February 12, 2009
Dominick Dunne has started planning his funeral. He reveals this not morbidly but as just another dry, wonderful pearl in almost two hours of ranging conversation that takes us from cancer to hot dogs with Jane Fonda to hiring hitmen, to wartime heroics and high-powered feuds. He’s so good on the phone, how would you ever extricate yourself from his witty, sharp company in person?
When the 83-year-old Vanity Fair writer was here attending the inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, he went to the memorial service for the Daily Mail diarist Nigel Dempster and was blown away by the 100-strong choir singing Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. Although it’s a borrow, it’s on his funeral playlist. He has chosen the speakers (though hasn’t told them) and is changing his will. But he is far from fatalistic: Dunne hopes that the first round of stem-cell treatment he has received in the Dominican Republic and the next round he hopes to receive in Germany will prove successful in fighting his bladder cancer, diagnosed seven months ago.
“I went to a party last night and everybody said I looked fabulous, and I said: ‘It’s the stem cells’. I’m breaking with tradition and refusing to take chemo,” Dunne says, laughing. “I don’t take care of myself. I mean, I’m incredibly active. If you have to have cancer, you have to have the right attitude. I’m not going to lie down and die. I’m going to fight and keep working. I feel so well. Why go through ten weeks of vomiting after chemo? I’m too old for this. I don’t have enough time left. They say they’d give me anti-nausea pills, but I’m already taking too many pills. I hate pills.”
Any fan of his juicy, rich journalism won’t be surprised to discover that stories tumble from him: his stalled Hollywood career as a producer, his renaissance as a writer and observer of the trials of the rich and infamous — OJ (both trials), Phil Spector, Alfred Taubman. He has known great tragedy: the murder of his daughter is the raw bedrock of his court-reporting and his passionate advocacy for victims of crime and their families. In Hollywood, as a young man he entertained Bette Davis and Rock Hudson. This week he is off to the Oscars: Barry Diller has the best party, he says. He wants Sean Penn (for Milk) or Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), a longtime friend, to win Best Actor.
A brilliant new documentary, Dominick Dunne: After the Party (it goes out on DVD but deserves a wider release), shows him at work at Spector’s trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson. Dunne is outraged that the original jury didn’t deliver a guilty verdict but is following Spector’s current retrial with interest.
The documentary was filmed before his cancer diagnosis. At home in rural Connecticut Dunne is contemplating having to have someone “in” to care for him. “I don’t want to turn my life into one about a man with cancer. I know so many people with it and it’s all they talk about. I’ve got a novel and memoir which I desperately want to finish. Writing puts me in a good mood.”
Has he thought about dying? “Of course, but I don’t dwell on it. They were going to operate on me. I had this whole thing that I was going to die on the table but I don’t want to die under anaesthesia. My whole life denies that should be my exit.” He laughs. “I think about death but not morbidly. I’m not going to be a tragic thing. I’ve had an extraordinary life. Some very heavy things have happened to me. It’s just the next experience.”
Dunne is worried, unnecessarily, that the documentary will make him look like “an asshole”, and asks me to be kind to him; but this vulnerability seems at odds with his crusading prose and his prodigious talent for making enemies in high places. He says proudly that, among many others, Bobby Kennedy Jr hates him. Dunne tangled with him over the conviction of Kennedy’s cousin Michael Skakel for the murder of a woman in the 1970s. “I have got to be careful of what I say,” says Dunne. “I’ve already been in one lawsuit. I have no respect for that man.” Does he mind his targets’ hatred? “No, I hate them too,” he says quietly. Dunne is charming, yes, but an attack dog. His enemies say he relies on a tissue of conjecture and anonymous, unaccountable sources. In 2005 Gary Condit, a former congressman, won a sum of money and an apology from Dunne over claims that he had been implicated in a plot to murder and dispose of the body of an intern, Chandra Levy.
Dunne “never gave injustice a thought, five seconds of my time” until the trial in 1983 of John Thomas Sweeney, Dominique’s ex-boyfriend. She was an aspiring actress who had appeared in Poltergeist; he strangled her. The night before Sweeney’s trial Dunne sat at dinner next to Tina Brown, in New York to be interviewed for the editorship of Vanity Fair. She asked him to write about the trial. The resulting piece, in one of the first Vanity Fairs under Brown’s editorship, is a charged piece of reportage and personal confession.
Father and daughter were “so close”. The night before her murder, Dunne’s birthday, they had spoken by phone: she in LA, excitedly relating all the events on the Poltergeist set, he in New York in a tiny apartment (these were his lean years). “Her last words were to me were ‘I love you Daddy’. When I became an activist for victims’ rights, I would go to see the parents who had had a child murdered. So many times they would say, if only we had known . . . I am so happy I told her I loved her every time I talked to her.”
