The Mystery of the Closet: Robert Hofler on Dominick Dunne

Mystery Month 2017Robert Hofler begins Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts with a quote from his subject’s sister-in-law, Joan Didion: “Writers are always selling somebody out.” Hofler’s book, a smart, rangy portrait of an inordinately complicated man, begins with Dunne’s boyhood, made painful by his striving father’s scorn for his son’s effeminacy, details Dunne’s time as a party-obsessed Hollywood social climber, and culminates with Dunne’s final iteration as a writer—that consummate seller-outer—best-known for his celebrity true-crime reportage, work marked equally by Dunne’s reverence and scorn for the powerful figures he covered.

I called Hofler at home in New York to talk to him about what it was like delving into the life of one of America’s best-loved true crime scribes.

 

EUGENIA WILLIAMSON: Why did you decide to write about Dominick Dunne?

ROBERT HOFLER: The book I wrote before this had a very long title: Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange—How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos. It was set between 1968 and 1972, when all the taboos broke in movies and novels and TV and theater. Taboos have been falling forever, but there were more in that four year period than in almost any other. I was looking forward to getting back to writing a simple story.

While I was working at Variety, I wrote a feature that I turned into a book called The Movie that Changed My Life. I called up Dominick Dunne, and he talked about Now, Voyager, and I later interviewed him for my Allan Carr biography, Party Animals. Those were very focused interviews, but certainly, he talked a great deal about his life in both, and he was a great interviewee. I thought, “Wow, this is a real roller coaster of a life.”

When I was managing editor of Buzz Magazine [in the late 90s], I remember a profile on Dominick Dunne coming in. One of the editors said, “This profile outs him, and he’s not out. He’d be very upset about this.” There was a whole discussion about whether to leave the profile in—because everyone knew he was gay—or to take it out. It was finally decided to take it out, because he would’ve been upset, and I’m sure he would’ve denied it. Even as late as 2006, for a documentary on his life, he was not denying that he was gay, but talking about how his ex-wife was the love of his life.

The real mystery [of Dunne’s life] was finding out why was he hiding his sexual orientation. My initial impression of him, before my research, was that he was gay and just didn’t talk about it a great deal, and that his close friends knew that he was gay. . . [But] that turned out not to be the case. He was truthful with some people, and not with others. Truman Capote didn’t like Dominick Dunne because, according to Truman, it was okay to be gay and not talk about it, but Dominick was gay and boastful of being straight.

The mystery: when I went into his diaries, he was very open with himself about it. But he [once] wrote a letter to his psychiatrist, whom he’d been going to for 10 years, and said, “You know, I’m gay.” If you go to a psychiatrist for 10 years, and you don’t discuss the fact that you’re gay—that’s pretty bizarre.

Robert Hofler

Dominick [had] this veneer of honesty, and a number of the young trial reporters he befriended adore him—adore him in a way no one adores me. They would always say he was so honest.

The first day I met him, he told me all about his substance abuse, and how he dropped acid, and how he was a real asshole in Hollywood, why he made all of these enemies, and he ruined his career because he was a drunk on the set, and he offended Sue Mengers. That was all a bit of a disguise for his real secret: that he was gay.

He would throw up this smoke screen of [honesty]. When I interviewed him, he did that, too. Now that I look back at those interviews, they weren’t really in-depth. I’m sure if I would have asked him about the rumors, he would’ve freaked out. A very telling thing: There was a letter that he wrote to his three children in 1979, around the time that he went to Oregon. He went through a gay therapy group called the Advocate Experience. He wrote them a letter, and he said, “The secret of my homosexuality is a cancer eating at my life.”

An unaware man would’ve said, “My homosexuality is a cancer eating at my life.” He didn’t say his homosexuality was; he said the secret of it. I think he made a choice between keeping that secret and being famous. He chose being famous. I think he could’ve disclosed the secret, but quite honestly, having lived through the AIDS crisis of the 80s and the early 90s, it would have adversely affected his career to come out. He would not have been Dominick Dunne the trial reporter, the bestselling novelist. He would’ve been the gay trial reporter. He would’ve been the gay bestselling novelist.

 

How awful.

Dominick Dunne, family man

It’s understandable if you look at the context of the times. This is the third biography I’ve written about gay men who are of a pre-Stonewall era. I’ve always felt that I have one foot in both worlds. I was born in 1949, and Stonewall happened when I was just starting college. I came here in New York in 1971. In Greenwich Village, on a Friday and Saturday night on Christopher Street, you did not think there was one straight person in the world. I was part of both worlds much more than any of the men I profiled, but I understand their world. I do think it’s important for people not to forget what that world was. I’m not sure that the closet is quite on the level of slavery or the Holocaust, but I certainly think the closet is on the level of people losing their careers because of the McCarthy blacklist.

That’s really the mystery for me: how people negotiated [the closet]. Dominick was not very honest with people when he was married to Lennie. They knew him as this family man, and that includes gay men like Roddy McDowall, and Gavin Lambert, and Mart Crowley—none of who ever got married. He tended to be much more open with people he met after his divorce. Certainly, in the last few years of his life, he was very open with young gay men.

He wasn’t with me. Of course, I wasn’t young.

 

How do you think the murder of Dunne’s daughter, Dominique, affected his writing?

It gave him focus. . . If you read his first novel, [The Winners], it’s not very good. A lot of his stuff in his journals had drive and style, but it was unfocused.

Claus von Bulow in Vanity Fair, photographed by Helmut Newton

What he brought to trial reporting—and that’s what he was really good at, trial reporting—is that he got the human interest of it. Most of the reporters were saying, “Well, this is what was said today on the stand.” Dominick knew that the drama was everywhere else. It was in the jury. It was the people who showed up at court. It was what was going on with the families of the accused and of the victim. He was one of the first who really mined that [vein].

His first big trial was Claus von Bülow for Vanity Fair. . . [He wrote] about what was going on in Newport society at that time. He had such a grasp of Newport high society that most reporters just did not have. He got it.

His coverage of the Menendez brothers trial was so detailed—as well everything that was going on around it–that I found it his best reporting. I was just amazed. Claus von Bülow was just one article. Menendez was four or five. He even got the photographer to take homoerotic photographs of Eric. No one thought to go there.

 

His novels certainly weren’t as well-received as his court reporting.

I think that the novels were underrated. He was out to tell a good story. That’s one [way] that I identified with him as a writer. There was a review that came out of Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne that called “riveting, but not cerebral.” I was like, OK, I’ll buy that. I’m trying to tell a good story.

In the three biographies I’ve done, the thing that attracted me to each of the characters that I chose to write about is that they had roller coaster lives—there were these high ups and low downs—and then they’d reinvent themselves. Some people [who’ve read my Dunne biography] have told me, “Boy, by the end of the book, I thought, ‘What have I been doing with my life?'” Dominick had done everything. When I wrote it, I experienced ten lives.

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About the Author:

Eugenia Williamson is the Associate Editor of Digital Products at Booklist. She worked in bookstores for twelve years, reviews books for The Boston Globe, and writes about books, culture, and politics for several other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Genie.

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