Remembering Dominick Dunne

by Editorial
Diane von Furstenburg. Photo by Jodi King.

Diane von Furstenburg. Photo by Jodi King.

Perhaps the most unnoticed mourner: Dorothy Moxley, whose daughter, Martha, was murdered in 1975. The case later became the subject of Nick’s 1993 book, A Season in Purgatory, which helped revive the case and was certainly instrumental in obtaining a conviction of Kennedy family cousin Michael Skakel in 2002.

Magic moments are hard to plan – but even there Nick succeeded. Twenty minutes past the official starting time, just as the congregation was starting to twist and turn in their places, wondering what could possible be causing the delay, Nick’s casket, accompanied by four priests and close family members, finally arrived for its solitary journey down the main aisle. Then another dramatic pause as the congregation stood to pay their respects. Finally the soft tinkling of a piano began echoing through the vaulted rafters, followed by the crystal clear sounds of a young tenor singing “Anything Goes.”

“In olden days a glimpse of stocking

Was looked on as something shocking,

But now, God knows,

Anything Goes.”

Surprised looks, sniffles, and smiles. Nick, the consummate director and stylist, was orchestrating it from the heavens above. (God only knows how he persuaded Roman Catholic Church authorities to bend the usual “sacred music only” rule to permit the crooning of a jaunty Cole Porter favorite amid the candles, cassocks, and chalices.)

Griffin Dunne and Alex Dunne. Photo by Jodi King.

Griffin Dunne and Alex Dunne. Photo by Jodi King.

More serious moments would follow during the homily when Fr. Daniel Morrisey spoke of Nick’s insistence that he focus on the subject of Resurrection. “He had tasted death, despair, betrayal, and guilt,” the priest said of his longtime friend. He had seen the light and was “plotting his own resurrection.”

After seemingly interminable readings, prayers, and a communion service came the eulogies – the moment everyone awaited.

Actor and director Griffin Dunne, Nick’s eldest son, started on a humorous note by reporting how ironic it was that Manhattan’s Frank E. Campbell mortuary had offered to post security guards on church premises to “ferret out ‘professional mourners’ ” among those seeking admission to the funeral of America’s top celebrity chronicler.

“You see, my father was a professional mourner,” Griffin told the crowd, many of whom were chuckling in recognition. “He thought nothing of dropping in to check out Campbell’s ‘client list’ ” when he lived in New York City after he was first married. “But it wasn’t just a morbid hobby. I think he was subconsciously making notes for articles he was decades away from writing. Later he was not only invited but courted by people who had done fantastic things in their lives and were now eager to share them with him.”

But there was another side to his father. Noting his legendary kindness and generosity that extended beyond the “rich and famous” to the “desperate and poor,” Griffin recounted Nick’s many heartfelt acts – beaux gestes that extended even to picking up a lapsed insurance policy of someone dying of AIDS.

Tina Brown and Sir Harry Evans. Photo by Jodi King.

Tina Brown and Sir Harry Evans. Photo by Jodi King.

Next to speak was legendary editor Tina Brown, who gave Nick his first big break as a writer in 1983 when she hired him to write for Vanity Fair (and where he would later cover, among others, the sensational trials of O.J. Simpson, Claus von Bulow, William Kennedy Smith, and Phil Spector). He was 57 at the time and trying to remake himself after the collapse of a once-promising career as a Hollywood director and producer, drug and alcohol addiction, and divorce from his wife Lennie.

“Life changed for the both of us,” Brown said, remembering her friend’s “unforgettable voice – mellow and humorous and suggestive of past lives and forgiven sins.” He was a “natural reporter and a dogged one and he found his true calling with no professional training except the best training of all – a checkered life. And he worked it better than anyone before or since.” In the end, she added, “He didn’t look for stories; stories looked for him.”

Graydon Carter and Stephen Sondheim. Photo by Jodi King.

Graydon Carter and Stephen Sondheim. Photo by Jodi King.

Joan Didion, the celebrated author, essayist, and widow of Nick’s late brother, writer John Gregory Dunne, was the next to speak, and although her voice was too frail to carry much beyond the first few pews, I managed to hear her tribute to a “charming, gifted, and generous” brother-in-law whose experience as a World War II hero reminded us all that “bad moments could come out of nowhere.”

In a tribute that took the form of a letter to his father, younger son Alex Dunne spoke movingly of recent efforts to sort through Nick’s photo albums and personal memorabilia, the “material evidence” of an incredible life that aptly mirrored the title of his posthumous last novel, A Solo Act. Everyone laughed when he quoted Nick’s oft-repeated phrase “I never repeat gossip … so listen carefully.”

“We all did, how could we not?” Alex said. “Events came alive as you spoke.”

Joan Didion (left). Photo by Jodi King.

Joan Didion (left). Photo by Jodi King.

Longtime gossip columnist Liz Smith’s eulogy, delivered in her trademark Texas twang, eked a few laughs from the mourners as well when she recounted Nick’s reply to the standard question “How are you?”

“I’m dying,” he told her, “but apart from that I’m all right.”

Smith enthralled us with memories of the deceased dating back more than half a century when they worked together on the old children’s program, “The Howdy Doody Show.”

