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So What Do You Do, Dominick Dunne, Author, Vanity Fair Special Correspondent?

The VF scribe explains how he transformed personal tragedy into a career covering celebrities' legal wranglings

By Diane Clehane - March 26, 2008
How's this for a juicy tale: a successful movie producer who had it all -- a loving family, glamorous career, and a circle of friends that included the biggest names in 1960's Hollywood -- becomes addicted to his over-the-top lifestyle. Alcohol and drugs take their inevitable toll and at one of his lowest points, he sells his own dog to a friend for $300. Unemployed and unemployable, he becomes his worst nightmare -- "a nobody." On the brink of ruin, he spends six months alone in a one-room cabin in the woods of Oregon to get himself together. Newly sober, he heads to New York as an aspiring writer with one suitcase, his treasured scrapbooks, and a typewriter and starts over. Tragedy strikes when his beloved daughter is murdered. After writing a first-person account of the trial that resulted in little more than a slap on the wrist for the killer, his outrage at injustice becomes his signature as he goes on to chronicle the most sensational murder trials of the past 20 years.

This is not the plot of Dominick Dunne's next book, it is the story of his life.

Dunne credits Tina Brown, then the newly-appointed editor of Vanity Fair, with giving him a shot at what has turned into an extraordinarily successful second career during one of the darkest periods of his life. "I have a particular soft spot for Tina because she discovered me," says Dunne. "The night before I was to leave for the trial of the man who killed my daughter, I met her at Marie Brenner's house," he recalls. "She called me the next day -- the day I was leaving -- to have lunch with her. I said, 'Gee, I can't, I have so much to do before I leave on the six o'clock flight. She kept on and I met her, and that's how I got started. After I wrote the piece about the trial called 'Justice,' I thought that would be it. Right away, she sent me to the Von Bulow trial which turned into one of the best series of articles I ever wrote."

Dunne hasn't stopped since. As famous -- in many cases, more so -- as the infamous defendants whose trials he has covered for the past 24 years, Dunne remains unapologetically opinionated about his subjects. Despite his feuds with famous foes like Robert Kennedy Jr. and former Congressman Gary Condit, the prolific author is more outspoken than ever. He calls Phil Spector "vermin" and still seethes over OJ Simpson ("I'm so sick of the smirk on his face.")

Recently diagnosed with bladder cancer after a previous battle with prostate cancer, Dunne finds himself more motivated than ever to finish A Solo Act, his long-awaited next novel. "When this happens to you, you've got to think, 'Listen, I've got so much time left," he says. "I cannot leave an unfinished book."

But this isn't the final chapter in a fascinating life. "I'm fine. I go out to lunch every day and I go out every night," he says.


Name: Dominick Dunne
Position: Author, special correspondent for Vanity Fair
Resume: Bestselling author of several books including The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (Crown, 1985), An Inconvenient Woman (Crown, 1990), A Season in Purgatory (Crown, 1993), Justice (Three River Press, 2001); wrote a memoir, The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well Known Name Dropper (Crown, 1999). Writer and special correspondent for Vanity Fair since 1983 covering high-profile trials including those of the Menendez brothers, Claus von Bulow, and O.J. Simpson. Prior to becoming a writer, Dunne was vice president of Four Star, a television production company and a producer of feature films including The Boys in the Band, Panic in Needle Park, Ash Wednesday. Currently host and narrator of truTV's Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege, and Justice.
Birthdate: October 29, 1925
Hometown: Hartford, Connecticut
Education: Williams College
Marital status: Divorced
First section of The Sunday Times: "First I read the obituaries. I read them every day. "I'm at an age where I always know everybody. But I've always read the obits first. Then I read the Week in Review and the Style section."
Favorite television show: "Sunday night was my TV night. I liked Six Feet Under. I just adored that show. I liked The Comeback with Lisa Kudrow and, of course, I never missed The Sopranos. Now I'm not stuck on anything in particular. I like any Law & Order. I'm crazy about that girl -- Mariska Hargitay. I long to meet her. As a child she used to sit with her mother, Jayne Mansfield and her father, Mickey Hargitay, at mass on Sunday. I'd be there with my three kids and my wife. They were always at the 10 o'clock Sunday morning mass -- that's when all the Catholic stars -- Rosalind Russell, Gary Cooper, Loretta Young -- went. Mariska's mother, this sexy lady, would be saying, 'Read your prayer book.' [Laughs] I just think she'd like to hear that."
Guilty pleasure: "I never understood what that means."
Last book read: "Last night I just finished the galley of the book written by William Patton, who was the son of Susan Mary Alsop. It's called My Three Fathers. His father was a diplomat and his mother was this great social figure in Washington. He didn't know until he was in his 40s -- Susan Mary, whom I knew quite well, was in rehab and they had family week -- it was during that time that he found out that his father was not Bill Patton but he was the son of Duff Cooper, the British Ambassador to Paris in World War II who was married to Lady Diana Cooper. It really knocked him for a loop. Then his mother married Joe Alsop, the great political writer and friend of Jack Kennedy. It's a fascinating biography."


