As my ex-wife Morgan Fairchild once said at a dinner that Charo hosted at Spago for some of our showbiz friends -- Wallace Beery, Pia Zadora, Herve Villechaize and John Wilkes Booth -- "In the right hands, name-dropping can be an art form." To which my old prep school roommate George Bernard Shaw replied, "Yes, and the best name-dropper in the world is a guy I met in my prostate doctor's waiting room -- Dominick Dunne."
Well, enough of that. It's insane to attempt to parody the prose style of Vanity Fair columnist Dominick Dunne because nobody can write a Dunne parody better than the ones he writes himself, month after month.
Dunne, 76, is a former Hollywood producer turned pop novelist who became semi-famous for his breathless Vanity Fair articles on the celebrity trials of Claus von Bulow and O.J. Simpson. A year ago he started writing a column -- "Dominick Dunne's Diary" -- that proves that he has replaced Truman Capote as unofficial Literary Gossipmonger to the Ladies Who Lunch.
"I saw Gore Vidal at a party given by Wendy Stark in a private dining room at Trader Vic's," Dunne writes in his latest column. He also reveals that "I had lunch with Nancy Reagan at her regular table at the Hotel Bel Air" and "on New Year's Eve, I went to Tina Cahn's dinner for Michael and Shakira Caine," and includes this classic Dunne line: "I knew Grace Kelly before she became a big movie star."
That's a typical Dunne column. Over the past year, he has informed readers that "I was cruising on Barry Diller's yacht" and "I had been to a dinner party at the home of producer Norman Lear" and "Liv Ullmann . . . was at my table" and "I went to a Thanksgiving dinner dance given by Ahmet and Mica Ertegun" and "I went to a small dinner in Greenwich Village in honor of my sometimes difficult pal Mark Fuhrman" and "I ran into the former movie stars Arlene Dahl and Jane Powell . . . at a nightclub in New York where we were watching Tony Danza do his song-and-dance act."
And on and on. My personal favorite Dunne name-drop is this one, related with no explanation whatsoever: "Frank Sinatra, who had taken a dislike to me, once paid the Daisy's maitre d' 50 bucks to hit me."
Anybody can drop names, of course, but it takes a man of Dunne's rare talents to drop names while talking about his radiation treatments for prostate cancer. It turns out that Dunne jawbones about prostates with Rudy Giuliani and convicted insider trader Mike Milken. Here, mercifully abbreviated, is one of Dunne's two accounts of his chat with Giuliani:
"He even asked me if it hurt to urinate. I said yes. Ditto for him, in case you wanted to know."
Thanks for sharing, Dom.
But name-dropping is only one of the four ingredients that make up virtually every Dunne column. The three others:
1. Gossip about the mysterious death of billionaire Edmond Safra in Monaco.
2. Gossip about the mysterious disappearance of intern Chandra Levy.
3. Gossip about the upcoming murder trial of Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel.
Dunne's obsession with the Safra, Levy and Skakel cases leads him on a never-ending search for information, innuendo and rumor. Coincidentally, this search takes him to the same lunches and dinner parties where he meets his celebrity pals. There, the hired help whisper in his ear.
"A butler helping me on with my coat at the end of one holiday party whispered in my ear, 'I'd like to talk to you about your Safra article,' Dunne wrote in his March 2001 column.
"A waiter serving me risotto whispered in my ear that he had once worked for Edmond Safra and would like to talk to me," he wrote in last month's column.
And then there was the unnamed woman who walked up to Dunne at a "country barbecue" last Memorial Day weekend and said, "Would it be of interest to you to know that I was Lily Safra's dental hygienist for 13 years?"
Would it be of interest? Of course, it was of interest. After all, Lily Safra is Edmond Safra's widow. So Dunne pumped the hygienist for info.
"Lily had tiny little teeth," she told him, "but she took very good care of them."
Lesser investigative reporters quote people whom they identify as "an informed source" or "a high-level source" or "a source close to the president." Not Dunne. He quotes sources identified as "a Parisian friend of mine" and "a rich Los Angeles friend" and "a wise widow I know who, with her late husband, was a part of Frank Sinatra's inner circle."
Dunne is a dogged sleuth. The man is willing to follow a lead anywhere. Sometimes this makes for delightfully daffy copy.
In December, for instance, he recounted receiving a call from "someone I didn't know in Hamburg, Germany." This mysterious caller had met an even more mysterious man in the Middle East -- a high-class pimp -- who informed him that Dunne's theory that Chandra Levy had been killed by a biker buddy of Rep. Gary Condit was "incorrect."
When Dunne learned that the mystery pimp was planning to attend a British horse race called the Dubai Stakes, he flew to London, checked into Claridge's hotel -- "where I have been staying for 30 years" -- hired a "car and driver" and rode to the racetrack. There, "hoping to be recognized by the man," he insinuated his way into the winner's circle when the victorious horse posed for pictures.
"Alas," he reports sadly, "the mystery man did not rise to the bait."
But all was not lost. As long as he was in London, Dunne decided to go take a look at the mansion owned by Lily Safra, that billionaire widow and possessor of small but well-tended teeth. Of course, he couldn't just walk over and look at it. That would be terribly tacky.
"I didn't want to be seen walking by it and staring," he wrote, "so Martin Ballard, a longtime fixture at Claridge's and arguably the finest hall porter, or concierge, in the world, provided me with a green Rolls-Royce, a uniformed female chauffeur, and a London Times to hold in front of my face."
See? I told you it was insane to try to parody Dunne. The man is a genius of inadvertent comedy.
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