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October 19, 2009

Writer Dominick Dunne Dies of Cancer

Onetime television and film producer known for landmark coverage of Menendez, Simpson trials and other high-profile real-life court dramas

Dominick Dunne, a onetime television and film producer who became an acclaimed journalist and bestselling author, died August 26, 2009, at his home in New York City. The 83-year-old Dunne had been battling bladder cancer.

Known for his coverage of true crime, particularly scandal among the wealthy and famous, Dunne was a correspondent and columnist for Vanity Fair magazine from 1984 until his death. Among the high-profile defendants he wrote about were Claus von Bulow, the Menendez brothers, O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake and Phil Spector.

Dunne’s association with Vanity Fair began as a result of a personal tragedy. In 1982 his daughter, Dominique, died at age 22 after being strangled by an estranged boyfriend. Encouraged by Tina Brown, who was editor of Vanity Fair at the time, Dunne, who attended the trial of his daughter’s attacker, chronicled the events and later published an account, titled “Justice: A Father’s Account of the Trial of his Daughter’s Killer.”

In addition to his journalism, Dunne penned novels, two of which — People Like Us and The Two Mrs. Grenvilles — became television miniseries.

Other novels included A Season in Purgatory, An Inconvenient Woman and The Mansions of Limbo. In addition, he published a memoir, The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper.

At the time of his death, Dunne was reported to be at work on another novel, titled Too Much Money.

Dunne was the brother of an acclaimed author John Gregory Dunne, who was married to another revered writer, Joan Didion. But he came to writing later in life, after working for many years in the entertainment industry.

Born October 29, 1925, he was the second of six children in an affluent Hartford, Connecticut, family. He had a stormy relationship with his father, a heart surgeon, who reportedly regarded his son as a sissy, and was dismissive of his creative ambitions. Dunne rose in his father’s esteem when he served in World War II and earned a Bronze Star for rescuing a wounded soldier during the Battle of the Bulge.

After graduating from Williams College, Dunne moved to New York, where he became a stage manager for the popular television series The Howdy Doody Show and later for Robert Montgomery Presents.

In 1954 he married heiress Ellen Griffin. In addition to daughter Dominique, they had two sons, Griffin and Alexander.

In 1957, Dunne moved to Los Angeles to work on the CBS series Playhouse 90. Within two years he was executive producer of Adventures in Paradise, an ABC drama that starred Gardner McKay, an actor whom Dunne discovered in a coffee shop.

Dunne later began producing films, which included The Boys in the Band, The Panic in Needle Park, Ash Wednesday and Play It As It Lays, based on the novel of the same name by his sister-in-law Joan Didion.

Although he embraced the world of celebrity and influence, and became friendly with many of the biggest names in Hollywood, Dunne admitted that he never felt equal to those with whom he worked and socialized.

In the 1960s Dunne’s social striving took a dangerous turn when he began drinking heavily and abusing drugs. In 1979, out of work, out of money and having burned many bridges in Hollywood, he left California and drove to Oregon.

He got a flat tire in the Cascade Mountains town of Camp Sherman. He decided to stay there, and took residence in a one-room cabin, where he made his first serious effort as a writer. During this period he stopped drinking and using drugs, but remained troubled by the events of his life. One night he went to bed with a knife nearby, intending to kill himself, but was awaked by a phone call telling him that his youngest brother, Stephen, had committed suicide.

After his brother's funeral, Dunne decided to start over in New York as a writer. He published his first book, The Winners, in 1982.

Following the murder of his daughter and his affiliation with Vanity Fair, Dunne turned to writing his novels. In addition, his high-profile trial coverage led to a new role as a television commentator. He often shared accounts of the Simpson trial on Court TV, and others in the years that followed.

He also made occasional appearances in scripted series, appearing as himself on such shows as Roseanne and The Closer.

In recent years he hosted his own television show, Power, Privilege and Justice, a true crime anthology that aired on Court TV.

He is survived by his sons and a granddaughter, Hannah.

In May 2006, Dominick Dunne had an extensive conversation with Archive of American Television about his life and career. The interview is not yet available online, but will be posted soon at the Television Archive site at

Dunne talked about his formative years, during which he made associations with such notable figures as Gore Vidal and Anais Nin. He described his first job in television as a stage manager at NBC.

He reminisced about working with the children on Howdy Doody, calling out “One minute, Mr. Montgomery” for the opening of Robert Montgomery Presents, and working on such notable Producers Showcase productions as The Petrified Forest and Our Town. He also recounted the story of how the stage managers were all sent to help pull people from lifeboats when the Italian liner Andrea Dorea sank in 1956.

He talked about his move to Los Angeles, where he joined the staff of the prestigious CBS anthology series Playhouse 90. He discussed his work as a producer at 20th Century Fox, where he made the series Adventures in Paradise and talked about knowing Marilyn Monroe, the “queen of the lot” in those days. He defined his role as a vice-president of Four Star Company and identified the participants of the company.

In addition, he talked about his shift to feature films in the 1970s and spoke about the tragic murder of his daughter and his subsequent work as a chronicler of courtroom trials, notably the O.J. Simpson case. Lastly, he touched on his Court TV series Power, Privilege, & Justice.

The complete interview is available for viewing at the Television Archive office, located on the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences plaza in North Hollywood. Contact the Television Archive at (818) 754-2800 for more information. To learn more about this life and works of this American Archive of Television personality online, please visit the
The complete interview is also available for viewing at the AAT office, located on the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences plaza in North Hollywood. Contact the Television Archive at (818) 754-2800 for more information.

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