What are you writing about for Vanity Fair these days?
I've just turned in my piece on the Princess Diana inquest.

That must have been a topic of conversation at lunch when I saw you at Michael's recently with her former private secretary, Patrick Jephson.
I think he was quite loyal to her.

He certainly looks like a saint compared to Paul Burrell [Diana's butler].
Boy, do l let Burrell have it in my piece. But I'm not writing anything else until I finish my novel. I'm going away to finish a novel.

What are your impressions having been to the inquest.
I knew everybody in the story -- I knew Dodi from Hollywood, I had met the father [Mohamed Al Fayed] twice before all this happened. I was staying at the Ritz after the Cannes film festival the year before last and I got a call from the manager of the hotel saying that Mohamed Al Fayed as in the hotel and wanted to meet me. I met him for the first time -- and saw him walk with the four bodyguards who are always around him. He was terrific for a while. We had each lost a child. We had that in common and that's a bond you always have with anybody who has had that awful experience. Then he started going off on Prince Phillip [about being behind Diana's death] and I just don't believe that.

Do you believe it was a conspiracy or a terrible accident?
It was a terrible accident. The bodyguard, Trevor Jones -- he's dropped the "Rees" because "Rees-Jones" makes people turn around when they hear it and with "Rees" they don't -- I was so touched by him on the stand. They tried to give him a rough time. I hate that -- especially a man who has suffered the way he has. Mohamed has turned on him and says he's lying when he says he can't remember. He quit working for Mohamed because he was trying to give him a version of the "blinding light" story that blinded Henri Paul. He didn't have any memory of that. He wouldn't go along with that. I love that about him. He and his partner Kez Wingfield had been on the yacht and saw the extent of the paparazzi. They had called and asked Al Fayed several times for more bodyguards. They knew it wasn't enough for the mountain of paparazzi. For some curious reason, after having bought the $20 million dollar yacht for the Princess to spend a week on -- he didn't think his own yacht was good enough for her -- he didn't get more guards.

What do you make of this tape that's surfaced of Burrell saying he wasn't forthcoming during the investigation? Tina Brown once told me that Diana's undoing was her spectacularly bad taste in men, and he's right up there with the worst of them.
I covered his trial and I got to know him. I liked him, and all of Diana's friends thought he was so loyal. Then, after the Queen came to his aid in that totally phony, ridiculous trial -- they were afraid to have him take the stand with what he could say. According to Patrick [Jephson], he does know things that if he told, could be a great embarrassment. They probably hope he doesn't come back.

What an asshole. Did you know he's supposed to be worth $20 million dollars? He's made so much money off Diana. During his trial all her lady friends were saying, "Oh, he's so wonderful." The whole time he was making that secret deal with The Sun [to sell his story] who paid him so much money and his story started two days after the Queen got him off. So he's not a good person.

I thought the inquest would get more coverage here since Diana was, for a long time, the most famous woman in the world and Tina's book was a No. 1 bestseller just this past summer. Why hasn't there been more attention paid to this chapter of the saga?
I don't know, except there have been these two other investigations before -- one by the British and one by the French -- and there's this sense, "Oh my God -- that again." But I found this inquest utterly fascinating. I open my next piece with this quote from Martin Gregory who wrote a terrific book, Diana The Last Days: "On the night she died, Diana was traveling from a Fayed hotel to a Fayed apartment in a Fayed car with a Fayed driver sitting next to Fayed's son and behind a Fayed bodyguard."

Where's the royal conspiracy there? They requested more help -- he didn't give it to them. It was his hotel. He's carried on this thing for years. He made a spectacular fool of himself on the stand. It was outrageous the things he said. Dodi, at the same time he was with Diana, was engaged to be married to Kelly Fisher which has never gotten play -- but not in my next piece. I got hold of Gloria Allred, who was her lawyer. Then, when Mohammed was on the stand and they asked him about Kelly Fisher, he called her a hooker. A hooker!

