Dominick Dunne, the pre-eminent voice of American celebrity’s inner word, is dead at 83.
The writer and pop patrician will be broadly remembered for his crime writing. It was his talent for gossip, however, that is the culture’s greatest loss.
Dunne, who succumbed yesterday to bladder cancer, acquired toney credentials long ago. Brother-in-law to Joan Didion, the former producer was once, along with first wife Ellen Griffin Dunne, host of Hollywood’s greatest soirees. The guest list at “Nick and Lenny’s” reads like a primer on haute American pop. Company included, but was by no means limited to, Humphrey Bogart, Dennis Hopper and Allen Ginsberg.
Happy, by his own admission, to drink and bask in the glory reflected from his nation’s greatest artists, Dunne didn’t go pro as a gossip until the ’80s. He would emerge as a cross between Louella Parsons and Upton Sinclair; his sort of gossip was, in the words of former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, “the defining voice of the magazine”.
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This ingress was by no means easy. In 1982, Dunne’s daughter Dominique, best remembered as an actress in the film Poltergeist, was killed by John Thomas Sweeney. Despite evidence of intent, Sweeney went on to serve fewer than four years for the crime. Dunne’s first piece for Vanity Fair was an account of the trial.
The special correspondent wrote extensively on swanky or eminent deaths. His piece on Claus and Sunny von Bülow is remarkable for its very private utterances. Dunne, the nicest kind of starf-cker, actually knew all these people. He read like post-recovery Gonzo that vacationed in East Hampton.
The work on the Menendez brothers was compelling. It was the OJ Simpson trial, however, that catapulted Dunne to genuine fame. These were the best top-to-toe accounts, save for those in the National Enquirer, of everything from the Bruno Magli shoes to the bloody glove. And, perhaps, just a little better for their more intimate revelations. The man who had once served Bogey a single malt was able to use his considerable Irish charm on far lesser celebs. Nicole Brown Simpson’s family talked to Dunne unreservedly.
No doubt, Dunne’s campaign for justice was sincere. As remarkable as his reportage was, it is not, in the end, his greatest achievement.
There has never been a greater gossip than Dunne.
The “greats” who emerged contemporaneous to the rise of the American film industry such as Hedda Hopper or Parsons never gave us much more than spin. The new generation of “insiders” such as Perez Hilton rarely give us much more than self-interest. Dunne, with his stories of brunch with Nora Ephron or shopping with Lee Radziwill, gave us something in between. He strove neither to escalate the importance of stars nor to deflate it.
Hilton, the mutant grandson of a gossip great such as Dunne, pushes his way into “society”. He manufactures stoushes with two-cent “celebrities” such as the bloke from the Black Eyed Peas; he grows the myth only of himself. Dunne’s dish, as personal as it was, allowed the American myth making to continue. The people with whom he dined were never “just like us”; thank goodness. They remained stars or bluebloods with only the best sort of flaws.
Hilton has no interest in preserving glamour; all he craves is a laminate.
Less than 24 hours and 400 kilometres from another death in Hyannis Port; the great gossip died. He will never write, enticingly, of Chappaquiddick again.