‘Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts’ by Robert Hofler
Author: Steve Susoyev
April 16, 2017
We want writers to establish themselves in a genre and remain predictably stuck in it. We set a particularly rigid standard for writers entrenched in crime reporting, who are expected to exemplify diligent objectivity, or at least the diligent pretense of objectivity. And regardless of genre, if a writer is rumored to be gay or bisexual, we await a proud and public proclamation.
Dominick Dunne satisfied none of these expectations, but seven years after his death his fans remain loyal. When he died in 2009, at age 83, his legacy encompassed television and film productions including the grim gay classic Boys in the Band, eight best-selling novels, and two decades of celebrity-crime reporting, most prominently concerning O.J. Simpson’s trial for the 1994 murder of his ex-wife and her friend. Dunne never claimed to be objective; he once announced, “I’m sick of being asked to weep for killers.”
Evasive about his sexuality until his last breath, Dunne never came out publicly during his lifetime, and danced around the issue for years. In the promotional materials for Robert Hofler’s Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts, the University of Wisconsin Press promises that this biography brings to light many of Dunne’s secrets, including “the gay affairs and relationships he had throughout his marriage and beyond.” The book is a pointedly unauthorized biography, meaning that Dominick Dunne’s son Griffin and other family members did not have the opportunity to suppress any details. Griffin nonetheless cooperated sufficiently to earn a “thank you” in the first paragraph of the book’s acknowledgments.
Hofler is a refreshingly honest sensationalist, utterly unapologetic. A long-time senior editor at Variety who now writes theater criticism for The Wrap, he shared celebrity gossip with Dominick Dunne over many years. Dominick was the source of the detailed eye-witness accounts of parties at which rent boys were stationed in 25 rooms of Allan Carr’s Benedict Canyon mansion to sexually service Rudolph Nureyev, a juicy morsel in Hofler’s 2010 book Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll. The New York Times review of that book noted Hofler’s “eye for salacious detail.” On a thumbing-through of this biography, a regular patron of the gossip factory could presume that Hofler didn’t need to wait seven years to reveal Dominick Dunne’s secrets. From Hofler, whose other books include Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange—How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos, we don’t expect a nuanced, discreet tale, and many of Dunne’s fans probably don’t want one.
But Hofler gives us much more than a volume of entertainment-world gossip. He has spent a good deal of time exploring Dominick’s personal journals and letters, and has produced, amidst the juicy dish, a distinguished biography of a brilliant and complex man. As an adolescent, Dominick saw Now, Voyager and, like Bette Davis’s character, undertook to “invent another person”—in his case, in order to avoid his father’s brutal beatings. The young Dominick developed a severe stutter as he struggled to keep up with his older, star athlete of a brother, whose nickname in the high school yearbook was “Big Dick.” Dominick never lost his sense of inferiority, and never stopped remaking himself.
Thickly layered among the insights about the multifaceted Mr. Dunne, who earned a Bronze Star for bravery during World War II after carrying a wounded fellow soldier past Nazi sentries, are some mind-numbingly detailed accounts of Richard Burton’s drunken shenanigans on the set of Elizabeth Taylor’s biggest flop, and the guest lists and even the menus at Beverly Hills power lunches. Accordingly, the reader’s challenge is to locate the truly interesting story about Dominick Dunne the man, a story that is sometimes overwhelmed by the swirling gossipy fluff. The advance review copies of Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne does not contain an index, but one is promised for the published volume, due for release in April, and that will help readers sort out what interests them. The extensive chapter notes and bibliography already in place certainly help.
Dunne, for his part, diligently hid the compelling human aspects of his own story, and played up the celebrity flotsam, often joking about his fondness for alcohol and cocaine. He seems to have known absolutely everyone, from Humphrey Bogart to the Reagans, from Princess Diana to Elizabeth Taylor, and he flashed his own glittering personality in the midst of his celebrity exposés. He was known for admonishing listeners, “I never repeat gossip, so listen carefully.” When Jeffrey Toobin was finalizing his script for the 2016 FX production American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, one of the critical casting questions was Who will play Dominick Dunne? (The answer was Robert Morse, who has portrayed characters as diverse as the Wizard of Oz and Truman Capote.)
Despite his own best efforts, what makes Dominick Dunne a fascinating person is not the inventory of parties he attended or power-brokers he offended. Like Joel Grey, who came out in 2015 at age 82, Dunne belonged to a generation for whom being gay or bisexual was treated at best as a mental illness and at worst as an abomination—and always as a source of shame. Also like Grey, whose daughter Jennifer celebrated her father’s eventual departure from the closet, Dominick Dunne shruggingly assumed that his adult children knew the nature if not the details of his secrets.
Dominick spoke in interviews of the childhood beatings, with a horsewhip, that he had received from his father, who raged at him for being a sissy. One of the beatings caused permanent partial deafness in his left ear. Understanding the lifelong nature of scars both physical and emotional, even his numerous LGBT fans have been quick to forgive his reticence to go public during his life about his sexual orientation.
