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Celebrity Author And Hartford Native Dominick Dunne Dies At Age 83


August 27, 2009

Dominick Dunne, a celebrated chronicler of the crimes of the rich and famous and a best-selling novelist who skyrocketed to celebrity status through his vivid, caustic, openly partisan and dishy coverage of the infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial, died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan.

Dunne, who had been batt- ling bladder cancer, was 83.

The Hartford native, who kept a home in Hadlyme, grew up in a large, prominent and wealthy Irish-Catholic family in West Hartford. He found success with such novels as "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" and "A Season in Purgatory." But it was his brilliant, controversial, highly readable coverage of the Simpson "trial of the century" for Vanity Fair that transformed him in 1995 into a bona fide, red-hot celebrity.

His owlish, oval-framed glasses, shock of gray hair, diminutive stature (maybe not quite 5 feet 6 or so), feisty presence, often rumpled apparel and smart, razor-sharp commentary made Dunne a hot product on the cool medium of TV.

Dunne seemed to pop up nightly on the tube, giving the straight, inside scoop on the O.J. trial to Larry King, Dan Rather, Charlie Rose or any prime-time potentate with a microphone.

In his ringside seat at the trial, where he could be seen sitting alongside the family of one of the victims, Dunne was devastated when the "not guilty" verdict came in.

Still smarting over Simpson's acquittal, yet simultaneously acknowledging the fame the trial brought to him, Dunne in 1998 told The Courant: "I owe it all to O.J. The man I loathe most in my life gave me this celebrity status."

His 1997 novel "Another City, Not My Own" revisited the case, featuring his alter ego, Gus Bailey, a journalist and father of a murdered daughter. Dunne's own daughter, Dominique, was murdered in 1982 at age 22.

Celebrities were never strangers to Dunne, a charmer with a natural, almost uncanny ability to make sources open up to him, feeding him juicy news and steamy gossip that he could salt into his spicy column for Vanity Fair.

As a successful Hollywood TV and movie producer early on in his ever-evolving career, Dunne loved hobnobbing with the rich and famous.

Nonetheless, he always felt like an outsider, an echo of the experience of the Irish-Catholic immigrant looking in at and envying the impenetrable, upper reaches of the WASP establishment.

In the 1960s, after his move from New York City to Hollywood, he strove to enter that Eden of celebrityhood, hoping he would be accepted into the fold as an equal.

He and his then-wife, Ellen "Lenny" Griffin, a lean, glamorous, former fashion model and heiress to a cattle fortune, made a glitzy, gregarious couple who became celebrated for the posh bashes they threw for the Hollywood elite in their stylish mansion. (Dominick first met Lenny, a graduate of Miss Porter's School in Farmington, at the Hartford train station, a scenario right out of a vintage Hollywood romance. They married in 1954.)

Through the years, Dunne used his preciously cultivated connections to gain access to, and to profile, reclusive or just plain hard-to-get-at celebrities, both at home and abroad.

In his professional role he described himself as "a social 'Zelig,'" Dunne seemed to be on the social scene wherever celebrities or European royalty, including Princess Diana, were schmoozing and noshing in their ritzy retreats, off-limits to all but society's upper crust.

He even had his own cable show on Court TV.

Dunne was born in Hartford on Oct. 29, 1925, the second of six children of Dorothy Frances Burns Dunne and Richard E. Dunne, a prominent heart surgeon and chief of staff of what is now St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center.

Dunne said that growing up in an Irish-Catholic background even a privileged one in an Asylum Avenue mansion with servants and a private school education sharpened his sense of being an outsider looking in.

"We were a big-deal Irish Catholic family in a WASP city," Dunne wrote in his photo memoir, "The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper."

Dunne added that his younger brother, the celebrated novelist, critic and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, "once wrote that we had gone from steerage to suburbs in three generations."The Dunne brothers were especially close to their grandfather, Dominick F. Burns, who emigrated from Ireland as a boy, grew up in Hartford's Frog Hollow and worked his way up, Horatio Alger-style, from a butcher's apprentice to amassing a fortune in the grocery and banking business. Burns owned a grocery store at Park and Lawrence streets and was the founder and first president of the Park Street Trust Co.

Hartford's Dominick F. Burns Elementary School was named in his honor.

Dominick Dunne attended the old Beach Park School, Kingswood School (now Kingswood-Oxford School) and the Canterbury School, a Catholic boarding school in New Milford. After serving with distinction in the Army in Europe during World War II, he went on to Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., graduating in 1949.

He went to New York City straight from college, getting in on the ground floor of television, the then-flashy, fledgling showbiz outlet, stage-managing such pioneering shows as "Howdy Doody" and "Robert Montgomery Presents." Later, he produced TV feature films for Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Ginger Rogers and Milton Berle.

As a foreshadowing of the pain that would haunt him in his adult life, Dunne had a deeply troubled relationship with his father, a traumatic experience that plagued him emotionally and psychologically all his life.

His tribulations ranged from the ruination of his marriage and career as a movie producer ("The Boys in the Band" and "Panic in Needle Park") to severe bouts of alcoholism and cocaine addiction.

Most shattering of all was the death of his beloved 22-year-old daughter Dominique, an aspiring actress ("Poltergeist") who was stalked and strangled to death in 1982 in West Hollywood by her estranged boyfriend, John Thomas Sweeney.

Tina Brown, then the new powerhouse editor at Vanity Fair, persuaded Dunne to cover Sweeney's trial, marking the beginning of the writer's long relationship with the magazine.

Ironically titled "Justice," Dunne's account of the Sweeney trial appeared as a cover story in Vanity Fair in 1984, Brown's first issue as an editor. The Los Angeles Times hailed Dunne's bombshell debut as "an incisive and affecting piece of reportage written in a cold rage."

His new novel "Too Much Money" is expected out in December. A documentary about his life, "After the Party," is being released on DVD.

He is survived by his sons, actor-director Griffin Dunne and Alexander Dunne, and his granddaughter, Hannah Dunne

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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