Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Celebrity Gadfly Justice

"He may come off as gruff or abrupt, but he's got a big heart. And he's really glad to do this." That's what Dominick Dunne's assistant told me as we finalized details for the author's radio interview with me in 2002. I was hosting the afternoon drive talk show on WGCH in Greenwich, CT and he was covering the Skakel murder trial in Stamford for Vanity Fair and Court TV.

The Dunne interview was a big "get" as Skakel was on trial for murdering his Greenwich neighbor Martha Moxley over twenty-five years earlier in 1975 when they were both fifteen.It was big news in town and-- thanks to Dunne and disgraced O.J.Simpson cop, Mark Furhman whose bestseller,Murder in Greenwich helped re-open the case-- big news across the country, too. The fact that Skakel--already in his forties and bloated beyond his years--was a Kennedy cousin(RFK's widow, Ethel is his father's sister)only added celebrity cache to the case.

Dunne, who died at eighty-three, ironically on the same day as Sen. Ted Kennedy, has long been a Kennedy family nemesis. He had covered the William Kennedy Smith rape trial in the early '90's ( Smith was acquitted) and loosely based his novel, A Season in Purgatory on the Moxley murder. I don't know if Ted Kennedy harbored any animosity towards the scribe, but Bobby Kennedy Jr. has had a well-televised feud with Dunne in the years following his cousin's murder conviction.

When we did our interview(he was, btw, nothing but kind and charming), Dunne had a queasy feeling that Mickey Sherman, Skakel's charismatic attorney, might get his guy a walk. "I hate to say it, but he might be creating reasonable doubt," he said, sounding crest-fallen. Dunne needn't have worried. By the time prosecutor Jonathan Benedict finished his closing argument the Guilty verdict was all but assured.

Dunne was a true believer who took all his celebrated cases to heart. He wasn't an impartial journalist, a charge--much to his critics' chagrin--he would cheerfully cop to. After his daughter Dominique, a promising twenty-two year old actress was strangled by her ex-boyfriend John Sweeney in 1982, Dunne became a sort of celebrity avenging angel, fearlessly taking the victims' part, and often bonding with their families.

Tina Brown, then the new editor of Vanity Fair was sitting next to Dunne at a dinner party the night before he was to fly out to Los Angeles for the murder trial of his daughter's killer. She implored him to take notes. And when he returned she found the magazine's first voice. "Dominick had a voice that was so powerful, that spoke to you right off the page," she says in Dominick Dunne: After the Party a documentary observing the famed observer and just out on DVD.

That first and toughest assignment launched Dunne's new career. He had already had a flamboyant first act as a successful, then failed TV and movie producer with credits including Al Pacino's breakthrough Panic in Needle Park and Mort Crowley's groundbreaking Boys in the Band . And he had already penned the bestselling novel, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, based on the infamous Woodward case in which showgirl turned socialite Ann Woodward killed her estranged husband and got off claiming she mistook him for a burglar.

He went on to cover a slew of trials for VF including: O.J, Simpson,the Menendez brothers(Leslie Abramson, Erik's high profile lawyer, isn't a Dunne fan, accusing him in After the Party of making up "convenient facts."); Robert Blake and Phil Spector. He did live to see Spector's second trial--his swan song--end in a conviction for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson.

After the Party, directed by Kirsty de Garis and Timothy Jolley offers a fascinating glimpse into Dunne's extraordinary life. Through grainy black and white home movies and interviews with Dunne, friends and a few foes we get to be that proverbial fly on a famous wall. He doesn't need his son actor Griffin Dunne to remind him,"Dad wasn't easy to live with. He was always a work-in-progress." He readily admits his reckless social climbing cost him his marriage to the one woman he loved long after they had divorced and she passed away. He doesn't need his pal producer Robert Evans to tell him of his final faux pas that ran him out of Hollywood.

Dunne tells, with some relish, the tale of Ash Wednesday. Listed in many movie review guides as a "Bomb," the last film he produced boasted a star cast with Elizabeth Taylor and Henry Fonda; the script, written by the husband of a powerful Hollywood publicist, however, was a mess. Dunne made an infamous comment, " They should have called it 'When a Fat Girl Ealls in Love,'" which appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.Evans, according to Dunne, told him he'd never work " in this town again." In Party, Evans laughs, claiming he might have said it, but he can't remember.

With both his marriage and career in the dumpster, Dunne took what little money he had left and took off into the Oregon woods where he holed up for six months, and at age fifty tried his first hand at fiction, living off canned pork and beans and communing with nature. He moved to New York vowing to become a bestselling author.

And he did it. Along with his Vanity Fair columns and popular Court TV (now TRU TV) show, Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege & Justice, he wrote eight bestsellers. His ninth book, a novel, Too Much Money--which he had just put the finishing touches on--is set for a December release. His funeral service was held Thursday, September 10, in New York City. His family, fittingly, requested in lieu of flowers donations be made to the National Center for Victims of Crime.

In After the Party, which I believe was filmed a year before he fell ill to the cancer that claimed his life, he is robust and full of the energy of a man half his age. If you check his website,, you'll see he was blogging well into August, tackling everything from news of his new book to musings on Phil Spector's prison gripes and somber reflections on his own illness. His fans, including this one,are grateful to have tagged along for such a remarkable ride.

Rest in peace, Dominick. You earned it.

Drive safe. Play nice. think peace.


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