09.11.09 9:25 AM ET
Farewell to My Father
When we were at Campbell Brothers making the arrangements for this day, the funeral director said one of the features they offer when burying a man of Dad’s stature was to provide security to ferret out “professional mourners,” that is people, he explained, who crash wakes or funerals of celebrities. I remember thinking, illogically, that I couldn’t wait for the meeting to be over so I could call Dad to tell him they not only have a name for those people but consider it an occupation. You see, my father was a professional mourner. The first apartment my parents moved into was only a block from Campbell Brothers and Dad would think nothing of dropping in on his way to work to see what notorious mobster or movie star was laying in rest that day. It used to drive my mother crazy. What she didn’t realize at the time, or he for that matter, was that going to stranger’s funerals and wakes wasn’t just a morbid hobby. I think even then Dad was subconsciously making notes, filing stories for articles and novels he was still decades from writing. His unabashed curiosity, wandering into rooms uninvited, asking personal questions without a hint of guile, innocently snapping photos of movie legends without their make up, this talent which served no earthly purpose at one point in his life would lead to the much bigger rooms where he would not only be invited, but courted, by people who had done fantastic, sometimes terrible things in their lives they were now eager to share with him.
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A couple of apartments later, Dad decided to transplant his young family and beautiful wife to Los Angeles to begin the next chapter of his life. For a kid, sharing a roof with Dad during those L.A. years could be a pretty noisy affair and it would not be uncommon for Alex, Dominique, and I to find ourselves checked into a hotel in our pj’s if the folks were having a party with a live orchestra on a school night. Our family customs were not relatable to the corn belt of America; we had Christmas cards taken in the middle of August that were inspired by the royal portraits of Cecil Beaton, we would bow or curtsy to drunken dinner guests in silk robes before going off to bed. We dined as a family once a week and only in restaurants with names like The Brown Derby or La Scala.
• Tina Brown: The Unforgettable Dominick Dunne Our father was a man of exquisite taste who produced and art-directed his life but the storyline lacked the substance my Mom craved, so eventually his cast and crew walked off the picture and over time he found he had lost all the people and things he valued most. By the time he moved back to New York in 1981, he had sold most everything, and set up home in a tiny apartment, even smaller than the first apartment I lived in as a waiter at Beefsteak Charlie’s. His window looked onto an airshaft and worked by day with all the lights on. But he loved the place. What few possessions he still owned from the old days were carefully placed around the studio, giving the impression of an anteroom in Buckingham Palace. It was where he could write. Where he knew he would finally write. I lived around the corner from him then and we would have lunch at an outdoor coffee shop at Sheridan Square. I had moved to this city under very different circumstances. I really took the Simon and Garfunkle song “The Boxer” to heart and still had a romantic notion of coming here to start my life, to feel everything, revel in being broke and creative among the “whores on Seventh Avenue” to quote Mr. Simon. But our lunches in this outdoor restaurant were constantly interrupted by a series of Bukowski doppelgangers, aging Trotskyites, or transvestites in hairnets who would stop by to pay him homage as thanks for some nugget of wisdom or inspiration he has parted to them. He’d gone from a Cecil Beaton wannnabe to Damon Runyon right before my eyes. “How do you know these people”? I asked with a mixture of envy and pride. “The rooms” was all he offered. One year sober, one month in New York, and he was already a major draw at AA meetings around the village, telling the story of his perilous journey thus far. The fine-tuning of material that would make up the story of his life had begun. My dad had arrived in New York and he truly was “The Boxer.”
His gratitude for his change of fortune was a debt he was thrilled to owe and helping others in times of struggle was a penance he effortlessly practiced every day of his life.
It was around that time that I became aware of the random acts of kindness and generosity Dad doled out to those in true need. My decades in New York have been marked by constant encounters with people who practically grabbed my lapels on the street to tell me what a difference he had made on their lives in their darkest hour. An AIDS patient whose lapsed insurance Dad picked up without a moment’s thought, a now successful playwright whom Dad provided encouragement and notes on his second effort after the disastrous reviews of his first. One person he employed actually robbed him and Dad not only didn’t prosecute but gave the thief a send off bonus with instructions to stay out of his life. His unlisted telephone number was the worst kept secret in New York. He made himself available to anyone and everyone no matter how rich or poor, fabulous or desperate, because he knew what it was like to be up and thanked God and Dominique for helping him survive that long fall down. His gratitude for his change of fortune was a debt he was thrilled to owe and helping others in times of struggle was a penance he effortlessly practiced every day of his life.
I want to thank everyone here who has shown our family such overwhelming love this past month. Every e-mail, letter, brownie, and sandwich sent from William Poll has been deeply appreciated. I’m especially grateful to everyone at Vanity Fair, or “the mag” as he called it. From the early days of Tina, to his last weeks with Graydon, everyone from top to bottom gave him a home where he was treated as their top dog. I never saw him quite so happy as when he was headed off to Conde Nast to edit the latest piece.
As much as he suffered the indignities of a disease he chose to fight on his own terms, when he finally let go, my father left us with no doubt that he knew he’d regained all the love he thought squandered, achieved the prominence he hoped his work would bring, and the peace of mind knowing he had lived his life as a good man.
Griffin Dunne is an actor and Academy Award-nominated director.