Shortly after his death, with the release of the semi-autobiographical novel Too Much Money, Dominick Dunne did let the world know of his bisexuality, sort of. Even in that posthumously published book, Dunne was cagey. The character Gus Bailey, whom Dunne based on himself, tells his lawyer, “Well, maybe I am in the closet. So what?….I’m beyond eighty….Can’t die with a secret, you know. I’m nervous about the kids, even though they are middle aged men now, not that they don’t already know. I just don’t talk about it. It’s been a life-long problem.”
In this frequently quoted statement, Dunne left readers to wonder: Was the life-long problem his sexual orientation, or his inability to speak openly with his loved ones? As his son Griffin said in a Good Morning America interview after Dominick’s death, it was “so typical for him to come out and then leave. It was hardly a big deal either way. He was closeted about heterosexuality as much as bisexuality, as he was about celibacy.”
In the late 1970s, Dominick attended a San Francisco encounter group sponsored by The Advocate, at which he announced that he was attracted to men. Soon after, he wrote a loving letter to his children, in which he let them know that he had always been attracted to men, and that the shame of his secret was “a giant cancer eating its way through my body.” At the top of the letter, which is among his papers archived at the University of Texas, he wrote, “Not sent.”
While visiting his father at a cancer-treatment clinic in Switzerland, in 2009, Griffin Dunne met a man named Norman who obviously had a “long loving relationship” with Dominick and was “looking after him.” This was the most direct evidence Griffin had seen of his father’s long-rumored secret life. Hofler augments this oft-cited, bare-bones story with further interviews, with both Griffin and Dominick’s boyfriend of 30 years, the artist Norman Carby. Griffin told Hofler that during his week in Germany he became close to Norman, like “a stepbrother I didn’t know.”
Dominick was honored that the University of Texas Center for American History accepted the gift of his private papers, to be available for researchers. Robert Hofler uses these unpublished journals and letters to vaporize any ambiguities, and largely manages to avoid the breathless, tell-all style that afflicts many celebrity biographies. The papers include the journal in which Dominick wrote that by age ten he was giving oral sex to men in public parks and restrooms, for which, writing as an adult, he labeled himself a “park pervert.” Deeply in love with his wife and close to her after their 1969 divorce, he pursued sex with men and seems never to have forgiven himself for the urge to do so. In private conversations with celebrity biographers he referred to himself as “a closeted homosexual,” but never published a confirmation. Dominick deliberately and consciously “came out,” but he did so posthumously, in his journals and letters.
Hofler provides an important service to people who are interested in who Dominick Dunne really was. Articles published about Dominick since his death tend to rehash the same stories. His son Griffin’s statement on Good Morning America is quoted repeatedly because it was the closest thing in circulation, until Hofler’s book, to an affirmation that Dunne was, after all, bisexual.
Biographers like to use words like “reinvent” to describe the process through which a writer who has lived a very private personal life slowly allows the private and the public to merge. Susan Cheever, in her 1984 biography of her father John Cheever, Home Before Dark, reported that she overlooked the obvious for years: She didn’t realize that Max Zimmer, the graduate student who often joined her family for dinner and traveled with her father, was her father’s lover. After John Cheever’s death, Susan studied his journals and learned that “My father had . . . a fear that being homosexual might affect him in subtle ways that would end up making him part of the homosexual community that he abhorred.” Her father carried on secretly with Max and other men for many years. John Cheever had not reinvented himself; rather, after his death, his family reinvented their way of understanding him.
LGBT readers might pause to wonder: Why we are so eager to embrace closeted celebrities who abhor our community or, at best, are ashamed to be counted among us? Hofler suggests his own answer—if everyone is out, even posthumously, we’ll all be better off because eventually there will be no point to remaining closeted.
The numerous reinventions of Dunne’s life were not always deliberate or perhaps even conscious. In her review of Too Much Money, Janet Maslin of the New York Times praised Dunne for “earning his place in the social storytelling pantheon as a Truman Capote without the poison.” But in that pantheon, even a mild dose of poison was enough to consign Dominick to exile. While drunk, he insulted super-agent Sue Mengers, then considered the most powerful person in Hollywood. The Hollywood Reporter quoted him saying, concerning Mengers’s efforts on behalf of a hot but troublesome client on a film Dominick was producing, “When the history of this movie is written, it should be called ‘When a Fat Girl Falls in Love.’ ” This catty attack torpedoed his film career in 1973. Sue Mengers married her hot client, and Dominick was disinvited from the important parties.
Effectively blacklisted by the film industry, Dominick prepared to launch a new life. He drove north and ended up renting an Oregon cabin where he dried out and wrote for a year. Truman Capote respected Dominick, and was instrumental in wooing him out of his Oregon cabin and to New York, but complained publicly that Dominick “was gay and boastful about being straight.”
