No Longer With Us: Dominick Dunne

I’m not sure that I had a happy childhood. I was one of six children, and we were a large Catholic family in Hartford, Connecticut, a very WASP city. We were outsiders and I hated being an outsider as a child. It wasn’t that we were discriminated against – I can’t say that – but we were different from the others. It seemed, for example, that children’s parties were always on a Friday, and in those days Catholics couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. I used to turn scarlet every time I had to decline the chicken or whatever it was we were being given. I would be brought a poached egg, and I hated all that, but the discrimination, if that is what it was, was more on my side than on theirs, if that makes sense. Now, as an adult, I love feeling like an outsider, because I think that’s what gives me the insights I have as a novelist and journalist. All those feelings I once hated I treasure, because that is what has helped me more than anything else as a writer.

One of the main influences of my childhood was my grandfather, after whom I am named. He was an extraordinary, brilliant man who had had very little formal education, yet was one of the most educated people I have ever known. He had an incredible love of literature and poetry. He made his money in the grocery business, but never forgot that he was born poor and had poor relations. He used to take care of the poor in the city of Hartford, and eventually he was knighted by the Pope for his charitable work. My brother and I would spend Saturday nights at my grandfather’s house, where he read poetry to us after dinner. We hated it at the time, but it had an enormous influence. Then, on Sunday, he would take us down to the poor areas of the city. It was all an important part of our growing up.

I was close to my mother too, but I never got on with my father. I always felt I was a disappointment to him. I was not a good athlete. I was shy and had a stutter. I was very insecure. I was not a good student. Then, when I was eighteen, I went into the army. I was very scared, but drafted out of my fancy boarding school and finding myself with all these tough people. I had one friend, a boy from Yale who was a year older.  They used to call us the gold-dust twins. During the Battle of the Bulge we were in combat for the first time and I was absolutely terrified. It was dark and raining, and we were retreating, losing the battle. Some men had been wounded, but although the lieutenant was told about the wounded men, he said we couldn’t stop for them since his orders were to take us back. Something happened then that I have never been able to understand. My friend and I looked at each other and some energy or something took over the two of us. We turned around and ran toward the enemy in the night, artillery shells flying over our heads in the pouring pissing rain.

God knows how, but we found two wounded soldiers in the pitch dark. My friend carried one and I carried the other to the nearest aid station, in the basement of a bombed-out house. The duty orderly said he couldn’t do anything since his orders were to retreat, but we made him help. We turned on a generator to get some light and eventually got the guys into an ambulance. I was covered in blood, and never even knew the name of the one I’d carried. I never heard if he lived or died. But as I put him on the stretcher, he took hold of my fingers and squeezed them as if to say thanks.

My friend and I both got medals for that, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was maybe the first indication that inside I had some kind of strength that I never understood. I felt I had the ability to do anything at that moment. It was almost like I was outside of myself watching. I didn’t talk about it for years and years. Then, two winters ago, I had an amazing experience. There’s a coffee shop near here, and sometimes, when I work late, I go over and have a sandwich at the counter. One day I looked up from my New York Times and saw a guy looking at me. It was the other gold-dust twin. We hadn’t seen each other in over forty years. We both got up and each of us walked across and just hugged the other, and cried.

Hollywood is very unforgiving of failure. It will forgive, even overlook your forgeries, your embezzlements, and occasionally your murders, but it will not forgive failure.’ I’m glad you picked that to quote at me from my latest novel. It’s one of my favourite lines in the whole book. And it’s true. If the guy’s last four pictures are successful he will be forgiven anything. Take the famous forgery case out there a few years ago. The whole industry rallied behind the man that forged the cheque. He was the head of a studio, and they stood behind him. Again – this is dicey to talk about so I’m not naming names – a very famous man out there may or may not have ordered a killing; certainly it’s been in all the papers that the possibility exists. No charges have been filed, but the possibility remains. That man is not shunned. And God knows, there’s one case after another of financial irregularities. During that famous forgery case, people whom I knew at the studio would say, ‘It was only $10,000.’

Not all my days in Hollywood were unhappy. I had some great years there, until it turned bad for me and I began to hate it, but not every minute of my twenty-four years there was horrible. For more than half of that time it was wonderful. Even now, when I go back, I always have a funny feeling there, and I’m not just talking about my daughter’s death. If my daughter hadn’t been murdered I would still have this feeling. I grew so desperately lonely and unhappy there and I used to blame others for the destruction of my film career, but ultimately I came to realize that it was myself who brought it about. Maybe it was some sort of elaborate pattern in the grand plan of life to get me to go and write. None the less I didn’t understand that at the time. I was drinking, I was taking drugs, I was doing all kinds of things, and my life became just awful.

