweeney, the man who murdered Dunne's daughter, Dominique. But few assignments have brought him so much personal disgust, and so much national attention, as the O.J. Simpson trial.
Reporting for Vanity Fair, Dunne sat in the now legendary courtroom day in and day out, observing and reporting on what was dubbed "The Trial of the Century." Dunne himself described it to Mary Murphy in TV Guide as "the biggest news story that's ever been" and a "morality tale for America." Considered a prized correspondent (Simpson trial courtroom seats were rare and coveted) Dunne was himself in front of TV cameras almost daily—on CNN, CNBC, The CBS Evening News, Geraldo, Day and Date, and many other shows. However, Dunne was credited with bringing more than a mere courtside regurgitation of the day's events to the American public—he brought years of hard-won wisdom as well as a celebrity insider's perspective which few reporters possessed.
On the surface, Dunne's early life seemed charmed. Born into a very well-to-do Hartford, Connecticut family, Dunne enjoyed all the trappings of a wealthy youth. However, his family was never quite accepted by its wealthy neighbors for two reasons. First, the Dunnes were considered nouveau riche, their wealth inherited from the toil of Dominick's grandfather. Though he eventually became a tycoon, Dunne's grandfather was a butcher. Although Dunne felt the family could never "rise above" the genesis of their wealth, he remains proud of his grandfather to this day. In Harper's Bazaar, he told interviewer Gerald Clarke: "He was simply a remarkable man, my grandfather. He was knighted by the Pope for his philanthropic work, but he never forgot he had been born poor. Never!"
Within these words of praise lies the other reason the Dunnes' acceptance among their peers remained elusive. While most of their wealthy neighbors were Protestants, the Dunnes were Catholic and were looked down upon by their acquaintances. This derision of their faith, however embarrassing, did not stop the Dunnes from remaining committed to their religion.
Clarke reported that "every Christmas (Dunne) and his five siblings...were lined up, their faces scrubbed and shiny, to hand out oranges and shoes to the needy." These memories led Dunne, according to Clarke, to regard the maligning of his faith as "a blessing, however delayed. It forced him to be an outsider, someone who grew accustomed to looking through the window at what people were doing in the dark corners where they thought no one could see."
Dunne also witnessed shameful scenarios played out within the "dark corners" of his own house. Though a successful heart surgeon, Dunne's father's healing touch did not extend to his son Dominick. Wishing his son to be a sportsman and the picture of aggressive male youth, Dunne's father was dismayed by his son's artistic leanings. According to Clarke, young Dunne's production of childlike plays and puppet shows "kept his father in a continual state of rage. 'Sissy,' his father would yell at him, then beat him with a wooden coat hanger." Once, Dunne's father beat his left ear so viciously it swelled to three times its size and turned purple. Though he only shared this dark secret after his father's death, his mother denied it and insisted the abuse never happened. To this day, Dunne remains partially deaf in his left ear.
Dunne was eventually sent off to Connecticut's Catholic Canterbury School. His father later appeared proud when his son fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and received a Bronze Star for saving the life of a wounded comrade. After the war, Dunne returned to study at Williams College and then moved to New York, where he experienced his first taste of show business. Television was still new at this time, and a fascinated Dunne found himself stage-manager of The Howdy-Doody Show. During this period, he married socialite Ellen "Lenny" Griffin. She gave birth to their first son in 1954, and by 1957, Dunne had moved his family to Los Angeles. Years later, Dunne made it to the top of the film industry, producing such films as The Boys in the Band (1970) and Play It As It Lays (1972).
The Hollywood Scene
During the early 1960s, Dunne threw grand parties attended by such celebrities as Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood, Tuesday Weld, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen. These parties encompassed everything Hollywood stood for in the early 1960s. As if to foretell his future as recorder and chronicler, Dunne took photos of the parties that he later showed to David Van Biema of People, saying, "I kept entering and recording everything, just to prove that it had happened." Dunne's uncertainty over events actual and perceived, combined with his father's legacy of abuse, fueled his descent into alcoholism. He felt that these parties were about letting loose the man with a constrictive past, and alcohol became his crutch. Before long, Dunne's drunken sarcasm resulted in eventual rejection by the Hollywood community. At the same time, his wife Lenny lost patience with Dunne and left him.
Dunne then turned to other drugs, later confessing to Van Biema: "I smoked marijuana a bit. Did I have blackouts? Yes, I did." It wasn't until 1973 that Dunne realized the depth of his problems and took a self- prescribed sabbatical from Hollywood. He headed to Oregon for a week of sobriety, quiet, and a new beginning.