Sweeney was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and given a prison sentence in November 1983 of six and a half years, but was released after serving two and a half years. Dunne was dragged from the courtroom by guards after the judge thanked the jury and Dunne shouted not to thank them on his behalf. Dunne says he “f***ing ruined” the judge in print, and then after Sweeney was released “I was so crazy that I went to hire a private detective, like some cheap movie, to hire a hitman. That’s how nuts I was. I would never have gone through with it.” The private detective told Dunne not to do it.
“He said I would end up with a life sentence. Of course he was right. Instead, I thought I have the power to write about this and I’m very good on television. I don’t mean that in a braggy way. Rather than become obsessed with him [Sweeney], I thought I’d do something positive.”
Dunne’s desire to reveal all is insatiable. He wonders why it still “bothers” him that he got beaten as a child by his father with a riding crop. “I was one of six and he didn’t do it to any of the others. I drove him crazy. I always had a campy sense of humour, even though it was 20 years before I’d heard the word ‘campy’. I think he was terrified I would turn out to be gay. That would have been the greatest disgrace. He was a brilliant heart surgeon. I was a lousy athlete. I never made it on to any team.” He laughs. “We were a rich Irish-Catholic family in a Waspy town. This was before Jack married Jackie, before Irish became respectable. I remember the maid knocking on the door and saying, ‘The hospital is calling, Dr Dunne.’ He stopped the whipping, picked up the phone, gave the hospital the relevant instructions, came back and picked up right where he left off.”
On one occasion he was due to go with his parents to a hit Broadway play, Hellzapoppin’. “For me this was the most exciting thing ever. I told every kid I was going. The night before we left my father had one of his rages. I couldn’t go. It hurt me so much when they left without me. When they returned I wasn’t distant. I was filled with smiles. It was fake. I was determined never to let him see me cry.” Only later in life, when he was married, did he ask his mother why his father had treated him like that. “She said that it hadn’t happened. Total denial. I let it pass.”
Dunne went to war and returned, at 18, a hero, or as he puts it, “Of all the things the cissy kid got saluted by a general”. His picture was in the papers, “but to this day I don’t know how the f*** I did what I did. My one good buddy, Hank, was also a preppie kid, but he was much tougher than me. We were in retreat in the Battle of the Bulge. It was a black night: rain, mud, everything. Somebody said: ‘Lieutenant, there are two men shot back there,’ but our lieutenant said his orders were to retreat. Hank and I just looked at each other, then we ran back towards the approaching Germans without any sense of direction and we found these guys in a field. I carried this man, I was covered with his blood, covered. We finally found a doctor in the Red Cross, and we put them on stretchers.
“The last thing I saw was this guy reaching out, and squeezing the first two fingers of my hand — his way of saying thank you. I’ve never forgotten that: several times in my life I’ve been in scary situations I’ve looked at my fingers and said to that guy, his spirit, ‘Help me’.”
Dunne returned from the war on a Thursday, cook’s night off, the night when the family went out to eat. “None of my family mentioned what had happened. My older brother was the glamorous one. They were used to me as the guy who put on the puppet show in the basement for the girls in the neighbourhood. In the lobby of the club the mother of a friend of mine put her arms around me and said: ‘Do you have any idea how proud we are of you?’ I started to cry. Isn’t it funny it had to come from an outsider and that I felt like an out- sider in my own family? But I knew the ability to do what I did meant I was much more than what my father made me feel.”
His first job in Hollywood, alongside Sean Penn’s father,was as a stage manager for a 1950s TV show. Then he became a TV and film producer but not a prolific one. He still loves “the stardust”, as he puts it.
“When I was a kid I never had the picture of a football player or a baseball player on the wall. I had Michèle Morgan, a French actress. I was always starstruck.” He saw his favourite movie, Now, Voyager, starring Bette Davis, five times, five days in a row. “The idea that a camp movie like Now, Voyager became my most important movie was because she became someone differ- ent from what she was. I found it so fascinat- ing. She had that awful life — that mother, she was fat and unattractive. She came back, she was different. I thought about my own life, ‘It doesn’t have to be like this’.”
Gosh, I say flippantly, are you sure you’re not gay? Now, Voyager is such a camp classic. Dunne pauses. “I didn’t say that I was or wasn’t. That’s what my father’s fear was. As I said in the film, I’ve been a celi- bate for a long time.” Has he been attracted to guys? “Yeah, but I don’t want to go into that. I’ve never been successful.” He goes quiet and adds that the relationship with his wife, Lenny, was the most important in his life. “It’s astonishing how often I think of her [Lenny died in 1997].”
