Life of the complex celebrity crime maven

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Martin Ru­bin Martin Ru­bin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

MONEY, MUR­DER, AND DO­MINICK DUNNE: A LIFE IN SEV­ERAL ACTS By Robert Hofler Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin Press, $26.95, 338 pages, il­lus­trated

The no­tion of Amer­i­cans rein­vent­ing them­selves has be­come such a well-worn trope — even among cliches — that one is hes­i­tant to use it. I can never for­get that self-ap­pointed cul­tural ar­biter, the late Su­san Son­tag, us­ing it over and over again to ex­plain what her novel chron­i­cling the Cal­i­for­nia life of Pol­ish ac­tress He­lena Mod­jeska “In Amer­ica” was about. Although shock­ingly it won the Na­tional Book Award for Best Fic­tion, it is Son­tag’s most pedes­trian work, but she seemed to think that merely re­peat­ing that well-worn cliche in the face of an ex­i­gent critic prob­ing her in­sis­tently for any real mean­ing in this vac­u­ous book was suf­fi­cient in it­self.

But if any­one in re­cent mem­ory re­ally does em­body the process of self-rein­ven­tion it is Do­minick Dunne, born to a promi­nent fam­ily in 1925 in Hart­ford, Conn., where his fa­ther was a heart sur­geon. By the time he died in 2009, he had been a suc­cess­ful TV and film pro­ducer un­til a fam­ily tragedy, which ex­posed him to the un­fair­ness of much of the crim­i­nal ju­di­cial sys­tem to­ward vic­tims turned him into a cru­sad­ing jour­nal­ist chron­i­cling high-pro­file mur­der tri­als.

If his ca­reer in Hol­ly­wood had its share of suc­cesses, it crashed and burned due to his drug and other ad­dic­tions and painful per­sonal de­mons. Rid of these, his sec­ond act as celebrity crime maven, one of the bright­est stars in Van­ity Fair magazine, was a tri­umph that not only brought him fame and for­tune but made him into al­most as cel­e­brated a fig­ure in those court­rooms as the de­fen­dants and vic­tims’ fam­i­lies.

Make no mis­take about it, this last cat­e­gory of peo­ple was of supreme im­por­tance to him. If he could some­times seem over­heated and pruri­ent in re­count­ing the de­tails of the crimes and the ac­tions of the per­pe­tra­tors, there was never any doubt about the gen­uine­ness of his em­pa­thy with the vic­tims and their bereft fam­ily mem­bers. The 1982 stran­gling by an ex-boyfriend of his 22-year-old daugh­ter Do­minique, who had just started a promis­ing ca­reer as a screen ac­tress, left a deep life­long wound in his heart.

But if ever there was a case where in­sult was added to in­jury, it was her killer be­ing con­victed merely of vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter and then only serv­ing less than half of what Dunne thought was al­ready a de­risory sen­tence of six-and-a-half years. The deeply rooted emo­tions that fed the pas­sion for jus­tice at the heart of his ar­ti­cles im­bued them with a very spe­cial qual­ity which I think won as many read­ers as those only seek­ing sen­sa­tion.

Although Dunne could seem su­per­fi­cial due to his fas­ci­na­tion with trivia and not al­ways rel­e­vant de­tail, as well as a snob­bery worn promi­nently on his sleeve in life as well as on pa­per, he was in fact an un­usu­ally complex fig­ure, marked by many con­tra­dic­tions. And Robert Hofler, who is the lead theater critic for the dig­i­tal en­ter­tain­ment news or­ga­ni­za­tion The Wrap and a long­time en­ter­tain­ment ed­i­tor at such pub­li­ca­tions as Life and Va­ri­ety, has given us an ex­haus­tively re­searched, de­tailed and prob­ing ac­count of his sub­ject’s long and var­ied life.

Dubbed a “sissy” on ac­count of his small stature, lack of ath­letic prow­ess and pert man­ner both within his fam­ily and dur­ing World War II in the mil­i­tary where he en­listed right out of prep school, he won the Bronze Star for hero­ism in com­bat aged only 19. A de­voted hus­band (and sub­se­quently ex-hus­band) and fa­ther to Do­minique and his sons, he nonethe­less lived a con­sid­er­able por­tion of his life as a clos­eted ho­mo­sex­ual. Mr. Hofler chron­i­cles the count­less ups and downs, twists and turns, in Dunne’s mul­ti­far­i­ous ex­is­tence un­flinch­ingly, but also un­der­stand­ingly.

A mi­nor but ad­di­tional bur­den in Do­minick Dunne’s life was the fame of his younger writer brother, John Gre­gory Dunne, and the even greater renown of John Gre­gory’s wife, Joan Did­ion. Not sur­pris­ingly, this sib­ling ri­valry led to un­pleas­ant although prob­a­bly in­evitable fric­tion, ex­ac­er­bated by Do­minique Dunne fre­quently be­ing iden­ti­fied in the me­dia as Joan Did­ion’s niece.

With Do­minick’s skin at this time un­der­stand­ably be­ing un­usu­ally thin and his al­ways frag­ile ego ex­cep­tion­ally prone to bruis­ing, it is un­sur­pris­ing that his in­grained propen­sity for mag­ni­fy­ing the triv­ial led to a dis­pro­por­tion­ately ro­bust re­sponse. But in the end, Do­minick’s tri­umph in a literary sphere he had come to own, even if he had not quite in­vented it, en­abled him to deal with his rel­a­tives’ celebrity sta­tus now that he had achieved one in his own right.

If the text of “Money, Mur­der, and Do­minick Dunne: A Life in Sev­eral Acts”— a per­fect ti­tle — did not al­ready pro­vide suf­fi­cient proof of its au­thor’s in­sight, its ded­i­ca­tion does so re­sound­ingly:

“To Anony­mous Sources / No one loved them, or used them, more than Do­minick Dunne.”

Although it should be noted in all fair­ness that Mr. Hofler also pro­vides co­pi­ous foot­notes and ac­knowl­edges many on-there­cord sources.

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