Dominick Dunne Repents for Pathetic Early Days

Author Dominick Dunne had agreed to meet me for tea at his

apartment in the East 40’s, and when he greeted me at the elevator, I

understood that I had underdressed. He wore a dark blazer and a mauve-and-green

Turnbull & Asser shirt with a matching Turnbull & Asser tie, black

Gucci loafers and horn-rimmed glasses. My costume I won’t go into, but it

didn’t matter, Mr. Dunne was the soul of tact. He took me out on the terrace

and, indifferent to the plantings there, pointed out Katharine Hepburn’s and

Stephen Sondheim’s block and the place Garson Kanin died and, going back

inside, got me Pellegrino water in fine stemware.

We sat in the living room. It was painted a cool green and

had a green stone fireplace. I said the word “regrets” and Mr. Dunne

interrupted.

“I regret very little in life-believe me,” he said. “I may

have made 70,000 very serious mistakes in my life. But you want to know

something, I learned from every one of them. I sure have. I’m at a point in

life now where I am pleased with myself.”

He laughed hard in a sweet, almost boyish way. I was

visiting Mr. Dunne to talk about the rebirth he describes in his latest book, The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a

Well-Known Name Dropper . Until he was in his late 40’s, Mr. Dunne led a

feckless, second-rate existence as a producer in Hollywood. He had married

well. He lived in big houses and entertained lavishly. He hung out with all the

stars: Natalie Wood, Kirk Douglas, Gary Cooper, Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda,

Dennis Hopper, Brooke Hayward. But there was something star-struck and pathetic

about Mr. Dunne. He stood at the side with his sensitive dark eyes and a

camera, always a camera, and didn’t quite seem to fit. One of his friends told

him he was in that society “on a pass,” a comment that devastated him because

he knew it was true. Then one night at a private club, Frank Sinatra paid the

maître d’, who was a friend of Mr. Dunne’s, $50 to hit Mr. Dunne in the head.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Dunne, Mr. Sinatra made me do it,” the man cried.

I asked Mr. Dunne what he would have told himself if somehow

the 73-year-old had been able to communicate with the 43-year-old.

“I would have said, Get to know yourself. Who the fuck are

you? I didn’t know who I was. I was just a feather in the breeze. Truly. I

could be anything. I could change my politics from group to group at a party. I

was that unsure.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in

American lives, and true to form, he died in Hollywood at 44, a drunk whose

marriage had fallen apart. Mr. Dunne was a failed drunk with a dead marriage,

too, and friends were dying all around him-Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jay Sebring

(along with Sharon Tate). Still, something in Mr. Dunne told him to leave. “I

thought, ‘Get out, get out, get out.'” Mr. Dunne drove to Oregon-“with no

proper destination”-and when his car got a flat he didn’t know how to fix it,

so that’s where he stayed, at a motel in the mountains.

And at 50, he began to do what he had long wanted to

do-write. Before long, Mr. Dunne had made a name for himself as a best-selling

novelist, his topic high society and scandal in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles and People

Like Us . His new book is more a storyboard than a memoir. It is filled with

Mr. Dunne’s pictures of the high life, and the stories are told in a somewhat

breezy, elliptical manner.

For a while Mr. Dunne and I talked about the glamorous life

he led as a star-fucker and star-gazer.

“There are no stars who

live like stars of the 50’s and the 40’s, and who entertain like stars,” he

said. “When you went to dinner at the Gary Coopers’ or Merle Oberon’s or

Rosalind Russell’s or Loretta Young’s, it was something else. Or when you went

to Romanoff’s for dinner, and Bogart and Bacall and Greer Garson and everybody

was there, at table after table, it was electrifying-“

Mr. Dunne has highly expressive hands, and he made tinsel

out of them next to his ears.

“And in those days, stars dressed up to go out! You want to

know something, I knew Eyes Wide Shut

was going to be a bomb when I saw, before the reviews came out, where Tom

Cruise wore a sweater at the premiere of this so-called masterpiece. I thought,

he’s trying to give us a message. You don’t wear a sweater to a masterpiece.”

Mr. Dunne always made a point of dressing well. It was part

of his artifice. He and his wife Lenny threw a black-and-white ball, and he

ordered engraved invitations from Smythson’s in London. Ronald Reagan and

Truman Capote showed up. David Niven. Tuesday Weld.

The picture of Mr. Dunne from that night is a little

unsettling. He is looking off, with a tragic, Irish, large-foreheaded,

uncertain gaze. You see the silhouette of the bassist behind him, but Mr. Dunne

is making a fist, as if he is holding a lot down. “When I was in that life,

part of me couldn’t believe I was there,” Mr. Dunne said. “It was always,

They’re going to find out. And it was like I always knew it wasn’t going to

last, and I began to record it.”

I wish Mr. Dunne had spelled it out a little more in the

book. What was he feeling? Was he ever judgmental? I mean, there he was,

leading one of the most superficial existences imaginable and not spending

enough time with his children, something he regrets. And a little more detail

about the spiral down, too. Who was he partying with when he lit the drapes on

fire in a hotel room?

