My Dishy Phone Calls With Dominick Dunne
The social chronicler’s longtime friend, playwright and novelist Jane Hitchcock, on the literary advice she gave him, their marathon phone calls, and how she made him her muse.
I killed Dominick Dunne and we laughed about it. In one of my books, I created a fictional character called Larry Locket, who was based on Dominick. Larry gets done in by the villainess, and when Nick called me up to tell me he wanted to give the book a blurb, he was laughing, “Jane, when I say ‘You kill me,’ I didn’t mean for you to take it so literally!”
Dominick was like Trollope’s Duke of Omnium in that there wasn’t enough of him to go around. He was the most engaging, amusing, and sympathetic man. When he was hot on the trail of a great story or great gossip, he would get this wonderfully sly edge in his voice, followed by a little laugh and the words, “You know, you know what I’m saying?” Nick was always saying something about someone, in life and in art. He was a born storyteller, a fierce friend, and an even fiercer enemy. When he perceived injustice, he became a literary Javert, relentlessly hunting down the miscreants with his pen.
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I first met Nick at a dinner party in New York in the 1970s. We sat next to each other and immediately hit it off. He was incredibly open about his life. He told me about his addiction and near-suicide. We talked about the people we knew in common and about writing as a kind of salvation. He was writing a sequel to Joyce Haber’s The Users, but he wanted to write his own stories. He came to visit me several times in East Hampton, where I had a house. At the time, he barely had train fare.
Then came the terrible tragedy with his beloved daughter, Dominique Dunne, a beautiful, talented actress who was strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend. This was the turning point in Nick’s life, a loss so powerful it gave him new strength and reshaped him into a man of destiny. After a series of brilliant articles about the murderer’s trial, presided over by a narcissistic judge who allowed the killer to get off with a ludicrously light sentence, Nick donned his outrage like a second skin. From that moment on, he was like Apollo with a sword. If Justice was blind, Nick was there to give her a nudge in the right direction. He often said to me, “I feel Dominique is watching over me, guiding me.”
• Tina Brown: The Unforgettable Dominick DunneOne day, he asked me to have lunch with him at Mortimer’s. He had a “literary” question for me. He told me he had been researching the famous Woodward murder case and asked my opinion as to whether he should write a fiction or nonfiction book about the celebrated murder. He told me he had a few tidbits of information about Ann Woodward that he suspected were true, but would not pass muster in a nonfiction account. I urged him to write a fictional version, as it would give him free rein. He consulted a couple of other people and we all agreed. The result was The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Nick and I often exchanged books we loved. One day I gave him a copy of one of my favorite books, Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, which he had never read. He adored it. He called me up and told me it was his favorite book. The next thing I knew, he’d written People Like Us, which was a kind of homage to Trollope. He never failed to thank me.
The more famous he became, the more generous he was to his friends and the more implacable he was to his enemies. He was a champion of victims’ rights. His television show about low crime in high places was like eating a box of chocolates it was so delicious. He always gave me quotes for my books, knowing that a blurb from him was as valuable as a great review.
Nick and I knew many of the same people and had many of the same obsessions, which we discussed ad infinitum. If we didn’t speak for a period of time, it didn’t matter. We took up where we left off. We had marathon phone calls, filled with laughter and dish. Nick could make the telephone book sound interesting and invent a mystery out of eating a ham sandwich for lunch. He loved intrigue and gossip and our conversations were filled with all sorts of fun speculations about people and events. At the end of each call, he’d always say, “Well, I’m sorry we had nothing to talk about!” and laugh that gleeful Irish leprechaun laugh of his.
He came to visit me several times in East Hampton, where I had a house. At the time, he barely had train fare.
This past week, I went to see Nick at Roosevelt Hospital, essentially to say goodbye. He was propped up in his bed with a mock-up of the cover of his new novel in hand.
“Here it is,” he said proudly.
The pub date is December 1, and we talked about the great party he would have. His sister-in-law, the brilliant Joan Didion, was there, along with his two beloved sons, Griffin and Alex, who were tending their dad with so much love, managing all the visitors who came to pay homage to an amazing man and a great friend.
My friend Dominick proved there are second and even third acts in American life, and that the good men do indeed live after them. He was a literary lion and a lion of a friend, and I will miss him more than I can say.
Jane Stanton Hitchcock is a playwright and a novelist. Her new novel about Washington society, Mortal Friends, was published in July.