‘I never repeat gossip,” Dominick Dunne liked to joke, “so listen closely the first time.” It was the prefect one-liner for a man who made a career out of peddling rumours and anecdotes about the rich and glamorous people he encountered. He repeated them endlessly – in books and in screenplays, over power lunches in chic restaurants and, most famously, in the pages of Vanity Fair magazine.
Dunne, an outsider forever jostling for an invitation inside and a spot on the A-list, gets the starring role he always craved in this biography. New York author and entertainment writer Robert Hofler offers a no-holds-barred account of a complex, tormented man. Decades of drug and alcohol abuse, secret homosexual liaisons and money woes are chronicled in meticulous detail, offering a stark contrast to his later public persona as a social gadfly and bestselling novelist.
Hofler is blessed with a subject who loved to write about himself. But he was determined to dig deeper. He reviewed Dunne’s voluminous journals and letters, housed in a Texas archive, and interviewed more than 180 people who knew him.
Dunne, who died in 2009, was an inveterate name-dropper and Hofler has little choice but to follow suit as he traces a life devoted to schmooze-and-tell.
As a producer in 1970s Hollywood, Dunne handed Al Pacino his first big movie role. Elizabeth Taylor made his life a living hell while filming in Italy. Frank Sinatra purportedly paid someone to slug him in the head, in the hope of dislodging the toupee that once concealed his receding hairline.
He reinvented himself in his fifties as an author and journalist. Legendary New York book editor Michael Korda once offered a piece of advice – “there’s nothing the public enjoys more than the rich and the powerful in a criminal situation” – and Dunne ran with it.
He began with a personal tragedy, chronicling the trial of the man who killed his daughter, actress Dominique Dunne, in 1982. As Vanity Fair’s go-to guy for celebrity crime, he covered the OJ Simpson murder trial-turned-media circus and other courtroom dramas featuring famous defendants.
His regular “Diary” column in the magazine, launched in 2001, allowed him to immerse himself (and voyeuristic readers) in the rarefied world of celebrity culture.
Dunne was envious of the success of others and relished having a front-row seat as the once-mighty got their comeuppance, whether from him or from the courts.
In an ironic twist, he became better-known – and more in demand as a party and dinner guest – than many of the people he wrote about.
Hofler’s deeply researched, even-handed biography may well be the last word on a career built on the fame and foibles of others.
*Money, Murder, And Dominick Dunne: A Life In Several Acts by Robert Hofler, University of Wisconsin Press, £28.95
*Dean Jobb’s latest book, Empire Of Deception, is a true tale of glamour, crime and an outrageous swindle that shocked 1920s Chicago.