Dominick Dunne's life was about much more than his articles for Vanity Fair and coverage of trials such as O.J. Simpson's.
In the book Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne, writer Robert Hofler takes readers through the fascinating life of the late producer/author/trial reporter/journalist, presenting a man who was fascinated by everything from crime to social constructsincluding public views on celebrities and Dunne's own sexual orientation.
Holfer covered all these topics and more in an extended, but always intriguing, conversation.
Windy City Times: This book is very absorbing. What drew you to Dominick Dunne as a subject?
Robert Hofler: I had written this book, Sexplosion, that was set from 1968 to 1972; it was about the filmmakers, novelists and people like that who broke the taboos regarding sex. I was looking for another book to do, and I had a couple other proposals that were looking back over subjects like that and, frankly, the publishing world didn't want them.
I was reading the newspaper one day and the name "Dominick Dunne" came up; I immediately thought that was a real roller-coaster of a ride. I'm always looking for that dramatic roller-coaster, as opposed to someone who's just very, very successful. I honestly don't think that David Geffen and Scott Rudin are roller-coaster rides, although they're very, very successful.
I interviewed Dominick twice, but they were very, very focused interviews; one was for a feature I did at Variety ( in which he talked about how the movie Now, Voyager affected his life ) and the other was for the Allan Carr book I did. I didn't know at that time that [Dunne] had this really low period and that he reinvented himself as a writer. That's what attracted me to him.
Also, all three of the books I've done have been about gay men. Not only do I identify with it, but there's something about that particular generation of men who came of age pre-Stonewall. You already have conflict because there's conflict with society at large; they're a minority within a majority. But I find that, for them, there's a conflict within themselvesand I think that has to do with the fact that [gay people] are the only minority group that's in conflict with their own family.
WCT: Researching Dominick, I came acrossmore than oncewhere son Griffin Dunne acknowledged his father's bisexuality. You state that Dominick was gay. Could he have been bisexual, sexually fluid or beyond labels?
RH: Griffin did give some interviews promoting Dominick's book Too Much Money, which was published posthumously. In Too Much Money, Dominick had a character named Gus Baileywhich was a name he put in for himself. He was someone who had a daughter who was killed, who had two sons and who had an ex-wife with multiple sclerosis.
My understanding was that Griffin and Dominick did not have a conversation about his homosexuality. When it gets to the whole bisexual thing and Kinsey, the shock about Dominick is that, in his private papers, he wrote about performing oral sex on adult men when he was 8 or 9. That's very sophisticated for an 8- or 9-year-old, although that may have happened when he was even younger.
Outside of his wife, I don't think there was another major heterosexual experience that he had. Surely, his longtime boyfriend said that he never expressed any sexual interested in women. Now, [certain] wealthy women helped him along the way. I don't know how much of that was sexual, but it could've been image.
There is a disappointment [that Dunne didn't come out until very late in his life]. I understand that I don't sympathize with it. I can guarantee those AA meetings he went to were full of gay guys and it would've seemed to be the right time to come out, but I'm sure [the AIDS era] had something to do with [him staying closeted]. I remember how things changed on Fire Island when AIDS came along; it wasn't the time to come out unless you were politically motivated.
He did a documentary in 2006 called After the Party. I asked the filmmaker if he talked about being gay and [co-director Kirsty de Garis] said, "I knew he wasn't going to go there." It wasn't until he knew he was going to die that he spoke with The Times of London and said, "I'm a closeted bisexual celibate"none of which was true. I don't think he was bisexual; he was homosexual. It's possible that he was celibate in the sense that Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton didn't consider oral sex to be sex.
WCT: It was overwhelming to see just how many famous people Dominick knew. How difficult was it to whittle the book down to 300 pages when there were all these celebrity encounters?
RH: It's 350 pages and it's small type. [Laughs] I think I cut out about 30,000 words along the way.
Yes, he knew everybody and knew a lot about a vast number of subjects. One of the things I didn't touch on as much is that he really knew European royalty, although it's not a huge interest of mine. He really knew that world.
He certainly knew high society. My book focuses on later in his lifemore on the trials and less on high society. To be honest, I find high society a total snooze. I did find his hatred of [socialite] Lily Safra fascinating, though.
WCT: And speaking of hatred, it was interesting to see how Frank Sinatra disliked Dominick.
RH: Yes. I don't know for a fact, but I think Frank's hatred had to do with Dominick being a little effeminate. Frank Sinatra was a jerk, and he went after Dominick's wife, saying, "Oh, you're married to a loser." Frank Sinatra knew what the gig was; all of those TV executives, like Dominick, had to be married.
There's a famous story about Frank being close to [gay actor] Montgomery Clift. Then, Montgomery Clift got drunk and made a pass at some guy; Frank Sinatra freaked out, and that was the end of that. Frank was a homophobe, but a really nasty one.
WCT: Elizabeth Taylor is mentioned in the book as well.
