Where Have All The Good Times Gone?
Dominick Dunne is best known for covering high-profile criminal cases, which he's written about in his new book, Justice. But long before he set foot in a courtroom, he was a Hollywood producer who clinked champagne flutes with the best of them. Here he tells Martha Frankel about the party days of yesteryear, and names which big stars he'd like to invite to his dream soiree.
There's no better party guest than Dominick Dunne. Having covered some of the most important trials of the last two decades, Dunne has stories to tell that would both make you laugh and cause your hair to curl. In his new book, Justice, Dunne recaps several of these trials--that of his daughter Dominique's killer, who spent less than three years in jail, even though he stalked and strangled her; Claus von Bülow, who went out on the town while his wife lay in the coma that he was accused of having induced; and of course O.J. Simpson, who, Dunne says, absolutely got away with murder.
"People invite me everywhere," Dunne says, leaning back on the couch in his comfortable New York apartment, "because I do what I call my 'floor show.' I tell great stories, I entertain."
Born into a rich Irish Catholic family in Connecticut, Dunne started his career in New York City as a stage manager of live TV shows. After a few years, he moved to Los Angeles, where he produced the films Play It As It Lays and Ash Wednesday. Along the way he and his wife, Lenny, had three kids--Dominique, Alex and the writer/director/actor Griffin Dunne. After years of Hollywood success, Dunne began a slide into hell--he's never been less than forthcoming about his problems with drugs and alcohol. Those substances caused the end of his first career, and although he contemplated suicide, he wound up in a mountain cabin for almost a year. That's where he began his second career as a writer. Dunne has written several best-sellers, including The Two Mrs. Grenvilles and People Like Us, and his monthly diary in Vanity Fair is a must-read.
Dunne is also a man of many contradictions. A lifelong Democrat, he usually speaks with Republican Nancy Reagan at least once a week ("I knew her and Ronnie when I lived in L.A., but we didn't really become friends until the O.J. trial, which she was mesmerized by") and is shunned by the Kennedys (because he dug into the Martha Moxley murder that ended with the indictment of Michael Skakel, the nephew of Ethel Kennedy). He has friends as varied as Stephen Sondheim, who's his old college classmate, Michael Milken, Tita Cahn (the widow of Sammy Cahn) and Joan Collins. And though he writes about some of the biggest high rollers of our times, he also reports on what America's lowlifes are up to. At any moment he could be called out to L.A. if a suspect is named for the murder of Robert Blake's wife. He makes me turn off my tape recorder as he goes over various possible plots.
In his book The Way We Lived Then, which came out two years ago but is still popular with both young and old Hollywood, Dunne vividly portrayed what life was like in Hollywood during the '50s, '60s and '70s--a wild time of parties, parties and more parties.
"Whenever I look through this book," I tell him, "it reminds me of the first time I went to San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst's castle in California. When I saw the pool, I almost cried because I wished so much that I had been a part of that scene."
Dunne starts to nod enthusiastically. "I know exactly what you mean. The idea of Groucho and Harpo diving into the pool with Marion Davies and all those cool people--believe me, I wish I had been there, too."
"It seems to me that you and your wife, Lenny, had the best time of anyone I've ever heard about," I say. "Peter Lawford, Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda would all come to your house. Do you think that today's Hollywood is as cool as it was back then?"
"No, although I bet there are some great times going on. I'm sort of in-the-know because of my son Griffin. And though there are probably great parties now and again, it's nothing like it was for me and Lenny. We entertained or went out almost every night. Gig Young, David Niven, Mia Farrow--we schmoozed with all of them."
"So what changed?"
Now Dunne is silent for a while. "I've thought about this many times. I have to admit that I think the biggest killer of parties is sex."
I slap his hand. "No, Dominick, it's sex that makes parties fun."
He laughs. "No, Martha, you're wrong. What makes a party fun is flirting. I can't tell you the stories of what I've seen, this one flirting with that one, a little kiss there, a touch here. Back in the '60s, you could spend a whole year flirting with someone, the anticipation building up every week. Now people have sex with each other and then decide if they want to be friends or not."
"That makes it sound so depressing," I whine.
Dunne nods. "And the other thing that killed it was drugs. People started getting paranoid: they only wanted to do drugs with other people they knew. It made it so that you didn't get to meet those people that you didn't know that you ordinarily would meet at a party, people that you would find wildly interesting if you weren't so concerned about getting stoned."
"What else screwed it up, rock and roll?"
"Nah," says Dunne with a wink. "Rock and roll didn't kill parties. I can think of parties that it actually helps.
"I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday," Dunne continues. "He's in real estate, and he was telling me about the house that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston just bought, which is a house I know well. It used to belong to [businessman/politician] Carter Burden's parents when Carter was growing up, and then Walter H. Annenberg had it for a long time. It's a magnificent house on a quiet Beverly Hills street, and I thought, How fabulous for Brad. But it's a house meant to entertain in. I can remember the most fabulous parties in that house. And I was wondering, Who will they have over? What will they serve?"
"What makes for a great party?"
"A mix of people that come from different areas. I used to love when we had parties with showbiz people and politicians and old people and the new kids. Those parties were always the best."
"Do people just want you to tell them stories when you're at a party now because you've been at all those trials?"
"I'll tell you a story that's really cringe-making. I was at a party at Norman Lear's during the O.J. trial. And everyone was standing around me and I was telling this story about O.J.'s father. Now O.J. has two sisters and a brother, four kids, and we knew about all of them. And of course everyone knew his mother. But nobody ever mentioned his father. Well, he was gay and he died of AIDS. So I was telling this story at a party. And the next morning, Jason Simpson, O.J.'s oldest son, was in the elevator with me at the courthouse. We had never spoken to each other. And he asked me how I had liked the Lear dinner. I asked him how he knew where I was the night before. And he told me that he had been working for the caterer and he heard me. I'm not usually speechless, but really, what could I say to him? What are the chances of that happening? I was pretty mortified."
I don't know what to say either. "Tell me what and who would make a perfect party."
The words are barely out of my mouth when Dunne asks, "In New York or L.A.?"
"L.A.," I answer.
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