Dunne profiles the rich and famous of the '80s

September 08, 1991|By Owen McNally | Owen McNally,Hartford Courant

THE MANSIONS OF LIMBO.

Dominick Dunne.

Crown.

268 pages. $22.

As Vanity Fair's chronicler of the rich, famous and infamous, Dominick Dunne is a first-rate journalist with a sharp eye for detail, an insatiable appetite for gossip and a priestlike empathy that makes his subjects open up to him.

"The Mansions of Limbo," a collection of Mr. Dunne's best profile pieces from Vanity Fair, provides entertaining glimpses into the world of glitz and glamour of the 1980s, our very own Gilded Age when wealth became the measure of all things.

Mr. Dunne shows us Adnan Khashoggi, the quintessential high roller and international arms dealer, in handcuffs, a discredited Midas in a morally bankrupt age.

We see the rise and fall of Roberto Polo, a once fabulously successful money manager whose financial scams and high living brought about his ruin. It's a real-life story reminiscent of Sherman McCoy, Wall Street's would-be master of the universe in Tom Wolfe's satirical novel "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

On a different tack, Mr. Dunne takes us on a luncheon date in a fancy bistro with actress Jane Wyman and to an interview with singer Phyllis McGuire in her bomb-shelterlike digs.

Perhaps it is Mr. Dunne's Irish-Catholic roots -- or maybe it's just because he comes across as a decent, fair-minded fellow -- but he manages to get his subjects to make open confessions about their lives.

Before he meets Ms. Wyman, he is told she absolutely will not speak about her ex-husband, Ronald Reagan. But she does.

Ms. McGuire, the most flamboyant of the once popular McGuire Sisters, speaks candidly about her scandalous love affair with Mafia chieftain Sam Giancana.

Ms. McGuire's mob link garroted her career more than 30 years ago -- a career that has since been resurrected.

Giancana was rubbed out in 1975, and Ms. McGuire, who still seems traumatized, lives in fear for her life. When interviewed in 1989, she was living in an armed enclave in Las Vegas, Nev., her home for many years. Run by a staff of 28 servants and guards, her self-sufficient fortress is equipped with bullet-proof windows, beauty salon, health club and steam room.

RTC Mr. Dunne does not attempt the biographical sleaze of a Kitty Kelley. Nor does he strike the sickeningly sycophantic pose of a Robin Leach.

Mostly, he just reports, with only now and then a critical aside. He doesn't trash the 1980s the way Barbara Ehrenreich does in "The Worst Years of Our Lives," or John Taylor does in "Circus of Ambition."

Mr. Dunne even finds heroic figures in his peregrinations through the swanky salons, posh galleries and palaces of wealth and power.

Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer whose homoerotically charged works so shocked the art world, comes across as a heroic figure in the final major interview before his death from AIDS. Even as the once charismatic artist is about to be devoured by death, he maintains a high sense of style.

You know Mr. Dunne admires this attitude, just as you know he is much taken by the independent spirit and beauty of the American-born Queen Noor of Jordan.

He tries to be the objective observer as he studies the habits and habitats of the very rich. The only time his objectivity falters is when this good and priestly listener becomes charmed by the women he interviews.

You know that for all his journalistic rectitude, there is always a little bit of libido at work inspiring him to make his portraits of

women a bit sharper and more vividly felt than his sketches of men.

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