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Voices -- Dominick Dunne, 1925 - 2009

August 26, 2009 |  4:49 pm

Dominick Dunne
Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / August 7, 2001

Dominick Dunne gestures during an introduction before reading to a small group of people from his book "Justice: Crimes, Trials and Punishments" at a Beverly Hills hotel.

Dominick Dunne's Dangerous Game

Is He Part of the In-Crowd or Simply Its Chronicler? He's Both, Friends Say, and That Can Get a Bit Dicey

June 1, 1988

By MARY ROURKE, Times Staff Writer

Dominick Dunne's eight-day visit started with dinner at the Regency Club. His pal Paige Rense, who edits Architectural Digest, invited him and a few others--all as rich or as famous as the people Dunne writes about.

Another night it was Mortons, watering hole for the stars. By the time he got to the big one, the cocktail party at Chasens to celebrate his new novel, "People Like Us," Dunne had worked his way through Los Angeles' upper crust.

That night at Chasens, the guest list glittered with names like Jackie Collins, Candy and Aaron Spelling, Billy Wilder and Michelle Phillips, who spent the night air-kissing one another, as Dunne would say. Later he made a curious disclaimer about the whole thing: "All my life I've thought of myself as an outsider."

Watching him you wouldn't know it. As the room filled with more and more dazzling faces, Dunne's own face lit up. His otherwise dark, absorbing eyes began to twinkle. His skin glistened with the heat of excitement. He was hugging and squeezing and having a good time. Or he was putting on quite an act.

He's not exactly a social lightweight. Raised among the country-club set in West Hartford, Conn., and graduated from Williams College, he made his mark as a Hollywood producer before he ever produced a novel.

'I Have Access'

Yet he regularly denies any personal attachment to the social scene he lives in and writes about with such devastating detail for Vanity Fair magazine. He's profiled everyone from Elizabeth Taylor and Diane Keaton to Clausvon Bulow and Imelda Marcos. "I have access to them," he explained kindly, as if he was instructing the ignorant. "I'd be remiss if I wrote about life on the farm, which I know nothing about."

As often as Dunne insists it's all been strictly for business, he'll drop a comment like this: "Malcolm Forbes is flying some people to Normandy to go hot-air ballooning.There'll be 25 people for six days." Yes, Dunne is going. No, he won't be on assignment.

It's a dangerous game, walking both sides of the street. And it nearly cost him plenty when word of his new novel got out. The spicy roman a clef is an insider's look at New York's new money crowd. The trouble began last winter, before the book was even in print, when Women's Wear Daily, a fashion publication, got hold of an early draft and issued a guess-who's-who list.

Is Dunne's Elias Renthal, the grasping financier who lands in jail, really Saul Seinberg, the Wall Street investor? Is Ezzie Fenwick, the bitchy social escort, in real life Jerry Zipkin, Mrs. Reagan's lunch-bunch chum? And what about the slippery shoe designer in the book? Could he be Oscar de la Renta, the New York fashion designer?

No, Dunne said. It was the swift, firm denial of someone determined to stop a dangerous rumor. He calls the characters in his novel composites and types. But he also said the who's-who list put a damper on his fun. "People went crazy. One woman called and wept and said, 'How could you do this to me?' I can't pretend it didn't cause me grief, or that I didn't feel the ice-cold freeze of ice-cold freezes."

Since then, the book has made the best-seller list and been slated for a TV miniseries, just like Dunne's first best seller, "The Two Mrs.Grenvilles." And nouvelle society has welcomed him back. He doesn't kid himself about why. "If the book had been a failure, I would have been finished for life."

Glen Bernbaum owns Mortimer's restaurant in Manhattan (Clarence's in Dunne's book), where nouvelle society--and Dunne--make dates for lunch and dinner. Bernbaum overhears a lot.

The people who see themselves in the book complain because they're in it, the people who don't complain because they're not, he said.

For now at least, Dunne is free to carry on his love-hate affair with the in-crowd. And that must be a relief. A a recent Polo Lounge lunch, Dunne described the things in all of life he finds fascinating: the ulterior motives of the social set, wealth and how people handle it, nuances, details, VonBulow and Imelda Marcos.

