Dominick Dunne; chronicled crimes among the rich, famous

Dominick Dunne, shown in his Hadlyme, Conn., home, was as successful as a journalist as he was as a novelist and spent many of his later years in courtrooms covering high-profile trials. Dominick Dunne, shown in his Hadlyme, Conn., home, was as successful as a journalist as he was as a novelist and spent many of his later years in courtrooms covering high-profile trials. (Douglas Healey/Associated Press/File 2005)
By Polly Anderson
Associated Press / August 27, 2009

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NEW YORK - Author Dominick Dunne, who told stories of shocking crimes among the rich and famous through his magazine articles and best-selling novels such as “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles,’’ died yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.

Actor-director Griffin Dunne said in a statement released by Vanity Fair that his father had been battling bladder cancer for some time. But the cancer did not prevent Mr. Dunne from working and socializing, his twin passions.

In September 2008, against the orders of his doctor and the wishes of his family, he flew to Las Vegas to attend the kidnap-robbery trial of O.J. Simpson, a postscript to his coverage of Simpson’s 1995 murder trial that spiked Mr. Dunne’s considerable fame.

He discontinued his column at Vanity Fair to concentrate on finishing another novel, “Too Much Money,’’ which is to come out in December. He also made a number of appearances to promote a documentary film about his life, “After the Party,’’ which was being released on DVD.

Mr. Dunne was beginning to write his memoirs and, until close to the end of his life, he posted online messages on his website commenting on events in his life and thanking his fans for their constant support.

Mr. Dunne was part of a famous family that also included his brother, novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne; his brother’s wife, author Joan Didion; and his son, Griffin.

A onetime movie producer, Mr. Dunne carved a new career starting in the 1980s as a chronicler of the problems of the wealthy and powerful.

Tragedy struck his own life in 1982 when his actress daughter, Dominique, was slain, and that experience informed his fiction and his journalistic efforts from then on.

“If you go through what I went through, losing my daughter, you have strong, strong feelings of revenge,’’ Mr. Dunne said in 1990 in discussing his novel “People Like Us,’’ in which the protagonist shoots the man convicted of killing his daughter.

“As a novelist, I could create a situation in which I could do in the book what I couldn’t do in real life. I intended for Gus [the character in the book] to kill the guy, but when I got to that part I couldn’t write it. He wounds him and goes to prison himself for a couple of years.’’

He was as successful as a journalist as he was as a novelist and spent many of his later years in courtrooms covering high-profile trials. Writing for Vanity Fair, he covered such cases as the William Kennedy Smith rape trial in 1991 and the trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez, accused of killing their millionaire parents, in 1993.

As much as those trials riveted the nation, they were far overshadowed in 1994 when football great O.J. Simpson was accused of killing his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. With a trial that stretched out over a year and cable television outlets providing endless coverage, the bespectacled Mr. Dunne became a familiar face to millions.

He called his book on the Simpson trial “Another City, Not My Own,’’ “a novel in the form of a memoir.’’ It, too, reached the bestseller lists.

From the gritty world of the courtroom during the day, he would move into the glamorous realm of high society at night, dining with the rich and famous, charming them with his inside stories of the Simpson trial.

He was a colorful raconteur, and his stories mesmerized listeners. He was a much-sought-after dinner guest on both coasts and in the glamour capitals of Europe. He was a regular at the Cannes Film Festival, interviewing members of royalty and movie stars.

His assignments took him to London to cover the inquest into Princess Diana’s death and to Monaco for the mysterious death of billionaire Edmond Safra.

He continued appearing regularly on television, and in 2002 debuted a weekly program on Court TV, “Power, Privilege and Justice.’’

“I am openly proprosecution and make no bones about it,’’ he told the San Francisco Chronicle that year. “I don’t think there are enough people out there sticking up for victims.’’

The show gave him an added dose of celebrity when it was distributed in foreign countries.

He had already been working on “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles,’’ a fictionalized retelling of a sensational 1950s society murder, when his 22-year-old daughter, Dominique, was strangled by her former boyfriend, John Sweeney, in 1982, shortly after she had completed her first movie, “Poltergeist.’’

Sweeney was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and was freed after serving less than four years of a six-year sentence. The verdict was seen as a major victory for the defense, and Mr. Dunne bitterly told the judge in court, “You withheld important information from this jury about this man’s history of violent behavior.’’ He later told the Los Angeles Times the sentence was “a tap on the wrist.’’

In a 1985 AP interview, Mr. Dunne said he nearly stopped writing when Dominique died.

“I was going to stop the book,’’ Mr. Dunne said. “I didn’t want to do a book that dealt with a murder. But my book editor wouldn’t let me quit. She was incredibly sympathetic and lenient on time. I’m glad now that she didn’t let me quit.’’

Among his other books were the 1993 “A Season in Purgatory,’’ that helped revive interest in the 1975 slaying of teenager Martha Moxley in Greenwich, Conn. A Kennedy relative, Michael Skakel, was convicted in 2002.

In 1999, Mr. Dunne published a memoir called “The Way We Lived Then,’’ a compilation of photographs of him and his family with famous people and his recollections of the life he enjoyed for many years.

Mr. Dunne was born in 1925 in Hartford to a wealthy Roman Catholic family and grew up in some of the same social circles as the Kennedys. In his memoir, he traced his fascination with Hollywood to a childhood trip he took with an aunt. They took one of those home of the stars bus tours, and he vowed to come back.

He served in the US Army during World War II and graduated from Williams College in 1949. While in the Army, he was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism in 1944 for carrying two wounded men to safety at the Battle of Merz in Feisberg, Germany.

He wrote that “winning a medal was the only thing I can ever remember doing that won any admiration from my father.’’

At Williams College, he and a fellow student, Stephen Sondheim, appeared in plays together. After college, he went to New York, where he landed a job in the fledgling television industry as stage manager of “The Howdy Doody Show.’’ NBC brought him to Hollywood as stage manager of the famous television version of “The Petrified Forest’ with Humphrey Bogart.

Among his credits as a producer were the television series “Adventures in Paradise’’ and “The Boys in the Band,’’ a pioneering 1970 drama about gay life. Two of his films, “The Panic in Needle Park’’ and “Play It As It Lays,’’ were written or co-written by his brother and sister-in-law.

He was invited to celebrity parties and said he decided then, “This is how I want to live.’’

But Mr. Dunne said his years living the high life in Hollywood left him divorced, broke, and addicted, and he moved to a cabin in Oregon to dry out and to start over as a novelist.

John Gregory Dunne died in 2003.

Mr. Dunne and his wife, Ellen Griffin Dunne, known as Lenny, were married in 1954. They divorced in the 1960s. She died in 1997.

Beside Dominique, they had two sons, Alexander and Griffin, an actor.

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