Dunne stayed in Oregon for six months. During this time he overcame his alcoholism and began his writing career. He'd been assigned to pen a sequel to Joyce Haber's The Users and in Oregon, the process began. He flourished in his cabin without a phone or TV and might have stayed there forever, if not for the news from home that his youngest brother had committed suicide. Returning to California, Dunne realized that he no longer needed his puritan cabin to stay on track, sold his belongings, and moved to New York City. Now living in Manhattan with his successful actor son Griffin, Dunne completed the regretfully titled The Winners: Part Two of Joyce Haber's The Users. Though he was not entirely happy with the end result, Dunne was not unhappy with his first writing attempt. He told Dahlin, "I got a nice advance, and I got a book published. I'm not knocking anything."
Dunne penned his first original novel five years later. Titled The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1985), the novel was loosely based on the true story of a controversial society killing in which a former showgirl shoots her wealthy husband. The book became a bestseller and a TV movie. Success also attended Dunne's second novel, People Like Us, in which he again zeroed in on the lives of rich individuals with dark secrets. Clearly, he had finally found his niche in writing.
In subsequent years, tragedy befell the Dunne family several times. Dunne's ex-wife Lenny, to whom he remained close, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. On Halloween of 1982, Dunne was informed that his actress daughter Dominique (best known for her portrayal of the teenage daughter in Poltergeist) had been found strangled; her killer was her ex-boyfriend, John Sweeney, a chef in Los Angeles.
Ironically, out of this father's nightmare grew Dunne's career as a journalist. His fixation on the injustice of the murderer's trial (Sweeney only received a conviction of voluntary manslaughter and was eligible for parole within two-and-a-half years), combined with the support of editor Tina Brown, led him to write a story for Vanity Fair called "Justice: A Father's Account of the Trial of His Daughter's Killer." Dunne subsequently covered many major trials for Vanity Fair. According to Clarke, "in terms of dollars per word, Dunne became almost certainly the highest-paid magazine writer in America."
Dunne has continued writing both magazine articles and novels that draw upon real-life events. The protagonist of his best selling novel An Inconvenient Woman (1990) bears a striking resemblance to Vicki Morgan, purportedly the mistress of a close friend of Ronald Reagan who was murdered.
A Season in Purgatory (1993), another bestseller that also became a TV movie, centers on the unsolved true-life murder of a teenage girl from an extremely wealthy community. Echoing Dunne's childhood and his experiences in Hollywood, the book features an outsider protagonist who is enough of an "insider" to the wealthy to observe their crimes.
O.J. Simpson Trial
When Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were brutally murdered in 1994, Dunne's career took yet another turn. When asked by Mary Murphy in TV Guide why he was granted a very visible seat in the courtroom, he replied "I was assigned that seat by Judge Ito. He put me next to the family of victim Ron Goldman because he said I would understand how to speak to them. It was very sensitive of Judge Ito. He never mentioned my daughter's death, but that's what he meant. I took a lot of heat for that seat....They called me Judith Krantz in pants." Despite his uncomfortable situation, Dunne was transformed into a national commentator and indeed a vital player in the media blitz surrounding the trial. Murphy said to Dunne: "A lingering image from the Simpson trial is you with your mouth hanging open after the verdict was read. Why were you so surprised?" To which Dunne replied: "When they read the verdict, it was like I had been punched in the stomach."
Perhaps it is this gut-level empathy with the real life people he writes about and the characters he creates that account for Dunne's stunning success. In a 1995 online interview on the Web site Mr. Showbiz, Dunne was asked what he intended to do now that the Simpson trial was over. He replied, "I am working on a book now. The title I have at this time—and that could easily change—is In the Aftermath. This title might just as well apply to Dunne's life so far, for it is in the aftermath of tragedy that he has found strength. And in his strength, he has found success. Has this success found him peace? It would appear so, for in the same online interview, Dunne confided that he gives thanks for "all the good things that have happened to me in the last few years."
In 1997 Dunne's "Simpsonography" was released under the title Another City, Not My Own. Dunne followed up with a collection of essays, Fatal Charms and Other Tales of Today and the Mansions of Limbo, and a memoir titled The Way We Lived Then: Recollection of a Well-Known Name Dropper (both 1999).
In August of 2009, Dunne passed away after a long battle with bladder cancer. He is survived by two sons, Alexander and Griffin. Griffin has acted in such films as An American Werewolf in London and After Hours.