Dominick Dunne Biography

Producer, Journalist, Author, Television Personality (1925–2009)
Novelist and journalist Dominick Dunne wrote fiction and nonfiction about the rich, famous and corrupt. He covered the O. J. Simpson trial for 'Vanity Fair.'


Dominick 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, Dunne began writing novels. He wrote about the trial of his daughter's murderer for Vanity Fair, and in 1995 he covered the famous criminal trial of O.J. Simpson for the same magazine. Dunne died in New York City on August 26, 2009.

Celebrity Journalist

Journalist, novelist. Born October 29, 1925 in Hartford, Connecticut, the line between the personal and professional lives of Dominick Dunne was often blurred. Erudite and wealthy himself, the writer chronicled the misfortunes and criminal acts of his peers within privileged America. His fiction dissected the rich, the famous and the corrupt, while his nonfiction 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 brought him so much national attention as the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial.

Reporting for Vanity Fair, Dunne sat in the now legendary Los Angeles courtroom day in and day out, observing and reporting on what was dubbed the "Trial of the Century." Dunne himself described it as a "morality tale for America." Considered a prized correspondent (Simpson trial courtroom seats were rare and coveted), Dunne himself was in front of TV cameras almost daily, but he 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.

Early Outsider

On the surface, Dunne's early life seemed charmed. The second of six children in a well-to-do Hartford, Connecticut, family, Dunne enjoyed all the trappings of a wealthy youth. However, his family was never quite accepted by its affluent neighbors for two reasons. First, the Dunnes were considered nouveau riche, their wealth inherited from the toil of Dominick's grandfather, a butcher who became a tycoon. Furthermore, 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 did not stop the family from remaining committed to their religion, though it did contribute to Dunne's longstanding tendency to feel like an outsider.

Family Turmoil

Dunne also at times did not feel welcome within his own house. Although his father, Richard, was a successful heart surgeon, the elder Dunne's healing touch did not extend to his offspring. Wishing his son to be a sportsman and the picture of aggressive male youth, Richard was dismayed by his son's artistic leanings, and both verbally and physically abused him. Dunne was sent off to Connecticut's Catholic Canterbury School, and later he did manage to impress his dad by fighting in World War II's Battle of the Bulge and earning a Bronze Star. 

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 became stage manager of The Howdy Doody Show. In 1954, he married socialite Ellen "Lenny" Griffin. She gave birth to their first son the following year, 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

In the 1960s, Dunne threw grand parties attended by such celebrities as Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. 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." However, he was also insecure about his place among the biggest names in show business, contributing to his descent into alcoholism.

Eventually, Dunne's drunken outbursts resulted in rejection by the Hollywood community. Around the same time, Lenny lost patience with her husband's lifestyle, and they divorced in 1965. 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 the 1970s 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 self-reflection, and wound up staying there for six months. Flourishing in his cabin without a phone or TV, Dunne overcame his alcoholism and decided to begin a writing career. Upon returning to California, he realized that he no longer needed his puritan cabin to stay on track, so he sold his belongings and moved to New York City.

Early Writing and Family Tragedy

While living in Manhattan with his successful actor son Griffin, Dunne completed the sequel to Joyce Haber's novel The Users, titled The Winners. Released in 1982, the book was poorly reviewed, but its author was happy to see his efforts reach the printed page.  

Dunne was already dealing with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis for his ex-wife and the loss of a brother to suicide, but he was ill prepared for the news that would turn his life upside down: On Halloween of 1982, Dunne was informed that his actress daughter, Dominique (best known for her portrayal of the teenage daughter in the horror film Poltergeist), had been found strangled; her killer was her ex-boyfriend, John Sweeney, a chef in Los Angeles.

'Vanity Fair' Reporter and Successful Novelist

Ironically, out of this father's nightmare sprung 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 spent about 3 1/2 years in prison), combined with the support of editor Tina Brown, led him to write a story for Vanity Fair in February 1984 called "Justice: A Father's Account of the Trial of His Daughter's Killer." Dunne subsequently covered many major trials for Vanity Fair.

Dunne also soon completed a second novel. Titled The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1985), it 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 best seller and a TV movie. Success also attended a subsequent novel, People Like Us (1988), in which Dunne again zeroed in on the lives of rich individuals with dark secrets. Clearly, he had finally found his niche in writing.

Dunne continued churning out magazine articles and novels that drew upon real-life events. The protagonist of his best-selling novel An Inconvenient Woman (1990) bore a striking resemblance to Vicki Morgan, the murdered mistress of a powerful businessman. A Season in Purgatory (1993), another best seller 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. During the subsequent criminal trial of former football star O.J. Simpson, who was accused of the murders, Dunne was granted a prominent seat in the courtroom by Judge Lance Ito. While the local press grumbled about the preferred seating, Judge Ito told Dunne that he wanted him there to be near the families of the victims.

"I knew what he meant, although he never came out and said it," Dunne noted. "I mean, I have been through exactly what those two families are going through. And you don't find many people around who've had that experience." Despite his uncomfortable situation, Dunne was transformed into a vital player in the media blitz surrounding the trial, as he faithfully covered the proceedings for Vanity Fair.

Later Work and Death

In 1997 Dunne's fictionalized account of the O.J. Simpson trial 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/The Mansions of Limbo, and a memoir, The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper (both 1999).

In 2008, the 82-year-old Dunne made the trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, for one final court case—this time, for Simpson's trial for armed robbery and kidnapping. "I had a literary following before, but because of O.J. I became a name and a public person, which I love," Dunne said. "I think it would be a fitting way to end."

In August of 2009, Dunne passed away after a long battle with bladder cancer. He was survived by his two sons, Alexander and Griffin.

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