October 29, 1925– Dominick Dunne. I remember the day of his passing in the summer of 2009. It was ironic that he died on the very day as his sworn enemy Edward Kennedy. I was such a big fan of his column in Vanity Fair. I would just eat it up each month. He knew everybody & told all.
As I am thinking about him on this, the day of his birth, I am reflecting on the similarities between Dunne & Truman Capote, another of my favorite writers. Both men wrote about the low acts in high society & they both craved celebrity.
Capote labeled his later work “Nonfiction Novels”. Dunne just called his books “Novels”. Openly gay Capote spent his last years doing anything but writing, addicted to drugs & alcohol, appearing incoherent in public & on talk shows. Dunne was following in Capote’s footsteps, but later in life he managed to get sober & productive, but he stayed in the closet.
Dunne desired the attention that Capote received for his literary career, yet he outsold Capote & everyone in his famous writer family, his brother John Gregory Dunne & sister-in-law Joan Didion. He never was able to be 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 world despite the occasional snub. He did have enemies though: the Kennedys, the Safras, & most famously, douche 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 apex 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 TV & film producer. He was the executive producer of the film version of Mart Crowley’s gay themed play The Boys In The Band (1970). Maybe the bitter queens in that screenplay drove him deeper into the closet. The documentary & his nonfiction writings make it clear that he cared deeply about his children & his ex-wife. Like many gay people in Hollywood in the 1950s & 1960s, he probably got married to hide his gayness. Dunne used his final novel, Too Much Money (2009) to 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 & experience shame about his sexuality for most of his life. Yet Capote, who was out of the closet, was full of self-loathing & in his last years, lived a pathetic 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 & alcohol, but then found sobriety living alone in rural Oregon of all places. He was attracted to other men & yet rejected the notion of being openly gay. For both writers, the shame of their sexuality drove their drive for celebrity & 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. He never finished the novel. The Two Mrs. Grenvilles picks up where Capote left off. Dunne wrote with panache about high society intrigue, sexual obsession, greed & murder. It was made into a rather good TV movie in 1987 starring Claudette Colbert & 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, & surrounded himself with just as many socialites & celebrities. Dunne even threw his own Black & 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 & the other wrote trashy books.
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 & their grieving families.