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.
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.