A chronicler of American crime and wealth with few peers, Dominick Dunne was a best-selling and controversial author and journalist whose coverage of such sensational spectacles as the O. J. Simpson and Claus von Bulow murder trials brought him to national prominence. An affluent but unhappy childhood had given him insight into the emotional landscape of the society figures he would cover later in life, but he began his professional life as a writer and producer for television and feature films. Bouts with alcoholism forced him to re-evaluate his life, and he launched a second career as the author of such popular novels as The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1985), An Inconvenient Woman (1990) and A Season in Purgatory (1993), all of which drew on his own keen understanding of the lives of the idle rich. But it was his trial reportage for Vanity Fair that earned him his greatest acclaim, though his interest was sparked by unspeakably tragic circumstances - the murder of his daughter, actress Dominique Dunne, in 1982. Dunne's coverage of such high-profile cases as the Menendez Brothers and von Bulow was praised for a lack of sensationalism and a degree of empathy for the families of the victims; however, it was the outrage and compassion that marked his reports from the O.J. Simpson trial, as well as his frequent commentary on the case for television and print news, that transformed him from well-regarded author to bonafide celebrity. Post-Simpson, Dunne enjoyed a degree of fame rarely afforded to authors, including his own true-crime television series, "Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice" (Court TV/truTV, 2002- ). Despite a well-publicized battle with bladder cancer, he returned to court coverage for O.J. Simpson's trial for kidnapping and armed robbery in 2008, determined to see his nemesis of sorts found guilty - even if it was, literally, the last thing he were to do.
Born Oct. 29, 1925 in Hartford, CT, Dunne learned firsthand about the intricate and often cold-hearted rules that dictated life among the wealthy. Though his father Richard was a prominent physician and his grandfather a self-made millionaire and philanthropist, the Dunnes - which included his brother John Gregory, later a critically acclaimed author and screenwriter in his own right - were nevertheless regarded as nouveau riche and therefore not on par with the old money families that dominated the region. The Dunnes also earned further scorn for being Catholics in a predominately Protestant neighborhood, though Dunne later came to see his persona non grata status as a boon to his career - he was able to exist within and observe every aspect of an exclusive society without becoming entangled in its complex social codes. The difficulties of Dunne's childhood were compounded by his father, who envisioned an upbringing filled with traditional male interests like sports for his son. Dunne, however, showed a passion for theater and puppetry, which led to beatings so severe that he lost partial hearing in one ear. Such incidents were kept silent within the Dunne family, with even his own mother denying that the violence ever happened. Dunne was eventually shipped off to Catholic school, which preceded a stint in the Army, during which he saw combat and earned a Bronze Star for bravery during WWII's Battle of the Bulge.
After his discharge, he attended Williams College and later became involved in the early days of television in New York. He quickly rose through the ranks from stage manager on "The Howdy Doody Show" (NBC, 1947-1960) to associate director on "Producers' Showcase" (NBC, 1954-57) and executive producer on several series. After marrying socialite Ellen "Lenny" Griffin in 1954, with whom he had three children - Dominique, Alexander and Griffin Dunne - the family relocated to Los Angeles in 1957, where they would befriend numerous celebrities through lavish parties. The Dunne's became such consummate hosts, their Beverly Hills home was chosen as ground zero for local denizens wishing to welcome the Beatles to America in 1964. Apart from his social calendar, Dunne made the leap from TV to feature films, where he served as vice president at Four Star Pictures. As a producer, he oversaw the production of several acclaimed movies, including "The Boys in the Band" (1970) and "Panic in Needle Park" (1971).
Despite the outward display of success, Dunne was slowly unraveling due to the emotional damage caused by his father's abuse. He soon developed a serious drug and alcohol habit, which led to his divorce from Ellen in 1965 and eventual dismissal from his social circles following an arrest for smuggling marijuana over the Mexican border. After spiraling into depression, he caught hold of himself in 1973 and began the long, slow process of drying out and turning his life around. He relocated to Oregon for a period and concentrated on a career as a novelist. Dunne found the solitude to his liking, but was jolted from the arrangement by news that his younger brother had committed suicide. Dunne returned to Los Angeles, where he discovered that despite his grief, he was capable of functioning in normal society; he soon disposed of his material attachments to California and moved in with his actor son Griffin in New York City. While there, he completed his first novel, "The Winners" (1982), which launched him on a new path as novel writer.
