The Trials of Dominick Dunne Insider's view: Known as a chronicler of the 'not-so-pretty' side of high society, the novelist and magazine writer brings his own insights to his reports from the O.J. Simpson courtroom.

October 01, 1995|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES -- It is dinner time in West Hollywood, and Dominick Dunne has just been seated at a table, the best table, naturally, in Mortons, a fashionable restaurant where the rich and famous gather to see and be seen.people, it seems, want to chat with Dominick Dunne, the ex-Hollywood producer turned novelist and magazine writer. Or to be more precise, they want to get their daily fix of the addiction that's got all of Los Angeles in its grip: the O. J. Simpson trial.

To get a handle on just how deep this obsession with the O. J. trial runs, one could start right here, at Mortons, in the company of Dominick Dunne, one of a handful of writers with a permanent seat in the courtroom

Throughout the evening, in a steady stream, deeply tanned men and glamorous women carrying $2,000 Hermes pocketbooks stop by his table to ask: What's happened to Marcia Clark? Can the jury make it through to the end? Is it almost over? Is he going to walk?

And so it goes. Here in this restaurant, where the air is filled with the sweet smell of excess, Dominick Dunne is holding court. O. J. court, that is.

His answers to the questions are interesting. But even more interesting are his observations of the people asking the questions. As they leave, Dominick Dunne ticks off their connections to the case: "He's a friend of Bob Shapiro . . . F. Lee Bailey lived in his guest house . . . He introduced Bob [Shapiro] to O. J. . . ."

It seems that all roads in this town, at least until this Fellini-esque trial is finally over, lead to O. J. Simpson.

And, for those who want an insider's view of the trial, to the red-hot Vanity Fair reports by Dominick Dunne.

Of all the trials in all the cities in the world, you could say that Dominick Dunne was destined to walk into this one with a reporter's notebook. He knows the town. He knows the players. He knows the connections among the players. And whatever he doesn't know, he knows who to ask for the answer.

But he also brings to this trial -- and all the trials he's covered -- an insight few others have: a familiarity with the pain and anger and anguish known only to the families of the sometimes-forgotten victims. This intimate knowledge of such cruel realities is the subtext to all his writing.

And, as those who know Dominick Dunne will tell you, the subtext to his life.

*

All his life, Dominick Dunne has dined in places like Mortons, hobnobbed with the rich and powerful, been privy to their secrets, a part of their world. And he knows that world well. So well, in fact, that he is now regarded as the pre-eminent American chronicler of high society. Or as he puts it, the chronicler of the "not-so-pretty lives" of such people. His best-selling novels, including "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" and "An Inconvenient Woman," along with his high-profile articles in the silky pages of Vanity Fair, have earned him millions of fans. And millions of dollars.

"I have been fortunate enough to have a front-row seat on that kind of life," says Mr. Dunne, 69, in a mellow voice that often sounds on the verge of saying something wicked and, once or twice, does. "And some people have got really upset with me because my descriptions of their lives are so accurate. But it's what I know. And I always get it right."

And why not? His list of credentials is almost impeccable: Born the second of six children, the son of a prominent Hartford, Conn., heart surgeon, he prepped at Canterbury and went on to graduate from Williams College. One of his brothers is writer John Gregory Dunne, who is married to Joan Didion, also a writer.

Only one thing stood between him and total acceptance into the WASP-dominated Hartford society: He came from an Irish-Catholic family.

"We were like minor-league Kennedys," Mr. Dunne says. "We grew up belonging to the WASP clubs and going to the same schools and the same places in the summer. But we were never part of them. And I hated that as a kid."

He describes himself as a perennial outsider. And as a writer, he says, that has given him the best of both worlds: an insider's access coupled with an outsider's emotional distance.

Still, from time to time, a glimpse of lingering vulnerability surfaces, leftover traces of his early nose-pressed-against-the-window days. It is a surprising but endearing quality in a man of his sophistication and worldliness. And it may account, in part, for Dominick Dunne's legendary ability to inspire people to tell him things they would tell no other interviewer.

"He's a man who has tasted rejection and failure," observes New Yorker editor Tina Brown, who worked with Mr. Dunne for many years when she edited Vanity Fair and who remains a close friend. "I think there's a kind of priestly quality about Nick. If he hadn't been a writer, I think he would have been a priest. There's nothing you can't say to Nick. Nothing shocks him. He's not a judgmental man."

Trial of the century

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