RH: With Ash Wednesday, she was kind of out of control. What is interesting is that she regaled the other actors one night, saying, "When Roddy McDowell and I were making one of the Lassie movies, we had to have our faces anesthetized because the bleached corn flakes they were using for snow had us squinting."
I love that episode because this book is about people treating each other badly and why they do sowhich they generally did because they were treated badly. I think Dominick was treated badly by his father [among others], so he grew up being insecure.
I found that a lot of stuff with him with Vanity Fair was just petty, and that's because he was shit on by people like Frank Sinatra.
There's one anecdote that's not in the book: Writer Kevin Sessums and Dominick knew each other because of Vanity Fair, and Kevin asked Dominick to write a blurb for his new book Mississippi Sissy. Anyway, Dominick's blurb was not usedand Dominick wrote a letter saying, "How dare you not use my blurb." I've never check to see if the blurb's ever been used; it just seemed so petty to me.
WCT: Pettiness just seems to be a pervasive theme throughout the book. People start plenty of false rumors. "Fake news" is definitely not a new phenomenon; that started long ago. The pettiness saddened me a little bit.
RH: With these three biographies I've done, I have a reputation for being a little scabrous. [Laughs] There are some interesting characters. Quite often, people are like coins; the [two sides] are related. Dominick loved being a mentor to young journalists, but the flip side was that he didn't like people of authority. I find that it's true of me, too; I related to that. My biographies are about men who really wanted to be famousand that was their undoing.
Dominick came along at the right time in terms of trials like O.J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers. However, what happened later in life was that he didn't have those great cases to follow. So, he started pushing this stupid Gary Condit thing that cost him $1 million to settle out of courtand his reputation really took a hit because of it.
Also, Dominick was an advocate journalist. He didn't tell a story from all sides, and I think thatputting a point of view to every subjectcan get you into trouble.
WCT: What was one very surprising thing you discovered in your research?
RH: Dominick wrote Another City, Not My Own [inspired by the O.J. Simpson trial]. With himself and his immediate family, he would put in names like Gus Baileybut everybody else was O.J. Simpson and Marcia Clark, and he would have quotes from them that turned out to be real. In that book, he said he went to Roddy McDowell's house and had dinner with Gavin Lambert and Mart Crowley. I asked Mart, "When you four gay guys were all together, you didn't talk about being gay in any way?"and Mart said "No." I found that amazing.
Interestingly, he never wrote that his interest in grisly murderslike the case involving Lana Turner and her gangster boyfriendpreceded his own daughter's murder; he never connected the two. Dominick actually thought that Lana murdered the boyfriend and pinned it on her daughter to keep her career goingbut that's really fiendish. Dominick would talk about other murders, but would get upset if others talked about his daughter or her murder.
WCT: If you could interview Dominick a third time, what would you ask him?
RH: [Pauses] It would probably be silly things like, "Did you have to write a sample chapter for The Two Mrs. Grenvilles to get the book deal?" It'd be something silly like that. [Laughs] I like to get basic outlines of things when writing stories; I don't want [the subjects'] opinions.
I'd probably press him about the Frank Sinatra thing: "Do you think he acted that way toward you because you were gay?" And I'd probably ask him about the time he moved to New York and went to the AA meetings.
WCT: I was also fascinated by the Menendez [brothers'] trial, and how Dominick felt he related to Eric.
RH: In that documentary, Dominick comes so close to outing himself it's ridiculous. One thing that impressed me was that when he wrote a letter to his children in 1979, he said, "The secret of my homosexuality is eating at my life like a cancer." He said "the secret"which is very aware. One of the weird and painful things is seeing the number of times he comes so close to saying, "I'm gay."
With the Menendez brothers, Dunne said, "I identified with Eric; we were both stutterers and took abuse from our fathers. I'm sure Eric's father called him all those horrible, faggy names." Then, he takes a little step back and says, "My father called me a sissy, and it's a tough word." Probably, in the '20s and '30s, "sissy" was code for gay. So Dominick didn't give the major point of identification, which was the homosexuality.
You asked me earlier about one of the big shocks I had while researching, and here it is: I knew that Dominick was in the closet, like Roddy McDowell was in the closetbut when you sat down with dinner with Roddy, he wasn't in the closet. I was surprised by how much Dominick was still in the closet. What straight man talks about Now, Voyager and then talks about how much he identifies with Bette Davis? [Interviewer laughs.]
WCT: What would you like people to take away from this book?
RH: I don't know. [Pauses] My books have gotten some bad reviews, saying that people want [a certain thing].
I think there are certain themes that come out of my books. I want to simply tell a good story with a great character. I don't have the talent to write a novel; I can't make up the stuff.
You know what? There are more interesting stories than Ed Wood or Florence Foster Jenkins. My books aren't made into TV series or movies, and I think it's because they're about gay guys. If you have a drag queen who's straight, that gets made into a movie.
I'm curious about what people take away from my books. Sometimes, they are things that I never intend, but that are there. I think the idea of people treating each other badlyand where that behavior comes fromis a [prominent theme].
I think also that it's a book about the debilitating effect of the closet. It's something to keep in mind, especially regarding the older generation.