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Dominick Dunne's literary legacy

August 26, 2009 |  6:19 pm

Dominicdunne
Dominick Dunne was the author of five novels, two books of nonfiction and more Vanity Fair stories than you could shake a stick at. He died today at the age of 83.

Although he came from a fine Hartford, Conn., family, Dunne was fascinated with celebrity and glamor -- not the kind of stuff patrician New Englanders are supposed to dwell on. He moved west, produced television and film, partied with the glitterati and was nearly felled by drugs and alcohol. He offended the wrong people and wound up so broke that he sold his dog.

Dunne was in his 50s when he reconstituted himself as a writer. He published a novel, "The Winners," in 1982.

What would become his niche -- chronicling celebrity trials -- stemmed from personal tragedy. His daughter Dominique, a promising 22-year-old actress, was murdered by her boyfriend. Dunne attended the trial and, at the urging of then-Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, kept a diary of the proceedings. The article that came from that, "Justice: A Father's Account of the Trial of His Daughter's Killer," heralded, Brown later said, "the instantaneous arrival and debut of a writer."

Dunne's focus on celebrity and Hollywood trials continued: He wrote about the Menendez brothers, about O.J. Simpson, about Claus von Bulow and his mistress, about Phil Spector. He became a regular and recognizable TV commentator on crimes and Hollywood. And when he attended a trial, he was there every day, taking notes by hand, watching the room with as keen an eye as he turned to the legal proceedings.

And if his fascination with excesses and crime in Hollywood was considered somewhat tawdry, if the arbiters of literature found his writing at times overwrought, Dunne's legacy should not be underestimated. He focused on the intersection of courtroom minutae, celebrities and crimes -- and these are the primary elements of so much of the cultural currency Americans crave. Dunne's work presaged everything from "Law & Order" to TMZ.

If what he wrote was sometimes trashy, well, we like trashy. And we'll probably look back and see that Dominick Dunne's trashy was about the best we had.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Los Angeles Times

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