Dominick Dunne, Done

Celebrity journalism matters, sometimes

Quite possibly the person most bothered by the death of Edward M. Kennedy last week was celebrity crime writer and literary glad-hand Dominick Dunne, who had the regrettable luck to die the same day as the senior senator from Massachusetts, forcing newscasters everywhere to set up the nightly news as: “TED KENNEDY DEAD! P.S. Dominick Dunne also gone.” But that was pretty much par for the course for Dunne: good, but not great. Never top billing.

Dunne seemed to be pretty much OK with that. Though he always worked for the top organizations—he was a vice-president of Four Star Television and later a regular contributing writer to Vanity Fair—he always carefully presented himself as the everyman of celebrity journalism. Though he was a film producer, friend of Humphrey Bogart, brother to John Gregory Dunne, brother-in-law to Joan Didion , he was on the outside of power, and he knew it.

This probably helped him better understand the nature of power, particularly how the American rich benefit from a very different justice system than do other people. As Dunne once explained during the O.J. Simpson murder trial:

What I have suspected since I became involved with the Los Angeles murder trials and O.J. Simpson is that winning is everything, no matter what you have to do to win. If lies have to be told, if defenses have to be created, if juries have to be tampered with in order to weed out those who appear to be unsympathetic to the defendant, then so be it. The name of the game is to beat the system and let the guilty walk free. If you can get away with it.

The problem, of course, was that he was so often vulgar about it. It was all well and good for Dunne to point out that someone like Claus von Bulow was paying thousands an hour for his day in court, but Dunne readers had the suspicion that his real concern was not so much injustice as jealousy. Dunne wrote of an evening a few years ago:

On the evening we dined in the same house, [disgraced Sotheby’s chairman Alfred] Taubman’s wife, Judy, who is not everyone’s cup of chamomile in that part of New York society that gets written about in the fashion and social press, spoke to me in a haughty manner, without looking at me, and said that Alfred’s lawyers did not like it when he was reported as having been “out in society” while the case was still in court. Her superior manner ticked me off. “She’s been hanging out with too many duchesses,” I wrote later that night in my journal.

Too many duchesses? How many is too many? There was apparently some mysterious duchess limit in Dominick Dunne’s America. Was it one of those things where a duchess or two duchesses was OK, but once one could count five or six duchesses among close friends, that was too far, and you risked losing the common touch?

His journalism was always a little bit too interested in that sort of thing: the clothes, the jewels, the titles, and the parties to which he was not invited. But, then, successful careers in journalism have been built on much weaker foundations.

Dunne started out in Hollywood as a movie producer. But in 1982 his daughter Dominique was strangled by an ex-boyfriend, John Thomas Sweeney, who was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to a mere six-and-a-half years in prison. And, as Dunne wrote, the judge told the jury:

That justice had been served and thanked them on behalf of the attorneys and both families. I could not believe I had heard Judge Katz thank the jury on behalf of my family for reducing the murder of my daughter to manslaughter. Rage heated my blood. I felt loathing for him. The weeks of sitting impassively through the travesty that we had witnessed finally took their toll. “Not for our family, Judge Katz!” I shouted. Friends behind me put warning hands of caution on my shoulders, but reason had deserted me.

And that is how his career as a journalist was born. From then on he made his living covering the celebrity trials of the late twentieth century: Claus von Bulow, Erik and Lyle Menendez, Michael Skakel, O.J. Simpson, and William Kennedy Smith. If these pieces focused a little bit too much on the defendants’ Adolfo suits and the luxuriousness of places like Greenwich, Connecticut or Beverly Hills, California, the point was made: the American rich hire defense attorneys widely outside the price range of most Americans; they buy justice for themselves.

Dunne later managed to turn this particular focus into his own television series, the entertaining if unsubtle Power, Privilege, & American Justice. In his high, whiny voice, he narrated episodes focusing on crimes and trials in America’s most exclusive neighborhoods. It was a light and somewhat shallow television show, but was apparently very popular. It was celebrity journalism and suffered from all the weaknesses of the type—but, perhaps for the first time in recent memory, Dunne managed to infuse an essentially vacuous type of journalism with at least some degree of social consciousness.

Robert Kennedy Jr. once said Dunne was a “gossip columnist, not a real journalist.” But that explanation is somewhat unjust; much journalism is essentially frivolous. There are entire magazines devoted to shopping for weddings and succeeding at fantasy football. Celebrity journalism is about following pretty people and recording how they live. If someone can use that popular medium to make a greater point about society and how it functions, well, more power to him.

So rest in peace, Dominick Dunne. The caviar and champagne will flow with wild abandon wherever you are going. And the population of the Social Register will come out to greet you with open arms.

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Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.