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Dominick Dunne, author and former Hollywood producer, dies at 83

Dunne was notorious for his skewering accounts of the trials of celebrities including Claus von Bulow, the Menendez brothers and O.J. Simpson. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer last year.

August 27, 2009|Elaine Woo

Dominick Dunne, the bestselling novelist and Vanity Fair writer who chronicled the misdeeds of the rich and famous with wicked glee -- most memorably in his highly personal accounts of the trials of Claus von Bulow, the Menendez brothers and O.J. Simpson -- died Wednesday at his home in New York City. He was 83.

The cause was bladder cancer, according to the Vanity Fair website, where his death was announced.

Dunne had recovered from prostate cancer in 2001 but was diagnosed with bladder cancer last year. Although ill, he covered Simpson's recent armed robbery trial in Las Vegas, which resulted in a pronouncement of guilt -- a verdict that Dunne awaited for more than a decade.

Covering the last Simpson trial capped an extraordinary career that had bloomed from tragedy. Dunne was a television and film producer for two decades until drugs and alcohol ruined him. He had started life over as a writer when his daughter, Dominique, was slain in 1982.

Dunne wrote an article for Vanity Fair magazine that raged at the injustice of the crime and the leniency of the killer's punishment. The story propelled its author into a new career reporting from the intersection of celebrity, society and scandal. He filled the niche with panache, becoming, according to the Cambridge History of Law in America, "one of the nation's premier popular chroniclers of notorious criminal trials and lawsuits involving celebrities."

He wrote a column, "Dominick Dunne's Diary" and hosted a Court TV program, "Power, Privilege and Justice." His absorption with money and privilege led one writer to call him the "Boswell of the bluebloods," while another less charitable critic dubbed him "the Jacqueline Susann of journalism."

What was indisputable was that Dunne -- with his silver hair, tortoiseshell glasses and Turnbull & Asser finery -- became a celebrity in his own right, sympathizing with crime victims, skewering the perpetrators and riding in limousines to his front-row seat at their trials.

He unabashedly declared his belief that Simpson was guilty of the 1994 slayings of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Lyle Goldman. He disparaged Erik and Lyle Menendez, the handsome brothers convicted of shooting their parents to death at their Beverly Hills mansion. Dunne slyly dissected Phil Spector, the eccentric record producer convicted of murder this year, calling him "a drama queen, albeit straight."

When Dunne wasn't covering a sensational trial, he was writing intimate profiles of movie stars, socialites and newsmakers -- "the only person writing about high society from inside the aquarium," former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown once said. Many of his subjects were friends from his previous life, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Gloria Vanderbilt. Others were highly placed friends of friends, such as former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos, who gave him an exclusive interview shortly after she and her husband took up life in exile, and Lily Safra, the international jet-setter whose banker-husband Edmond was killed in a suspicious fire.

Like Truman Capote, another social chronicler, Dunne often bit the well-manicured hands that fed him. A friend of Alfred and Betsy Bloomingdale of the department store fortune, he turned Alfred's relationship with his mistress, Vicki Morgan, into a roman a clef, "An Inconvenient Woman" (1990). Similarly, Dunne, who had been a guest at the 1950 wedding of Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Skakel, turned his theories about the culpability of Ethel's nephew, Michael Skakel, in a long-unsolved slaying into another novel, "A Season in Purgatory" (1993). Skakel ultimately was tried and convicted. His cousin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., blamed Dunne for the conviction and told talk show host Larry King that the writer was "not a journalist. He's a gossip columnist."

If, as Capote said, all literature is gossip, Dunne was a believer. He loved to "dish," giving rumor equal time with news in his Vanity Fair reports. His story on the Safra slaying, for instance, was an engrossing brew of fact and rank speculation as only Dunne could produce. He repeated hearsay and used unnamed sources liberally, such as a "well-connected woman once married to a prominent figure in the film world" or "a waiter serving me risotto" at a dinner party. Dunne had everyone whispering in his ear.

His willingness to entertain nearly any source made him the target of an $11-million defamation lawsuit by former California Rep. Gary Condit after Dunne told a bizarre, unsubstantiated story on national television and radio programs that implicated Condit in the 2001 disappearance of Washington intern Chandra Levy. He apologized to Condit and paid an undisclosed sum to settle the lawsuit in 2005.

Born Oct. 29, 1925, he was the second of six children in a wealthy Hartford, Conn., family. One of his brothers was John Gregory Dunne, the late screenwriter and novelist who was married to another literary celebrity, Joan Didion.

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