From the Outside In
Money, Murder and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts By Robert Hofler
A Review by Pam Munter
With apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are second acts in life and Dominick Dunne is a Technicolor poster boy for that assertion. Biographer Robert Hofler has written a textured story about his convoluted, multi-faceted life in Money, Murder and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017). Hofler borrows the words of others to reveal the irretrievably damaged psyche of this talented and tortured man. But Dunne wrote enough about himself to confirm any idle speculation. It’s not a pretty life but it is a fascinating one.
Without any heavy-handedness, Hofler lays out the dominant themes – his shame about being gay (though he married and had three children), his attraction to celebrity, and his longing for acceptance and approval via a cultivated, ingratiating manner.
Labeled by his abusive father as a “sissy,” he was attracted to the incandescent world of movies, covering his bedroom walls with photos of the movie stars he would later come to know. Being raised in a wealthy, Catholic family didn’t insulate him from the damage caused by living in the shadow of his competitive and achieving younger brother, John Gregory Dunne, and later by his sister-in-law, Joan Didion. Both writers used parts of Dunne’s life as thinly-veiled fictional characters in their own writing. If anyone ever suffered from a classic inferiority complex, it was Dunne.
As a young teen, be began servicing men in restrooms, using drugs and drinking too much. In denial for most of his life, he had occasional affairs with women, often older and better-connected. He developed the quasi-sociopathic skill of glibness and charm, a great story-teller. It would serve him well all his life.
In college, he wanted to be an actor but was advised he wasn’t handsome enough. He became a behind-the-scenes manager, producer and director – the second act that was far safer than his earlier self-defeating choices. He worked on some early TV shows—from Howdy Doody to Playhouse 90—entranced by the stars and the glamorous trappings of the business. He spent many an evening in some Beverly Hills mansion, sitting next to the biggest stars on the planet, his childhood dreams coming true.
Without being obvious, Hofler uses examples and quotes for us to see Dunne is living only on life’s surface. It’s how things appear that matters, never mind the reality. It’s hard to detect any internal sense of self, other than the person reflected in the eyes of others. Hofler writes, “Dominick had a way of living in extraordinarily fine style regardless of his finances.” Even if he owed everyone in town, it was all about the image. Eventually, his phony ingratiating behavior caused the dream to come crashing down. Sinatra was so irritated, in fact, that he paid a maître‘d at a private club to punch Dunne. He would leave Hollywood (probably looking for a geographical cure), then returned when there was an offer or a social invitation. He became known for his snappy one-liners: “I never repeat gossip, so listen closely the first time.”
His ups were more than matched by the downs: an arrest for drug possession, almost being killed several times by the men he picked up, rejection by the elites from whom he sought approval. The worst was when his daughter, actress Dominique, was murdered by her boyfriend. He was at the trial every day and incensed when the perp was convicted only of manslaughter and released two years later. It was a formative event in his life, causing him to vociferously advocate for the victim, with whom he identified all his life.
Many times, he was “washed up” in show business but then he started to write, novels at first, then about his daughter’s trial. When the Charles Manson murders gripped Hollywood, he was fascinated. True crime would become his métier and his act three.
Dunne’s acute powers of observation were augmented by his uncanny ability to get close to whoever had information. “Dominick especially enjoyed researching the story like a real reporter would investigate an unsolved murder.” He would sidle up to both sides in the trial, even though he inevitably favored the prosecution. When describing how he charmed the reporters to get information in the Claus von Bulow trial, Hofler writes that this “was not easy considering his naturally aloof and icy personality.”
While many will be familiar with the slew of trials during this era (Manson, Menendez, OJ, Blake, Spector, Moxley), it is Dunne’s jockeying which is most captivating. He had secured a seemingly permanent position at Vanity Fair with his vivid crime coverage. And in the evenings at posh dinner parties, he’d share gossip about the cases with other guests, ensuring repeated invitations. The country was apparently in a convenient “golden age of crime” involving celebrities, the perfect setting for Dunne to thrive and bloom. He was famous at last. “Dominick relished being recognized, especially by other celebrities.”
Dunne’s glittering public life is in sad contrast to his chronic estrangement from his family and his volatile relationships with friends and colleagues. His personality is like a series of oddly-shaped mosaic tiles that form a pleasant pattern only when viewed from afar. He reconciled with his brother after years of estrangement, only to have him suddenly drop dead. His sons barely tolerated him; friends were to be used for material. Toward the end of his life, he became insufferably grandiose. “I’m a star at this f—ng magazine,” he announced at a Vanity Fair meeting. In another context, he is quoted as bellowing, “Where is my special treatment?”
As he was dying from bladder cancer, he continued to film his TV show, “Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege and Justice.” But he skipped chemo for a few months so he’d be strong enough to attend the star-studded Academy Awards and Cannes Film Festival.
If there is interruption to the flow, it’s that Hofler sometimes gets caught up in the details of the trials. One can almost hear Dunne tugging his sleeve, “Hey, buddy. Remember. This is about me.”
Money, Murder and Dominick Dunne is a dense but juicy book, full of research while seeming conversational in tone. It is a major feat, detailing a life so busy, complex and dysfunctional. Dunne is repeatedly portrayed as an infuriating and difficult person, but one we might welcome at the party, sitting right next to us.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, film historian and former performer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, Switchback, and many others. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.