Dominick Dunne’s last big party

Everyone, even Conrad Black, shows up in the high society crime chronicler’s final novel

Dominick Dunne's last big partyDominick Dunne died last August and with uncharacteristically bad timing—a day after Ted Kennedy. According to the New York Times, the family wanted to delay announcing his death until the Teddy ululations blew over. But, with the media diving headlong into a vat of mawkish drivel about “The Last Lion” and “The End of Camelot” and showing no inclination to climb out this side of Thanksgiving, the Dunnes threw in the towel and, for the first time in a long time, the high-society crime chronicler found himself relegated to a table at the back of the room, metaphorically speaking. I wrote about him in this space a few days later, mainly because he was a better man than Ted and he didn’t deserve such a total eclipse.

The poor timing was especially poignant because Dunne had evidently given a lot of thought to his death. His last novel, Too Much Money, written when he knew he was dying, has just been published to faintly bewildered reviews. A strange, slight book, it seems to have befuddled the critics: even those who profess to like it can’t quite make the case for it, and give the vague feeling the two thumbs up are one for the road and old times’ sake. The book is suffused in mortality, to the point that one of its principals is a gay undertaker from a prominent Manhattan funeral home who got bitten by the bug when he was 13 years old and waited five hours in line to see Judy Garland in her casket. The moment he glimpsed her red shoes, he knew he wanted to be a mortician. Forty years on, he’s keeping busy, and not just with funerals. He’s taken to squiring Dodo Van Degan, a society widow who finds her gay undertaker escort surprisingly good company:

“She often sat with Xavior at night in the Grant P. Trumbull Funeral Home when he was embalming a body. Afterward they would fool around a little.”

The book’s action, such as it is, consists of a suicide, a fatal accident, and a stroke. But, even between funerals, in the social whirl of Manhattan, the whiff of decay hangs heavy: the old money’s being downsized out of their homes, and the new money’s getting busted for fraud. In this world, with the exception of various predatory walkers, youth is mostly offstage and out of sight—albeit just as doomed:

“‘Did Xavior embalm that actor in Batman who overdosed on prescription drugs?’ asked Lil.

“‘No. That was his day off, and he missed it. He was so disappointed.’”

And, of course, death explicitly stalks Augustus Bailey, known as Gus, just as Dominick Dunne was known as Nick. This is a roman à clef. In fact, it’s such a roman à clef that it’s a roman à clef about a man who writes romans à clef and whose friends get mad at him when they open his latest roman à clef and find they’re in it. Dunne modifies real life here and there, but any author who calls his nightly cable talk-show host “Harry Sovereign” isn’t exactly trying to cover his tracks. Gus Bailey, Dunne’s barely disguised alter ego, has ambled unobtrusively through much of his previous fiction as narrator, observer, confessor: “It is a regular feature of my life that people whisper things in my ear.” But usually there’s something else going on—a big society murder, a sensational trial. That was Dunne’s trick: he was a high society insider who somehow made himself part of the biggest tabloid stories of the day—from O.J. to the Menendez brothers.

But Too Much Money has no murders, no trials: it catches Gus between books and between cases, advancing from lunch to supper, Swifty’s to Le Cirque, disappointing society ladies for whom this once sparkling dining companion has lost his joie de vivre.

The reason is unfinished business from previous cases: he’s being sued by Congressman “Kyle Cramden” (read Gary Condit) over ill-advised speculations he made about the politician’s role in the disappearance of intern “Diandra Lomax” (read Chandra Levy). Gus knows he’s going to have to cough up millions of dollars he doesn’t have at an age when it’s too late for him to start over—as Dunne did in the ’80s when Tina Brown reinvented a failed movie producer as Vanity Fair’s crime correspondent. In scenes presumably drawn from his own experience, editors who declared they were behind him 100 per cent turn suddenly evasive; publishers pronounce a controversial book no longer what the public wants and propose other topics (“What about this Madoff fellow?”). Behind the matter-of-fact prose style, you can hear a dying author scrambling to unload everything he wants to say, not least about his own life. Dunne outs himself as a “celibate bisexual,” which sounds too cute by half, but, as I understand it, seems pretty much the truth. “Mustn’t have any more secrets,” says Gus. “Can’t die with a secret, you know. I’m nervous about the kids, even though they’re middle-aged men now . . .  It’s been a lifelong problem.” And so the man to whom everyone told secrets gives up a few of his own.

