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The Trials of Dominick Dunne Insider's view: Known as a chronicler of the 'not-so-pretty' side of high society, the novelist and magazine writer brings his own insights to his reports from the O.J. Simpson courtroom.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- It is dinner time in West Hollywood, and Dominick Dunne has just been seated at a table, the best table, naturally, in Mortons, a fashionable restaurant where the rich and famous gather to see and be seen.people, it seems, want to chat with Dominick Dunne, the ex-Hollywood producer turned novelist and magazine writer. Or to be more precise, they want to get their daily fix of the addiction that's got all of Los Angeles in its grip: the O. J. Simpson trial.

To get a handle on just how deep this obsession with the O. J. trial runs, one could start right here, at Mortons, in the company of Dominick Dunne, one of a handful of writers with a permanent seat in the courtroom

Throughout the evening, in a steady stream, deeply tanned men and glamorous women carrying $2,000 Hermes pocketbooks stop by his table to ask: What's happened to Marcia Clark? Can the jury make it through to the end? Is it almost over? Is he going to walk?

And so it goes. Here in this restaurant, where the air is filled with the sweet smell of excess, Dominick Dunne is holding court. O. J. court, that is.

His answers to the questions are interesting. But even more interesting are his observations of the people asking the questions. As they leave, Dominick Dunne ticks off their connections to the case: "He's a friend of Bob Shapiro . . . F. Lee Bailey lived in his guest house . . . He introduced Bob [Shapiro] to O. J. . . ."

It seems that all roads in this town, at least until this Fellini-esque trial is finally over, lead to O. J. Simpson.

And, for those who want an insider's view of the trial, to the red-hot Vanity Fair reports by Dominick Dunne.

Of all the trials in all the cities in the world, you could say that Dominick Dunne was destined to walk into this one with a reporter's notebook. He knows the town. He knows the players. He knows the connections among the players. And whatever he doesn't know, he knows who to ask for the answer.

But he also brings to this trial -- and all the trials he's covered -- an insight few others have: a familiarity with the pain and anger and anguish known only to the families of the sometimes-forgotten victims. This intimate knowledge of such cruel realities is the subtext to all his writing.

And, as those who know Dominick Dunne will tell you, the subtext to his life.

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All his life, Dominick Dunne has dined in places like Mortons, hobnobbed with the rich and powerful, been privy to their secrets, a part of their world. And he knows that world well. So well, in fact, that he is now regarded as the pre-eminent American chronicler of high society. Or as he puts it, the chronicler of the "not-so-pretty lives" of such people. His best-selling novels, including "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" and "An Inconvenient Woman," along with his high-profile articles in the silky pages of Vanity Fair, have earned him millions of fans. And millions of dollars.

"I have been fortunate enough to have a front-row seat on that kind of life," says Mr. Dunne, 69, in a mellow voice that often sounds on the verge of saying something wicked and, once or twice, does. "And some people have got really upset with me because my descriptions of their lives are so accurate. But it's what I know. And I always get it right."

And why not? His list of credentials is almost impeccable: Born the second of six children, the son of a prominent Hartford, Conn., heart surgeon, he prepped at Canterbury and went on to graduate from Williams College. One of his brothers is writer John Gregory Dunne, who is married to Joan Didion, also a writer.

Only one thing stood between him and total acceptance into the WASP-dominated Hartford society: He came from an Irish-Catholic family.

"We were like minor-league Kennedys," Mr. Dunne says. "We grew up belonging to the WASP clubs and going to the same schools and the same places in the summer. But we were never part of them. And I hated that as a kid."

He describes himself as a perennial outsider. And as a writer, he says, that has given him the best of both worlds: an insider's access coupled with an outsider's emotional distance.

Still, from time to time, a glimpse of lingering vulnerability surfaces, leftover traces of his early nose-pressed-against-the-window days. It is a surprising but endearing quality in a man of his sophistication and worldliness. And it may account, in part, for Dominick Dunne's legendary ability to inspire people to tell him things they would tell no other interviewer.

"He's a man who has tasted rejection and failure," observes New Yorker editor Tina Brown, who worked with Mr. Dunne for many years when she edited Vanity Fair and who remains a close friend. "I think there's a kind of priestly quality about Nick. If he hadn't been a writer, I think he would have been a priest. There's nothing you can't say to Nick. Nothing shocks him. He's not a judgmental man."

