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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : John Gregory Dunne : Dominick Dunne : Experiencing L.A. Through the Eyes of the Writer

January 30, 1994|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt is a producer for Fox News and a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." He spoke in a conference call with John Gregory Dunne, in New York, and Dominick Dunne, at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles.

In the 1960s and '70s, Dominick Dunne and his younger brother, John Gregory, pretty much owned this town. Sons of a well-to-do Connecticut family--"We were like minor-league Kennedys," Dominick once wrote--they came to Los Angeles and prospered. Dominick became a movie producer. John, with his wife, writer Joan Didion, crafted novels and screenplays, earning literary kudos and lots of Hollywood lucre. Dominick produced Joan's "Play It as It Lays," as well as "Panic in Needle Park," written by Didion and her husband, who also wrote the remake of "A Star Is Born." Both brothers eventually left Los Angeles, but each remains wedded to it.

By the end of the '70s, Dominick Dunne's drinking had gotten out of control. He abandoned the city and his career as a producer. "I sold everything," he remembers, "even my shirts." He emerged, sober, after six months of isolation in Oregon, and recast himself as a writer. His first book, "The Winners," was a sequel to Joyce Haber's Hollywood potboiler, "The Users." Critics abhorred it, but it sold well enough to earn him a sizable advance for his next effort, "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles." Then, in short order, his youngest brother, Stephen, committed suicide, and his daughter, Dominique, was murdered by her boyfriend. Dominick took notes throughout the trial, which became the basis for a Vanity Fair article, "Justice." He has since written dozens of pieces for the magazine--his latest is about the trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez.

Meanwhile, John Gregory Dunne and his wife had become among the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood. They also created powerful essays and fiction; Joan wrote "Salvador" and "A Book of Common Prayer," while John skewered Hollywood mores in "The Studio" and spent four years writing the novel "The Red, White and Blue." Then, in 1988, after 24 years in Los Angeles, they shocked their friends, and themselves, by picking up and moving to New York. John says, "I'd written nine books, each of which touched on Los Angeles, and I felt tapped out. We weren't working and needed a goose."

Today is John Gregory Dunne's 30th wedding anniversary. He's 61, the proud father of a photographer daughter who works for Travel and Leisure. His latest novel, "Playland," will be published this summer. Dominick, 65, has been in Los Angeles for six months, covering the Menendez trial--he experienced the fires last fall and rode out the Northridge earthquake in his room at the Chateau Marmont. Each man speaks about the city as one might of a longtime lover, with the kind of longing one has for someone cherished and too casually spurned.

Question: You've both experienced many of the modern calamities we've been through in Los Angeles. What stands out in your memory?

John Gregory Dunne: Joan and I went into South-Central during the Watts riots of 1965--we wrote about that. In 1971, we were thrown out of bed by the Sylmar quake. We were living in Malibu at the time, and got a really good shake. We went through three major fires while living in Malibu. So we were aware of nature and its discontent.

I have one strong memory from the Watts riots. We went down to South-Central and we wrote about what we saw there. But my memory goes back to something far away from the scene of the action. We lived, at the time, in Portuguese Bend, at the very tip of Palos Verdes. And I remember our landlord showing me a shotgun he had just bought. He said, "I'm going to be ready in case people come out here." The idea of buying a shotgun in Palos Verdes to stop the hordes seemed most bizarre--and these were days when people were not so likely to buy guns as they are now. This was a shotgun that could have brought down a goddamned elephant. That is my most striking memory of the Watts riots.

Q: Dominick, how does the Northridge earthquake rate in your pantheon of Los Angeles disasters?

Dominick Dunne: I have been through others, of course, but this was the worst. I did not do that smart thing that you are supposed to do--hop up and get under a table. I just lay there and thought, "Well, this is the end of the line." I collected myself, said my little prayer and watched my television set fly out onto the floor. I was extremely calm.

When it stopped, I began to think of what I wanted to have with me, and I began to collect my things--my glasses, my wallet, my watch. It was pitch dark. And I took the latest draft of my article and stuck it in my back pocket, and made my way down the stairwells.

All the guests gathered out on the lawn in front of the hotel, and then we realized there was a surreal light above us. It was coming from the huge Marlboro sign in front of the hotel, there on Sunset Boulevard. Somehow, the Marlboro man was the only thing left shining in the whole city. That was truly strange--something I will never forget.

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