Friday, August 28, 2009

The Late Great Dominick Dunne

Dominick Dunne, crime writer and investigative journalist, passed this Wednesday, August 26, at the age of 83. The cause was bladder cancer.

Dominick Dunne was born on October 29, 1925 in Hartford, Connecticut. He attended Kingswood School and Canterbury School in New Milford, Connecticut. It was when he was a senior in high school that he was draughted in the United States Army. During World War II he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, where he earned the Bronze Star. He also fought in the Battle of Metz. Following the war he attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. There he was part of a group (including Stephen Sondheim) started a theatre.

Following his graduation from Williams College in 1949, Dunne moved to New York where he became the stage manager for shows ranging from Howdy Doody to Robert Montgomery Presents. By 1954 he was working as an assistant director on Producer's Showcase. It was in 1957 that he moved to Los Angeles to work on Playhouse 90. By 1959 he was the executive producer of Adventures in Paradise. In the 1970's he was vice president of Four Star Television, and produced films including The Boys in the Band, Panic in Needle Park, and Play It as It Lays.

The Seventies saw Dunne descend into alcoholism to the point that it all but ended his career in Hollywood. It was in 1979, then, that he wrote his first book The Winners, based on his own experiences in Hollywood. While The Winners received over all bad reviews, it was the beginning of a successful new career for Dunne. It was his editor, the legendary Michael Korda at Simon & Schuster, who advised Dunne to take a different path. Namely, Korda pointed out that people loved to read about rich and powerful involved in crime. The resulting book from this advice was The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, which became a best seller.

It was also at this time that tragedy would make another change in his career. Dunne's daughter, Dominique Dunne, was murdered by her boyfriend on November 4, 2002. At the suggestion of Tina brown, then editor of Vanity Fair, Dunne kept a journal during the trial of his daughter's murderer. The journal would become the basis for the article Justice: A Father's Account of the Trial of His Daughter's Killer," published in Vanity Fair in 1984. Dunne then signed a long term contract with Vanity Fair to write articles on true crime. What is more, Dunne became a dogged champion of the victims of violent crime. He would cover some very high profile trials, including the Claus von B¨low trial, the Menendez brothers trial, and the O. J. Simpson murder trial.

Dunne continued to write fiction, including People Like Us, An Inconvenient Woman, and A Season in Purgatory, in which he skewered high society. The last trial he covered was ironically the O. J. Simpson armed robbery trial. Against his doctor's orders (Dunne was already suffering from cancer), he insisted on covering the trial.

Whether it was his non-fiction articles on real life crimes or his novels, Dominick Dunne was one of the best writers of our time. By his own admission, Dunne's coverage of criminal trials was not balanced--he always came down on the side of the victim. It was because of this, however, that he was such a great crime reporter. Dunne would report details of trials often ignored by others. Dunne was a master of observation when it came to the personalities involved in the trials he covered.

Dunne also paid attention to details in his fiction, to the point that his novels read almost as if they could have been real life crimes. Indeed, most of his novels were inspired by real life cases. The Two Mrs. Grenvilles was loosely based on the murder of Billy Woodward in 1955. A Season in Purgatory was based on the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley. As in his nonfiction, Dunne's sympathies were with the victims in his novels.

Dominick Dunne was unique among modern writers. He not only wrote novels, but he reported on actual criminal cases. And he did so with a flair and an attention to detail that very few others have ever done. He was well known for his hard work in his career. He would often show up at trials early and often stayed late. Dedicated to his career, Dunne was one of the greatest crime novelists and reporters of our time.


Holte Ender said...

I was listening to NPR today and a speaker said Dominick would have been so mad if he'd have known that he would pass away at the same time Teddy Kennedy and rob him of a few headlines.

Mercurie said...

I think Dominick Dunne might well have been. He was a great writer and reporter, but he also loved the limelight!