Trial of the century

For the last 10 months Dominick Dunne's life has been consumed by the O. J. trial. Still, he knows that trials like this don't come along very often.

"It is the most extraordinary event," Mr. Dunne says. "It's got everything. Everything. Rich people, big houses, interracial marriage, love, sex, lies, fame. And all the justice that money can buy. To me this is like an American pageant that everyone is participating in. And we're seeing America at its absolute worst. . . . The defense has done its job. I mean, O. J. got his $6 million worth out of these guys."

And Vanity Fair, it might be added, is getting its money's worth out of Mr. Dunne's monthly reports.

"What you get in his reporting is how incestuous this case is," says Newsday's Shirley Perlman. "He's hooked into all the undercurrents and connections in this case, which is really interesting."

But for O. J. Simpson, says Dominick Dunne, all those connections are about to end. He recalls a conversation he had with Faye Resnick, one of Nicole Simpson's best friends, about O. J.'s future should he be acquitted.

"Faye said to me, 'The kind of people who think O. J. didn't do it are not the kind of people he wants to be with,' " says Mr. Dunne. "And that's what his life is going to be. Because -- and this is very difficult to write about -- this is a man who lived a white life and didn't mix with his own people, except for other famous black people. And those doors will all be closed to him. There's no two ways about it. I think he will clear the place out if he walks into Mortons."

A Dunne day

Since the start of the O. J. trial, Dominick Dunne has been living and working out of a suite at the chic, slightly eccentric Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood. Bette Davis stayed here. So did Garbo. And John Belushi died here.

Mr. Dunne's comfortable suite has a great view of the Hollywood Hills. But from the looks of the place -- notebooks piled high, clippings and stacks of papers everywhere, coroner's photos on his kitchen table, messages pinned to the wall, fax machines, copiers, computers -- one suspects Dominick Dunne seldom contemplates the view.

He rises at 5:30 a.m., reads the West Coast newspaper accounts of the O. J. trial, breakfasts at 6, showers and shaves, watches the morning TV shows to see who's being interviewed about the case, reads the faxes of the New York coverage of the trial and by 7:30 is in his black convertible Mustang headed for the downtown Criminal Courts Building. When he arrives at 8:05, he's the first person in line to get his press pass for the 9 a.m. start of the trial.

"I just like getting here early in the morning because I pick up a whole lot of gossip," Mr. Dunne says, as he walks through the groups of tourists, protesters, reporters and camera crews already gathered outside the courthouse. He walks surprisingly fast and with a spring in his step. At 69, he still approaches his work like an ambitious 25-year-old in hot pursuit of the big story.

Today, the sidewalk is crowded with protesters from the NAACP who carry signs saying "Fuhrman -- #1 Racist." As they walk back and forth they chant, "Free O. J.! Free O. J.!" Threaded into this group are about 50 men and women dressed in full Judge Ito regalia -- beard, wig, glasses, robe -- the result of a radio promotion offering free concert tickets to Judge Ito look-alikes.

"Hey, Dominick," a woman calls out, as he walks into the building. Mr. Dunne, who comments regularly on the trial for CBS News and KCBS locally, has become a celebrity in Los Angeles.

On the ninth floor, outside Judge Lance Ito's courtroom, the tourists and the journalists covering the case are already milling around the corridor. At lunch break, particularly, the corridor becomes a magnet for visiting celebrities, local gawkers and vacationing families who've stopped off at the courthouse after visiting Universal Studios and Disneyland. After going through a security check and metal detector, anyone can wait in the corridor to watch the O. J. trial stars come and go.

And what a cast! Today, television's Katie Couric and Erin Moriarty and a gaunt-looking Kathleen Sullivan have shown up. Then there are the real stars: Johnnie and Bob and Marcia and Chris.

And don't forget the star witnesses. "Look, there's Phil Vannatter!" says one excited woman as the case's lead detective returns from lunch. Similar squeals of recognition greet Johnnie et al. as they appear.

But the crowd falls curiously silent as the jury is marched back from lunch, single-file through the corridor. A tired-looking bunch, they walk with their heads down as they enter the courtroom. They are, perhaps, the only participants in the trial who don't seem to enjoy being watched.

