They don’t make lives like Dominick Dunne’s anymore. A movie producer and TV exec who then forged a late career as a best-selling author and journalist (and telegenic raconteur), Dunne, who died today in New York at age 83, was an American original. In his best work, he cast a cool, stylishly bespectacled eye on the national fascination with celebrity and high society – as well as the effect that crime and tragedy could wreak on that rarefied world.
But Dunne didn’t just write about the nexus of celebrity and crime, as he did in his witty Vanity Fair reports on the O.J. Simpson trial or Princess Diana’s death. He also lived it: While Dunne was composing his 1985 novel The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (inspired by a real society murder case from the 1950s), his 22-year-old daughter, Poltergeist actress Dominique Dunne, was murdered by her former boyfriend. (The culprit, John Sweeney, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and served less than four years of a six-year sentence.)
Dunne traced his interest in celebrity to a childhood trip to L.A. with his aunt, but he spent much of his life hobnobbing with A-listers. His brother, John Gregory Dunne, became a noted novelist (and husband of the writer Joan Didion). He earned a Bronze Star for heroism in WWII’s Battle of the Bulge. As a student at Williams College, he appeared in plays with future Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim. He moved in Hollywood circles as a director, TV executive, and producer of movies like 1970’s The Boys in the Band. But after struggling in Hollywood, he found his true calling rather late in life as a writer: He published his first book, The Winners, in 1979.
Like Truman Capote, Dunne the writer/journalist was often as famous as his subjects. And like Capote, he could be quick with a cutting remark, as when he referred to record producer Phil Spector as “a drama queen, albeit straight.” But in all his books and articles, Dunne explored the obsession with fame in late-20th-century American culture. And with all his inside-the-velvet-rope connectedness, he managed to embody it as well.
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