Dunne and Lenny would host hotdog parties in Malibu, and the glimpse of this smouldering fag end of the Golden Age of Hollywood is caught on home video in the documentary. Rock Hudson and Jane Fonda pout and play in the sun. “There was a very rigid social life. People like the Gary Coopers, Rosalind Russell and Loretta Young were great hostesses. We never understood our social success in Hollywood. I was successful but not at the level of the group we moved in. I always felt I was there more on a pass than reality. I would produce this movie with Elizabeth Taylor [Ash Wednesday] and have a glamorous time in Europe. But I was never a producer in charge. I didn’t have the balls to go to the front office and say ‘I want this’.
“I loved the glamour but could never figure out my own place within it. It wasn’t until the success of my novels — The Two Mrs Grenvilles launched me — that I thought ‘I’m in the right place’.” But there is a qualifying barb. “My brother [John Gregory Dunne] and sister-in-law [Joan Didion] were literary celebrities, and they were not giving me much applause when I said that was I was going to be writer.”
He says his marriage to Lenny crumbled because of their high-voltage social life: neither of them entertained again (apart from “friends for dinner”) after that elysian Hollywood spell: “I have a big terrace in my New York apartment and could have 100 people over for drinks but I don’t.”
Lenny, he says, grew not to like him. “The problem with that marriage was me. She had really loved me. She was great… I f***ed that up. After Dominique’s murder, she was very ill with multiple sclerosis, she was in such enormous pain but showed such bravery. We attended the trial together and we became closer than ever because our talk wasn’t about parties and who was sitting next to whom. We were in the middle of life at its worst.”
His son Alex was close to Dominique and has only recently come back into their lives. “He was the shy one. He vanished. He became bipolar and wouldn’t take his medication. We didn’t see him for eight years. People would say, ‘Oh we’ve seen Alex in Cairo or the Philippines’. He’s happy and married now.” And he speaks lovingly of his granddaughter too, studying in Florence.
Dunne still wants the scoop. He knows the players and is proud to: “If somebody says, ‘Who’s so-and-so’ sitting over there, I can say, ‘X owns that, he’s having an affair with her, used to be with her…’ ”
The only person he ever wanted to interview and hasn’t is Jackie Onassis (a classmate of Lenny’s), and has clearly relished his encounters with some of the world’s most famous women — Imelda Marcos, Queen Noor — though bemoans the parade of samey Hollywood starlets on today’s red carpet.
“In the olden days you knew who Loretta Young and Bette Davis were. When they made a mini-series of The Two Mrs Grenvilles it was utterly fascinating to see all these old actresses come out of the woodwork. Joan Fontaine, Olivia de Havilland, Bette Davis, Loretta Young: they all contacted me to say, ‘Dominick, I have to do that part’. Claudette Colbert got the part. There aren’t stars today who live the grand life. The murder of Sharon Tate changed everything. Gates went up, alarms, guards with guns came, Everyone got private.”
Despite the parties and friends, is he ever lonely? “Yes sometimes I am, but I also want it like that.” Does he miss love, want it? “No. I was never good at it. I always destroyed it. I couldn’t get over the thing that anyone could love me.”
He asks how old I am. 36, I say. Married? he asks. Gay, I say, not that that mitigates against marriage these days. “In my era, gay people were expected to get married,” he says. Your own life… Are you…? I falter, aware of the very cracked ice I might be treading on. “I can’t tell you what you can’t write,” Dunne says, and pauses. “I call myself a closeted bisexual celibate.” Of course he has to have some super-exotic category, I say. He laughs. “That’s just the way I am. At 83 it’s too late to start on a new path.” Nonsense, I say, go for it. “I’ve got too much to do as it is,” he says and, then, rather fabulously adds archly: “I’m still fun to be with.”
The place Dunne really wants to be, and relishes in the retelling, is the courtroom. He talks about bumping into O. J. at his Las Vegas trial last year, where the former football star was sentenced to nine years for numerous crimes, including conspiracy to commit robbery and conspiracy to commit kidnapping. “The sentence was too heavy for the crime but that sentence was for the other crime,” Dunne says: the killings of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman of which he was acquitted in 1995; a judgment against Simpson for their wrongful deaths was awarded in civil court in 1997.
“I saw what he [O. J.] did to Nicole Brown Simpson, her head was held on by three inches of skin. The very back of her head was totally open. It’s like Al Capone. He killed a lot of people, but they could never get him so got him on income tax evasion.”
He pauses. “I always get to the courtroom early. I found that O. J. was an early bird too. I wrote really tough about him. I was sort of nervous about meeting him. He wanted me to know how well the children were doing. He said that Sydney, his daughter, was at Boston University and No 1 in her class. He was so proud of her. I’m always touched by father-daughter stories for obvious reasons. But then I thought about what he did. It wasn’t just killing somebody. It was madness.”
He just loves being in on it all, I say. “I feel sharp,” Dunne says. “Does that sound conceited to say? I just want to know everything.” Don’t expect him to slip quietly into the night any time soon.