Dominick Dunne worries about the jury. "I think they're so fragile and some of them so glassy-eyed at this moment, they're not going to want to linger for weeks and weeks to fight it out."

Obsessed by the courtroom

Since he began his career as a writer in 1980, Dominick Dunne consistently has been drawn to morality tales involving the rich and powerful caught up in criminal situations. He's obsessed with criminal trials that involve high-profile defendants. "A rich person on trial is very different than an ordinary person on trial," he says. "When you have a million bucks to spend on a defense attorney, you have a much better chance of winning."

He ought to know. Claus von Bulow. William Kennedy Smith. Erik and Lyle Menendez. He's staked out new journalistic territory covering them all for Vanity Fair. Written with no pretense at objectivity, his first-person, insider look at these trials caught on immediately, transforming him into one of the best-paid magazine writers in the world.

"He's a great, great magazine writer, probably the greatest magazine writer around now," says Tina Brown.

A not-inconsequential component of Mr. Dunne's successful writing style is his ability to get the kind of detail and texture that gives his readers a feeling for the lives of his subjects.

Take, for instance, his visit to the $4 million Menendez mansion shortly after Erik and Lyle were put in jail for the murder of their parents. Mr. Dunne wanted to see the inside of the house, particularly the family room where the crime took place. Posing as a wealthy, potential buyer for the mansion, he toured the place and wrote:

"The Menendez house is almost a metaphor for the family that lived in it. . . . But don't be fooled by the price. It looked fine from the outside. Inside, it was a disaster, not unlike the Menendez family itself, as fake as the dozens of family photographs of the four of them, smiling and happy together. It did not have the good-bad taste to be called vulgar, which would have been acceptable. It was just tacky -- cheaply furnished, looking like a rented house."

Of course, not everyone admires Mr. Dunne's work. Or him, for that matter. "If you really want to hear from somebody who hates me a lot, you can call Leslie Abramson," says Mr. Dunne, referring to Erik Menendez's lawyer. "She really hated the way I reported the Menendez trial. . . . I think I hit too close to home. I saw through her. Untruths, shall we say, were told in that trial. But that's the story of American justice. In these trials, truth is what you get the jury to believe."

Ms. Abramson declined to comment on Mr. Dunne for this article. However, in a 1994 BBC documentary on Dominick Dunne, Ms. Abramson savaged his work, saying: "What Dominick Dunne has done is he has made up facts. He writes completely false facts, won't identify his sources."

Covering these criminal trials, says Mr. Dunne, is an obsession. "I was obsessed by the Claus von Bulow trial. I was obsessed by the William Kennedy Smith trial. I was obsessed by the Menendez trial."

He pauses, takes a sip of his Diet Coke, then leans across the table: "And now, I'm obsessed by this one."

Firsthand knowledge

"I truly like Dominick Dunne, but Dominick Dunne wouldn't be out here covering this trial if it didn't involve Hollywood celebrities. There are people who cover this courthouse every day -- the good, the bad, the little and big -- but when it came to this trial they were pushed aside. . . . The reason he and the other authors were assigned those media seats is because Judge Ito is mesmerized by celebrities."

-- A reporter covering the Simpson trial for a West Coast newspaper.

Dominick Dunne is well aware of the resentment among some reporters about the permanent, front-row seats assigned by Judge Lance Ito to him and to Joe McGinniss, whose 1993 book on Ted Kennedy was widely criticized for putting both "thoughts in the senator's head and words in his mouth."

It is, after all, a small courtroom with only 24 seats available to reporters, a number of whom must share a seat on a rotating basis.

"I got terrible flak when I got the seat," Mr. Dunne says now, recalling one particularly disparaging piece that ran in the Los Angeles Times. In it a Southern California bureau chief complained, "Here you have Southern California's three leading newspaper companies relegated to the cheap seats while the front row is reserved for Judith Krantz in pants and Ted Kennedy's unauthorized mind-reader."

"Wasn't that mean?" Mr. Dunne asks in a voice that suggests he was really hurt, and still is, by the piece.

You could argue, of course, that many of the people Dominick Dunne writes about probably feel the same way: attacked and wounded. But the truth is, the barb in Mr. Dunne's pen is never tipped with poison but with something more like vinegar: It stings but doesn't kill.

