Author Dominick Dunne succumbs to cancer

Longtime Vanity Fair contributor worked in film and TV

Author Dominick Dunne, who told stories of shocking crimes among the rich and famous through his magazine articles and best-selling novels such as "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles," died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.

Actor-director Griffin Dunne said in a statement released by Vanity Fair that his father had been battling bladder cancer for some time.

Before he found his second career as a globe-trotting chronicler of the problems of the wealthy and powerful, Dominick Dunne worked in the early days of live TV, beginning as stage manager of the "Howdy Doody" children's show. NBC brought him to Hollywood to stage manage the famous TV version of "The Petrified Forest' with Humphrey Bogart.

He went on to serve as exec producer of the TV series "Adventures in Paradise" and then segued into film production with movies like "The Boys in the Band," a pioneering 1970 drama about gay life, and the marital drama "Ash Wednesday," starring Elizabeth Taylor.

Two of his films, "The Panic in Needle Park" and "Play It As It Lays," were written by his brother John Gregory Dunne and sister-in-law Joan Didion.

Despite battling cancer, Dunne continued working and socializing, his twin passions, until recently.

In September 2008, against the orders of his doctor and the wishes of his family, he flew to Las Vegas to attend the kidnap-robbery trial of O.J. Simpson, a postscript to his coverage of Simpson's 1995 murder trial that spiked Dunne's considerable fame.

In the past year, he traveled to Germany and the Dominican Republic for experimental stem cell treatments to fight his cancer. At one point, he wrote that he and Farrah Fawcett were in the same cancer clinic in Bavaria but did not see each other.

He discontinued his column at Vanity Fair to concentrate on finishing another novel, "Too Much Money," which is to come out in December. He also made a number of appearances to promote a documentary about his life, "After the Party," which was being released on DVD.

Dunne was beginning to write his memoirs and, until close to the end of his life, he posted online messages on his own Web site commenting on events in his life and thanking his fans for their constant support.

Earlier this summer, he was well enough to attend a Manhattan party hosted by editor Tina Brown. Chatting with an Associated Press reporter, Dunne recalled lunching with Michael Jackson, who had recently died, and Taylor. Jackson was so excited to see her, Dunne said, he presented her with a diamond necklace just for the occasion.

Tragedy struck his own life in 1982 when his actress daughter, Dominique, was slain -- and that experience informed his fiction and his journalistic efforts from then on.

"If you go through what I went through, losing my daughter, you have strong, strong feelings of revenge," Dunne said in 1990 in discussing his novel, "People Like Us," in which the protagonist shoots the man convicted of killing his daughter.

"As a novelist, I could create a situation in which I could do in the book what I couldn't do in real life. I intended for Gus (the character in the book) to kill the guy. But when I got to that part I couldn't write it. He wounds him and goes to prison himself for a couple of years."

He was as successful as a journalist as he was as a novelist and spent many of his later years in courtrooms covering high-profile trials. Writing for Vanity Fair, he covered the William Kennedy Smith rape trial in 1991 and the trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez, accused of murdering their millionaire parents, in 1993.

"You're talking about kids who had everything -- the cars, the tennis courts, swimming pools, credit cards. And yet this happened," he said at the time of the Menendez trial.

As much as those trials riveted the nation, they were far overshadowed in 1994 when football great Simpson was accused of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. With a trial that stretched out over a year and cable TV outlets providing endless coverage, the bespectacled Dunne became a familiar face to millions.

"I especially like to watch the jurors," Dunne explained to Fox TV during the trial. "I always pick out about four jurors who become my favorites. I sort of try to anticipate what they are thinking and how they are reacting."

He called his book on the Simpson trial, "Another City, Not My Own," "a novel in the form of a memoir." It, too, reached the best-seller lists.

Dunne was a colorful raconteur and his stories mesmerized listeners. He was a much sought after dinner guest on both coasts and in the glamour capitals of Europe where he frequently traveled. He was a regular at the Cannes Film Festival, interviewing members of royalty and movie stars.

His assignments took him to London to cover the inquest into Princess Diana's death and to Monaco to look into the mysterious death of billionaire Edmond Safra.

He continued appearing regularly on television, and in 2002 debuted a weekly program on Court TV, "Power, Privilege and Justice."

The show gave him an added dose of celebrity when it was distributed in foreign countries.

He had already been working on "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles," a fictionalized retelling of a sensational 1950s society murder, when his 22-year-old daughter Dominique was strangled by her former boyfriend, John Sweeney, in 1982, shortly after she had completed her first movie, "Poltergeist."

Sweeney was convicted only of voluntary manslaughter, not murder, and was freed after serving less than four years of a six-year sentence.

"People Like Us" and "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" were both turned into miniseries, and he stressed he had nothing to do with the changes the TV scriptwriters made.

Among his other books were the 1993 "A Season in Purgatory," that helped revive interest in the 1975 slaying of teenager Martha Moxley in Greenwich, Conn. A Kennedy relative, Michael Skakel, was convicted in the killing in 2002.

He also wrote "An Inconvenient Woman" and "The Mansions of Limbo."

In 1999, Dunne published a memoir called, "The Way We Lived Then," a compilation of photographs of him and his family with famous people and his recollections of the glamour life he and his wife Lenny enjoyed for many years.

Dunne was born in 1925 in Hartford, Conn., to a wealthy Roman Catholic family and grew up in some of the same social circles as the Kennedys. In his memoir, he traced his fascination with Hollywood to a childhood trip he took "out West" with an aunt. They took one of those home of the stars bus tours and he vowed to come back and be part of the glamorous world he had glimpsed.

He served in the Army during World War II and graduated in 1949 from Williams College, where he and a fellow student, Stephen Sondheim, appeared in plays together.

Dunne said his years living the high life in Hollywood left him divorced, broke and addicted, and he moved to a cabin in Oregon to dry out and to start over as a novelist. While his brother was the famous Dunne at that time, the Times said, "nowadays, (Dominick) Dunne is far better known."

John Gregory Dunne died in 2003.

Dunne and his wife, Ellen Griffin Dunne, known as Lenny, were married in 1954. They divorced in the 1960s but he wrote that afterward they remained close nonetheless. She died in 1997.

Beside Dominique, they had two sons, Alexander and Griffin.