Six years after the death of crime chronicler and society scribe Dominick Dunne, a veteran entertainment journalist is undertaking a full-fledged biography of the celebrated Vanity Fair columnist.
Robert Hofler, a theatre critic for TheWrap.com, has been contacting Dunne’s friends and colleagues, saying he began work on the project for University of Wisconsin Press “in early 2015 and so far I’ve interviewed over 100 people for the book, including Alex Dunne” (Dominick’s son, the younger brother of actor/director Griffin Dunne.)
Hofler was a senior editor at Variety for 16 years and managing editor of Buzz, a once-zeitgeisty, now-defunct magazine in Los Angeles. He knows the territory.
But the key fact here is that his two previous biographies were of manager/producer Allan Carr and agent Henry Willson, two powerful figures in Hollywood who were both unregenerate homosexuals. He recounted, vividly and hilariously, their nonstop seductions of handsome hunks on the make in showbiz.
About his most recent book, “Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to ‘A Clockwork Orange’—How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos”, The Times reviewer wrote that “Hofler has an eye for salacious detail.”
Uh oh. Will Mr. Hofler, out and proud himself, drag the corpse of Dominick Dunne, who was always coy about his sexuality, out of the closet? Sure looks that way. If so, it will come as no surprise to Dunne’s pals and certainly not to his two sons. (As you know, his daughter, the movie actress Dominique Dunne, was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in 1982).
But the post-mortem attention paid to his sex life would probably have intrigued Nick (which is what he was called by those of us who knew him for decades). After he became famous, very famous, late in life, he deflected inquiries about his sexual preference (he thought the question heavy-handed and gauche). But for those who were paying attention, he left clues hidden in plain sight. One clue might have been his instructions that his requiem mass begin with a rollicking organ overture of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” As I recall, Locust Valley lockjaws were dropping left and right.
First, the facts. After a genteel upbringing in Connecticut with an overbearing father who was a surgeon, Nick did a heroic GI stint in wartime Germany, then married an Arizona heiress and raised three children while working in television production.
In the early 1970s, just as his new career as a movie producer began to sputter, he and wife Lenny divorced. Nick began spending a lot of time in New York, where he had many friends in the smart set, and began openly dating guys. Hey, it was the ‘70s.
He had a tender romance with Frederick Combs, an actor who had appeared onstage in Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking gay play, The Boys in the Band, as well as the movie version, which was produced by—drum roll—Dominick Dunne. Every Christmastime, Combs would host a big party where all his friends brought wrapped gifts to be distributed to orphans. He also wrote a play, The Children’s Mass, produced off-Broadway starring his pal Sal Mineo. Frederick was a warm, charming, easygoing man and a positive influence in Dunne’s life. They were a popular couple in the right circles on both coasts for a couple of years. After the ‘80s came around and Nick became a successful writer, he contented himself with work and socializing.
Truth be told, Frederick was the love of Nick’s life, in the same-sex department. He never wrote that down in black-and-white, but in his 1999 memoir, “The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper”, he published an exuberant photograph of the two of them shirtless on a beach. The caption read, “Frederick Combs and me tripping on acid in Haiti.” A clue, no?
In the same book, Nick discusses early travels with handsome and connected male friends, embarrassing incidents where he is abused by Frank Sinatra and others for vague reasons (Sinatra never concealed his distaste for pansies), and bottom-of-the-barrel disasters in various compromising situations. More clues.
These veiled disclosures set up and anticipated the more explicit revelations in his last book of “fiction” (published posthumously) which he amusingly and ironically titled “Too Much Money” (as if in his crowd there could ever be enough). From an earlier novel, he brings back his alter ego, the journalist Gus Bailey, who has cancer (as Nick did at the time) and is being sued for slander by a congressman over the disappearance of a Washington intern (same as Nick had been by Gary Condit). Oh, and a book that Gus is writing about the mysterious arson death of a billionaire has his widow upset and vengeful. (Can you say Lily Safra?)
Is the Gus/Nick parallel clear enough? In its book review, The Times clinches it by referring to “Gus’s lifelong determination to keep his homosexuality hidden from his children.”
It was a fruitless charade. Griffin knew about his dad’s sex life with men by the time he was a teenager, and as a savvy Beverly Hills wannabe actor, he didn’t give a flying fig. [I know. I was there. Nick was kind enough to put me up as a houseguest, strictly platonic, for several weeks in 1974 and Griffin drove me around L.A. if I paid for the gas. When Griffin later came to New York to study acting, he called me right away. I had three tickets to a Broadway show and invited him to come along with my other guest, an actor by the name of Divine. Griffin loves to tell that story. Ask him.]
Four months after his father’s death, when Griffin was on Good Morning America plugging “Too Much Money,” George Stephanopoulos tentatively asked him whether “the bisexual Gus Bailey character” is a doppelganger for the author. Griffin smoothly said, “Of course he is, but Dad never wanted to discuss being gay with us, so Alex and I never brought it up. But at the end, when Dad was in Germany getting stem cell treatments, he had with him an old friend named Norman and I could see there was real love and affection between them.”
Nick was a gracious host, indeed. He always kept boiled eggs and carrot sticks and Champagne in the fridge for the consumption of his houseguests. He took me along to fantastic parties at the homes of director Delmar Daves, of designer Tony Duquette and of Doris and Jules Stein, where I met Loretta Young and watched Rosalind Russell dance the Charleston with Earl McGrath, who was wearing a lampshade on his head.
Nick could be a lot of fun. In 1983, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, long divorced and no longer cordial, were reunited by the lure of a big payday to appear together on Broadway in a revival of Private Lives. Nick had produced the movie Ash Wednesday starring Taylor in 1973. It was a chaotic shoot in Switzerland and when things went awry, Elizabeth was rough on Nick. He felt she hadn’t treated him well. She had been on the set with Burton who also gave Dunne the cold shoulder, as only he could.
The reviews of the play stunk. One day toward the end of the run I said to Nick on the phone, “Why don’t we catch Private Lives before it closes?” Still wounded, he said, “I don’t want to put a nickel in either of their pockets.” So I said, “Let’s second-act it” and he agreed. We went into the theater when the audience returned from intermission and easily snagged two empty seats.
The show was a camp. Burton and Taylor played their scenes on opposite ends of the stage, flung their acidic lines to the house and never looked at each other. The air was icy. No theatricality. Coward would have hated it. We loved it.
Afterwards, we went to the Broadway hangout Orso. When we entered, who was at the first table but Nick’s close friend, Mart Crowley. Spotting our Playbills, he shouted, “What did you think? Did you go backstage and say hello to Liz and Dick?”
Ever so nimbly, Nick growled, “Of course not. They were terrible. What could I say to them. I’m not a good liar.”
R.I.P., Mr. Dunne. Hope you like the new book.