If I recall, she had a nice ring from Dodi -- nicer than that hideous thing he allegedly gave Diana.
She had a beautiful ring, although I think he had quoted a price to her that was excessive. It wasn't worth as much as he told her it was.

You didn't go out to Los Angeles for this year's Oscars and, of course, there was no Vanity Fair party. All things considered, the show turned out to be a big bore and everybody is asking "Why?" Do you think Hollywood can ever be as glamorous as it once was?
No.

What's missing?
Stars. There used to be stars. I hate people that talk about, "It was better then ..." but when you think about it there was Gable, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and Burt Lancaster and as many women at the same time. You know, there's no real star stars now -- except I think Nicole Kidman is a real star for the ages. George Clooney is, but there's very few.

The fact that a man who the jury knew was guilty and that his "dream team" knew was guilty got acquitted ... it was absolutely so shocking to me.

I think the fare of movies -- they were very downbeat. I just saw one I hadn't seen before -- 3:10 to Yuma and it's like all the rest of these things -- it was just mindless killing of men killing men. There was no movie this year that everybody was just madly in love with. It was a boring [Oscar] show and a boring year. With the women, you never see an individual look because stylists have taken over. Half of the women this year were wearing the same red dress. I liked it when the stars bought their own clothes. Sometimes they made terrible mistakes and that was fun. Now, everyone looks exactly alike in their borrowed finery.

You've written about so many trials and covered the lives of so many of the famous and infamous. Is it all still as interesting to you now as it was when you first started writing?
I had never been to trial until the trial of the man that killed my daughter. That's when I began to understand the showbiz aspect of these high-profile trials. They dressed the man that killed my daughter like a sacristan in a Catholic seminary. He read the Bible. The Menendez brothers were all costumed with their Shetland sweaters. I do understand now that all that happens.

Several years ago during another interview, you talked to me about the first OJ Simpson trial and said, "I can't tell you how that trial affected my life." How does that experience look to you now?
There will never be a trial like that again. That was the trial of trials. That was about the power of celebrity and the power of money. The fact that a man who the jury knew was guilty and that his "dream team" knew was guilty got acquitted ... it was absolutely so shocking to me. I couldn't believe that could happen. It had a deep effect on me. I became sort of obsessed. I couldn't stop thinking about [it]. I went to Europe to try to get over it. I went to places I'd never been, like Prague just to look at churches and I kept running back to the hotel to turn on CNN to see what the latest was on him.

I grew to hate [Simpson] so much. I do believe in ultimate justice. I believe the man who killed my daughter and then got off with slap on the wrist -- he's going to get his somehow. And I think this thing with OJ now and the armed robbery, he's going to get his.

Any predictions on how that trial will play out?
No predictions, but I hope he will be taken back to prison. I don't care if it's only a year -- just to have that humiliation that he should have. I would love to be able to go out and cover that Nevada trial, but I can't because I've got to finish this novel.

Before we talk about your novel, I want to ask you about your part in the Goldman's version of Simpson's book If I Did It.
I wasn't a part of it, really. I did that one thing. I did it for the Goldmans. I never read the book.

You wrote the "Afterword" for them. Since you know them so well, do you think the process and the outcome did anything to help them on an emotional level? What was the point of them doing it?
I could understand them doing it. I understand the rage that you feel when something like that happens that someone has gotten away with killing your child. That's why I did it. I really like the Goldman family. Judge Ito gave me a seat next to Fred [Goldman] at the trial because he knew I'd been through the same thing. We became close friends and I still keep in touch with him. When he asked me, I didn't want to do it, but I couldn't turn him down. I said to him, "I'm not going to read the book. What I will write about is my relationship with you and your wife and your daughter." That's what I did.

There seems to be a particular type of alchemy that has to happen in order to have a trial take hold in the public's imagination. Why do some trials that don't involve famous people the Scott Peterson trial fascinate while others involving a celebrity like Phil Spector barely register?
I found the Spector trial riveting but it didn't catch on. As in most of the cases I covered, I knew him. He's a creep. For years and years, he's done this act of pulling guns on people -- on a lot of people I know. On some level, he hates women. I think he's also nuts. He took the hung jury as if he were declared innocent. It was this one creep who was his neighbor who was the jury foreman. I've talked to so many of the jurors. His mind was made up from the first day -- acquittal. There's just something creepy about that.

You've written countless books and covered so many trials. Do you prefer doing one over the other?
No. Fiction is different from fact. I just happen to deal in both. But I've actually had a hard time on this novel [A Solo Act] because I haven't written a novel in several years.

