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Dominick Dunne vs. Robert Kennedy

Attacked by Bobby Kennedy over the Moxley murder (and sued by Gary Condit over Chandra Levy), America’s leading celebrity journalist is getting a taste of his own medicine.

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Vanity Press: Dominick Dunne outside the courtroom of the Skakel trial.  

Two days before the Oscars, Dominick Dunne sits in the Bev- erly Hills Hotel, scenes from his singular life rushing through his mind like a Citizen Kane montage. Some of them glow warm and bright all the way across five decades, like the purr of Marilyn Monroe’s voice as she called him Nick. Or those wild, boozy days with Liz and Dick in Cortina d’Ampezzo, “when they were like a king and queen, with their power, their fame, their beauty.” Some moments are giddily present tense: Here’s his darling 12-year-old granddaughter, Hannah, coming from breakfast in the Polo Lounge with her mom, Carey Lowell, and her stepfather, Richard Gere—oh, Dunne can’t forget to call the sultan of Brunei and arrange for Hannah to use the pool at the sultan’s house! And Los Angeles, for Dunne, means O.J. and the Menendez brothers, and his pal Nancy Reagan and . . .

There are also a few pitch-dark L.A. stories he recalls less eagerly, and with tears or vein-popping fury: like how Dunne—failing as a producer, drinking too much, his marriage a wreck, a social outcast who sold his West Highland white terrier for $300 to buy cocaine—considered suicide when he fled Hollywood in 1979. Or, far worse, the night in 1982 when his beloved 22-year-old daughter, Dominique, who had just starred in Poltergeist, was murdered on the porch of her West Hollywood house by an estranged boyfriend.

Even here, in the twinkly pink lobby of “the B.H.,” Dunne reencounters fate. He stands beside the gold-plated fireplace, where a blaze is roaring on this 75-degree morning, looking like a merry leprechaun in custom-tailored pinstripes. This is the spot where a chance encounter with a Washington Post reporter inspired the notion that perhaps Dunne, his movie-producer career in shambles, might reinvent himself as a writer.

Yet with all the private tragedies and glossy public triumphs Dunne has to choose from in Los Angeles, he suddenly rambles into a seemingly minor reminiscence. “Peter Lawford and Pat Kennedy were married the same day that my wife and I were, and in the New York Times, we were side by side on the wedding page,” Dunne says. “We hadn’t met then. Later, Peter was one of my best friends. When my wife and I were moving out here from New York, Peter said, ‘We’re moving out of our beach house’—they rented the Harold Lloyd beach house, and then bought the Louis B. Mayer beach house. So we moved into the Harold Lloyd beach house. We were about six houses away from each other in Santa Monica. Oh, it was fabulous, life then. Peter was a wonderful guy. Hilarious. Fun. That’s where I saw Marilyn, Judy, Jeannie Martin—Dean’s wife—Angie Dickinson, all the beautiful women of the era. And that’s where Kennedy came, helicoptered in.”

Happy thoughts of the president’s glamorous entrances fade fast, and Dunne’s voice goes cold. “I once saw old Joe Kennedy be so fuckin’ mean to Peter,” Dunne says. “Peter was nervous in front of him anyway, and he was trying to make some point about international affairs, which wasn’t Peter’s topic. Joe Kennedy just shot Peter down, in front of his buddies.” Dunne purses his lips as if rolling a taste around in his mouth. “I’ve never forgotten how mean he was.”

There’s a reflection in the lenses of his owlish glasses: the flames of the fireplace, dancing in Dominick Dunne’s eyes.

Dunne forgets very little. It’s part of what has made him, over the past two decades, a groundbreaking chronicler of ugly crimes and high-society manners. “Nick is probably the most famous journalist in the world,” says Graydon Carter, who is Vanity Fair’s editor-in-chief, and Dunne’s boss, and an unimpeachable arbiter of famousness.

Dunne is also a man overstuffed with contradictory traits: Dandified in his Turnbull & Asser shirts and ties, he’s blue as a longshoreman in his temper tantrums—when a writer quipped that Dunne is “the Jacqueline Susann of journalists,” Dunne fired off a letter reading, “Fuck you, asshole.” He’s charming company, admirably resilient, reflexively generous—and a ferocious enemy.

At the age of 77, Dunne should be polishing the gold filigree on his improbable career. And he does try to hole up in his immaculate Hadlyme, Connecticut, country house, finishing the novel that he believes will at last earn him not just a return trip to the best-seller lists but literary respect on a par with that of his younger brother, John Gregory Dunne, and John’s wife, Joan Didion. If reviewers praise Dunne’s A Solo Act, to be published in 2004, it would come on the heels of his greatest nonfiction triumph: the solving of the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley.

Yet Dunne is under siege. His trademark blurring of fact and rumor has for the first time landed him in legal trouble: He’s being sued for slander—and $11 million in damages—by former congressman Gary Condit. Panicked by the lawsuit, Dunne broke out in hives and hid in his Connecticut home for a week.

Graydon Carter shrugs off the Condit case. “We’ve had huge lawsuits,” Carter says. “We fought Mohammed al-Fayed for three years and beat him. I told Nick, ‘Let’s take this to court, let’s fight it all the way. It will be like a scene out of a Frank Capra movie, in the end. Grow your beard long and you’ll look like Saint Nicholas when you get into the courtroom, like Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street. There’ll be bags of mail.’ Gary Condit has got a nerve to do this.”

Carter—and a Xanax prescription—has lowered Dunne’s anxiety. But he’s defending himself on a second front as well.

“Dominick Dunne,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says slowly, “is a pathetic creature.”

“I don’t give a fuck about what that little shit has to say,” Dunne spits back. “That fucking asshole. This pompous, pompous, POMPOUS man. I don’t care what he has to say. He’s not a person that I have any feeling or respect for.”

The clash between Dunne and the Kennedys might easily be written off as a tribal spat, two proud, tempestuous Irish-American families brawling over reputation. But this is a fight that’s been building for more than 50 years. And it has either helped trap an elusive killer—or helped put Connecticut prison inmate No. 301382, Michael Skakel, first cousin of Bobby Kennedy, behind bars for twenty years to life for a murder he didn’t commit.

Dunne grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut, the second oldest of six children. His maternal grandfather, who left Ireland for America at 14, worked as a butcher’s assistant, and eventually became a bank president. Dunne’s father was a wealthy surgeon. Hartford, not far removed from its standing as the richest city in the United States, was ruled by a Wasp gentry, and the Dunnes, who tried hard to assimilate, felt like outsiders. Dunne attended a tony private high school, Canterbury, then Williams College.

Money didn’t shield the Dunne family from its share of afflictions. The youngest son, Stephen, committed suicide. Dominick Dunne claims his father beat him with a wooden coat hanger—one reason that, many years later, Dunne had no sympathy for claims by the Menendez brothers that physical abuse provoked them to kill their father. “I had this fancy, rich-kid upbringing, more or less. A sissy kid. I grew up with a father who made fun of me,” Dunne says. “Shame is a feeling I’ve had all my life. My father made me ashamed.”


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