I remember the day of his passing in the summer of 2009. It was ironic that Dominick Dunne 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 Dunne’s column in Vanity Fair. I would just eat it up each month. He knew everybody and told all. I love that.
Dunne desired the attention that Truman Capote received for his literary career, yet he outsold Capote. He also sold better than everyone in his famous writer family, including 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 a clef La Côte Basque (1965) in Esquire. Dunne continued to move in that same world despite the occasional snub. He did have his enemies though: the Kennedys, the Safras, and most famous asshole 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. Capote could not seem to understand this notion.
In the documentary, After The Party (2008), watching Dunne, my gaydar was on high alert. Early in his career, Dunne 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 showbiz 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 claimed:
“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 gayness for most of his life. Dunne, who spoke about his father mistreating him as a child for being a sissy, stayed in the closet. 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 Dunne and Capote, the shame of their gayness drove their drive for celebrity and acceptance.
In an eerie coincidence, Dunne’s 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. Billy Woodward was the heir to the Hanover National Bank fortune who was shot to death by his wife, Ann Woodward. LIFE magazine called the “Shooting of the Century”.
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. The Two Mrs. Grenvilles 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.
In 1966, Dunne even threw his own Black and White Ball in Hollywood that rivaled Capote’s famous event at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Dunne claimed he had the idea first. He even published a charming coffee table book of his party photographs, The Way We Lived Then: Recollections Of A Well-Known Name Dropper (1999).
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. The people I know that were his friends, said that 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.
Dunne’s beautiful daughter Dominique Dunne had just made Poltergeist, her first big role, 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.
Even at the end of his life, Dunne never lost his sense of humor. He wrote with great wit about his cancer in Vanity Fair. Capote was finally taken by his demons. He never owned them the way that Dunne was able to do. One writer’s life was trashy and the other wrote trashy books.