Feature

Dominick Dunne

The elegant writer who chronicled the famous and the infamous

Dominick Dunne1925–2009

In 1982, Dominick Dunne, a onetime movie producer and struggling author, was struck by tragedy when his daughter, Dominique, was strangled by her ex-boyfriend. Tina Brown, then editor of Vanity Fair, suggested that Dunne keep a journal of the murder trial. Published in 1984, Dunne’s account relaunched him as a best-selling writer, specializing in sensational crimes.

The son of a Hartford surgeon “who belittled his son as a sissy,” Dunne earned a Bronze Star during World War II, said the Los Angeles Times. After graduating from Williams College, he worked in early TV; by 1970 he was producing films, including The Boys in the Band and The Panic in Needle Park. But “his social ambitions ruined his marriage” to Ellen Griffin, “and he began drinking excessively and abusing drugs.” After telling “an offensive joke” about powerful agent Sue Mengers, Dunne became persona non grata in Hollywood. “He was so broke he sold his dog.”

Vanity Fair revived him, said The New York Times. For 25 years in its pages, he profiled personalities ranging from Elizabeth Taylor to Robert Mapplethorpe. His forte was high-profile trials. Wearing “his trademark round glasses and a Turnbull & Asser shirt,” Dunne was a courtroom fixture; among the accused he covered were William Kennedy Smith, the Menendez brothers, Claus von Bülow, and O.J. Simpson. An inveterate name-dropper, he also “made no secret of the fact that his sympathy generally lay with the victim.” Dunne sometimes went too far; in 2005, former U.S. Rep. Gary Condit won an apology and a settlement from Dunne for implicating him in the 2001 disappearance of Chandra Levy.

“I’ve lived this very dramatic life,” Dunne once said. “I don’t want to die under anesthesia. I’d rather be shot to death in the Plaza or Monte Carlo.” Dunne, who died of bladder cancer, is survived by two sons, including actor Griffin Dunne.

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