Dominick Dunne says he got the permanent seat by writing a letter to Judge Ito, whom he'd never met, before the start of the trial. "I sent him a copy of my Menendez article and told him my strong feelings about justice and how it doesn't seem to be served too often. And that I had a sort of a passion about it. Which I do."

Judge Ito never answered the letter and Mr. Dunne was surprised when he got the seat. "Now that the trial is almost over, I can tell you this," he says. "Judge Ito called me into his office the day after that Los Angeles Times article came out. And he said, 'I understand you're getting a lot of flak about your seat.'

" 'Oh, yes, but I can handle that, Your Honor.'

" 'Well, now I'm getting a lot of flak about your seat, too. . . . But there's something I'd like you to know, Mr. Dunne. That seat is yours. And I gave it to you.' "

Then Judge Ito told Dominick Dunne he'd be the perfect person to sit next to the Browns or the Goldmans.

"I knew what he meant, although he never came out and said it," Mr. Dunne says. "I mean, I have been through exactly what those two families are going through. And you don't find many people around who've had that experience."

The experience he shares with the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman occurred in 1983 during the first trial Dominick Dunne ever attended: the trial of the man who murdered Mr. Dunne's 22-year-old daughter, Dominique.

Dominique, his youngest child, was a promising actress when she was strangled by her ex-boyfriend, John Sweeney, then a chef for the fancy Hollywood restaurant Ma Maison. For a while, Mr. Dunne contemplated murdering her killer, but found the strength to attend his trial instead.

But the outcome of the trial only brought more anguish and rage when Dominque's killer was let off with a manslaughter verdict and six-year sentence, of which he served only two and a half years. "After the man who killed her got out of prison, I was like a crazy person," he says now. "I was obsessed with revenge. But finally, I had to let it go. I knew I didn't want to live like that anymore."

Failure to success

"Both my brother Alex and I are so proud of his entire odyssey," says Griffin Dunne, 40, of his father. "He is someone who started out one way in his life and lost everything that seemed important to him. And then finding out it wasn't so important and growing in such a profoundly spiritual way . . ." His voice trails off. "That's just incredible to me."

If Dominick Dunne's life is ever made into a miniseries, the story line would go something like this:

In 1979, after flourishing for more than 20 years as a Hollywood producer who hangs out with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Pat and Peter Lawford, Dominick Dunne, drinking heavily, loses it all. The job. The beautiful, socially prominent wife. The power. The money.

Broke, divorced, drunk and suicidal, he flees to a remote tourist cabin in Oregon. He stays for six months, stops drinking, joins Alcoholics Anonymous and starts to rethink his life. Then, suddenly, a brother commits suicide, and Dunne heads east for the funeral. Flat broke, he takes a one-room apartment in Greenwich Village and begins writing a book.

But before he can finish it, his life is shattered again by the death of his daughter. He lets loose his terrible anger and cynicism about the proceedings of the trial in a Vanity Fair article, and his career as a journalist is launched. The following year, he makes it big as a novelist with "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles." It is made into a miniseries.

By 1985 Dominick Dunne the Failure had become Dominick Dunne the Success.

He had also become a vastly different person. He was no longer the man who left Los Angeles in despair.

"I was desperate, " Mr. Dunne says of his sudden decision to leave Hollywood behind. "I could have killed myself at that point. You know, I left this town as a total failure. Total. I mean, you couldn't get any more failed than I was."

At one point, he even tried -- in a very casual way -- to sell his furniture to one of his friends, Hollywood producer Martin Manulis.

"We didn't need what he had to sell," Mr. Manulis remembers. "It never occurred to me he had a need to sell it."

While he was in Camp Sherman, Ore., Dominick Dunne began writing long letters to his actor son, Griffin. The letters were a revelation to Griffin, who, growing up, did not see that much of his father and did not always like what he saw.

"What was disturbing to me, more than the drinking, were his priorities," Griffin says now. "He was very much concerned about appearances and how we looked and what we were wearing and what parties we were going to. And I have to say we became much closer through the letters, when I understood what he was going through in Oregon. They were filled with everything going on in his life. And while they were written to me, they were also written to himself. I think it's how he taught himself to write. I think he found his voice in those letters."

