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Author/journalist Dominick Dunne talks to the media... (Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer)
Dunne surveyed the ornate, hacienda-style lounge at the legendary
Chateau Marmont hotel, knotted his thick gray eyebrows in disapproval
and began walking out.
"Let's talk in my room," he told a guest who wanted to chat
about his coverage of the Phil Spector murder trial for Vanity Fair.
"This room always reminds me of Norma Desmond's living room. You know
of Norma Desmond?"
"She killed her writer," his guest said.
faint smile crossed Dunne's face, angular and lined with wisdom and
sadness, a combination not unlike his persona, which the Times of
London called "patrician enough to mix with high society and low enough
to pass on their tittle-tattle."
But then Hollywood murders - from that of the fictional
fading star of "Sunset Boulevard" to the real-life killings like that
of actress Lana Clarkson - have been the bete noir for the past quarter
century of Dunne's.
His name has become so synonymous with celebrity crime
reporting in America that it popped up in a recent episode of the NBC
drama "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."
In a scene where cops find the
body of a famous person who has been killed, one of the detectives
in the TV series wise-cracks to another:
"A celebrity murder: Quick,
someone call Dominick Dunne."
But for Dunne, 81, it is a fame he wishes had never come to
him, for it is a reward for a career that began 25 years ago with the
of his actress-daughter Dominique Dunne, one of the stars of the 1982 film "Poltergeist."
Dunne - the niece of novelists John Gregory Dunne and his wife, Joan
Didion, and the sister of actor and director Griffin Dunne - was
strangled in the driveway of her home by her ex-boyfriend. She was 22.
Rage over death
Her killer, John Thomas Sweeney, a chef at the then-trendy Ma Maison restaurant, was convicted of manslaughter.
strangled my daughter for five minutes," Dunne recalled, "and he got
two and a half years. I felt such rage, such absolute rage like I've
So much rage, in fact, that he says he tried to arrange for a hit man to kill Sweeney.
turned to private detective Anthony Pellicano, who in the early 1980s
was just becoming known for handling celebrity cases but who today is
in federal custody on a weapons conviction and under investigation by
authorities in a series of Hollywood illegal wiretapping and extortion
"(Pellicano) said to me, `You don't want to do that,
Dominick.' Just like that, and I've never forgotten it," Dunne said. "I
really didn't want to do it, and I wasn't asking him to do it. I was
there to see if he knew someone who could do it."
But Pellicano, whose attorney did not return calls for comment for this story, did follow Sweeney on his behalf, Dunne said.
I said to my two sons, `You know, I don't want to live this kind of
life. There's something else I can do. I can write about this. I can go
on TV. I can talk about it. And I've had a whole career that came out
of it, or followed it."
Among the high-profile courtroom dramas Dunne has covered
for Vanity Fair have been the trials of the Menendez brothers, Claus
von Bulow, Michael Skakel, William Kennedy Smith, O.J. Simpson and
Along the way, he also has written a series of books on the
trials. He has become a frequent guest on television shows and has had
his own series on CourtTV called "Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege,
"Dominick is wonderful and he's a dear friend," said
Associated Press reporter Linda Deutsch, the doyenne of the criminal
courts press corps, who has covered many of those celebrity trials with
"It's amazing to people that we're close friends because we approach covering the trials from such different places."
While Deutsch said she has to maintain her objectivity as a reporter,
Dunne comes at it as a victim's advocate and "can be very outraged and
outspoken about what he sees as injustices in the system."
So widespread is Dunne's connection to celebrity trials
that this season he was cast to play himself in two episodes of TNT's
police drama "The Closer."
For the past five months, he has been ensconced in the same
suite of the Chateau Marmont that he has occupied while covering
previous celebrity trials, the walls covered with notes, faxes and
other material related to the Spector case.
His reporting on the trial, like his writing on other
cases, has been packed with exclusive anecdotes and details that often
have the regular press corps trailing him.
"I'm not the typical reporter who just stands back and
reports," he said. "I get emotionally involved, and I am emotionally
involved with Lana Clarkson because that's what happened to my
Dunne did not start writing until he was in his 50s. After
a career as a studio executive, he began writing novels, garnering
success with his second fictional effort "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles," a
best-seller that became an NBC movie, as did the novel "An Inconvenient
In recent weeks, Dunne has been the subject of an
Australian television documentary on his life in Hollywood, his
reporting on celebrity crime and as the father of a victim.
"I've covered some of the most high-profile trials in the country," he said, "and I love doing it."
He paused, then, almost as if relieved:
"But this, I think, is my last trial. I started with a Hollywood trial and I'll end with a Hollywood trial."