“He was one of the greatest gossips and companions I have ever had,” she said, calling Nick’s “almost Proustian” view of the social scene a “treacherous intersection of power, money, murder, and justice. … He became his own invention both as a writer and gadfly.”

Ann Slater. Photo by Jodi King.

Ann Slater. Photo by Jodi King.

The funeral ended with Nick’s teenage granddaughter, Hannah Dunne remembering that she always got a valentine from “a secret admirer” every year. “I knew who sent it but pretended I didn’t,” she said before breaking into a heartfelt a cappella rendition of “My Funny Valentine” that was the memorial’s most memorable tear-jerker moment.

“You’re my funny valentine,

Sweet comic valentine,

You make me smile with my heart.

Your looks are laughable, un-photographable,

Yet, you’re my favorite work of art.”

Nick would be so proud and happy to know that his beloved Hannah has a heart just as big as his own.

Dina Merrill and Ted Hartley. Photo by Jodi King.

Dina Merrill and Ted Hartley. Photo by Jodi King.

A PERSONAL NOTE

I was a big fan of Dominick Dunne’s right from the start of his writing career, but did not have the chance to meet him until the mid-’90s when we bumped into each other while we both were covering one of the Mike Tyson prize fights in Las Vegas. (It may even have been the year Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear off in the ring.) I told him that I had hung out with his younger son, Alex, in San Francisco some years previously and we had a cordial chat.

We met again few years later at a Vanity Fair White House Correspondents Dinner after-party, but didn’t truly bond until our mutual friend, Susan Mary Alsop, invited us both to her house for drinks while Nick was in town covering the Clinton impeachment trial. I offered to drive him to his hotel afterwards but he would have none of it. He wanted to see and be seen, take the pulse of Washington at Washington’s top celebrity watering hole.

I still remember the hubbub that ensued when he walked through the door of Cafe Milano in Georgetown. Everyone seemed to know him by sight and we spent the entire evening being interrupted by well-wishers and fans, many of whom knew him personally in one way or the other.

Richard Gere. Photo by Jodi King.

Richard Gere. Photo by Jodi King.

Milano instantly became Nick’s Washington home-away-from-home. As our friendship grew, largely by periodic catch-up phone calls, I became his sort-of unofficial rep in the nation’s capital (despite the fact that he had far better pals here – Bill and Deeda Blair, Jane Hitchcock, and Polly Kraft among them). I took it upon myself to organize Café Milano parties after he published two of his books, The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of A Well Known Name-Dropper (1999) and Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments (2001).

These events were lots of work but I never minded a minute of it. Everyone wanted to be invited and both fetes were jam-packed with grandes dames, socialites, diplomats, politicos, and journalists of every stripe. Even better than getting Nick’s list of those whom he wanted there was his list of people he didn’t want there. I may take some of those stories to the grave.

One well-known socialite actually burst into tears when she found out she was among the cordially uninvited. Others pulled every crasher’s trick in the book despite the phalanx of list-bearing gorgons at the door, including a number of people who really should have known better. In the end though, Nick was pretty open minded about letting all of them in. After all, they were his fans.

Both of the events were a huge success – even the one that took place in mid-July – with all the attendant press coverage and cameras flashing everywhere. I still chuckle when I recall a young photographer sheepishly asking Nick if he minded her shooting him over and over again.

“Honey,” he said with an indulgent smile, “I loove it!”

My most poignant moment with Nick came when he asked me to accompany him on a visit to the World War II Memorial. As we walked around the recently constructed monument he suddenly grew silent and I immediately sensed it would be better not to interrupt his thoughts for a while. Later, as we sat on one of the stone benches nearby, he said he had been drafted just out of prep school at the age of 17 to fight on the European front in World War II. After a minimum of training he soon found himself armed, terrified, and charging enemy lines at the infamous Battle of the Bulge. In the midst of heavy fire he rescued a badly wounded G.I. by carrying him on his back to safety. “We were both completely covered in his blood,” he said, adding somewhat sorrowfully that he was never able to find out if his comrade had survived. I was so impressed when he said that had been awarded a Bronze Star for heroism.

“You know something?” he told me in a confidential whisper. “My father never called me a sissy after that.”

Many have expanded on Nick’s world-class ability as a storyteller and raconteur, and it would be redundant to add to their efforts. But he did tell the most amazingly jaw-dropping tales, most of which would never see print. I’ll never forget him confiding his fear that a scion of a prominent American family wanted him dead and that he had hired private security for protection. Other asides about the peccadilloes of various Hollywood stars, financial titans, and titled Eurotrash were equally astounding. I always knew a particularly juicy one was on its way when he prefaced it with: “Now, this is totally off-the-record [pregnant pause with stern look] and that means NO BLABBING!”

“Of course not! You know I never repeat anything you say!”

Nick was incredibly funny and occasionally terrifying. His anger and mirth, like his loves and hates, were of equal intensity. Every moment in his company was a delight because he knew the art of making you feel as if you were the most special person he had ever met.

He was a friend of the heart, a friend of the soul. I will always miss him, dear, dear Nick.

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