Dominick Dunne died the day after Ted Kennedy, and so his passing went all but unnoticed, coming as it did just as the American media’s week-long orgasmic frenzy of Camelotian prostrations and ululations was getting into gear. Dunne would have accepted the black jest of bad timing, albeit with regret. The Kennedy family blames him for the present woes of their cousin, Michael Skakel, currently banged up in the big house for a long-ago murder of a 15-year-old girl who had the misfortune to live next door. “Dominick Dunne,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told New York magazine, “is a pathetic creature.”
“I don’t give a f–k about what that little s–t has to say,” Dunne responded. “That f–king asshole.”
It was different once. In 1950, he had attended the wedding of Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Skakel. Later, he was friends with Bobby’s in-law, Peter Lawford. They were six beach houses apart in Hollywood, and in those days, Kennedy-wise, Peter Lawford’s beach house was a critical location: both J.F.K. and R.F.K. used it as the equivalent of a by-the-hour hot-sheet motel for liaisons with Marilyn. A Hollywood chum of mine says that “getting to Peter Lawford’s beach house” is insider lingo for a serious A-list consummation. If Dominick Dunne never got to Peter Lawford’s beach house in quite that sense, he was there for the parties, and he knew Miss Monroe well enough to call her “Marilyn” and for her to call him “Nick.” Earlier, he had been at school with Rushton Skakel, brother of Ethel Kennedy and father of the convicted murderer. Dunne’s whole life was like that: everybody who was anybody wandered in and out of it like characters in a brilliantly plotted Big Novel. A chance encounter with someone whose cousin he’d been at school with would provide a useful contact and a telling anecdote decades later during her ex-husband’s murder trial. During the first O.J. trial—the one that made Dunne’s reputation as a high-society crime chronicler—Phil Spector regularly took him out to dinner to pump him for the latest dish, which came in useful when Phil subsequently joined the ranks of homicidal celebrities.
And that’s how it went, for 83 years: after school with Rushton Skakel, Dunne got to Peter Lawford’s beach house in the Biblical sense with Anaïs Nin, who seduced him during a summer in Guatemala. And, even in his final painful weeks, when he toddled out of the doctor’s room at a specialist cancer clinic in Germany, whom should he bump into in reception but an equally ailing Farrah Fawcett.
“I have this ability to get people to talk to me,” says Basil Plant, the narrator of Dunne’s novel The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. “I listen beautifully. I laugh appreciatively. I never register shock or dismay at shocking or dismaying revelations, for that will invariably inhibit the teller of the tale.”
In 1991 the diminutive scribbler in the owlish glasses and the baggy suit was in Palm Beach covering the rape trial of Ted’s nephew, William Kennedy Smith. Had he not been there, he would never have heard the tantalizing tidbit that young William had been in the Skakel house in Connecticut on the night in 1975 when Martha Moxley was murdered. Had he not picked up that unfounded bit of gossip, his curiosity might not have been awakened and he might never have written a fictionalized account of the case, A Season In Purgatory, a roman à clef compressing three generations of Kennedy gossip into one book. Had his novel not reactivated interest in the murder, he might not have had leaked to him a copy of a private investigator’s report on Michael Skakel. Had he not been in court in Los Angeles in 1995 when O.J.’s dream team played the “race card” crudely but effectively against Mark Fuhrman, he might not have felt so sorry for the LAPD detective that he struck up a friendship and forwarded the Skakel investigator’s leaked report. Had Fuhrman not used the Skakel report to write a damning book on the Moxley case, the state of Connecticut might never have reopened it and put Michael Skakel on trial. It was a very slender thread that led to a rare Kennedy conviction. “It is a fact of my life that coincidences happen to me,” says the narrator in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. For Dunne, the greatest coincidence was as stark as a gravestone: Martha Moxley was killed on the same date—Oct. 30—as his own daughter.