In any case, I began to feel I might have some talent as a writer during my last years in Hollywood when my whole career as a film and television producer came apart. Having been very successful and then having started to be very unsuccessful, I was also experiencing this inner feeling that I should be writing. Of course, I was of an age when the whole idea of shifting career seemed just ludicrous, so I didn’t act right away. Eventually, in about 1979, I moved from California to Oregon and started writing my first book. I had gone to my former wife’s house, where I had things stored on the third floor. Among my belongings that I had long since forgotten were letters written to me during the Second World War when I was overseas, eighteen years old and a private soldier in combat. Those letters from years and years before were from my mother, father and sisters, and several times my father, who I thought didn’t like me, said that my own letters home were so descriptive that I should really think about writing as a career. So I think it was always there; it was just dormant in me. I’m happy now, because I have found contentment in my work. I love working for Vanity Fair and I love writing my books. I often get asked to go back to Hollywood to write or produce a movie again, but that’s all gone, that’s over. I seem to be bringing out a novel every two years, and in between times I write stories for Vanity Fair and travel a great deal. I have the kind of life where I don’t have to answer to anyone. I go to Europe four or five times a year and to California just as often, and I love living like that. I actually don’t need other people in my life. I’ve finally come to that conclusion. I love having friends, but I am basically a loner. I haven’t even had a long relationship with a woman for quite a few years.

When People Like Us and Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities get spoken of together, I am enormously flattered because Tom Wolfe is one of the really great writers of our time and I admired his book enormously. But our books are very different. He’s much more of a satirist than I am, and I think I see more hope than he does. Everybody is ultimately bad in his book, there’s nobody to root for, whereas I don’t think things are that bad.

Three other writers I feel affinity with are Scott Fitzgerald, John P. Marquand and John O’Hara. All three have influenced me. As a kid I couldn’t wait for J. P. Marquand’s books to come out, and he had an enormous influence on me. I have a great affinity with John O’Hara in that he, too, was an Irish Catholic and moved in high social life, as I apparently do. I always identified with those two, and then, later, I read Fitzgerald, who’s probably the best writer of the three.

When, in People Like Us, I described smart ladies in long ball gowns stepping over the down-and-outs in the street, it was an exaggerated image, but what eventually happens to New Yorkers, even the most wonderful people, is that the blinders go on and they stop looking.  I have actually seen them coming out of a swell party and getting into a limousine, pulling minks around them and putting their jewels into their bags so they won’t show while they’re waiting for the chauffeur to close the door; and all this while homeless people are lying right there in the street.

When I said, ‘The Reagans brought out the worst in many people,’ it was what I really thought. I’m not a fan of the Reagans at all. From the very beginning of their administration, Mrs Reagan had this sense of opulence that went beyond the norm one expects from the First Lady.  Everything had to do with possessions: she gave extraordinary emphasis to clothes, and there was the famous business of the china that cost so much money. I think that kind of set the pace for the rich. When the Reagans could have invited fascinating people to the White House, they chose the rich and fashionable instead, and sent a signal out to the country that flamboyance was OK.

Since you quote me my remark that the 1980s was the decade when the rich went public, I have to say that I can really only speak for New York, because that’s where I lived during that whole decade. The rich were richer than they’ve ever been before, and it was truly disgusting how they flaunted their wealth. And the way they would invite the media into their lives used to fascinate me. All their houses were photographed. It was the era of instant art collections, instant antique collections, instant porcelain collections, instant jewellery collections. People just talked about money the whole time. You’d be sitting in somebody’s house at dinner, and you’d know that the apartment you were sitting in was sold for $6,800,000, that the hostess’s dress cost $22,000, that the centrepieces from Marlow cost $600 and that the curtains from Sister Parish cost whatever. I couldn’t get over it, this thing about money, money, money. It was really obscene. That was when I decided to write People Like Us. It’s too early to define the 1990s yet, because I don’t think a decade defines itself until about the fourth year. But the lives of these people have certainly gone into the closet again. And that s for the good, I think. Critics always say this thing about writers, that they have a strong desire to belong to the world they write about, and I don t really know the answer to that question. I don’t feel I want to be part of that world, because once you’re a part of it you can’t comment on it any more. As it is I ride a very fine line between mixing in that world and writing about it. It’s a very curious thing. I found that during the time I was writing People Like Us, which was about New York society and people involved in social advancement, I really did live the life of those people. I could never live like that again. I did it for several years, and I’m glad I did it, but I never have to do it again.