"Nick's (Dominick) always liked rich people, he always wanted to go to their parties," said Thomas McDermott, a Hollywood producer who remembers back 25 years when Dunne worked in Hollywood and threw some big, glitzy parties of his own.

"They were a who's who of the movie and social world," recalled Lee Minnelli. "If you weren't invited you had to pretend you were out of town." She went with her late husband,Vincente, who at the time was making movies like "Gigi" and "The Reluctant Debutante" between social engagements.

But Dunne's memories are different. "I failed for 10 years," he said. Even his successful producer's credits, including "Panic in Needle Park," "The Boys in the Band" and "The Users," don't seem to have brought any real satisfaction. "I never felt comfortable in Hollywood," he said.

A lot went wrong for him in those years. He developed a serious drinking problem. His marriage broke up, and he cut ties with his famous author brother, John Gregory Dunne.

Now he's a recovering alcoholic, he's close to his ex-wife, Ellen Griffin, and to his children. Griffin, his actor son, lives near him in New York. Son Alex lives in Los Angeles near his mother and goes to school.

Dunne has also made a sort of peace with his brother. "I had a nice letter from my brother about my new book," he said, allowing, however, that "He hadn't read it, he'd seen it." It was on display in a New York store window.

"One moves into the other's territory and whatever front you keep up there has to be a resentment. My brother and sister-in-law (JoanDidion) were famous, established writers when I decided I wanted to write."

Instead of writing about his own experience with sibling rivalry, Dunne covered the subject for Vanity Fair by way of the Hollywood sisters, Jackie and Joan Collins. "I understood totally that Jackie resented Joan and Joan had the guilty sense of being an interloper," he now says.

The Collins report was flip and funny and scathing at times. As usual, Dunne let his subjects show and tell it all. It's a way he has of crucifying people without ever condemning them. He's so adept at it they hardly seem to know what happened. The other night at Dunne's book party, Jackie Collins said, "I'd be the easiest person in the world to do a hatchet job on, but Nick didn't."

A man who's lived a roller-coaster life and looks out at the world with please-be-gentle eyes, Dunne nevertheless looks back most critically. "I have felt very strongly about people getting away with things," he said. Maybe that explains it. Or maybe this does: "Privilege abused is a theme that interests me tremendously."

The Worst Injustice

Certainly the worst example of injustice from Dunne's point of view relates to his daughter Dominique, the young actress killed in Los Angeles six years ago. That gruesome experience is the subplot of "People Like Us."

The real-life convicted killer, John Sweeney, is out of jail on parole now, released on good behavior after serving three years of a 6-year sentence.

Dunne admits to feelings of rage. He has already written a nonfiction account of the trial, including his opinion that the judge in the case favored the defense and that relevant evidence was not allowed to be presented in court.

"The article he wrote twisted the facts," defense attorney Michael Adelson countered. Concerning withheld evidence, Adelson said, "What is allowed in evidence is not understood by Mr. Dunne."

Adelson has read Dunne's novel and may have wondered whether he inspired Marv Pink, the defense attorney in the story. He describes Pink as a somewhat sleazy character and admits, "Mr. Dunne doesn't like me a great deal."

Helped Resolve Feelings

Dunne said that writing about the murder and trial helped him resolve his feelings, but when Dunne talks about it a muscle spasm makes his jaw jut forward uncontrollably. "I'm going to let it go now," he said. But most of his friends don't expect him to. "He'll write about it again because he's in pain, every day," explainedRense, a longtime friend. But then, she said, "He can be more fun than anybody."

Part of his fun appears to be shining that laugh-house light of his on the people he writes about. It doesn't make for the most flattering pictures. But his subjects seem to become his friends afterward, if they weren't his friends already.

"It's understanding the edge," he explained about this remarkable state of affairs. "You have to understand the parameters." And there is something else to understand if you want to be invited back. "You don't have to go in for the kill. You can still make your point."