THE WAY WE LIVED THEN

Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper

By Dominick Dunne

Crown. 218 pp. $27.50

Harry Truman, as is widely known, had a sensible way of getting things off his chest. He sat at his desk, wrote an angry letter to the offending party, put it in an envelope--and then resisted the temptation to mail it. There was one famous exception--when he blistered Paul Hume of this newspaper for a negative review of a musical performance by his daughter, Margaret--but as a rule Truman knew that some things, no matter how deeply felt, are best kept to oneself.

Alas, Dominick Dunne has not learned that rule or perhaps has managed to forget it. Lord knows, "The Way We Lived Then" is a piece of writing (and photography, for it reprints many snapshots from his albums) that should not have been published. A strange mixture of self-promotion and self-effacement, it reveals its author in not a single light that in any way could be called flattering. Since it has a lot of peripheral gossip about a lot of more or less famous people, and since Dunne has been on the bestseller lists in the past, perhaps it will make him and his publisher a bundle, but is that really worth the embarrassment the book is sure to cause him?

Speaking only for myself, I was embarrassed--for Dunne, that is--from first page to last of "The Way We Lived Then." He is a man of some accomplishment--he writes popular novels of passing intelligence, a rarer accomplishment in these United States than one might realize, and does well-paid reporting of a certain sort for Vanity Fair--yet here he presents himself, with no sign of shame and precious little evidence of regret, as "a natural born star [expletive]," a vulgar way of saying that the person thus afflicted will endure any form of self-abasement if it permits him to grovel at the feet of the celebrated.

Some people go bananas for athletes, some have their hearts set on rock musicians; Dunne is terminally gaga for movie stars. At the outset he cheerfully lets it be known that from the age of 9 he has been "starstruck," and then devotes almost all the pages of this self-damning book to proving it. The child of a wealthy and prominent Irish American family in Connecticut (he is the older brother of the estimable novelist and journalist John Gregory Dunne), he left home as soon as possible and devoted himself to getting as close to movie stars--the impression he leaves is that any old star would do, no matter how dim its luster--as he possibly could.

At first he worked in television in New York, but in 1957, aged 30, he was "hired by CBS to be the assistant to Martin Manulis, the producer of Playhouse 90, then the most prestigious dramatic show on television." He moved to California with his wife and children, set up housekeeping in Santa Monica and began a series of jobs the main purpose of which seems to have been to get invited to dinners and parties and picnics at the houses of stars and to achieve such position as to be able to invite them to similar entertainments at his own.

From the evidence presented here, he succeeded. His scrapbooks began to fill with hand-lettered invitations and telegrams and, above all else, photos of the celebrated at play: Natalie Wood, Roddy McDowall, Cecil Beaton, Lauren Bacall, Mike Nichols, Kirk and Anne Douglas, etc., etc. "Now," he says, "when I look through these scrapbooks, I sense a certain desperation in me at that time, a need to document the life we led with great exactitude, as if I knew in some prescient way that it wasn't going to last," but that's not convincing; scrapbooks such as these are the name-dropper's way of recording his conquests, and to say otherwise is after-the-fact rationalization.

It is true, though, that the times Dunne loved so well did come to an end. His marriage fell apart, and absent the protective armor of his ex-wife's family fortune, he became less desirable in a society where money and renown, not character and accomplishment, are the only coins of the realm. He got told off by a woman at a party--"the gist of her attack on me was that I was not important, that I was where I was on a pass"--and began falling apart, overusing "drink and drugs," making scenes and generally misbehaving. Once a gossip columnist named Joyce Haber listed the Dunnes "as members of the A group in Hollywood society"--information he reports with embarrassing pride--but now he was down so far he couldn't see the bottom of Z.

Eventually he pulled himself out of it and began to write. He made something of himself on his own terms, even if his novels mostly were romans a clef about the Hollywood society at which he had been a hanger-on for so long. He says now that in his previous life he had been a "whore," but whether that is really ancient history is, perhaps, for each reader of this book to decide.

Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.