At the time, most of the world’s attention was focused on the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Dunne was agitated about a damsel in distress. And he’d been handed the most amazing lead on the disappearance of Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old Washington intern who’d had a murky relationship with the married, 53-year-old Gary Condit and then gone missing.
“It was one of the strangest conversations I’ve ever had,” Dunne told Laura Ingraham, the conservative gadfly, on her radio talk show. Dunne said that Monty Roberts, the oddball equine trainer whose career was the basis of the Horse Whisperer book and movie, sought him out from Hamburg with a tip. Dunne says Roberts claimed to work for a Dubai sheikh who’d seen Dunne on Larry King Live discussing the Condit case. Roberts, according to Dunne, wanted to pass along shocking revelations from the sheikh—who also happened to be a pimp, procuring young prostitutes for Washington power brokers.
“Now, some of this I can’t explain, and I don’t want to get into any trouble,” Dunne told Ingraham, “but according to what the procurer told the horse whisperer who told me, is that Gary Condit was often a guest at some of the Middle Eastern embassies in Washington where all these ladies were, and that he had let it be known that he was in a relationship with a woman that was over, but she was a clinger. He couldn’t get rid of her. And he had made promises to her that he couldn’t keep and apparently she knew things about him and had threatened to go public. And at one point, he said, ‘This woman is driving me crazy,’ or words to that effect. And I wrote all this down at the time. And what the horse whisperer said the procurer said is, by saying that, [Condit] created the environment that led to her disappearance. And she shortly thereafter vanished.”
Levy was still missing as Dunne spoke; her remains would be found six months later, in a hilly, heavily wooded patch of Washington’s Rock Creek Park. But on the radio show, Dunne repeated what he said he’d been told was her grim ending: Levy had been abducted and dropped from an airplane into the Atlantic Ocean.
Dunne repeated some of this daffiness on Larry King’s CNN show. Condit’s suit claims Dunne also used the tale to regale dinner-party guests including Anjelica Huston, Ellin Salzmann, Casey Ribicoff, Liz Smith, Cynthia McFadden, and Adolfo. “Might make for some interesting depositions,” says L. Lin Wood, Condit’s lawyer, who brought successful libel suits on behalf of Richard Jewell, the hapless security guard accused of bombing the 1996 Summer Olympics. Wood recently got a federal judge in Georgia to declare that there is “virtually no evidence” that Wood’s clients John and Patsy Ramsey killed their daughter, JonBenet.
“Dunne is an entertaining individual; he’s a good writer,” Wood says. “But he’s taken on, with the public, a level of credibility that I’m not sure he deserves. I find him more to be in the class of rumor monger, who gossips and gets away with it.” Wood pauses. “Most of the time.”
“If Dominick was saying, ‘I know Gary Condit did it,’ or ‘I know he ordered these people to do it,’ that would be one thing,” says Laura Handman, the First Amendment expert who is Dunne’s lawyer. “But he never says that. He recounts what happened, what he was told, and he says, ‘I can’t vouch for it.’ So the viewer and listener, they understand what they’re getting—speculation and hypothesis. Dominick is more in the nature of a diarist or a raconteur, in the Samuel Pepys tradition. This is not serious investigative reporting. And the law recognizes context and views context, above literalism, to be the most important thing. You cannot be sued for what we call opinion.” This week, Handman files her motion to dismiss the case.
Her client, however, yearns for respect. Dunne says he laughs off Kennedy’s barbs, but is still deeply hurt by a January story in the Times, written by Felicity Barringer, that suggested Dunne isn’t really a journalist. “I hate her,” he says. Another irony in Dunne’s predicament is that after making a career out of his disdain for legalistic hair-splittings and his purchase on a higher emotional truth, Dunne is depending on Handman’s talents to excuse his loose tongue.
No Dunne story is complete without a dense digression involving boldfaced names: In an October 2001 memo to Graydon Carter, Dunne ruminates on why Roberts, the horse whisperer, sought him out. “Maybe I was being set up by Lily Safra, who has sworn to get even with me,” Dunne writes. “Martha Stewart got an e-mail from your friend Jean Pigozzi, telling her that he and Joel Silver had just been with Lily at La Leopolda, and he said tell your friend Dominick Dunne to be careful, something’s going to happen to him.”
