October 29, 1925– Dominick Dunne:
“We’ve all got trashy friends, but we should choose our trashy friends with more care.”
I remember the day of his passing in the summer of 2009. It was ironic that he died on the very same day as his sworn enemy Edward Kennedy. What sort of weird karmic energy was in play with that? I was such a big fan of his column in Vanity Fair. I would just eat it up each month. He knew everybody and told all. I love that.
Thinking of him today, I am reflecting on the similarities between Dunne and Truman Capote, another of my favorite writers. Both men wrote about the low acts in high society and they both craved celebrity.
Capote labeled his later work “Nonfiction Novels”. Dunne just called his books “Novels”, but they closely followed real life people and events. Openly gay Capote spent his last years doing anything but writing, addicted to celebrity, drugs and alcohol, appearing incoherent in public and on talk shows. Dunne was following in Capote’s footsteps, but later in life he managed to get sober and be productive, but unlike Capote, he stayed in the closet.
Dunne desired the attention that Capote received for his literary career, yet he actually outsold Capote. He also sold better than everyone in his famous writer family, his brother John Gregory Dunne and sister-in-law Joan Didion. His work was never part of the pantheon of “serious literature” over “bestsellers”, but he never seemed bitter. He was famous, but he always remained an outsider.
Capote’s society women turned their backs on him after he published the roman e clef La Côte Basque (1965) in Esquire. Dunne continued to move in that same world despite the occasional snub. He did have enemies though: the Kennedys, the Safras, and most famously, douchebag Congressman Gary Condit. Just like Capote, Dunne could get sketchy with those pesky facts, but his fans knew he was telling a larger truth: when you reach to the very heights of high society, there isn’t all that much there. This was something Capote could not seem to understand.
I recently watched the documentary, After The Party (2008) on The Sundance Channel, about Dunne’s life. Watching him, my gaydar was on high alert. Early in his career, he was a television and film producer. He was the executive producer of the film version of Mart Crowley’s classic gay themed play The Boys In The Band (1970). Maybe the bitter queens in that screenplay drove him deeper into the closet. The documentary and his nonfiction writings make it clear that Dunne cared deeply about his children and his ex-wife. Like many gay people in Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s, he probably got married as a way to hide his gayness. Dunne used his final novel, Too Much Money (2009) to finally come out of the closet by proxy when his main character reveals that he is gay.
In interviews, his talented son, actor/director Griffin Dunne describes his father as bisexual. Near the end of his life, Dunne admitted: “I am a celibate closeted bisexual.”
It seems tragic that someone as talented as Dunne had to spend energy trying to deceive people and experience shame about his sexuality for most of his life. Yet Capote, who was out of the closet, was full of self-loathing and in his last years, lived a sad existence. Dunne, who spoke about his father mistreating him as a child for being a sissy, stayed in the closet his entire adult life. After achieving real success, Dunne became addicted to drugs and alcohol, but then found sobriety living alone in rural Oregon of all places. He was attracted to other men and yet rejected the notion of being openly gay. For both writers, the shame of their gayness drove their drive for celebrity and acceptance.
In an eerie coincidence, Dunne’s most famous novel The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1985) was based on the notorious Woodward murder scandal that Capote had referred to in his own novel Answered Prayers, published posthumously that same year.
Capote was dropped by his adored society friends after exposing their deepest secrets in his book. The Two Mrs. Grenvilles picks up where Capote left off.
Dunne wrote with panache about high society intrigue, sexual obsession, greed and murder. It was made into a rather good television movie in 1987 starring Claudette Colbert and Ann Margret. Dunne paid homage by having a narrator named Basil Plant who, more than just a little bit, resembled Capote.
Dunne craved the spotlight just as much as Capote, and surrounded himself with just as many socialites and celebrities. In 1966, Dunne even threw his own Black And White Ball in Hollywood that rivaled Capote’s famous event at the Plaza Hotel in NYC. Dunne always claimed he had the idea first. He even published a charming coffee table book of photographs from his party, The Way We Lived Then: Recollections Of A Well-Known Name Dropper (1999).
Even at the end of his life, Dunne never lost his sense of humor or his gratitude for his life well-lived. He wrote movingly about his cancer in Vanity Fair. Capote was eventually taken down by his demons. He never owned them the way that Dunne was able to do. Both men treated life as an endless party, but Dunne never overstayed his welcome. One writer’s life was trashy and the other wrote trashy books.
In the 1970s, Dunne had an affair with Frederick Combs, a handsome actor who had been in the original Off-Broadway cast of The Boys In The Band, as well as the film version. Combs would always host a big Christmas party where all the guests brought wrapped gifts to be distributed to orphans. He also wrote a play, The Children’s Mass (1973) produced Off-Broadway starring his pal Sal Mineo. Combs was a genuine, charming, sweet guy and a positive influence in Dunne’s life. They were a popular couple in certain circles on both coasts in the 1970s. Combs was taken by the plague in 1992.
His beautiful daughter Dominique Dunne had just made her first major feature film, Poltergeist, when she was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in the driveway of her home in the Hollywood Hills in October 1982. She was just 22 years old. Dunne never recovered from losing his daughter. He dedicated the rest of his life to being a strong advocate for crime victims and their grieving families.