A job as a stage manager in New York in the early days of television led to work in Hollywood—“Sinatra recommended me to Bogart”“and before long, Dunne was producing movies. His apparent success didn’t improve his emotional health. He was friends with Steve McQueen, Grace Kelly, and Paul Newman, but Dunne was ravaged by insecurity. "I wanted to be in a glamorous life. I knew I had the ability for some kind of stardom, but I didn’t know what it was,” Dunne says.
As badly as Dunne’s first Hollywood run ended, he emerged with an invaluable stockpile of anecdotes and connections, and a resource for his virtuosic name-dropping. “I remember once at Fox in the commissary, they gave a luncheon for Khrushchev and his wife,” Dunne says. “It was a big event, and they had every star you ever heard of there. They took them on the set and did this scene from Can-Can with Shirley MacLaine. The Khrushchevs were shocked. Imagine being shocked by Can-Can? And Marilyn came into the lunch on the arm of Clifton Webb. She came in late. And everything stopped. It’s not glamorous out here anymore. The only great movie star to me now is Nicole [Kidman]. She’s like an old-time star. Gary Cooper and his wife would give the most incredible parties. Elizabeth Taylor, when I did my movie with her, you couldn’t get any more glamorous. But they don’t live like that now.”
Dunne’s big shot at climbing onto the A-list of producers—Ash Wednesday, starring Taylor and Henry Fonda—was a flop. Dunne was sliding toward professional disaster, but the more painful blow was social, and delivered by Mrs. Jack Benny. “She was a great hostess in Beverly Hills at the time, lived in a beautiful house,” Dunne says. “She was having the kind of party I would have been asked to when I was up on top. And this time, I was asked last-minute. I realized somebody dropped out and they needed to fill a chair. I just thought, It’s all over. I left the next day. To live in silence. I was like this wounded animal, recovering from the wounds of hurt, snubbery, failure.”
Dunne hid in a random Oregon cabin for six months in 1979, dried out, and typed dozens of lengthy, introspective letters to friends and family. “He looked very hard and saw everything he found loathsome about himself,” says his son Griffin. “I think he’s been rewarded by chance for taking such a harsh look at himself.”
“I’ve made peace with all my Hollywood enemies of the past,” Dunne says. “Even Bob Evans and I had a hug and said, ‘Let’s forget it.’ But thank God I fucked up. Because you know what? I would have never been more than a B-level movie producer. And it wouldn’t have been enough for me.”
Her sleek brown hair had been shaved. Dominique Dunne lay in a bed at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles. Machines were keeping her alive.
Just before Dominique’s life-support equipment was removed, her father leaned down to say good-bye. “I kissed her on her head,” Dunne says, his voice clutching as he remembers, “and said, ‘Give me your talent.’ ”
The night before he left New York to attend the trial of Dominique’s attacker, Dunne was introduced to Tina Brown at a dinner party. She encouraged him to keep a journal. The trial was a farce, and John Sweeney, an ex-chef at Ma Maison, spent a paltry three years and eight months in prison. Dunne was outraged and poured his heartbreak and fury into his first story for Vanity Fair. At 50, he’d found a new career and a crusade: exposing what he perceived as the warping effects of power and privilege on the judicial system. Dunne concocted a unique mix of high moralizing and utter frivolity—a Capote for the cable-TV age. He chatted with Imelda Marcos about jewelry, quizzed Newport society about Claus von Bülow, and lightly fictionalized the marital scandal of his friend Betsy Bloomingdale for the novel An Inconvenient Woman. During the O.J. circus, no one was better at capturing the L.A. surreality of bloody gloves and dinners at Drai’s.
“The formula that Dominick Dunne has employed to fulfill his dreams has done damage to a lot of people he’s left in his wake,” says Bobby Kennedy Jr.
“Dad never lost his love for movies and movie stars and famous people,” Griffin Dunne says affectionately. “He didn’t learn that much about himself.”
One famous name has cast a special spell since early in Dunne’s life. In 1950, Dunne was living in New York when his girlfriend received an invitation to a wedding in Greenwich, Connecticut. “We arrived from New York by yacht for the wedding and reception. I remember being dazzled by the beauty of the Skakel estate, on Lake Avenue,” Dunne wrote years later. “It was the first time I ever saw Rose Kennedy, the wife of the former ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. She wore a silk dress from Paris and carried a parasol of the same material.” Wed that day, before God and 24-year-old Dominick Dunne, were Ethel Skakel and Robert F. Kennedy.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says grace before digging into a lunch of Chinese takeout. The 49-year-old son of the slain senator is sitting in the dank basement conference room of his Pace University office in White Plains, where he’s a professor of environmental law. While Kennedy speaks, he stares at the conference table in front of him. But Bobby Kennedy is clearly seething.
He pushes a stack of papers across the table. “Dunne didn’t say Tommy Skakel was a suspect,” Kennedy says. “He said, ‘Tommy did it.’ This is a newspaper article in which Dunne says it; this is his Vanity Fair piece in which he acknowledges it. I watched him on numerous shows say, ‘Tommy Skakel did this.’ ”
This is the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley. On the night before Halloween, Moxley hung out at the home of next-door neighbors in Greenwich, the Skakel family. She was last seen alive with Tommy Skakel. The next morning, Martha Moxley was found bludgeoned and stabbed, the shaft of a golf club belonging to the Skakels piercing her neck. Tommy Skakel was extensively interrogated by Greenwich police but never charged. The sad case seemed destined to go unsolved.
Bobby Kennedy crunches a mouthful of broccoli but barely slows his narrative. “Dunne publicly declared the guilt of the Skakel family when he first heard about the crime, without having looked at a single police report, in 1991,” Kennedy says. “Tommy Skakel lost the first lottery, and then, without missing a step after insisting with certainty that it was Tommy, without skipping a step, Dunne did an about-face and began insisting that it was Michael Skakel. Because accusing them fit into the formula that has proven lucrative for Dominick Dunne.”
In 1991, Dunne was in Palm Beach, Florida, covering the trial of William Kennedy Smith, who would be acquitted of rape charges. Dunne wrote about talk that Smith had been in the Greenwich house of his cousins, the Skakels, on the night in 1975 when Moxley was murdered. Smith wasn’t there. But Dunne says the reminder spurred him to look into the Moxley mystery. What he saw made the case deeply personal.
Dunne often turns happenstance into portent: How he attended the same boarding school as Rushton Skakel, the father of Tommy and Michael, for instance. This time, he discovered that Dominique Dunne and Martha Moxley were both murdered on October 30. Even though the crimes took place seven years apart, the shared heartbreak helped him convince Dorthy Moxley, Martha’s mother, that she should cooperate with Dunne’s plan to draw attention to the case.
His 1993 novel A Season in Purgatory is the Moxley affair with a few names altered to protect Dunne. “I changed the murder weapon to a baseball bat” from a golf club, Dunne wrote in an October 2000 Vanity Fair story. “I also changed the family makeup a bit and gave some Kennedy touches to the Skakels, whom I called the Bradleys. . . . All of this was for libel reasons.”