Dominick Dunne vs. Robert Kennedy

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

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.”

Dunne Deal: Gary Condit, above, is suing Dunne over unsubstantiated allegations; Skakel, right, during the trial.Photo: AP/Wide World Photos

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.”

Thicker Than Water: Robert Kennedy Jr. is speaking out about Dunne's coverage of his cousin's trial.Photo: AP/Wide World Photo

Undiluted from life to novel is Dunne’s youthful worship of the Kennedys. His stand-in narrator, Harrison Burns (Burns is the surname of Dunne’s paternal grandfather), is a bookish Connecticut Catholic prep-school student. When Harrison’s parents are killed, he is all but adopted by the charismatic, dynastic Bradley clan and develops a crush on the eldest son, Constant Bradley, who goes from academic plagiarism to national political office. As an adult, Harrison is nagged by conscience: He helped cover up the murder of a teenage girl whom Constant killed.

“People get caught up in the chichi of his books, the guessing game of Who is this? But Nick writes morality tales,” says his friend Tita Cahn, the widow of lyricist Sammy Cahn. “We laugh about our both being Catholic, but in everything he writes there’s a moral. Underneath all of his social life lies a very strong and brave heart.”

Purgatory reanimated public interest in the Moxley case. But it was only after a second book that the Connecticut state’s attorney ramped up the investigation. Dunne sympathized with Mark Fuhrman after the Simpson trial—“Mark is a complicated guy, like me”—and passed the former L.A. detective a copy of a private investigator’s report in which Michael Skakel’s account of his whereabouts differ from what he’d originally told Greenwich police. The report, commissioned by Rushton Skakel, had been leaked to Dunne. Fuhrman used it as the centerpiece of 1998’s Murder in Greenwich, which fingered Michael Skakel as the prime suspect.

“My only motivation in this has been Mrs. Moxley,” Dunne says. “No one understands the pain she’s experienced like I do.”

Bobby Kennedy says he was so stunned by Michael Skakel’s conviction that he spent months running down documents and interviewing relatives who would never speak to a reporter. The result was a 14,000-word brief for reasonable doubt, published in the January/February issue of The Atlantic Monthly. “I waited for ten years for a journalist to do this story, and it never happened,” he says. “Once Michael was convicted, I decided to do it.”

He’d also held back because of recent tension between the Kennedys and the Skakels—Michael at one point thought the Kennedys were scapegoating him for the Moxley murder. Bobby Kennedy says conscience, and regret at not having stepped in sooner, propelled him into the fray. It would be easy to understand if, after a lifetime of watching Kennedys be exploited, he also wants to exact a small measure of revenge on the media.

Kennedy once worked as a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and “A Miscarriage of Justice” reads like a skillful closing summation to a jury. His Atlantic Monthly story apportions blame for Michael Skakel’s conviction to many actors, including ambitious Connecticut prosecutors and Mickey Sherman, Skakel’s defense lawyer. Kennedy mounts plausible challenges to dozens of incriminating details, everything from the time of Moxley’s death to the significance of Michael Skakel’s masturbating in a tree on the night of Moxley’s murder. But two people are crucial to Kennedy’s attempt to raise reasonable doubts on behalf of his cousin.

The first is Ken Littleton, a 23-year-old former college rugby player who’d been hired to tutor the Skakel children one week before Martha Moxley was killed. Kennedy lays out Littleton’s shifting alibis—including his taped admission, seventeen years after the crime, that he’d been so drunk he’d blacked out the night of Moxley’s death. Littleton also had extensive psychological problems in the years after Moxley’s death. Incredibly, as Kennedy points out, in 1998 the Connecticut attorney general gave Littleton lifetime immunity in exchange for his testimony before the grand jury that indicted Michael Skakel.

“I do not know that Ken Littleton killed Martha Moxley,” Kennedy writes. “I do know … that the state’s case against Littleton was much stronger than any case against Michael Skakel.” The reason Connecticut officials went after his cousin, Kennedy insists, was Dunne, who drove the press into a “Lord of the Flies frenzy to lynch the fat kid” and intimidated Connecticut prosecutors.

Kennedy hammers especially hard at Dunne’s repeated claim that the Skakels wouldn’t cooperate with police. What truly incenses Kennedy, though, is what he sees as Dunne’s calculating commercialization of the crime.

“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,” Kennedy tells me. “Dunne wants to write about two things, both of which are easy to sell: high-profile crimes and famous people. So he’s forced to try to make connections between his high-profile protagonists and the crimes. He’s very clever about the way he does it. If you look at how he couches his accusations, it’s always ‘Somebody told me this.’ ‘An anonymous source said this.’ So he’s not saying it’s true, but the average reader misses that nuance. For some reason, the voice of this pathetic creature has been amplified by the willingness of talk-show hosts to allow him on to spout this stuff, and by his publishers, who publish stuff without fact-checking.”

Jeffrey Toobin has been friends with Dunne since they both covered the Simpson trial; Toobin is also a former prosecutor, and covered the Skakel case for CNN and The New Yorker. “I think Robert Kennedy Jr. is full of shit, I think that piece is a joke, and I think Michael Skakel is guilty,” Toobin says. “Kennedy’s piece completely ignored the considerable incriminating evidence that was presented at trial.”

Which is part of the reason that reading Dunne’s and Kennedy’s accounts of the Moxley ordeal side by side is an eerie experience. Both leave out evidence weakening their own positions, of course. Both invoke their families’ tragic firsthand history with violent crime. What’s more, after aligning all their favorable facts and interpretations, both rest their cases on their own infallible instinct and truthfulness.

“I know Michael Skakel didn’t do it,” Kennedy says.

“I absolutely firmly believe he did it,” Dunne says.

A jury backed Dunne’s view of the Skakel case. Now, though, Dunne is finding out what it feels like to be a defendant.

“I can remember being at a fashion show a year ago,” Graydon Carter says, “and a photographer from a German newspaper coming up to me and saying, ‘I’ve got something for Mr. Dunne regarding the Safra case. Can you give him my phone number?’ And I passed it on to Nick, and Nick called him. If you’re somebody like me, who gives off a please-don’t-fuck-with-me vibe sitting on an airplane, Dominick gives off the opposite thing, and then people sit beside him and tell him their life stories, whether they’re strangers or socialites. It’s quite remarkable.”

Dunne’s sourcing can be airy—“a very good-looking woman,” “a renowned author”—and his forecasts misguided, like when he wrote that Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden “is, for my money, the man to watch in this trial.” But one thing Dunne has never pretended to is objectivity, and it seems churlish to hold him accountable for Sins Against Journalism. Courts have a different standard.

Usually, once his longtime Vanity Fair editor, Wayne Lawson, and the magazine’s lawyers have filtered Dunne’s strange brew of reporting and rumor, the tales he’s been told make for riveting copy. But in December 2001, on a radio show, Dunne was live and uncut.

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.

Dominick Dunne vs. Robert Kennedy