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An Inveterate Connecticut Yankee Tells Us about
His Remarkable Life

By James H. Hyde, Editor and Creative Director
Photography by Terry Hyde


August 26, 2009 was a day of profound sadness. New England lost a great man and true survivor, Dominick Dunne, noted novelist, Vanity Fair columnist and a Hollywood producer.

To have known Dominick Dunne and to call him a friend was a distinct honor, and our time spent with him was precious indeed. I was particularly blessed to have helped him research his book, A Season in Purgatory, the account of the horrendous murder of Martha Moxley, a teenage girl who lived and was murdered in Greenwich, Connecticut.

To his friends, he was known as "Nick," and that's what he insisted we call him. It was an honor and privilege. We knew Nick Dunne the man, not the celebrity. The two were very different. His celebrity, except what's discussed in the story below, is but window dressing to a character who knew unfathomable loss, yet carried on, defeated his demons, and became a best-selling novelist and Vanity Fair columnist.

For those of us who really knew him, the relationship was cherished. He neither expected us to treat him like the famed person he had become, and never once did he ever put on airs. He was a man who told stories in such a compelling, enthralling and fascinating way that he could craft a living out of doing so, and he did. He met the most famous and influential people in the world, and dedicated himself to obtaining justice for those who could not speak beyond the grave. For that, far more than his writing, he should be a celebrated hero telling the stories of those who fell victim to murder most foul.

We are comforted by our memories of Nick Dunne, and by knowing he's in a far better place now, with his wife Lenny and the beloved children who preceded him to Heaven. With him goes our friendship, our love and our prayers. Our only regret is that we could not have seen him one last time before this horrendously sad day.

Good bye, old Friend. You'll live on in our hearts forever.

"All Hollywood corrupts; and absolute Hollywood corrupts absolutely."

Edmund Wilson

I was in mid-sentence, trying to commit to words the facets of a particularly intriguing idea as I worked on my novel. Writers know how fragile and fleeting such inspirational pearls can be. The slightest distraction can hurl them from our thoughts, lost forever. Just as my fingertips hit the keys, the phone rang.

My wife Terry answered, then stuck her head around the corner, her eyes wide. "It's Dominick Dunne," she whispered. That pearl of a thought I had looked so hard to grasp suddenly became utterly forgettable. I picked up the phone and introduced myself to an extraordinary man.

That was in 1992.

Dunne, or Nick as he asked us to call him, had been seated next to my mother at a dinner party. Between mouthfuls of gourmet fare, he expressed interest in writing a book about the Martha Moxley murder case. Martha had been brutally murdered in Greenwich, Connecticut, where we lived at the time. My mother told him I knew a great deal about the case, and suggested he give me a call.

During that first conversation—and many others spent discussing the sordid details of the murder, the power to excess of a notable New England family, and how disgusted we both were that justice had been elusive for almost 20 years—he was very laid back and remarkably easy to talk to. It was as if we'd known each other for years.

Like Nick, I have long been fascinated by the intricacies, details and nuances of complicated criminal cases, especially those even lightly stained by the specter of conspiracy. That fascination has kindled for me a decade'-long study and obsession with the myriad mysteries surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In a strange and twisted way, the murder of Martha Moxley adds itself to the Kennedy family mystique.

The suspects from the start of the Moxley investigation had been two Skakel brothers, the nephews of Ethel Kennedy (nee Skakel), widow of slain Senator Robert Kennedy. The Moxley murder was yet another trajedy attaching itself to an impossibly inscrutable list of what has come to be known as "The Kennedy Curse."

I had closely followed the case and was working at Greenwich Hospital while putting myself through college when Martha's body was brought to the morgue there.

Overtones of yet another possible conspiracy perplexed me. Martha's body was brought to, and autopsied at, the Greenwich Hospital morgue by the state medical examiner. That was not the customary protocol for murder cases in Connecticut at the time. They were always done at the Medical Examiner's forensic lab in Farmington, Connecticut, not a local hospital ill-equipped to fulfill the requirements of a bona fide fornesic examination. It was after that that I began to suspect foul play grafted onto a truly hideous crime. While neither Nick nor I could prove it, we certainly had our suspicions.

I gave Nick the grotesque details of the case, explained why I had serious questions about the investigation and offered to do all I could to help.

Nick's book about the case, A Season in Purgatory, tugged at the single loose thread that started the unraveling of a rich-and-powerful cocoon protecting Michael Skakel, who had been convicted and was serving twenty-to-life for Martha's murder when he was recently granted a new trial.

That said, no one has a greater right to claim responsibility for serving up justice in this case than has Dominick Dunne. But this wasn't the first case that motivated him to shine a light on the rich and famous who found themselves facing judge and jury. His genuine and relentless pursuit of justice has driven him for the entire second half of his life, triggered by the horrendous murder of Dominique Dunne, his beloved daughter.


For Dominick Dunne, an indomitable soul, life has been like biking down a washboard, dirt roadójarring, scary and impossibly thrilling. He's seen the world from envied pinnacles, and valleys so low they blister the imagination. But he has always risen above to carve out a life most people would find suitably fictitious, and hopelessly short on chance. Since early childhood, Dominick Dunne has proven himself a model survivor and an accomplished self-re-inventor.