I guess it's hard to finish it when you're being sent off to cover all these trials the last few years.
That's why I'm not going to do anything else. Graydon [Carter, Vanity Fair's EIC] has been wonderful to me about it. I said, "Graydon, I have got to finish this novel." I've also got cancer and I'm 82.

I didn't know that you were ill. I'm very sorry to hear that.
I'm undergoing treatments now. I've got cancer of the bladder -- urinary tract -- not very attractive. I was always so proud of my brother [John Gregory Dunne)] He got his book finished and had the heart attack. His book came out after he was dead. I've just got to get this book finished. That's why I came back from the inquest. I just knew there was something wrong. I came back and they found this. I've taken the first of six treatments and then I go in the hospital and they go in and see how much they got.

Where are you with the book?
I'm more than half-way through. But I haven't actually worked on it for a long time. Now I'm back on it full-time -- that's my life now until I finish.

What's your day like when you're writing? How much time can you devote to it in one sitting?
It's different if I'm here [in NYC] or in the country. If I'm here, I spend my mornings going through my mail and all that stuff with my assistant and then in the afternoons I write. When I'm in the country, I write all day. At the end of each day, I plan what I'm going to write the next day and read and correct.

How long can you write in one sitting?
Four hours -- of creative writing. There's also the "fixing writing," which is not creative but the changes and all that stuff. I do rely on my editor. My book editor is Betty Prashker, who has been my editor for all my books. My magazine editor is Anne Fulenwider. She's absolutely great. She's young and went to Harvard. I really enjoy working with her.

When do you hope to have the book finished?
I think it's going to take me a couple months of solid work. Then I'm going to come back to [Vanity Fair] and keep writing there.

You're never without your notebook. Any idea of how many you've filled over the years?
I do have a good idea because I save them all. I don't know who I'm going to give my papers to. I went to Williams and Williams has never shown the slightest interest in me.

Are you kidding?
I've never been asked to speak. I don't mean this in a bragging way, but I think I'm probably the most famous person in my class. It just staggers me. I've spoken at Yale. I've spoken at Princeton. I've never been asked to speak at Williams. I've never had the slightest recognition from them. So f--- em when it comes to my papers, but I don't know where to leave my papers to.

You've mentioned countless times in your writing that you always have people come up to you out of nowhere and tell you the most interesting things. Why do you think that is?
It happens to me wherever I go. I could be at 21 for dinner and wave at somebody or somebody waves at me and the next thing I know I'm handed a note by the head waiter and it says, "Please call me at so-and-so, I have something to tell you." That happens to me constantly. It happens to me on the street.

I'm always open to any stranger who comes up and speaks to me. A lot of people feel like, [stage whispers] "Oh, I don't want to get involved." I'm grateful they say, "I love your book or I loved your article." I love hearing that but then I always get a little gem. It's just amazing to me. I think the mistake that so many people make who get famous is that they only stay with famous people. That limits your horizons. You never know where the next message is going to come from.

What do you consider your greatest success?
The thing that really changed my life was the enormous success of The Two Mrs. Grenville's. I had been on a downer for years until I wrote that book. It truly changed me. It made me well-known.

I loved Season in Purgatory and the mini-series they did from the book. It's funny now to think that when Patrick Dempsey did that he was pretty much an unknown and now he's this big star.
He came up to me last year at the Vanity Fair party and said just what you said to me. He actually played the character that was based on me. He said, "That was what opened it all up for me." It was nice of him to say that. He was good in that.

What about your biggest failure?
[Pauses] Why am I having a hard time thinking about that? [Laughs] My real major failures came before my second career. Here I was after this glamorous life, there were seven or eight years where I was almost penniless. I said something when I was drunk that was very mean about someone out there. It was one of those things that was funny when I said it and wasn't funny when it was printed in the newspaper. I hurt somebody's feelings and that has always bothered me. That brought me to a big ending in Hollywood.

I'm happy about the Hollywood failure because then I discovered this whole other life of writing which is far more appealing to me than the movie life. When I started writing novels and they were all made into mini-series they would say to me, "We'll make you the executive producer." I'd say, "I had that. I want to be on to the next book. I don't want to be the executive producer." It's a good feeling to know that what you're doing is what you should be doing. I would have been a B-level producer always, not a A-level producer. I'd been rich all my life and then I had no money. I learned so much from being on my ass during that time. I stopped drinking, stopped doping and began a new life.

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
I'm a very hard worker even though I go out all the time. I love it when my sons say to me, "Dad, you can slow down a little bit now." I never want to slow down, I'll be doing this until the last day.


Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the 'Lunch' column.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]



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