As for how, as a successful novelist, I can escape the fate of the rich  as I describe it in my novels, I can tell you, in the first place, that my house is fairly sweet, very cosy, but also very small. I have no desire to move to a fifteen-room house. This is the way I’m going to live for the rest of my life. I’m really not interested in all the things that go with money, acquisitions and so on. I have been rich and successful earlier in my life, when I was in the movie business, and it did change me when I was young. I turned into somebody I never want to be again so I’ve already had that experience. And it’s not going to happen again. If people see a strong moralistic line in my novels it is something which has evolved. What happened to me in my life has changed me for ever. I have been involved in drink and drug abuse, though that was years ago. I’m still a regular participant in AA, but even if I didn’t go to AA, I would never drink or drug again.

Ask me about my writing. I don’t like questions like that – about whether respect in the States is fundamentally linked to money. Answers always come out making me sound like an asshole – you know, giving great opinions. I’m just a writer. Yes when Women’s Wear Daily somehow got hold of a very early draft of People Like Us – I never knew how – it was a very interesting experience for me, though I was scared at first; They likened me to Truman Capote, and said that, like him, I had bitten the hand that fed me. Truman Capote revealed confidences and secrets that people in society had told him, and I knew I hadn’t done that. I therefore decided just to wait it out, and I almost enjoyed the experience of being shunned by those who had previously invited me. Some did call me up and ask how I could have done such a thing, and a couple of people had their lawyers ring and threaten my publishing house. It was just fascinating, and I began to wonder, what do they think I know about them that I don’t really know? Anyone who’s read this book will see that it deals with the public life of these people. I don’t know what their secrets are. Once the book was out, most people calmed down, but there are still a few who have never spoken to me since. I don’t think, in fact, that I’ve ever betrayed a confidence. I always make sure that I combine three or four people into one character. Someone may recognize certain aspects of their own character, but never the whole.

In my interviews people tell me things they’ve never admitted to before. I truly don’t know why, but all my life people have told me things. The simple answer, I suppose, is that I’m a good listener. A letter arrived today from a friend whom I had told of my experience the other night at a party in New York where a woman talked to me about the death of her son. This friend of mine writes: ‘The image I have been unable to shake from my mind is the one you put there the other morning when we talked on the phone of your encounter with’ – I’ll make up a name – ‘Mary. I’m dead certain that she hasn’t had that conversation or even anything like it with another soul. What Mary told you may not strike the world as significantly historic, but I can tell you, even though I think you already know, that for her that was one fucking precious moment. I’ve played it over and over in my mind, the murmur of other conversations going on around you, the smell of the room, the rustling of dresses, getting up from the table and so on, until she came back into the room to kiss you good night. It all haunts me in a rather pleasant way and perhaps the reason why I can’t shake it or don’t want to is because practically everything else about her son’s death haunts me in the most unpleasant way.’ That letter perhaps shows that it just so happens that people tell me things.

The fact that public figures are no longer so protected from their indiscretions as they once were raises an interesting question. I’m in a dilemma about how to answer it. I don’t think I would ever reveal something that was terribly private to a person’s life. If I discovered that someone had committed murder I think I’d tell it, or if someone had stolen something – that’s a different thing, if the person has harmed someone. But if it’s about someone’s sexuality, or someone’s illegitimacy over which the person has no control, I wouldn’t tell. I would say, though, that the investigative journalism we now have in the United States has gone too far. I’ve stopped reading Spy magazine. I used to be amused in the beginning, but it isn’t funny any more. It’s just cruel, and people are deeply hurt by it.

If I say I have come to terms with tragedy in my life, it sounds so arch. I believe in God, and I think that, no matter what happens, you go on, you don’t give up. I believe very firmly in this. There are so many people who suffer a tragedy in their lives and never recover from it. I go out and talk a lot to groups or to people who have been through homicide experiences, and what I try to say is that your life can go on again, you can go out, go to movies again, laugh again, go to parties again. What has happened will always be part of you and will change you, but you have to go back to work, and if you’ve got other children, you have to focus on them rather than focusing on the tragedy that has occurred.