He's a straight-talking Nutmegger who suffers no charlatans and doggedly lays bare the misdeeds of the wicked. The latter he does with abandon, scratching incessantly at an itchy impatience for justice, spawned by cruel and wrenching personal tragedy. His accounts of celebrity trials in novel form have been read by millions, and his many columns about the well-known and well-to-do have been de rigueur for untold numbers of readers of Vanity Fair's cologned pages. He has his own TV show, Power, Privilege and Justice, on Court TV, on which he reviews cases that fall within his purview.

Nick's roots and family are classically New England. His well-heeled parents—his father a famous heart surgeon, and his mother a bejeweled debutante—were both Connecticutters. They were aristocratic, but without the necessary pedigree to be listed in the haughty pages of the Social Register. As wealthy Irish Catholics they found themselves ever on the cusp of a Hartford high society whose true wink-and-nudge acceptance they could not grasp.

Anxious to leave Hartford after a childhood gnarly and troublesome, Nick was drawn to New York's TV lights, and then to Hollywood's garish lights. There he carved out a niche among movie stars and heartily indulged his obsession with celebrity.

Though he'd left New England, New England had not left him, and when his idyllic Hollywood lifestyle viscously collapsed around him, it was to Connecticut and New York that he returned.

Connecticut was Nick's true home. He had a New York apartment, the necessary perch from which to spy the glitter, but it's in Connecticut that he prefers to write his novels, and it's easy to see why. There's distinct serenity at his cozy and inviting house; a Corinthian oasis filled with books of all manner and description. The Da Vinci Code sits atop a pile of books on the coffee table. Neatly beside it, another pile is topped by a pictorial biography of Marilyn Monroe.

There's no doubt that he feels safer here from the indignities that have so hacked at his soul. He's come full circle, and "what a long, strange trip it's been."

Hardscrabble Road, Bitter Deliverance

In his youth, Nick Dunne found athleticism a burdensome gambit for which he had no aptitude, much to his patrician father's consternation. That made him an attractive dinner-table target—his father aiming for the bulls eye in Nick's considerable sensitivity. Nonetheless, he dug in his heels and performed far better in the entertainment field than did his siblings on the football field.

His fabled Hollywood life began as a fluke and mushroomed in stature to others' envy. An invitation to one of Nick and wife Lenny's Hollywood parties was highly prized. But, as glorious as it was, it all ebbed badly, and the low tide that quickly followed reeked.

Dominick Dunne's decorative studyHollywood was and is a social bonfire. Dominick Dunne played with it and suffered third-degree burns to 100% of his psyche. It would become a large back-monkey, it's addictiveness both potent and consuming. And addiction to that led to dependence on alcohol and cocaine. That volatile mix in turn put loud, scandalous words in Nick's mouth at well-attended cocktail parties—words derogatory, yet honest, about some well-known elites who were not amused and characteristically rejected him.

In addition, the obsession with tinsel brought with it a ravenous financial appetite. Party expenses drained the Dunne's resources to exsanguination. Soon gone were his wife, his reputation, his status, his confidence, his fortune, his convertible Mercedes and very nearly his life.

Bitter, rejected and black-balled, Nick realized that he somehow had to exorcise his demons. He slumped into an old Ford and headed due north to the Cascade Mountains for wound licking, respite and introspection. A flat tire intervened, and for the ensuing six months he lived in an Oregon cabin with no phone and no TV. More importantly, there was no booze, no cocaine and no Hollywood.

During that half year, Nick reclaimed his life and essence, and re-defined and honed his raison d'etre. He also killed his physical addictions on his own—no swanky clinics, no doctors; nothing to numb withdrawal's wretched sting. When fully recovered, he returned briefly to LA, shook the dust from his sandals and headed to New York for good. There, destiny was pouring the foundation of his future.

Thespian Bloodlines

In addition to his writing, he has been a movie actor and producer, a tradition handed down to his son, Griffin, who co-starred in An American Werewolf in London, and who writes, produces and directs movies himself, including Addicted to Love, which he directed, and in which Nick appeared. Nick's daughter, Dominique, is perhaps best known for her role as Dana Freeling in the movie Poltergeist. She had landed a major part in V, the NBC miniseries about the planet's battle against an indomitable alien force, and had begun filming when she was savagely murdered by ex-boyfriend, John Sweeney. In a jealous rage, he strangled her on October 30, 1982, the same night, seven years later, that Martha Moxley had been slain.

Nick's coverage of the ensuing trial marked the first milestone of his second life and an enduring memorial to his daughter. His account in Vanity Fair helped set the style for that magazine under Tina Brown's editorship. (Brown built the foundation of what Vanity Fair is today—a great, highbrow, bling-bling icon about tony influentials.) The trial coverage also produced the first of many novels that dug deep into the filthy soil covering bad-acting types who hire mega-lawyers to deflect justice.

There's not a lot of gray when people paint their impressions of Dominick Dunne. People either love him or hate him, the former enamored of a charming, funny man who can tell stories enthrallingly, the latter appalled by an honesty at times brutal. But no matter how one feels, Dunne is worthy of the utmost respect. He's squeezed ashes into diamonds throughout his life, a life admirable for its steely tenacity. Having endured what Nick has, a tailpipe hosing would seem the only painkiller to others more brittle. But not for him, not that he didn't mull it. It was his brother's suicide, however, that sobered that notion. Instead, he broke through unimaginable gloom and despair to become one of America's most popular authors.

This is the story of his life as told by Dominick Dunne to NewEnglandTimes.Com exclusively.

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Edmund Wilson quote, The Great American Bathroom Reader, Copyright © 1997 by James Charlton Associates.


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