Wednesday, August 26, 2009

R.I.P. Dominick Dunne

[Note: Hear my lengthy interview with Dominick Dunne from Sept. 2008 while he was here covering the O.J. trial by clicking here or download it to your computer by right-clicking here. It's titled "Dominick Dunne's Last Sit."]

I am on my laptop on the floor of the Pearl at the Palms observing our rehearsals, dealing with other media -- about to tape a Today Show interview -- and putting out various fires related to the big Michael Jackson tribute benefit concert this Saturday.

And then, in this bizarre year of constant celebrity death, we lose another. And this time, it's personal: Dominick Dunne.

That's me with him above in the fake Palace Station hotel room built in the basement of the courthouse in Las Vegas. It was never used in the trial because the judge decided it wasn't an accurate representation -- she took the jury to the actual room a mile away -- but it amused Dunne and me to no end that the prosecution had built such a silly thing.

As faithful readers of this blog know, I had the great fortune of being assigned to sit next to Dunne during the O.J. Simpson armed robbery trial last fall. It was one of those serendipitous accidents of fate that have so wonderfully dotted my life. That first trial morning, as I got myself awake, I finished reading Dunne's column in Vanity Fair looking back on
his 25 years as a columnist there. The last sentence: "What a swell party it's been. Next, it's off to Las Vegas for O.J. Simpson's trial for armed robbery and kidnapping." I put that down, got dressed, went to the courthouse and an hour later sat down next to...Dunne!

I was charmed instantly, as most people were. He was frail, certainly, and he collapsed during the trial at one point. But he was still totally into it and was back in court a few days later, working sources and enjoying being the most famous person, save for Simpson himself, in the room. He took his notes in notebooks that had a cartoon likeness on every page, which I just loved. I so wanted one; never got one.

What he wrote wasn't what you might expect. He didn't care about the day's news or even any quotes in the trial, as those of us covering for the next day or the night's news had to. He wrote names, descriptions, analogies. The rest of us were focused on the proceedings; he was fascinated that co-defendant C.J. Stewart's lawyer Brent Bryson had once killed a man in a bar fight. That was a Dunne twist.

We bonded instantly, had breakfast a few times during the trial, remained in touch via email and lunched when I was in New York in December. I think I earned his respect in part by my coverage in the Times of the proceedings but also for simple things like picking up that first breakfast at Tableau at Wynn. It puzzled and impressed him and I have a tremendous respect for people of his stature who don't expect freebies even though they probably reasonably can. He also took me to his favorite place in New York, Aretsky's Patroon, his treat this time. The next time I was in NYC, though, he was in Germany undergoing experimental stem cell treatment. He emailed with great optimism about what he was doing to stay alive.

What always struck me was that when you were with Dominick Dunne, it was hard to believe all the people this made you one degree of separation from. He knew everyone but he didn't really act like it. After my New York Times Sunday Styles profile of him came out documenting the fact that this was his last trial, he called me and wrote me repeatedly with updates on all the people who had called or written him to say they had seen it. It surprised him that he was prominent and relevant, that the audience of the New York Times would be interested in him. Oh, and it thrilled him, too, because he knew that it would drive Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter NUTS. He felt Carter had it in for him, that Carter resented having inherited Dunne from prior management. "He's jealous because I'm more famous than he is," Dunne told me once.

That said, he loved celebrity and said so openly, as you'll hear on the podcast interview linked at the top. Walking from his apartment to Aretsky's Patroon in New York, people kept saying hello and he was thrilled to greet them all back. It was never a bother, even when he was ill and in a lot of discomfort. Likewise, he didn't look down on the fascinating world of celebrity crime and, as I wrote in the Las Vegas Weekly, taught me to love my bite of the O.J. apple despite the sneers of journalists who thought they were better than all that.

Dunne took great interest in me and what I was writing about even when the OJ trial was over. I found this humbling and shocking; he had a lot of better things to do than care about me. But he liked the mentor role.

Dunne's broader fame came from a few important celebrity trials, most specifically O.J. The First and the Claus Von Bulow trial. So when Sunny Von Bulow, the incapacitated heiress, died the same weekend as Simpson was sentenced in December,
Dunne seemed a little thrown by what the fates might be telling him.

"That they both happened this way the same weekend must mean something," he told me. We didn't specify what, but it was clear the unspoken thought was that it was a way of tying up some loose ends as Dunne's health deteriorated. I had lost my grandmother to bladder cancer in 2003; I suspected he couldn't have long regardless of how he spoke of future plans.

And that's one of the shames here. Although he was 83 and had lived a full, rich life, he didn't finish what he had hoped to. He had a novel in progress and planned to write his complete memoir. I'm hopeful there are journals from which it can be constructed. There were so many wonderful stories. That is one book most of New York wants to read.

I bet Carter would even print an excerpt in VF.


Anonymous said...

You're a lucky guy, Steve, and you live a fascinating life. I'm glad you're aware of those things.

bblackvt said...

Oh, I’m most upset and sad as I have always loved his show “Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege and Justice” I always loved true crime tv and his documentaries always had that extra “je ne ce qua” ( I don’t know exactly what it was…) that made his shows more appealing and suspenseful and interesting to watch. My true condolences to his family and friends. Dominick, you will be missed!!!

ARBW said...

I loved Dominick Dunne. He was so unabashedly alive when it came to writing about celebrities, but that didn't comprise his entire life. I've also enjoyed his novels. I also subscribed to Vanity Fair for years to read his columns and articles. He will be missed.