I was myself able to use the tragedy of my daughter’s murder in a novel and in an article in Vanity Fair. Why shouldn’t I? I was so enraged by the justice system that I could never have returned to my writing career if I had not written that article. My anger was at such a level that I was obsessed by what I had witnessed in the courtroom, and it was a release for me. I’m also very proud of that article. It’s been used by district attorneys, by judges, and it’s read in some law schools to show what can happen when a case goes wrong in court. The book did not deal with the tragedy; it dealt with the aftermath, with how you deal with feelings of revenge, of getting even with the person who has done this terrible thing to you. In People Like Us as I wrote it – I’m not talking about the movie of it, because the movie was a piece of shit where they changed the whole emphasis – the character of Gus Bailey was the seemingly passive person who worked as a journalist in New York, and none of the people with whom he interacted knew that he was planning a violent act, which was to kill the person who had caused him harm.

I know that in real life you have those feelings, and I know that in the groups of people I talk to they have those feelings of wanting to kill the person who has killed the member of their family. Now, I also know that you can’t do it, nor would I do it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have the feelings, and as a novelist I could create a situation in which I could deal with those feelings, could act them out in a story in a way I couldn’t act them out in life. Yet the fact is that when I got to the part where he shoots the killer, I couldn’t make him shoot him, even in a book; so his hand moves as he shoots, and he wounds the guy but doesn’t kill him. In life, however, I can never forgive.

If I could rewind the tape of the life I have lived, I would certainly have moved away from Hollywood sooner and started writing. But I also believe in the whole perfect pattern. Perhaps I’m better as a writer for having gone through so much, for having been broke for ten years, for having to worry about rent money, for having been successful, then unsuccessful, and having people whom I thought were my friends in Hollywood no longer be my friends because I was no longer successful.  I hated that while I was living it, but I got through it and now I wouldn’t trade it. If it’s all been just perfect for you all your life, you’re going to have nothing to write about. You have to see both sides.

If I had it all again, what would I do? I would try to get to know my father better. I was afraid of my father, and I understand now that he was the kind of man who didn’t have the ability to be gentle. It made me scared of strong men for most of my life. When I was in Hollywood I used to be terrified of heads of studios. Anybody who was in authority over me would frighten me. I no longer feel like that, but I’m a different person now. I used to hate being a Catholic in an Episcopalian city, but now, if I had to live it again, I would want it to be exactly the same. I used to think all life would be easier for me if only I was a Protestant instead of a Catholic, which is ludicrous. But I guess we never understand our lives until later.

I allowed my Catholicism to lapse for many years, but I have come back to it. I had a child who died, and after my child died I was in a state of despair. I was living in California then, and a man – a most unlikely person who had been a figure in the movie industry, been divorced I don’t know how many times, been a great womanizer and everything else – came to see me and told me of a priest he thought I should go and see. I was so startled that this guy with his rogue life should have this idea, that I went to see the priest, and I don’t know exactly what happened, but I started going back to my faith. I have stayed with it, and although I’m not the best Catholic in the world. I do practise my religion.

My broken marriage was a source of sadness to me. Still is. I was married to a wonderful woman. She’s still my great friend. She has multiple sclerosis and is a total invalid. She lives in a wheelchair and cannot do a single thing without assistance. That all happened after we were divorced, although she was ill during our marriage and it was never diagnosed. I never wanted to get divorced, and neither of us ever married again. We went through a bad period, but the point of marriage should be that you weather out the bad patches. It’s always upset me that my kids’ lives were shaken up during that time. I wouldn’t have gotten a divorce if I had it to do over again. She’s probably still the most important person in my life. I think the failure of the marriage was my fault not hers. It would have been nice if things had turned out differently. For years and years I’ve missed the noise of a house, the children’s sounds, dog sounds, maid sounds and so on. When I went to live alone, it took me years to get used to the silence. Now I’m used to being alone, and I kind of like it. My chief regret has to be that I wasn’t a better husband. That really took a toll. I hope I have been a good father. I know for a fact that my children love me, and that’s a nice feeling, but it’s not to say that all’s been perfect with the kids.  Sometimes my sons can be really tough with me, but i suppose it’s good that they feel secure enough to do so.  One of my sons gave me hell the other day.  A TV movie of one of my books came out, and it dealt with my daughter’s death, something that was not in my book.  It really bothered me too, but my son said that it was my own fault, that if I had taken an interest and hadn’t distanced myself from the movie so much and put it in other people’s hands, this would never have happened.  He got really mad at me, and i was hurt by it, but i realized also how much had changed.  There was a time in my life when, if he had spoken like that, I would simply have hung up the phone, but instead I understood his anger.  Even though he was angry with me, he still loved me, and i knew that he knew that I loved him back.

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