Dominick Dunne Slithers Into New York Rat’s Nest

Contrary to expectations, the evening began on an auspicious note. Arriving somewhat late, I crossed the courtyard of the Villard Houses just as someone came out of the entrance to Le Cirque 2000. I recognized the stumpy, doughy figure of a personage famous in New York publishing, the sort of individual of whom the merest passing thought makes one’s Schadenfreud positively throb with anticipation when each morning one goes first to the New York Times obituary pages. As we passed, I emitted a cheery hello, the other strode on without a word, features contorted in a dyspeptic grimace that suggested that someone at the party he had just left had confided in him what people really say about his cooking. At least that’s one I won’t have to look at, I thought with gladdened heart as I entered the restaurant.

Inside, however, apprehension mounted. I paused at the cloakroom and waited while a couple retrieved their coats. “Well,” the woman said in a slightly chirpy voice redolent of the parts of this great nation where people are still paid a living wage to produce reliable goods and services that can be profitably sold at a fair price, “if that’s a New York A-list, I hate to think what a C-list looks like! I’ve seen a classier crowd at Mule Day in Paducah!”

Her husband nodded.

“And what was that they were taking pictures for when we came in?” the woman asked. “An ad for a gingivitis remedy? How vulgar!”

“I don’t think so,” the husband replied. “Someone said it was just some publicist posing. Someone called Siegal.”

This did not bode well. It was going to be the sort of thing my friend Arthur Gimlet would think of as “a swell affair,” although these days you’d never catch Artie saying such a thing out loud. He’s too refined and is bursting his buttons with self-esteem, thanks to Michael Shnayerson’s abecedarian hymn to the Gimlet life style in the latest edition of the Book of Common People, a.k.a. Vanity Fair .

Fearing the worst, I mounted the stairs. The clamor coming from above sounded awfully faint for what I had good reason to believe would be a major Manhattan ratf-k, namely the party being tendered my friend Dominick Dunne on the occasion of the publication of his new novel. We are old friends, our acquaintance dating back almost 30 years to a chance encounter on an LAX-bound 747 involving cookies of a specialist nature commissioned from an upstate ashram along with a widow’s mite of cannabis. This was back at a time when my onerous duties as headmaster ex officio et honoris causa of the 20th-Century Fox talent school required my frequent presence in the City of Angels to counsel nubile hopefuls whom the pressures of Hollywood and career might otherwise have tempted to stray down a hard road that, absent the intervention of a kindly elder like myself, could only be paved with regret.

Since then, Dominick has gone on to celebrity, and I expected to find myself jostling for my very life amid thundering hordes of sycophants and lickspittles, fighting tooth and nail for the last scrap of tuna carpaccio, the last lukewarm gill of diet Coke. After all, just the day before, I had been called by the office of the publicist handling the event, was informed that it was a sellout, and was told I could not bring two friends whom Dominick had met through us and with whom he had struck up a most congenial acquaintance. Now, having passed through a security check that would have done credit to the old East German Grenzpolizei, I attained the top of the staircase, surveyed the scene and was on the instant glad that I had just finished Larry McMurtry’s new and excellent Comanche Moon (pay no heed to the review in Photoplay … I’m sorry, in Time ) so that I was mentally prepared to cope with the vast, empty spaces that confronted me.

Of course, it was late-say 7:45-so that many of the usual suspects would have pushed on to the next freeload. Although it promised a quicker drink, I eschewed the room directly ahead, a large chamber in which a handful of lost souls, junior publicists most likely, wandered desolately like extras in the closing scenes of John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn . Instead, I turned sharply right and entered an equally commodious but noisier chamber where Dunne admirers, if not exactly thick on the ground, were present in sufficient number to create a busy, humming atmosphere, with more logrolling taking place than at a Weyerhaeuser mill. Here, I saw at once, was a reminder made flesh that if the 80’s saw the ascendancy of the second-rate, the 90’s have celebrated its apotheosis.