Mr. Dunne said that when you fail in Hollywood, it is like

failure nowhere else; people are crueler there. I said people in New York are

plenty cruel; they walk away, too. He shook his head.

“Failure is not so public here,” he said. “There are so many

groups in New York. Somebody could have a disaster on the stock market and

start seeing the movie crowd, and nobody would know the difference. There [Los

Angeles], there are not all the different groups. Look at Peter Lawford. Peter

was a well-known person who became a disaster. But I’ll tell you, I’m sick of

reading in every biography about how awful Peter Lawford was. Peter Lawford was

one of the most dazzling, glamorous, funny, wonderful guys, and he got ruined.

But people forget, and you only get these pictures of him in all these

biographies of Sinatra, you just see the end of him where he was a disaster-“

Mr. Dunne’s expression

changed from sadness to delight.

“It’s sort of a sad story where he tried to sell me the coke

and I didn’t have the money! In Swifty Lazar’s bathroom! And every story like

that I told, you have to understand this-none of it’s like gossip. None of it’s

things I heard. It happened to me. To me.”

Well, mostly. What about when Wood drowned, and her

hairdresser friends went to work on her body, dressing her, fixing her face, so

she would look a star to the end? That one was too delicious to pass up. And

besides, Mr. Dunne loved Wood. That comes through.

There is a spiritual, cleansed, Catholic feeling about his

story. The most moving things are the kindnesses done to him by people who

didn’t have to. A gangster hears that Mr. Dunne is about to be arraigned on pot

charges and fixes the judge-all because Mr. Dunne once talked to him at a

party. Capote hears that he is washed up in Oregon and sends him a letter on

ecru Tiffany stationery: “Remember this, this is not where you belong, and when

you get out of it what you went there to get, you have to return to your own

life.”

“Could you have saved Truman Capote?” I asked.

“No. At the time it happened, my point was in saving myself.

Everything that happened to Truman at the end of his life was alcoholic. The

fact that he could write about his best friend Mrs. [William] Paley and tell

that terrible story about that menstrual thing and so forth, and think that

disaster wouldn’t happen-that’s an alcoholic.”

I know there is some ideology at work here in the way Mr.

Dunne tells his story and in the way I hear it. Some of it is the revivalist

creed of Alcoholics Anonymous: Mr. Dunne met an actor friend on the street in

New York 25 years ago who took him to the Perry Street meeting, and he went for

years. And some of it, I think, is the millennial New Age spirit. Consider

there is a miraculous Tolstoyan rebirth in the hit movie American Beauty when Kevin Spacey finds out who he is months before

he dies.

Of course, when such a thing happens, your own family doesn’t

recognize you anymore. In 1982, Mr. Dunne saw his former wife in Los Angeles

for a terrible event. Their daughter Dominique had been murdered. One night at

her murderer’s trial, Mr. Dunne drove his former wife back to her place.

“We were silent in the car, and she said to me-‘Do you have

any idea how much you’ve changed?'” he said. “This was after Oregon. After

everything. After my deluge. And you see, I lost my goodness along the way, and

I got it back again, and she saw that. And from her, who was not high on the

compliments-” Mr. Dunne broke off the story in sweet mirth. “That was a great

compliment. And it was important to me.”

Things aren’t perfect with the rest of his family either. He

said he doesn’t talk to his brother John Gregory Dunne, another famous writer,

for reasons he doesn’t go into. But being a best-selling writer doesn’t help.

(“All of a sudden along comes the failure brother who decides he’s going to be

a writer. Well, there’s going to be trouble. It’s just bound to happen, and

especially when the failure writer’s books all turn out to be best-sellers.”)

And his two sons would just as well he hadn’t written the

book, it’s so confessional.

“Why did I go so personal? Next month I’m going to be 74

years old. And this is a book that I couldn’t have brought out before all this

late-life fame. Who would have given a shit? The whole meaning of this book is,

Look what happened after just leaving town like a whipped dog! Huh? Right?”

Mr. Dunne laughed, and I could relate to his sons, how funny

it would be if your dad hadn’t been there for you when you were a kid and now

was a transparent, alive creature, amused by himself, and making up for the

deluge and his 70,000 mistakes by giving himself a Turnbull & Asser tie

every week as a present. There’s a childlike, elfin quality about Mr. Dunne,

both knowing and sweet, Capote on Prozac.

“You want to know something?” he said. “After I went back

[to Hollywood] a few years later and I’d become the author of a best seller and

blah blah blah-everyone was giving dinners for me. The same people. And people

would say, ‘I always knew this is how you’d end up.’ And you know what? I just

let it pass.”

He walked me back to the elevator, started opening drawers

looking for his card. This involved sorting through a bunch of green and pale

violet boxes, all from Smythson’s, the London engraver. He held a card out,

without a hint of pride.

“That’s my number in the country. Town and country.”