Dominick Dunne: novelizing the rich and famous

December 9, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

When the trial of ex-football star O.J. Simpson opened in Los Angeles in 1995, only one person in the courtroom that day could match the defendant in fame and celebrityhood. He was seated in the first row behind the defense and prosecution tables in a place especially assigned to him by the judge.

He was easily recognizable, a short man, with white hair, sunken cheeks, and small, rounded glasses, with dark horn-rimmed frames. In the courtroom, as elsewhere in his life, he knew everyone who was anyone.

He was the journalist and novelist Dominick Dunne.

The Simpson trial was his forte, a mixture of fame, money, political and social power, and most of all a dash of crime.

Dunne was born in 1925 into a well-to-do family in Connecticut. He attended private schools and mixed with the socially elite.

When World War II broke out, Dunne joined the army, fought in Europe, and came out of that conflict with a Bronze Star.

After the war, Dunne attended Williams College, and then moved to New York City and got involved in the entertainment business. In 1954, he married Ellen, an heiress, and they had three children who survived into adulthood.

Three years after their marriage, the couple moved to Los Angeles where Dunne worked as a producer in both television and the movies. The couple mixed easily with Hollywood celebrities, and they achieved fame within those circles for the lavish parties that they hosted.

Dunne produced several memorable movies, such as The Boys in the Band, The Panic in Needle Park, and Play It as It Lays. His personal life, however, fell apart. He divorced his wife in 1965, and his dependence on drugs and alcohol grew to the point where he could not easily function. His erratic behavior precipitated a fall from grace among his Hollywood friends.

In 1979, he left Hollywood alone and depressed, and he drove to a small cabin in the woods of Oregon. There, he resolved to give up alcohol and drugs, but his depression persisted. He later wrote that he came close to suicide.

Instead, he decided to return to New York, and to remake himself as a writer. His first novel, The Winners, was published in 1982 and was generally not well received.

Then came the tragedy that was to define much of the rest of his life. In 1982, his daughter Dominique, a beautiful upcoming actress, was strangled to death by her boyfriend. Dunne flew to Los Angeles to attend the boyfriend’s trial. The day before he left New York, Vanity Fair magazine editor Tina Brown suggested that he keep a journal during the trial.

Dunne took that advice and used his journal to produce a powerful and widely-read account of the trial and the injustice he felt when the jury convicted the boyfriend only of voluntary manslaughter. Vanity Fair hired him as a regular columnist and reporter.

Meanwhile, Dunne had transformed himself into a masterful storyteller. His subjects were the rich and powerful, and his motif was taking true crime stories and molding them into page-turning novels. The Two Mrs. Grenvilles was published in 1985 and was based on the lurid murder of William Woodward Jr., an heir to a New York banking fortune, who was shot in 1955 by his wife Ann. The book was a phenomenal success (it sold more than two million copies), and, according to Dunne, “utterly changed my life.”

Two more best-selling novels followed, both using the facts of real life murders among the rich and famous as their starting points. An Inconvenient Woman was published in 1990. A Season in Purgatory, a book aimed directly at the Kennedy family, he came out in 1993. Dunne had been friends with some of the Kennedys and attended the wedding of Robert and Ethel Kennedy. Readers not only enjoyed reading about the foibles of the rich and powerful, but they also took to Dunne’s insider knowledge about such people.

During this time, Dunne worked ceaselessly as a journalist covering the famous trials of Claus von Bülow, William Kennedy Smith, the Menendez brothers, and others. He hosted a long-running television series, Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege, and Justice, for Court TV. He inevitably took the side of the victim and made no effort to disguise his feelings about the accused.

Dunne died at the age of 83 in 2009 at his home in Manhattan. He left a long legacy of perceptive and entertaining journalism and fiction that continues to attract readers more than a decade after his death.

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