What does it take to be a great social chronicler? Perhaps one of the key attributes is an understanding of what it feels like to fall from grace. Dominick Dunne, the best-selling novelist and defining voice for so many years of Vanity Fair magazine who died of cancer Wednesday at 83, was living proof that the best qualification for a writer’s life is a checkered past.
I met him for the first time in July of 1983 at a dinner party—of course (hosted by the writer Marie Brenner at her Manhattan apartment). Dominick was a keen-eyed leprechaun in owlish glasses whose chief charm was his voice—mellow, humorous, and suggestive of past lives and forgiven sins. It was a writer’s voice for sure as I realized after two hours of listening enthralled at the table to his observations of people he knew and stories he had heard in Hollywood and high society. At the time, he introduced himself as an erstwhile movie producer who "was finished with all that" and now, after some lost years in bad shape and A.A. and shunned by Hollywood, he had begun again as a writer of novels.
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He told me he was off the next day on a tragic mission—to attend the trial of his 22-year-old daughter’s murderer. His beloved Dominique, a rising actress, had been brutally strangled by her boyfriend John Sweeney, the chef at the swanky Ma Maison restaurant in West Hollywood. Not knowing at the time that Dominick was always an avid documentarian of his own life in scrap books and journals, I asked him if he would keep a journal of the trial and show me what he had written at the end. The result was the ironically titled “Justice,” his riveting, impassioned account in Vanity Fair of what he always believed was a judicial outrage, Sweeney’s conviction for manslaughter that led to him getting out of jail in under three years. It was the first of innumerable great pieces as he went on to become one of Vanity Fair’s star writers.
His forte, unsurprisingly, became crime. Nick loved nothing more than to be dispatched to study the foibles of such Dynasty-era divas as Aaron Spelling’s wife Candy in her preposterously large Beverley Hills mansion and turn her into a delicious cartoon of Reagan-era excess. But his real forte was the dark side. He was a naked advocate for the rights of the victim, a scourge of the slick defense lawyer, an excited repository of leaked letters, prosecution leads, and the whispered confidences of bold-faced names who gave him the back story. His gift for synthesizing high gossip with dogged reporting was clear from the moment he covered the trial of the decadent socialite Claus Von Bülow for the attempted murder by insulin injection of his wife, the beautiful, unhappy Sunny Von Auersperg.
Everybody talked to Dominick on that Vanity Fair story—children, servants, mistresses, duchesses, and Von Bülow himself. Add in the immediate intimacy of Dunne’s own voice and from the opening paragraph it was irresistible magazine journalism:
“The problem with Claus,” said one of Claus von Bülow’s closest friends at a Park Avenue dinner party, “is that he does not dwell in the Palace of Truth. You see, he’s a fake. He’s always been a fake. His name is a fake. His life is a fake. He has created a character that he plays. Claus is trompe l’oeil.” Now read on.
Watch a clip from the documentary on Dominick's life.
One of the many things I loved about working with Nick was the joy he took in the process of reporting. He loved the mechanics of a scoop, the scheming to get access, the romancing of sources, the chance encounters that led to a new lead. It was always amazing to me the weird Irish luck that seemed to follow him around on a story. He would be sitting on a plane and the murderer’s ex lover would introduce herself or trying to track a lead and find just the person he wanted in the waiting room of his dermatologist. He knew he had some sticky magic that drew stories to him. Even in his last days at a clinic in Germany, who should be in the next room waiting to be debriefed but the ailing Farrah Fawcett. (“Isn’t that just so typical of me,” he told me wonderingly when I saw him afterwards.)
He loved the pictures that accompanied his stories too and knew how important they were to dramatize his work. He and the legendary photographer Helmut Newton became a killer duo. Nick made them comfortable to the point where Helmut could encourage the subject into memorably ill-advised poses. (In Von Bulow’s case, it was to don his favorite spooky black leather outfit and create an iconic image that sent the photograph and article onto front pages everywhere.)
He knew he had some sticky magic that drew stories to him. Even in his last days at a clinic in Germany, who should be in the next room waiting to be debriefed but the ailing Farrah Fawcett.
Of course stories came to Nick not by accident but because he listened. And even though he moved in the drawing rooms of Park Avenue and the restaurants of Bel Air, his own long spell as a troubled drunk left him with such a keen sense of what it was to be humbled that others told him their troubles. He was society’s lapsed father confessor. As much as the duchesses, movie stars, and heiresses told him their troubles, so did the discarded call girls, the fired masseuses, the washed up hairdressers, and the downwardly mobile TV producers.
• Jane Hitchcock: My Dishy Phone Calls With Dominick Dunne• Dominick Dunne on the Oscars: an “endless goodbye” • Dunne on death, sex, and OJ Simpson in one of his final interviewsWhen he covered the O.J. Simpson trial for Vanity Fair, his suite at the Chateau Marmont became the humming drop-off point for celebrity culture's entrails. His favorite story about himself was that he was walking up Park Avenue to the Regency Hotel one day and noticed that one of three ladies who lunched was holding one of his best-selling novels, People Like Us. He stopped them. “‘That’s my book,’” he said, “One of them looked at me, checked the author photo, looked at me again and said, ‘So what?’”
God, I will miss him. When I visited him at the Roosevelt hospital last week, we talked of all the fun we had at Vanity Fair. He was small and frail in his hospital bed but his eyes were bright with the stories he still wanted to tell. We cried and held hands. “I wish I could do Conrad Murray’s trial,” he suddenly said. So do I, Nick. So do I.
Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.