Dominick Dunne, the ubiquitous society figure, best-selling author and controversial columnist for Vanity Fair, died in New York Wednesday at age 83.
This story first appeared in the August 27, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The cause of death was bladder cancer, according to several friends.
For almost 25 years, Dunne was one of the magazine world’s best-known and frequently debated columnists. Though he wrote everything from best-selling novels to profiles of Imelda Marcos and Elizabeth Taylor, it was his coverage of high-profile crimes for Vanity Fair that made him a media star. From Claus von Bülow to O.J. Simpson to Michael Skakel and finally Phil Spector, Dunne was a fixture at virtually every sensational murder trial that took place in the tabloid era.
His columns were a mix of opinion, gossip mongering and hard-nosed investigative reporting, though he generally came down squarely on the side of the victims and rarely found an indicted killer whose side he was on.
In this way, his work is both a remnant of the passing era of long-form journalism and a precursor to the current age of victims’ rights advocates such as Nancy Grace.
As Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter put it Wednesday evening: “He covered countless trials for us, but never objectively. He reported from the side of the victim, and he had unique qualifications for that role.”
In 1982, Dunne’s 22-year-old daughter, Dominique, was strangled to death in Los Angeles by a former boyfriend, John Sweeney.
At the time, Dunne was a writer and producer, his celebrity eclipsed by that of his brother, John Gregory Dunne, the novelist and screenwriter who was married to Joan Didion until his death in 2003.
At the suggestion of Tina Brown — who became Vanity Fair’s editor as the trial of Dominique’s killer was in full swing — the bereaved father started taking notes at a trial that became an infamous case of justice gone awry in California. In harrowing detail, Dunne wrote of how a relatively straightforward case of murder was derailed by a defense team who “put the victim on trial.”
In the end, Sweeney served less than three years in jail, but Dunne’s dispatches became a sensation and gave the writer a newfound sense of purpose that he maintained until his death. Even in 2008, after Dunne had been diagnosed with cancer, he continued to work, venturing out to Las Vegas to cover the trial of O.J. Simpson, who was under indictment (and eventually convicted) for kidnapping and armed robbery.
Still, the latter years of his career were not without stumbles. In 2005, Congressman Gary Condit sued Dunne for $11 million, alleging the writer had defamed him in radio and television appearances over the death of Chandra Levy. On Laura Ingraham’s radio show, Dunne said he had heard from an anonymous source who had heard from a Middle Eastern embassy sex party procurer that Condit had been at one such party, complaining about an ex-girlfriend who was driving him crazy. Dunne added he was told Levy had been taken onto a private plane and possibly dropped into the sea. (Several months after the Ingraham appearance, Levy’s body was found in a park in Washington.)
At the time of the Condit case, current CNN contributor and New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Toobin told The New York Times, “I wouldn’t want to see every reporter in America operate by Dominick’s rules. But I wouldn’t want an American journalism without Dominick.”
The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, and Dunne formally apologized.
Dunne was also a steady presence on the social scene, where he could be found hobnobbing at movie premieres and gala benefits in his signature tortoise-shell glasses, his white hair always a little out of place.
“He would always say, ‘Sit down, I have something fantastic to tell you,’” recalled his friend Liz Smith. “And you would, because there was always something great that was too dishy to write.”
“Whenever I’m sitting next to someone I don’t know at a dinner party, one of the first questions out of their mouth is, ‘What is Dominick Dunne really like?’” Carter said. “The answer is that Nick was equal parts Walter Winchell, Louella Parsons and Yosemite Sam. He had equal standings in the worlds of society, crime and journalism, and he fit in well in all three.”
Dunne is survived by sons Griffin, a movie director and actor, and Alex, and a granddaughter, Hannah.