Dominick Dunne, 83

Dominick Dunne, 83; Writer Found Fame in Celebrity-Crime Pieces

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dominick Dunne, 83, a novelist and journalist who chronicled true-crime tales of the rich and infamous, including O.J. Simpson and Claus von Bulow, and in turn became a celebrity in his own right, died Aug. 26 at his home in New York City. He had bladder cancer.

As a reporter for Vanity Fair magazine, Mr. Dunne was perhaps the country's foremost chronicler of crimes among the privileged. He developed his journalistic specialty in a painfully personal way, when Tina Brown, the newly installed editor of the magazine, asked Mr. Dunne to cover the 1983 Los Angeles trial of a man charged with killing a promising young actress. The actress was Mr. Dunne's 22-year-old daughter, Dominique Dunne.

When his story, "Justice: A Father's Account of the Trial of His Daughter's Killer," appeared in the March 1984 issue of Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times called it "an incisive and affecting piece of reportage written in cold rage."

It gave Mr. Dunne, who had failed in his earlier career as a movie producer, a new purpose in life. He went on to write about the celebrity trials of von Bulow, who was twice acquitted of attempting to kill his wife, Sunny von Bulow; Kennedy family scion William Kennedy Smith, who was acquitted of rape in Palm Beach, Fla.; and brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez, who were convicted of killing their millionaire parents in Beverly Hills.

Mr. Dunne found his greatest prominence as a celebrity journalist while covering the 1995 murder trial of football star and actor O.J. Simpson, who had been accused of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Mr. Dunne had a prominent seat in the courtroom, became a confidant of witnesses for the prosecution and appeared on television as a guest commentator, dapper in his English suits and round, horn-rimmed glasses.

"It's got everything," he said of the trial. "Rich people, big houses, interracial marriage, love, sex, lies, fame. And all the justice that money can buy."

His book on the Simpson trial, "Another City, Not My Own," which he called "a novel in the form of a memoir," became a bestseller.

Before turning to writing in the 1970s, Mr. Dunne had been a Hollywood insider and consummate party-giver whose high-flying life was derailed by drug and alcohol problems. He holed up in a remote cabin in Oregon and found a hard-won sobriety and a new career as a writer. Mr. Dunne's growing celebrity as a writer allowed him to emerge from the shadow of some of his relatives, including his son, actor Griffin Dunne, and his brother and sister-in-law, writers John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion. His brother died in 2003.

While working for Vanity Fair, Dominick Dunne published a series of novels that were thinly fictionalized accounts of lurid high-society crimes. "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" (1985), "An Inconvenient Woman" (1990) and other books weren't always well received by critics, but they hit the best-seller lists and became popular made-for-TV movies.

His 1993 novel, "A Season in Purgatory," was credited with reopening the investigation into the 1975 slaying of a teenage girl in Greenwich, Conn. In 2002, Michael Skakel, a relative of the Kennedy family, was convicted of the killing.

Besides his breathless coverage of murder and mayhem, Mr. Dunne wrote gossipy Vanity Fair profiles of such glitterati as Princess Diana, Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty and the aging Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Warfield Simpson.

In 1993, Mr. Dunne explained his journalistic approach to The Washington Post: "I'm simply a very good listener. And listening is an underrated skill. If you really listen -- if you're really interested -- someone is bound to talk."

Dominick Dunne was born Oct. 29, 1925, into a wealthy Irish American family in Hartford. His paternal grandfather made a fortune in groceries and banking, and his father was a heart surgeon.

"We were like minor-league Kennedys," Mr. Dunne said. He often wrote about the troubles of the extended Kennedy family, whose patriarch, Edward M. Kennedy, died hours before Mr. Dunne.

A social outsider because of his family's Catholic faith, Mr. Dunne determined early in life "that I was going to move in the upper circles of society and lead an exciting life."

He served in the Army in World War II and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for carrying two wounded soldiers to safety during a battle in Germany. After graduating in 1949 from Williams College in Massachusetts, he moved to New York and worked as the stage manager for "The Howdy Doody Show" and live TV plays.

By the late 1950s, he was in Los Angeles as an executive at a TV company owned by actors David Niven, Dick Powell and Charles Boyer. He edged into the movie business and formed a production company with his brother and sister-in-law that made several films, including "The Boys in the Band" (1970), "The Panic in Needle Park" (1971), starring Al Pacino as a drug addict, and "Play It as It Lays" (1972), which was based on a novel by Didion.

If Mr. Dunne failed to reach the top tier of movie producers, he became known for his first-class parties, populated by such Hollywood luminaries as Paul Newman, Natalie Wood and Lauren Bacall. In 1964, Mr. Dunne and his wife gave a "black-and-white" ball that was said to be the inspiration for Truman Capote's more famous party in New York in 1966.

By the late 1970s, Mr. Dunne's drinking and cocaine use were spiraling out of control, and he began to lose his social standing in Hollywood. He was so broke that he even sold his purebred dog for cash.

He glimpsed a new career possibility in 1977, when Washington Post reporters John F. Berry and Jack Egan sought him out as a source in the case of David Begelman, a Hollywood executive accused of forging the signature of actor Cliff Robertson on a check.

"I spent the next 10 days with the reporters watching them go about getting their story," Mr. Dunne wrote in The Post in 1993. "It awakened in me an excitement I had long since ceased feeling for the picture business, and I kept thinking to myself, 'I could do what these guys are doing.' "

His first major journalistic effort was his coverage of the trial of John Sweeney, a chef accused of strangling Mr. Dunne's daughter, a budding actress. Mr. Dunne was furious that Sweeney received only a six-year prison sentence for voluntary manslaughter and was released after serving less than four.

"What I witnessed in that courtroom enraged and redirected me," he wrote in Vanity Fair in October 2008. "It wouldn't be necessary to hire a killer to kill the killer of my daughter, as I had contemplated. I could write about it."

In addition to his novels and Vanity Fair articles, Mr. Dunne published a memoir, "The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper" (1999), and was the host of a true-crime television series, "Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice," that ran for several years on Court TV (later TruTV). A final novel, "Too Much Money," is scheduled for publication in December.

As a member of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, Mr. Dunne kept a foothold in Hollywood as a voter for the Academy Awards. His marriage to Ellen "Lenny" Griffin Dunne ended in divorce in 1965, but they remained close until her death from multiple sclerosis in 1997.

In addition to Griffin Dunne, of New York, survivors include another son, Alexander Dunne of Portland, Ore.; and a granddaughter.

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