Dunne In: Society Scrivener Throws Fit Over Harsh Review

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Los Angeles, another soap opera of revenge and recrimination has overtaken the city. This time, a feud of Spellingesque proportions-a serial drama of tarnished reputations, an atavistic confrontation between high and low culture-involves a world usually studiously ignored there: publishing. And at the red-hot center of it all is Dominick Dunne, the man who has made a career out of chronicling the city’s fin de siècle madness.

The creator of such entertainments as The Two Mrs. Grenvilles , People Like Us , and currently Another City, Not My Own , in which he transformed his reporting on the O.J. Simpson criminal trial for Vanity Fair into “a novel in the form of a memoir,” considers himself the crime victim this time. Crying conspiracy, Mr. Dunne accuses Steve Wasserman, the book editor of the Los Angeles Times , of assigning a review of Another City, Not My Own to a writer who he says bears him a great deal of ill will, art critic and novelist Gary Indiana.

“This is called being set up, and Steve Wasserman is not my idea of a book [review] editor,” Mr. Dunne said, referring to Mr. Indiana’s Jan. 4 review, which was titled “Hissy Fit.” “This is a minor injustice, but an injustice nonetheless, and I’ve spent my whole career fighting injustice.” Mr. Dunne is in Paris for Vanity Fair at the moment.

On Jan. 5, Mr. Dunne fired off a letter to Mr. Wasserman: “That wasn’t a review,” he wrote. “That was a hate letter. As you know, Indiana, whom I have never met, has previously attacked me in the most mocking manner in his book called Resentment: A Comedy , a book I understand … you greatly admire…. You set me up to be demolished.” (Mr. Indiana’s novel was a fictional take on the trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez, which Mr. Dunne also covered.)

Ranged behind Mr. Wasserman, Mr. Dunne claims, are a host of foes at the Los Angeles Times and beyond. If so, they certainly have been providing welcome publicity for his tenuously best-selling book. That’s because his friend, gossip columnist Liz Smith, got into the act, twice offering an interpretation of the resulting literary hissy fit in her column in the New York Post on Jan. 7 and again on Jan. 13. Ms. Smith’s passion for reporting is such that she was able to learn of the existence of Mr. Dunne’s missive to Mr. Wasserman-and quoted from it in her Jan. 7 column-before it had even reached Mr. Wasserman.

Between such lines of the letter as “I am aware that my writing enrages a small segment of the public-people like [Menendez defense attorney] Leslie Abramson, Johnnie Cochran and an assortment of zealots for the guilty, into which category Indiana fits,” publishing-world observers might find a possibly deeper source of Mr. Dunne’s distress: his estrangement from his brother John Gregory Dunne. Mr. Dunne said that in the midst of his widely hyped condemnations of Ms. Abramson during the Menendez trial, John Gregory included her in the dedication of his novel Playland . Whatever the more primal tensions, the two Mr. Dunnes and John Gregory’s wife, Joan Didion, used to be close, back in the days when Dominick, then an anomaly in Hollywood as a producer of serious-minded movies, worked with them on such films as Panic in Needle Park and Play It as It Lays , from Ms. Didion’s novel.

But following his recovery from an extended bout with cocaine and alcohol, it seems that Mr. Dunne’s conversion to the more commercial side of the literary business, and his embrace of the glitzier manifestations of fame, strained his relationship with his brother, Ms. Didion and their intellectual circle. It is this circle that Mr. Dunne discerns in one of several passages he feels make fun of him in Mr. Indiana’s book through the character of a gossip writer named Fawbus Kennedy.

The Indiana novel states: “Fawbus Kennedy’s dream in life … is to become more famous than his brother Sean, whose novels are considered more literary. And Sean Kennedy’s dream … is to become more famous than his wife Cora Winchell, whose novels are considered more highbrow.” Mr. Indiana’s story describes Fawbus Kennedy as “a third-rate middlebrow Depends ad,” jealous of “the good literary fortunes of his brother and his sister-in-law, who are taken seriously by The New York Review and similar publications where a writer like Fawbus Kennedy is considered a bad joke.”

Mr. Dunne told The Observer , “I never read the whole book because it’s utterly filthy, but the part about me is real, real mean. I’m presented as inferior to my brother.”

Mr. Dunne said that the enlistment of Mr. Indiana as a reviewer convinced him that a full-fledged war was being waged against him at the Los Angeles Times . As additional evidence, he pointed to the fact that Leslie Abramson is married to Times city-county bureau chief Tim Rutten, whose further failings in Mr. Dunne’s mind include ghosting Johnnie Cochran’s book about the O.J. Simpson trial, Journey to Justice , and a close friendship with his brother and Ms. Didion. Ms. Smith duly supported Mr. Dunne in her Jan. 13 column, in addition to relating allegations that Mr. Indiana was asked to review Another City, Not My Own only after Mr. Rutten forced Mr. Wasserman to cancel an assignment to an admirer of the Dunne novel: “the respected editor,” Ms. Smith wrote, “of Hyperion Books, Maureen O’Brian [sic].” Ms. O’Brien, a former media columnist at the New York Post , is a senior editor at Hyperion, where one of her authors is Ms. Smith.

