Life of the complex celebrity crime maven
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.