“Dominick is very sick,” Larry Schiller told me months before Dominick Dunne died from bladder cancer on Aug. 26, 2009.
“I know,” I said. I had been in touch with Dunne because I had a story I thought would interest Vanity Fair and I thought he might help steer it to the right person. But he was trying to finish Too Much Money: A Novel, and wasn’t sure who was the right person for me to contact.
I first met Dominick at a dinner party at Goldie Hawn’s house in the early ‘90s. Then, when the whole country seemed captivated by the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, I thought it would be fun to invite two insiders—Dominick, who sat by the Goldman family each day and was reporting for Vanity Fair; and Larry Schiller, who snuck into the jail to work with Simpson on Simpson’s book I Want to Tell You, and who would eventually write his own book American Tragedy, about the trial—to my house for dinner. When Elmore Leonard told me he was coming to L.A. to see a preview of Get Shorty, based on his novel, I invited him as well. And when Diane Keaton, who was editing her film Unstrung Heroes, heard about it, she invited herself.
After that dinner I met up with Dominick at the Chateau Marmont, where he liked to stay when in L.A., for a Playboy interview. And after that, we kept in touch mostly by phone and sometimes by letter. But it was that dinner which was most memorable, which wasn’t surprising, as Dunne told us that he dined out nearly five times a week during the Simpson trial, as everybody wanted to hear something that wasn’t being covered on television or in the media. “People want to hear about the trial and I’ve always got the kind of stuff they don’t read in the newspaper,” he said.
When I asked him why he thought people liked to talk to him, he said, “It’s happened to me all my life. Somebody said I look like a defrocked priest. I’m one of six kids and when my parents had a party we would be brought down to say good evening to the guests and spend ten minutes. The next morning I would tell my mother all the stuff I’d learned and she would say, ‘How do you know that?’”
Dunne didn’t have an easy childhood. His dad used to call him a sissy and made him very insecure. One of his early jobs in show business was working as a stage manager for the Howdy Doody Show. He worked as an assistant director in TV between 1954-57. He became a movie producer in 1970 with The Boys in the Band. In 1971 he cast an unknown Al Pacino over an equally unknown Robert DeNiro in Panic in Needle Park, cowritten by his sisterinlaw Joan Didion. Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, wrote the script for Play It As It Lays, which Dominick produced in 1972. But he had a falling out with his novelist brother and said he never read his books. By 1980, at the age of 55, the bottom fell out for him. “I went through this terrible period of being on my ass for years,” he reflected. “I’d lost my Hollywood career, I was a flop, I had no money. I drank and said a couple of things that pissed off a few people. I was just dropped by everyone. I didn’t get any more movies. I went off and lived for six months in Oregon in a cabin in the Cascade Range, where I stopped drinking and started with my new career as a writer, because I was all washed-up in Hollywood. While I was there I got a letter from Truman Capote, and I was astonished, because although I had known him for years we weren’t letter-writing buddies. And he was famous and I wasn’t. His letter was one of admiration that I had dropped out of my life to start over again. He said he thought what I was doing was wonderful and he ended by saying, ‘But remember this. This is not where you belong. When you get out of it what you went there to get, you have to return to your own life.’ It made such an impression on me. Because when I began to recover from the booze and the shame of failure, I was feeling so good about myself I thought maybe I’d stay there forever. His letter brought me back to the reality that you have to go back to your own life.”
Two years later, tragedy struck when Dunne’s daughter, Dominique, was murdered by her boyfriend, John Sweeney, who was the head chef at Los Angeles’ Ma Maison. Dunne was asked by Tina Brown, the editor of Vanity Fair, if he’d like to cover Sweeney’s trial for the magazine. He did, and his writing career took off. Dunne was 57.
He would wind up writing fascinating crime novels based on real life, like The Winners (1982); The Two Mrs. Grenvilles in 1985; People Like Us (1988); An Inconvenient Woman (1990); A Season in Purgatory (1993); Another City, Not My Own (1997); and an autobiography in 1999, The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper. His Vanity Fair essays were collected in Fatal Charms (1987), The Mansions of Limbo (1991) and Justice (2001). He also had a show on Court TV, Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege, and Justice.
When Dunne showed up at my house, Elmore Leonard and his wife Christine were already there, as was Schiller and his wife Cathy. “We’ve been following you blow-by-blow in Vanity Fair,” Christine said. “You certainly give all the personal tidbits.”
Dunne then described how he just finished writing about the photos of the knife wounds inflicted on Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. “What was the most haunting,” Dunne said, “what bothered me the most when I looked at these pictures was that their eyes were open. All I could think of was that she saw him,” he said, speaking of O.J., whom Dunne was convinced was the killer, from the beginning. “She knew. Her lips were opened. Her hair had turned dark from the blood from her scalp. It just haunted me, the look on her face. And he stepped on her back.”
“That’s because he held her down with his knee, pulled her hair back, and cut her throat,” Larry Schiller said. “Had to be on a knee, can’t be standing and do that.”