In New York, Dominick rented an apartment two blocks from his son Griffin and pursued his career as a sober novelist. In 1982 he returned to Los Angeles in another unplanned turnabout of his life. His daughter Dominique was strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend. Dominick attended the preliminary proceedings and trial. Tina Brown, then editor at the newly rebooted Vanity Fair, persuaded him to render his deeply personal journal into a magazine report. Vanity Fair’s 1984 publication of “Justice: A Father’s Account of the Trial of His Daughter’s Killer” launched Dunne’s 25-year career as a crime reporter. During this time his career as a novelist took off with the success of The Two Mrs. Grenvilles and a string of other popular novels, three of which were filmed as miniseries. His first-of-its kind television series Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege, and Justice, which began its nine-season run in 2002, cemented his reputation as a chronicler “of the arrogance that leads the rich to believe they are above the law.” With episode titles like “The Waitress and the Millionaire” and “Family Betrayal,” the show stoked the country’s burgeoning appetite for reality television.
Dominick loved celebrity funerals, and, within a few years, back on the A‑List, he attended more than a few Hollywood memorials of people who had told him he would “never work in this town again.” For his own funeral, he had pre-arranged music that might be considered sacrilegious for an event officiated by two Roman Catholic priests and a monsignor: The ceremony, attended by roughly 800 people, opened with the young tenor Jack Donahue singing Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” accompanied by a tinkling piano.
Jeffrey Toobin has written, concerning the loved ones of murder victims, “The one thing those families never want to hear from you is ‘I know how you feel.’ Dominick was immune from that. He did know how they feel.” In all of his reporting on celebrity trials—including the Menéndez brothers, convicted of murdering their Beverly Hills parents; Claus von Bülow, whose wife Sunny lay in a coma for 28 years after he allegedly gave her an insulin injection meant to be fatal; and music producer Phil Spector, convicted of fatally shooting actress Lana Clarkson—Dominick’s sympathies clearly lay with the victims and their families. Readers welcomed his straightforward avoidance of objectivity.
In the actor Frank Langella’s memoir, Dropped Names–Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them, the chapter about Dunne focusses on the difficulties of living a public life in the closet. Langella wrote, “We had circled each other for years. I resisted his style—his practiced reporter’s skill at charming you, then trying to trip you up; getting you to reveal something you hadn’t intended to. But I thought him an excellent writer and fearless investigator.” The two eventually became friends. But even as death approached, Dunne remained elusive, hinting about his secrets but dodging the question when Langella directly asked him, “Are you gay?”
Along comes Robert Hofler, who gleefully lets us know that Yes, Dunne had sex with more men than anyone can count. He even fell in love with at least a few of them! Hofler names names, and gives us glimpses into the life of a lonely and insecure man who created and played a character who was always the life of the party.
Dominick Dunne’s first film production was The Boys in the Band, in 1970, which depicts a group of damaged gay men who emotionally abuse one another during an interminable birthday party. The film drove some young men further into the closet, the closet that the film’s producer did not leave during his lifetime. Hofler lets us know which character the playwright and screenwriter, Mart Crowley, based on Dominick, and which cast member Dominick pursued romantically and sexually.
Anyone in Robert Hofler’s position might have been tempted to embarrass himself trying to match wits with Dominick Dunne. In Dunne’s final book, Too Much Money, one character asks another, concerning the flamboyantly gay assistant at an elite New York mortuary, “Did Xavier embalm that actor in ‘Batman’ who overdosed on prescription drugs?”—an obvious reference to Heath Ledger. The answer: “That was his day off, and he missed it. He was so disappointed.” Hofler wields his own wit effectively without trying to upstage a master of the one-liner. He is a competent reporter who attributes his assertions like the professional journalist he is, but remembers to wink at the reader, in such quickies as, “Dominick did what a lot of people in Hollywood do when their back is up against the wall: he thought about writing a screenplay. It is much quicker than writing a novel; there are so many fewer words to type.”
The writers who have provided publicity blurbs for this biography are celebrity biographers themselves, some of whom are cited in the narrative as sources. With these colleagues, Hofler seems to inhabit a snug little world in which everyone knows everyone else, and a freshly dead celebrity’s most carefully guarded secrets are offered for auction before the body has cooled. In that world, careers are made or broken based on where one is seated at a glamorous dinner party. Dominick Dunne maintained a comfortable home there, despite some serious ups and downs. He was sometimes dead broke; once, while standing in a Los Angeles unemployment line, he raised a newspaper to his face in order to hide from a television news camera. But he generally made a good living, in his friend Frank Langella’s words, getting people to reveal things they intended to keep private.
The seven-year period since Dunne’s death seems a very decent time for Hofler to have waited to reveal secrets that Dunne tried hard not to reveal. But the interval actually is a dual testament to the success of Dunne’s attempts to hide who he really was, and to Robert Hofler’s tenacity at digging out the facts.
Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts
University of Wisconsin Press
Hardcover, 9780299311506, 352 pp.