The Godfather: Peter Corris on Dominick Dunne
‘Write what you know’ is often good advice for would-be scribblers. Not much help if you don’t know anything, of course, but it certainly fitted the bill for American journalist, author and television presenter Dominick Dunne.
Dunne was born into a wealthy New England family but, as a Catholic in a Waspish society, he felt something of an outsider – a useful stance for a writer. His father subjected him to physical and mental abuse, again an experience that was to equip him to understand his usual subjects – the privileged gone wrong. There was also literary talent in his genes; his younger brother John Gregory Dunne (married to notable writer Joan Didion) wrote several outstanding novels and successful films.
Dunne was educated at elite schools and, after serving creditably in World War II, became first a television stage manager in New York and then a Hollywood producer with several well-regarded films and TV series to his credit.
He married a socially prominent woman. They had five children, two of whom died in infancy. In a documentary on his life (Dominick Dunne: After the Party, 2008) he said that the loss of these children and unresolved issues with his father caused him psychic damage he was ill-prepared to deal with.
In Hollywood, hobnobbing with the rich and famous, his life began to spin out of control. He became addicted to alcohol and drugs.
Unwelcome in Hollywood because of his excesses, Dunne holed up in a cabin in Oregon and began to write fiction. His fictionalised version of a famous murder case, The Two Mrs Grenvilles (1985), became a bestseller for the revitalised and rehabilitated Dunne, and other books with a similar theme followed. In 1982 his interest in the American legal system became an obsession when his actress daughter Dominique Dunne (best known for her part in the film Poltergeist) was strangled by her estranged partner, who received a ludicrously light sentence. Dunne attended the trial, kept a journal and produced a ground-breaking piece of journalism which was published in Vanity Fair. For the rest of his life Dunne wrote and presented on television his analyses and deliberations on the murder trials of the rich and famous.
His method was the very reverse of objective. Attending the trials, interviewing when he could witnesses and others involved – relatives, investigators, and so on – he took a stance, and when verdicts contradicted his judgement, he castigated judges, defence attorneys, police and the media in print and on screen in a long-running television series, Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege and Justice.
I had read The Two Mrs Grenvilles with admiration many years before and when I stumbled on the series on Foxtel I followed it closely. Time and again Dunne announced that he knew many of the accused celebrities, having met them at parties in London, New York or LA – socialite Claus Von Bulow, accused of the attempted murder of his wife; record producer Phil Spector, convicted of the murder of an actress; actor Robert Blake, tried for the murder of his wife. And others – ex-partners and children, Dunne knew them and their friends, encountered them during their trials and while they were on bail. He criss-crossed the country covering trials in America and travelled to Paris and Monaco when high-profile court proceedings captured his attention.
In his reports he didn’t spare himself, admitting to his alcoholism, his failure in Hollywood and his prejudices. ‘Defence attorneys make me ill,’ he announced in one program, and he raked over ashes and rattled skeletons in closely locked cupboards to which, through his social contacts, he found the keys. Even less did he spare the celebrities. In After the Party he denounced Phil Spector as ‘a horrible human being’ and added, ‘If you don’t like it, Phil, sue me.’ People did, with varying success.
Dunne’s articles broke sales records for Vanity Fair, his books sold, he was lionised by the famous and the series made compelling television. His blatantly partisan approach to sensitive matters would be impossible in this country and others as a matter of law and good taste, but often he succeeded in doing what Evan Whitton, then editor of the National Times (quoting Australian journalist Murray Sayle), once singled out as a hallmark of investigative journalism: ‘We name the guilty men.’
Remarkably, after Dunne’s death in 2009, his son revealed that his father had been bisexual, something that, given scandal and rumour were part of Dunne’s stock in trade, had never come to light. The teaser-out and exposer of secrets had kept his own hidden to the very last.