Unfortunately, another tragic circumstance diverted his attention soon after this initial success. On Halloween 1982, Dunne discovered that his daughter Dominique, who had established herself as an actress by playing the teen daughter in the supernatural thriller "Poltergeist" (1982), had been murdered by her boyfriend, executive chef John Sweeney. Dunne and his ex-wife attended the subsequent trial and both were flabbergasted by the mild sentence handed down to their daughter's killer. Despite evidence that Sweeney had abused Dominique Dunne - not to mention past girlfriends as well (information which was deemed inadmissible) - and ruthlessly strangled her outside of her own home, he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and given 6 ½ years. He eventually served only 2 ½ years and returned to his life as a chef in Santa Monica, CA. Dunne's outrage over the trial's conclusion led to a scathing article about his experience for Vanity Fair. The power of the story moved many readers, and Dunne began his long-standing stint as a trial reporter for the venerable magazine. He was also able to persuade Sweeny's employers to fire him from his position; he even employed infamous celebrity investigator Anthony Pellicano to keep tabs on Sweeny for many years.
In 1985, Dunne released his second novel, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, which became a bestseller. Based on the real-life murder of Hanover National Bank heir William Woodward in the mid-1950s, the book was turned into a 1987 TV-movie with Ann-Margret and Claudette Colbert in her final screen performance. The book's formula - a sensational crime based on fact and set within the confines of wealth and privilege - proved to be a winning one for the writer, who soon penned several more best-selling novels along those lines. An Inconvenient Woman (1990) was based on the murder of Vicki Morgan, the alleged mistress of a member of Ronald Reagan's inner circle, while A Season in Purgatory (1993) was inspired by the unsolved homicide of a young woman from an upper-class community. Both were turned into popular TV-movies in 1991 and 1996, respectively.
Meanwhile, Dunne continued to cover some of the most newsworthy criminal cases in America for Vanity Fair. Among those were the murder trials of Claus von Bulow, Eric and Lyle Menendez, Kennedy relative Michael Skakel, as well as the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith and the disappearance of intern Chandra Levy. But the case that generated the most attention for Dunne was the 1995 trial of football star and actor O.J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, both of whom were found viciously stabbed in her Brentwood condo courtyard. From the beginning, Dunne was front and center at the case - presiding Judge Lance Ito seated him next to the Goldman's grieving family, to whom he grew close - with television news outlets quickly turning to him for commentary and analysis from his exclusive position within the trial. Dunne was emphatic about the trial's importance to the scope of American society, and was highly praised for delivering the most serious and level-headed reportage in the sea of hysteria that surrounded the trial. His visibly stunned face, captured during the reading of Simpson's not guilty verdict, was among the most indelible images captured during the case.
After the Simpson case reached its conclusion in 1995, Dunne contributed to the enormous outpouring of related tell-all books with his semi-fictional account, Another City, Not My Own: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir (1997), which was released to typical acclaim in 1997. It was quickly followed by The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-known Name Dropper (1999), which recounted the high and low points of his personal life among the rich and fabulous. A compilation of his trial coverage, Justice: Crime, Trials and Punishments, was released in 2001. Dunne also served as co-writer and producer on "919 5th Avenue," a 1995 series pilot for CBS that never came to fruition. In 2002, Dunne lent his name and on-screen presence to "Power, Privilege and Justice," a documentary-style series that examined some of the most controversial high-profile criminal cases of the last three decades. A solid ratings winner for Court TV, the series covered many of the cases that Dunne himself had written about in previous years.
Dunne found himself at the center of his own legal case in 2005 when he was sued by politician Gary Condit for statements made regarding his involvement in the disappearance of intern Chandra Levy, with whom Condit was having an affair. Condit claimed an undisclosed sum and an apology from Dunne, who promptly made similar implications about him on television. Condit attempted to sue again in 2006, but the case was dismissed. That same year, rumors swirled that Dunne had parted ways with Vanity Fair, but he dismissed them by stating that he had undergone a "difficult period" with the magazine's new editor, Graydon Carter, but the two had worked out their differences.
Fans of Dunne were shocked and surprised by his revelation in 2008 that he was undergoing treatment for bladder cancer. Despite the news and doctors' orders to remain in New York, he was back on the courtroom trail in Las Vegas that same year, and on familiar territory: the criminal trial of O.J. Simpson, who was facing charges on kidnapping and armed robbery. The case was not an easy one for Dunne, who was rushed from the courtroom in September 2008 after experiencing severe pain, and he publicly expressed that the trial would most likely be the last he would cover, but that he needed to see Simpson finally found guilty. Ultimately, Simpson was convicted and sentenced to 33 years in prison, with the possibility of parole after 9. Less than a year after the sentencing, Dunne finally succumbed to his cancer, passing away at his Manhattan home on Aug. 26, 2009. He was 83.