I don’t want to make the book sound solemn. It includes, for example, a lesbian scene so crassly written as to achieve a kind of brilliantly club-footed panache. Some reviewers have suggested the book was not quite polished, or clumsily edited, as if the pen-portrait repetitions from chapter to chapter are a proofreading error. They’re not: they’re a stylistic tic, morsels of gossip told and retold until every character’s bio is a one-line tittle-tattle. I was trying to think what it reminded me of. And then I remembered the last time I ran into Dominick Dunne—two years before his death, at Conrad Black’s trial in Chicago. A couple of weeks into the proceedings, he turned up one day and settled himself onto the back seat of the poky 12th-floor windowless box that passed for a courtroom. Everyone seemed glad to see him: the anodyne Chicago scribblers recoiling in disgust from the malodorous Brits (Conrad’s adjective, I believe) across the aisle; the malodorous Brits tired of being wedged up on the out-of-town benches with provincial obscurities from the Dead Moose Creek Courier-Herald and the other hick Canadian beaver-wrap clogging up the press gallery; the hick Canuck obscurities wearying of the 17th day of forensic bookkeeping testimony about the arcana of “non-compete” fees and seeing in Dunne’s presence a belated validation of Day One headlines about “The Trial Of The Century,” which was proving a tough sell even in Dead Moose Creek. After all, if Dominick Dunne was there, then surely it was this month’s trial of the century.

At the midmorning break, Dunne, a small man in owlish spectacles and suits that seemed to have been tailored to look oversized, wandered toward me. I had a slight panic because I’m a dull fellow and he was one of those chaps who expects A-list dish. But, as it turned out, he wanted to tell me how much he missed my film column in the British Spectator, which was just about the last thing I was expecting to hear. Somehow the conversation drifted on to Evelyn Waugh, and at that point the defendant sauntered up, towering over the diminutive Dunne. “Dominick,” said Conrad. “Conrad,” said Dominick.

It sounded like Stanley meeting Livingstone. But it wasn’t. This time the celebrity journalist was just passing through, en route to Los Angeles and this month’s authentic trial of the century: Phil Spector. Like I said, timing is everything. Had Dunne not had starrier fish to fry—rock biz eccentrics, fading showgirls, Hollywood murder—he might have stuck around, and things might have gone differently on the 12th floor in Chicago.

But he didn’t forget Conrad Black. On page 131 of Too Much Money, we meet Lord Cudlip— “or Stanford, as he told me to call him”—whose “board of directors has some of the swankiest people in New York, London, and Paris on it. The Infanta of Spain. People like that.” His Lordship has paid $12 million for Benedict Arnold’s family papers in order to write an 860-page biography. “I don’t know where he gets the time to write it, running that media empire of his.” Alas, by page 185 Stanford Cudlip is “just another corporate tycoon charged with criminal fraud, racketeering, obstruction of justice, money laundering. Stuff like that.”

Tough on Conrad—I mean, Stanford. But I thought of Lord Copper and began to understand why Dunne had wanted to talk about Evelyn Waugh that day in Chicago. He chose to go out with his own attempt at Waugh in his Vile Bodies phase, with the “Bright Young Things” of Mayfair replaced by the Fading Old Things of Manhattan. As I said, it’s a slight and strange book, but it is oddly affecting, and, as with early Waugh, the sheer accumulation of trivialities has a kind of profundity about the glittering metropolis in precarious times. “Gus stood at the top of the stairs just in front of the room where the dancing was taking place . . .  How many times had he waved to Philip Johnson sitting at his favorite table?” In a way, Too Much Money is Dominick Dunne’s last party. You can see why he wanted everyone to be there.

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