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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,093

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This is the grave of Dominick Dunne.

Born in 1925 in Hartford, Connecticut, Dunne grew up quite well off. His father was a heart surgeon at a Hartford hospital and his grandfather was a locally prominent banker. He went to good schools in the Hartford area (private of course as if one had to ask). He was drafted into the military just as he graduated from high school in 1943. He joined the Army and served bravely in Europe, winning the Bronze Star for his actions at the Battle of Metz in 1944.

This was also a family that valued literature and intellectualism. In fact, Dominick’s older brother was John Gregory Dunne, who would become a famous and influential writer of his own and is perhaps best known for being married to Joan Didion, one of the greatest writers of the late twentieth century. So Dominick was also going to head down this road. He went to Williams College after he returned from the war, moved to New York after graduation, and worked as a stage manager for television shows. He worked his brother co-writing a column for the Saturday Evening Post. But Dunne was more Hollywood material than his brother. He became a consummate Hollywood insider. He was good friends with Humphrey Bogart, who brought him to Hollywood to work on the televised version of The Petrified Forest, one of the plays and then movies that brought Bogie to broader attention. Dunne liked Hollywood. He enjoyed hobnobbing with the rich. He was good friends with many of them. He became an important Hollywood executive. When his brother and Didion wrote the screenplay to Panic in Needle Park, the excellent heroin film that stars a very young Al Pacino, Dominick was the producer.

Dunne may have produced a film about heroin, but he also struggled with drugs and alcohol himself. In 1979, he left Hollywood, moved to rural Oregon, dried out, and started writing for real. The Two Mrs. Grenvilles came out soon after.

But in 1982, Dunne’s life changed for the worst. His daughter Dominique was an actor who was now pretty well known for her work in Poltergeist was strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend. This was terrible stuff. Also, the courts too often did not (and do not today) take domestic violence as seriously as they should. The killer only received a six-year prison sentence and then only served 2 1/2 years. Dunne and his ex-wife Ellen had divorced way back in 1965. But they both worked together on behalf of victims’ justice. Now, we need to step back. One can never, ever even begin to estimate the level of grief and outrage someone would feel if their daughter was killed and the killer given barely more than a hand slap. I guess the only way to understand this is to have experienced it and no thank you. So I am hardly going to criticize them. But for those of us on the outside of this grief, we know that this ends up being inherently political. And for those of us focused on the many injustices of the criminal system, we know that many people get thrown in prison for nothing, totally innocent or having committed non-violent crimes, and their lives are ruined too. That’s how this ended up. The Dunnes’ work on behalf of victims and their families became red meat for the Republican Party which wanted (and wants to) throw Black people especially in prison forever. So they became culture warriors on behalf of the worst parts of America. Even if it comes from a very understandable place, we still need this context on it. George Bush gave Ellen Dunne a White House visit and award for example, though I don’t think Dominick was included on that.

Dunne’s fiction and nonfiction also became obsessed with true crime. His novels sold well. I don’t really understand the obsession with true crime. To me, it’s incredibly unbearably depressing. Everyone seems to disagree with me on this. My wife watches true crime TV shows and listens to true crime podcasts all the time. To me, the world is so evil with so many bad stories that the last damn thing I need in my life is to then use my rare entertainment time to immerse myself in more evil! People (very much including my wife) might say “why the hell are you listening to that free jazz noise?” Well, the free jazz noise (listening to William Parker as I write this) is pure joy to me. It takes me away from this hell. But Dunne? He clearly tapped into a very lucrative market here. I will say that novelizing other people’s deaths is a weird way to deal with your own grief, but what do I know? Dunne became so associated with true crime that he had his own branded TV show, Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege, and Justice, on CourtTV, a channel whose existence I never understood. I’m certainly not saying he wasn’t good at this. When the Library of America published its edition of true crime writing, an essay of Dunne’s on the Menendez trial was in it; in fact, it closed the book. Maybe it’s worth reading, I don’t know. Seems too depressing to try.

Of course Dunne’s grief led him to ridiculous accusations that got him in trouble. Gary Condit sued him for libel because Dunne flat out said that he had killed Chandra Levy. Because Dunne was now Mr. Protect Victims, he was on TV all the time about this, especially Larry King’s show. He finally had to pay off Condit to settle the suit. He would keep at this kind of thing the rest of his life. His last work was on OJ Simpson’s idiotic kidnapping escapade that finally saw him go to prison in 2008. By this time, he was 82 years old, but he traveled to cover the whole trial and it was a very personal thing for him. Again, I can only imagine the grief, but still, there were big problems here.

By this time, Dunne was dying of bladder cancer. Not a fun way to go. He died in 2009, at the age of 83.

Dominick Dunne is buried in Cove Cemetery, Hadlyme, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to visit other people profiled in the Library of America True Crime volume, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jimmy Breslin is in Queens and Truman Capote is in Los Angeles. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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