Dunne had written extensively about the bizarre death of Edmond Safra, the billionaire banker who, in 1999, suffocated from a fire set inside his heavily secured Monte Carlo penthouse. Safra’s nurse, Ted Maher, was arrested on arson and homicide charges. Maher, in Dunne’s view, was a patsy; Dunne wanted to question “the elusive Lily Safra,” Edmond’s widow. Last year, Maher was found guilty. Dunne reversed field—sort of.
To Dunne, the case is about a family, not just a man: “There’s all these other things on the record. And now murder. Nothing’s going to take away from the fact that he was convicted.”
“I made a mistake about Maher,” Dunne says now. “I didn’t know he was crazy.” But he can’t leave it there, and floats some ominous innuendo. “One day, the whole story is going to get out. And Edmond Safra’s two brothers know. There’s much more. I’m so afraid of what I’m saying. I’m going to end up in prison.”
He is not scared, however, of compromising with Gary Condit. “I wouldn’t have any problem settling,” Dunne says. “I’m 77. I’ve had prostate cancer. And I think this book I’m writing could be—I’ve written a lot of popular books. I still think I’ve got a great book in me. And I think this is it. So I don’t want to tie up my creative period; the days are getting thin. And I don’t want to waste it on Lin Wood and Gary Condit.”
One of Dunne’s former friends thinks she understands why Dunne is rattled. Lucianne Goldberg, the former literary agent and current provocateur who became infamous in the Monica Lewinsky mess, was close to Dunne for fifteen years, speaking to him nearly every day. She introduced her client Mark Fuhrman to Dunne. The Dunne-Goldberg friendship ended nastily when Dunne sided with Bill and Hillary Clinton as the Lewinsky scandal broke.
“Nick has been excited about the Kennedys for a long time,” Goldberg says. “Nick identified with the Kennedys. It’s not political; he doesn’t care about their politics. But the Kennedys were glamorous, and the Dunnes weren’t. And Nick loves glamour. The Kennedys are taken seriously. And until recently, Nick wasn’t. It’s connected to why the Condit lawsuit sent Nick into such a deep, dark funk. He’s scared of losing stature, because he’s wallowed in it and loved it. At 50 years old, Nick created a new life, and he’s always been deeply afraid someone would catch him and find out he’s an imposter.”
The lights start to go down, and Dominick Dunne sits alone. He’s at a prime table in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, a short walk from his apartment in the East Forties, as the annual fund-raising luncheon for Safe Horizons, the city’s largest victims-services charity, is about to begin. Muffie Potter Aston, Cornelia Guest, Beth Rudin DeWoody, and a hundred other bejeweled and beaming socialites air-kiss their way from table to table. Is Dunne being shunned?
Then his tablemates arrive. Cynthia Lufkin, the chairwoman of the multi-million-dollar charity, settles in right next to Dunne. To his left is Linda Fairstein, the former sex-crimes prosecutor turned pulp novelist. Directly across from Dunne towers Dick Parsons, the embattled chairman of AOL Time Warner. A trifling slander suit and Bobby Kennedy can’t knock Dunne from his central perch among the rich, famous, and well-connected.
Michael Skakel’s appeal, with new lawyers, is working its way up to the Connecticut Supreme Court. Dunne doesn’t care. He believes he has won some justice for Mary Meyer, Marilyn Monroe, Mary Jo Kopechne, Patricia Bowman, and Martha Moxley. “There’s all these other things on the record,” Dunne says, “and now murder. Nothing’s going to take away from the fact that he was convicted.”
Nor will the judgment that matters most to him come in court rulings. When Bobby Kennedy wrote a long letter to Vanity Fair—answering Dunne’s March column, which answered Kennedy’s Atlantic blast—it handed Dunne the opening to punch at Bobby again. Last week, Dunne was gleeful: Kennedy had appeared on Larry King and fired more jabs. Now Dunne is honing his next salvo, for August’s Vanity Fair.
“People want to paint me as a fool,” he says. “Well, I don’t believe I am foolish.”
Debate Dominick Dunne’s tactics and his grasp of facts. But he is certainly no fool. And he has finally forced those glamorous, mighty Kennedys to take him very seriously indeed.