The Two Mrs. Grenvilles by Dominick Dunne (Crown: $14.95)
The back story, as they say in the movies, is that as a very young man, Dominick Dunne saw an unforgettably beautiful woman dancing at the Stork Club. Everyone knew who she was: Ann Woodward, who had married into the Woodward millions. Two years later, Mrs. Woodward unforgettably blew her husband away with a shotgun in the belief that he was a night prowler.
Whatever the gossips thought, a jury agreed that it was an honest mistake and acquitted her. The family, especially her matriarchal mother-in-law, rallied around her to prevent further tarnish on the Woodward name. She lived on in an opulent limbo for years, then committed suicide, a suicide prompted, allegedly, by a fictional recapitulation of the scandal in Truman Capote's "Answered Prayers," an excerpt of which was published in Esquire.
Now, in a convoluted case of art imitating art imitating life, novelist ("The Winners"), film producer ("The Boys in the Band," "Panic in Needle Park") and journalist (Vanity Fair) Dunne has written a novel as if by someone like Capote, about a scandal that could hardly be a closer copy of Anne Woodward's tragedy.
"The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" are mother-in-law and daughter, and Dunne's narrator is Basil Plant, a bitchy, self-sympathizing society hanger-on, gadfly and writer who, Dunne seems to say, has had to settle for Capote-like notoriety, the literary reputation being beyond his gift.
Written in Cold Rage
But Dunne himself has walked in tragedy, and his account in Vanity Fair of the murder of his actress daughter by her boyfriend, a Hollywood chef, was an incisive and affecting piece of reportage written in cold rage.
(Through a horrendous piece of scheduling, his daughter's funeral in Beverly Hills followed hard on a society wedding--by a further irony, of another young chef at another fashionable Hollywood restaurant--and the grievers crunched into church over the thrown rice. Dunne, with his appreciation of bitter irony, makes another set of mourners, arriving for a victim's funeral, wait for the conclusion of Ann's rushed wedding to Billy Grenville in wartime Tacoma, Wash.)
Although likely to be a best seller and, inevitably, a miniseries, "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" is not quite so simple as a \o7 roman a clef \f7 or another glitzy romp through decadence in the surtax brackets.
Even as refracted through the peculiar sensibility and hard-eyed ambition of Basil Plant, Ann Grenville's story invites sadness rather than amused scorn. If she creates a victim, she becomes one--as, you sense, Anne Woodward must have.
A Complicated Man
The cleverness of Dunne's approach is that the reader is induced to see and to feel what Basil Plant does not fully see or feel himself. At that, Plant is a complicated man and narrator, with his own contempt for the hypocrisy that enshrouded the later life of Ann Grenville. Plant is, within his limits, very self-aware.
He meets Ann Grenville, long after the events, on a cruise to Alaska. Staring after her, Plant thinks, "Nowadays, with all the legal technicalities available to criminal offenders, the guilty walk among us, exonerated, and a few that I could mention are lionized as social catches by some of the same people who slammed their doors in the face of Ann Grenville nearly three decades ago.
"My story began to form. I am the receptacle of other people's secrets and have long understood there is no point to having a secret if you make a secret of it."
Art, it is clear, is reflecting life, as one particular life (Capote's) transmuted experience into fiction, and now the present art is commenting on both life and art with a sort of one-two punch: the author and the author's author-creation both having at reality from two slightly different focal points, like the projected double-images that give movies the illusion of 3-D.
Dunne is, on the evidence of his magazine pieces and now of the novel, a sharp and unfooled observer of decor and mores on the circuits where the Ann Grenvilles of the world find and expend their energies.
Dunne has her return to Mac Kriendler's 21 after the troubles, stopping the luncheon chitchat in mid-babble, being shown to the kind of table the Grenvilles might expect (though she has no reservation). "All her life she had craved to be the center of attention," Dunne-Plant observes, "and, in disgrace, she had succeeded."
Plant, later, cannot accept guilt for the suicide, despite the story he has written. His self-awareness does not extend or admit to guilt. It was age, and the lack of a man, or men, he insists.
"There was nothing in her story she had not told me herself, or that I had not heard firsthand from someone in her life. At least, almost all of it."
Not for the first time, you could die of almost.
"The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" is a popular entertainment, a fast and enjoyable piece of reading. But it also suggests that popular novels come in all specific gravities, from tissue-thin to the harder surfaces of this one. Dunne's chronicle of the elder Mrs. Grenville, tough, dignified, an aristocrat by act of will, and Ann Grenville, the prototypal poor girl grown richer but not happier, is perhaps a fable, but it has the smudges of newsprint on it. And as an act of fiction, it is like an echoing hall of mirrors, full of street sounds and shadowy realities, seen doubly.