By the time her column appeared, Mr. Rutten had retained the services of a lawyer to represent him in his demands that Ms. Smith print a retraction. Which she did (kind of) in her column on Jan. 16. But Mr. Rutten was still steamed. “She behaved recklessly by not contacting any of the principals,” he said. “How many people does she do this to on a weekly basis who can’t fight back or are afraid to? Based on my knowledge of her journalistic methods, I suspect it’s a fair number. The question in my mind is whether something called the Los Angeles Times Syndicate should continue to run a column like this. I think it’s an affront to all the serious journalists here.”

Mr. Wasserman, who printed Mr. Dunne’s letter and his reply in an exchange prominently highlighted on the Book Review ‘s cover on Jan. 11, is trying to let bygones be bygones. But having described Ms. Smith to The Observer as “a devoted follower of the great Oscar Wilde, who said, ‘Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,'” Mr. Wasserman added, “Leaving Dominick Dunne out of this, it’s her interests that are being served,” with the portrayal of Ms. O’Brien’s role.

Ms. Smith was not entirely penitent. “We gave him [Mr. Rutten] a retraction because I didn’t feel my source would hold up through a libel suit-but that doesn’t mean my source’s story didn’t have something to it,” she said. She added that there was “no point” in her calling either Mr. Wasserman or Mr. Rutten to check the story after Ms. O’Brien had backed out of doing the review. “People operating in our business have to trust their sources,” she said, “but there’s no rebuke for anyone in this but myself.”

While Mr. Wasserman admits to asking Ms. O’Brien to review the book, as well as introducing her to Mr. Rutten at, he also said that Mr. Rutten had nothing to do with Ms. O’Brien not doing the review. “At no time did I disclose to anyone who was reviewing the book,” he said. She called him herself to “beg off,” he added. Ms. O’Brien declined to comment. (This reporter has also written reviews for the Los Angeles Times Book Review .)

Mr. Wasserman then turned to Mr. Indiana, whose Resentment had been reviewed unfavorably in the pages of the Book Review only months before. Mr. Wasserman was aware that similarities between the “Fawbus Kennedy” character and Mr. Dunne had been mentioned in a Los Angeles Times profile of Mr. Indiana. “I asked [Mr. Indiana] if he had any view of Dunne that would get in the way of a judicious and fair review of his novel, and he said he didn’t.”

Mr. Wasserman said much the same in his published letter. “I am not aware of any animus toward Dunne on the part of Indiana,” he wrote. Mr. Dunne finds the reply unsatisfactory. “Wasserman is a fuckin’ liar,” he said.

Although Crown Publishers, his imprint at Random House, appears less worried about the negative effects of the Indiana review on sales of the book than the author does, the rather weak performance of this novel compared to most of his others is cause for concern. Not only does Crown depend on Mr. Dunne for a great deal of its bottom line, not to mention for his fancy friends and influential media connections, but it also has a lot of money riding on another book about O.J. Simpson: Triumph of Justice , by Daniel Petrocelli, the victorious prosecutor in Mr. Simpson’s civil trial, which comes out in April. However, Crown editorial director Steve Ross said he had no reservations. “[ Another City, Not My Own ] got a lot better review coverage than we expected, which bodes well for the Petrocelli,” he said.

The only person who seems to be enjoying the spectacle of the Dunne vs. Wasserman battle is Mr. Indiana. “My reputation as a writer is quite good enough to withstand the imputation that my review was a hit job,” he said. “I liked The Two Mrs. Grenvilles -not as literature, but as entertainment. And I read Another City twice trying to find anything good in it. I found one thing: I loved when Dunne had Nancy Reagan introduced to Heidi Fleiss. But that’s also the problem with his book: Who cares who he knows? … My characters are based on a whole lot of people; my novel is about the projected images of public figures…. I think people like Dunne are a public menace, polluting the jury pool and prejudicing jurors, but I bear no personal animus toward him. I don’t have any ambitions in his world of social-climbing egregiousness. It’s a sign of American culture disintegrating that Dominick Dunne getting a bad review becomes a cause célèbre .”

Mr. Dunne has sworn he will never move back to Los Angeles. Mr. Indiana says he’d like to. Another City, Not My Own ends with Andrew Cunanan murdering Mr. Dunne’s alter ego, Gus Bailey. Mr. Indiana’s next book is about Andrew Cunanan. Dunne In: Society Scrivener Throws Fit Over Harsh Review