Talking with Dominick Dunne -- The author puts power and privilege on trial in his best-seller, ''An Inconvenient Woman''
”Of course I’m nervous,” Dominick Dunne announces. The author is sitting on the edge of a plumped-up green damask sofa in the living room of his Manhattan penthouse. He is talking about his upcoming trip to Los Angeles to promote his best-seller An Inconvenient Woman. Since Los Angeles is the setting for his story of scandal in high society — and the place where several models for the novel’s characters live — Dunne is worrying about running into certain people while he is there. ”I don’t think I’ll be going to the Bistro Garden in Beverly Hills,” he cackles, referring to a favorite lunch spot of Betsy Bloomingdale and friends. When asked what the response to his book has been in Los Angeles, Dunne places his paper coffee cup carefully on an antique end table and leans forward. ”Silence, my dear. Deafening silence.”
Dunne, 64, has built a career writing about the indiscretions of the rich. His best-seller People Like Us skewered New York’s new-money set. His earlier novel, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, was cannily reminiscent of the notorious Woodward society murder of 1955. This time, Dunne has turned to a scandal that rocked the early days of the Reagan administration. When Los Angeles department store heir Alfred Bloomingdale was sued for palimony by his longtime mistress, Vicki Morgan, scandal erupted. Not only was Bloomingdale a charter member of Reagan’s Kitchen Cabinet but his wife, Betsy, was one of Nancy Reagan’s closest friends. When Morgan was murdered, rumors surfaced about the existence of videotapes implicating other members of the Reagan coterie in kinky sex games. After an acquaintance of Morgan’s was arrested for the crime, the purported tapes disappeared, and powerful people were said to have played a role. ”One of the themes that goes through all my work concerns people who go underpunished because of privilege,” Dunne says. ”It happens all the time. It seemed to occur on a grand scale during the Reagan administration. Von Bulow got off. Ivan Boesky was able to write off half of his $100 million fine. It’s something I happen not to believe in.”
Dunne’s novels are sophisticated morality tales fleshed out with the accoutrements of the rich. His characters sleep on Porthault sheets, eat off Flora Danica china, wear Chanel suits, carry Louis Vuitton bags, spray their bathrooms with Floris scents, and wear Fracas perfume. But while Dunne is scrupulous about dropping designer names of upscale products, he is more circumspect about basing his characters too boldly on recognizable people. ”I walk a thin line,” Dunne admits. ”It gets a bit dangerous. Sometimes I wonder how I do it.”
The tightrope Dunne stretches between truth and fiction invites comparison between his work and that of Truman Capote, a writer who also inserted himself into the company of the rich and who was mercilessly ostracized by them after he published his expose, ”La Cote Basque,” in Esquire. ”Truman betrayed confidences,” Dunne says. ”He told secrets that people had confided in him. I never do that. The people I write about play their lives out in public.” Dunne also does not seem afflicted with Capote’s mean streak. ”Nick has a big heart,” says New York Daily News society columnist William Norwich. ”He’s sensitive and generous and he’s an extraordinary listener.”
Not everyone agrees with hat characterization, and Dunne acknowledges that he has barely avoided libel suits on more than one occasion. When Women’s Wear Daily somehow obtained an early draft of People Like Us and ran an article matching the names of characters to their supposed real-life counterparts, Dunne felt the heat. ”Some of these people in New York went bananas, bananas,” Dunne says. ”People started calling. Their lawyers started calling. I had a description in the book of a nouveau riche couple who buys a pair of very expensive console tables for half a million dollars. I had copied the description of the tables out of an auction catalog. Well, a prominent man at the top of the Forbes list called me up and said, ‘Those are my tables. If you include them in your book, they will be devalued.’ My publisher made me change the description because this man is so litigious. I began to wonder, ‘What do these people think I know about them that I don’t really know?’ ”
The article had other repercussions for Dunne. ”Oh, I got frozen out, let me tell you. It was an interesting experience — people kissing you on both cheeks one week and not speaking to you the next. There are still about five people who don’t talk to me — and I could care less, let’s make sure we all know that, because they are not people I particularly admire. What they didn’t understand is that the book wasn’t about a particular person. It was a social comment on the times.”
Born to a wealthy Irish Catholic family in Connecticut, he returned to New York from the West Coast in 1980, having survived a failed career as a screenwriter in Hollywood, a divorce, and an addiction to booze and pills. After his daughter, actress Dominique Dunne, was murdered in Los Angeles in 1982, Tina Brown, editor of Vanity Fair, suggested he cover the trial as a kind of literary therapy. He did. Dunne went on to profile society figures for the magazine. ”The Reagan years were utterly, utterly fascinating,” Dunne says, ”wealth at its worst. During those years the rich went public. I mean, I’m 64 years old and I don’t recall ever reading as much about them as I read during the last 10 years. How they set their tables, how the party didn’t matter unless Suzy was there, this absolute glorification of possessions.”
Even while he was playing Saint-Simon to the Reagan court, Dunne kept his distance. ”I’m of the world but I’m not,” he explains. ”It’s important always to remember why you’re there. If my next four books op, I know I wouldn’t be invited back. When I started going downhill in Hollywood, people who had been coming to my house for years could hardly bring themselves to say hello on the street. That’s the kind of world I write about.” Dunne smiles. ”This time, though, I’m putting money in the bank.”
Money, of course, is the force that drives and shapes Dunne’s characters. And in their world, publicity has replaced bloodlines as an index of social standing. Perhaps the greatest irony of Dunne’s depiction of this society is that while its movers and shakers have cause to fear him, they have come to feel validated by him as well. After all, he’s good publicity. ”People call me up now and ask, ‘Do you know Dominick Dunne?”’ says columnist Norwich. ”’I have a story that might interest him.”’ That eagerness was borne out at a recent society benefit at Sotheby’s auction house in New York for a charitable institution called the Center for Living. The event featured a ”fantasy auction,” at which the rich bid on entertaining ”celebrity experiences” such as a part in a Mike Nichols film. The most revealing moment occurred when real estate mogul and society aspirant Linda Stein bid $2,000 for Lot No. 5, ”Be a Character in Dominick Dunne’s Next Novel.” ”I’m a huge fan of Nick’s,” Stein gushes. ”I have no idea what he’ll do with me — make me a slut, keep my name, maybe he’ll even have me talk dirty.” Does Stein trust Dunne? ”I don’t know if anyone’s supposed to trust him,” she laughs. ”That’s what’s novel about Nick.”
The rich may buy their way into Dominick Dunne’s books, but they can’t guarantee what he’ll say about them.
An Inconvenient Woman