Almost immediately, I found myself at a small distance from a blond-tressed woman of astounding come-hither flamboyance. Yielding to ancient reflex, I instinctively checked my money clip to see if I might be in possession of a sufficient number of “Benjies” to secure even a quarter-hour stand-up quickie in the adjoining Palace Hotel. Alas, the exchequer came up short, as it generally does for us midlist types, and I scuttled away.

Only later would I learn that she whom I had taken for a working girl looking for a quick score before moving on to meet her regular sugar daddy at Patroon was not only a literary figure in her own right, authorial stablemate of the honoree at the great house of Crown, but the “scionette” of an old distinguished Manhattan family, in fact daughter of the president emeritus of “the Maidstone of Mulberry Street,” the Ravenite Social Club. The latter was unfortunately detained elsewhere on the evening in question.

Her presence explained why, after I had finally located my life’s companion and led her to a corner of the room from which we could survey the scene and tune into the buzz, there came a muffled cry from behind the velvet when I inadvertently backed into the curtains. I pushed the heavy drapery aside and discerned the anxious features of my friend Peter Maas, amanuensis to the former chairman of the Ravenite’s deaccessions committee, Signor Salvatore (“Don’t Say ‘Si!’ Until You’ve Stopped Breathing”) Gravano. No longer did Larry McMurtry seem the appropriate authority to help get one through the evening; what with one thing and another, I found myself wishing that I’d spent more time with the latest Mario Puzo. My lady and I assured Peter that his secret was safe with us, expressed envious admiration for his exquisitely cut suit, and returned our contemplation to the scene.

It was definitely not what connoisseurs of awfulness would rate as a five-star assembly. For one thing, the Prince of Swine didn’t seem to be in evidence, although the room was definitely abuzz with “literary” gossip concerning him. It seems that he has succeeded in strong-arming the New York City Construction Authority into permitting him to use unsold copies of his new book ( The Art of the Ass- ) in place of the subcode concrete he has hitherto been employing in his massive West Side project. While this would permit him to add 20 to 30 stories to the complex, the authority seems to have hung tough on this point, and the remainderable balance of the books will be contributed to the city and used for landfill. We had also hoped for a glimpse of little Ivanka, “the Chelsea Clinton of the Catwalk,” as my lady calls her, since we, as parents and grandparents, are fascinated by the notion of a child who doesn’t need the celebrity or the money-if her father’s extravagant claims concerning his finances are to be believed, which by this space they are not-being encouraged to enter the modeling world, a sinkhole of drugs, bulimia and the pimp mentality.

Finally, it came time to depart. Unfortunately, the lady of this house hadn’t snatched up a free copy of the novel, so I was glad I had kept my financial powder dry and not frittered it away foolishly on some tootsie. I intend to buy and read Dominick’s book at my earliest opportunity, although the Kmart training program, in which I am now enrolled, thanks to the way Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my own last novel, is pretty stingy in giving us time off.

That I will do so is the highest praise I can tender Dominick, since mine is a total lack of interest in anything having to do with O.J. Simpson. Actually, that’s not quite true: I do harbor an instant visceral dislike I took to Fred Goldman’s mustache, encountered while surfing in search of the Spanish-language channel, which at one point offered the only alternative to O.J. programming.

This ignorance did not come easily. It is the fruit of almost 30 years’ sedulous cultivation on my part of a sublime opacity, a tabula rasa absoluta, with respect to any information, viewpoint or opinion on what is, I believe, called “the Mideast Peace Process.” Apart from a sort of generalized wish that the whole thing be made to go away, possibly by the parties concerned spraying each other with Ebola virus, I know nothing of what goes on in the near neighborhood of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Araby. I was therefore totally prepared when O.J. came along. I only wish there were more like me.

It was chilly as we exited into the courtyard of the Villard Houses. As we walked to Madison, I recalled that here had once been the residence of the Catholic primate, and this brought back recollection of a conversation my father once had with Francis Cardinal Spellman.

“Joe,” he said in the course of their talk, “I am very sound on liturgy, but I know everything about Manhattan real estate!”

Thinking of the crowd we had just left, and of New York as it is today, I could only reflect, “Ah, Your Eminence, thou shouldst be living at this hour!”

Dominick Dunne Slithers Into New York Rat’s Nest