Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tuesday With Dominick

Loyal readers and listeners recall that, by serendipity, I was assigned the seat next to Vanity Fair columnist and high-society-mischief chronicler Dominick Dunne in court at the O.J. Simpson trial this fall. I made the most of it, to be sure, with a New York Times Sunday Styles profile of him, an episode of the podcast called "Dominick Dunne's Last Sit" and a Las Vegas Weekly column that used his presence as validation against snooty local writers who sneered at those of us covering the armed robbery proceedings.

I had a standing invite to visit when I came to New York, but I couldn't tell if he was just being polite. Yet when I called on Sunday from Long Island, he couldn't have been more enthusiastic about wanting me to swing by. On Tuesday, I did so, picking him up at his apartment and walking over to a delightful nearby spot called Aretsky's Patroon where, not surprisingly, Dunne is a regular and was warmly greeted by the owner. I felt like a heel in my jeans and sweater since every other man in the place wore a tie, but nobody seemed to care.

Many have asked me about Dunne, especially with the closure fate uncannily provided him by the O.J. sentencing and the death the next day of comatose heiress Sunny Von Bulow. So here's the report: He's physically not so great. One way I know is that he was quite open about his various and sundry procedures and ailments in Las Vegas two months ago, before his removal from the courtroom in great pain and his recent operations in New York.

Now he's sick of talking about being sick, it's just a total downer and he's rather pump me for details on the O.J. sentencing he missed and ponder Caroline Kennedy's possible Senate appointment. He's 83 and his doctors want him on chemo for his bladder cancer but he says he doesn't want to and anticipates having to "cause a whole lot of trouble" to ward it off. Surgery has been ruled out because of a weak heart, so my impression was that Dunne was ready to let this cancer take its course. He didn't strike me as the sort to fly off to the Far East in search of a holistic cure, anyhow.

Yet, there's a sense that he's also not giving up in any practical sense. He's sent a draft of a long-awaited but unfinished novel to his publisher, is recording some oral history he wants to use for that long-promised memoir -- which he says he will write himself, thank you very much -- and has every intention of getting to the New York memorial for Von Bulow next week. His goal, he says, is to go to the Obama inauguration, which VF has asked him to do if he's able. My impression was that setting goals like that -- and following through -- is his way of triumphing over his infirmities.

The thing that's so interesting about Dunne is that while he walks slowly and cautiously and seems frail, he misses not a single beat in conversation. And, while not intentional, walking slowly in Manhattan gives passers-by a chance to recognize him, which makes him bask. At lunch, a former journalist approached to tell him he's been an inspiration to her; when she walked away, he glowed and said, "I love that." I've never met a celebrity more appreciative of his notoriety.

Dunne let me shoot a few pictures around his place, which was precisely as I figured it would be, a handsome top-floor penthouse cluttered with papers and books. Some, of course, were his.

It was a lovely experience. Telling my pneumonia-stricken mom all about it as I I took a long walk across Manhattan afterward, I burned off many calories consumed by Monday's diabetes-inducing sundae. As I did, I unexpectedly passed this.

That's the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Very famous, but I'd never actually seen it before. And as I passed it, I thought of something that hadn't occurred to me in maybe 20 years. When I was 15, I was on a national bus tour of the US with other Long Island teens. I had just started writing for regional magazines and wanted to impress the other kids since, as covered on Monday, I wasn't a popular chap. So -- and this dates this story indeed -- I told everyone that when I got back, I had to go interview Emilio Estevez at the Waldorf-Astoria. Don't ask me where I got that from; I must've read a celebrity profile where the star was interviewed there.

Of course, that was a lie. I've never, to this day, interviewed Emilio Estevez. But I have gone on to interview a great many stars and a zillion prominent politicians and business leaders. And, of course, I also had just come from having lunch with Dominick Dunne, whom I profiled for The New York Times. I guess it's worked out OK after all.


H.Peter said...

Maybe the main reason for me to always buy VF are his diary style entries.

Let me say, congratulations!

J. Sterling Ellison said...

Steve, hope you read this comment from such an old post, since weeks are now months in the world of the InterWebs. So I am a fan of D.Dunne, but have always been on the lookout for his bro John G's book "Vegas". Have you read it? Never can find it in the used book store and it may be out of print. Anyway, a remarkable "get"! Good job!