His other son, Alex, says of his father's new attitude and new career: "It's been inspiring for me and for my friends. We believe now that you can have two lives. And that you can start over again at 50."

Alex, 38, a San Francisco social worker, made national headlines in August when he disappeared during a hiking trip in the Arizona desert. His father immediately left the Simpson trial to search for him.

Alex Dunne turned up four days later, apologetic and unhurt except for a twisted ankle and sprained back.

"The whole thing was so mortifying to put anyone through," he says. Particularly his father who had already lost one of his children.

For Mr. Dunne, Alex's disappearance cracked open an old wound. "It brought back so much," he says. "So much of Dominique. I kept thinking, 'I can't believe that this could happen twice.' " He shrugs and smiles and falls unusually silent.

Then, in a muffled voice, his eyes down, he says: "You know, Dominique was on this life support thing for four days, and when they took her off, each family member went in alone to say a private goodbye to her. And they had shaved her hair -- she had the most beautiful hair, and she would have hated the way she looked. . . . And when I said goodbye to her, I kissed her and said, 'Give me your talent.' "

He looks up suddenly, and the pain in his voice changes to something approaching hope. "And you know, I think she did. Or she helped me find mine. She guards me now. I really mean that. And I find myself saying in my panic or whatever, 'Help me, Dominique.' "

Among friends

Mr. Dunne makes no pretense -- in either his articles or conversations -- of his sympathy for the families of the victims; he is particularly close to the Goldman family. But he is also friendly with O. J. Simpson's family.

In the corridor, he is hugged first by Ron Goldman's sister, Kim, then by O. J.'s two sisters, Shirley Baker and Carmelita Durio, who attend the trial almost every day. The Brown family, he says, doesn't come as often as they once did.

Mr. Dunne's day at court usually ends about 5:30 p.m.. Evenings are spent out on the town, with friends and/or sources, picking up the latest tips and gossip relevant to the trial. "Weekends," he says, "are for writing."

Still, he managed to find time recently to lunch on two consecutive Sundays with Elizabeth Taylor at her home. And last week, he lunched with Nancy Reagan to "do an update on the trial with her. She knows as much about the trial as anyone."

Asked about his personal life, he replies: "You mean, do I have a romantic life? No, I don't. I found I was never very good at love. I always screwed it up. But I found this sort of fulfillment in writing. When you've got this . . ." -- he stops and picks up his notebook -- "and a computer nearby, you don't get lonely. I feel very lucky that I learned this late in life."

He remains close to his ex-wife, Lenny, who lives in Arizona. Diagnosed many years ago with multiple sclerosis, she is now bed-ridden. "I once wrote that although my wife and I were divorced, we never became unmarried," he says.

Life after O.J.

It's almost in sight now: Life After O. J. Now, as the trial slouches toward resolution, the defense and prosecution are like two weary boxers holding on, just waiting for the final bell and hoping the referee calls it for their side.

Dominick Dunne is weary, too. "I've got courtroom fever," he says. "I've got to get out of the courtroom and back to real life."

Real life for Mr. Dunne is his Turtle Bay apartment in Manhattan and his country place in Hadlyme, Conn. After the trial, he'll head back to New York for a big 70th birthday party his sons are planning for him. Then perhaps a week's vacation in London before starting his new book.

The subject matter? O. J. Simpson. What else?

"What I want to get in the book is the complexities of all that happened. . . . The trial is the spine of the book, and I'm a character in it," he says. But while he will use everyone else's real name, he will continue to call himself, as he has in other books, Gus Bailey. "I like to call it a non-fiction novel," he says, citing Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" as an example of what he has in mind.

Now, in Judge Ito's courtroom, there is little left to do but wait. As for the outcome, well, Dominick Dunne's been back and forth on that one. "Each day it kind of changes. I don't see how that jury can convict him. A while back I went through a period of thinking acquittal, but I'm over that. I'm back to hung jury -- but barely hung."

If there is a retrial, he won't be among those covering it.

"No, no, no," he says. "You know, there was a great court reporter named Theo Wilson, and she said to me once, 'Dominick, I don't do windows -- and I don't do retrials.' " He pauses and smiles: "Words to live by."

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