In Dunne’s 1993 novelization, on the night of the murder, at a society ball, the glamorous Kennedy figure cuts in on the girl with the insouciant pitch, “Do you mind dancing with a man with an erection?” The line recurs through the book as a kind of priapic refrain, and it’s tempting to dismiss it as an absurdly baroque conceit on the author’s part. But in 2002, when the real Michael Skakel eventually found himself facing a real jury in a real trial, it emerged that on the night of the murder of Martha Moxley he had been masturbating in a tree outside her bedroom window. How do we know? Because in 1997 Skakel sat down with a ghostwriter and a tape machine and chit-chatted merrily away about his arboreal exertions for what he hoped would be a lively chapter in a projected book called Dead Man Talking: A Kennedy Cousin Comes Clean. And evidently it seemed entirely natural to reminisce about the good old days when he was not yet so fat he couldn’t climb the Moxleys’ tree and masturbate up there. What, you’ve never masturbated up a tree? C’mon, it’s like that football-on-skis family tradition that caused Michael Kennedy’s rather more final encounter with a tree, or Uncle Teddy’s famous “waitress sandwich” with fellow trouserless senator Chris Dodd on the floor of a Washington restaurant: doesn’t everyone do this stuff? Michael Skakel figured he’d gotten away with it: he was a Kennedy, kinda. And Martha Moxley was his Mary Jo Kopechne, just another wossname nobody cared about. But Connecticut is not Massachusetts, and a Kennedy in-law does not enjoy quite as extensive a droit de seigneur.
Dunne was a stage manager on The Howdy Doody Show and a producer of C-list movies before a chance encounter with Vanity Fair’s Tina Brown led to his reinvention as a writer. The preoccupations of the last half of his adult life are summed up in the title of another book, An Inconvenient Woman, a thinly disguised fictionalization of Alfred Bloomingdale’s murdered mistress Vicki Morgan. In both his crime reporting and his novels, there’s usually a powerful man and an “inconvenient woman”—sure, she’s hot, she’s fun, she’s cute, but there comes a point when she’s an inconvenience. And then you lawyer up and make the inconvenience go away. That’s what Kennedys do, with both the passing fancies—the waitresses, the campaign cuties, the gal next door—and with their routinely “annulled” first marriages. That’s what Ted did with Joan, the wife he drove to alcoholism. That’s what he did with Mary Jo, swimming up from the depths of that Chappaquiddick pond and leaving her down there pressed up against a shrinking air pocket waiting for the rescue team he never called. Nice girl, but inconvenient. So he got back to the hotel, worked the phones, called in the family fixers, squared the local authorities, started the speechwriters working on the statement.
Dominick Dunne couldn’t go along with the “dream teams” and the rest of the flim-flam, not after the murderer of his 22-year- old daughter got a three-year sentence. So he was there for the “inconvenient women,” all the way to his last big trial, when Phil Spector became the latest big shot to date a gal to death. Poor Lana Clarkson wasn’t a “legend” or a “troubled genius,” like Phil, just a one-time B-movie queen who wound up in a B-movie ending. As always, Dunne’s account had all the best detail:
“Sitting in the back seat of his Mercedes as they sped along several freeways to Alhambra, they watched the old James Cagney movie Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.”
An assistant of mine loved his fiction. “This is the way airport novels should be,” she said. Which is a good way of putting it. Any competent hack can do the brand names and the restaurants and the lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous stuff, but Dunne understood the subtler currents coursing just below the surface. He liked the parties and the gossip and the name-dropping; the movie stars and the dispossessed Euro-princelings and the Kennedy cousins. He was of them, but not one of them, not entirely. And so, notwithstanding who got top billing, there was a kind of symmetry in his and Ted Kennedy’s all but simultaneous expiry: a man who disposed of inconvenient women, and a man who ensured they weren’t forgotten. The Farrah Fawcett encounter was a good last name-drop, but it would have been a better story had it been the cancer-stricken Teddy—and the old brute, in some casual aside, had found himself spilling the beans on what really happened at Chappaquiddick that night. “I am the kind of person to whom people confess their secrets,” says one of Dominick Dunne’s narrators. “It has always been so with me.”