A literary feud for the ages: What fueled the bad blood between Dominick Dunne and "the Didions"

Intense sibling rivalry led to a blow-out over a murdered daughter and a novel’s vindictive dedication

Published April 16, 2017 9:30PM (EDT)

 (AP/Douglas Healey/Salon)
(AP/Douglas Healey/Salon)

Adapted from "Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts" by Robert Hofler. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2017 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.

One of the longest-standing family feuds in the New York literary world played out near the end of the twentieth century. In the early 1970s, Dominick Dunne produced two films written by younger brother John Gregory Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion: "The Panic in Needle Park" introduced Al Pacino to the screen in 1971, and the following year "Play It as It Lays," adapted from Didion’s novel, costarred Anthony Perkins in the role of a suicidal bisexual film producer. Although his sister-in-law always denied it, Dominick believed the character was based on him. Just as Didion’s BZ (short for Benzedrine) character invites hustlers to lunch in his Malibu home, so Dominick used to invite his “masseurs” to dine at his beach house.

After the back-to-back releases of "Panic" and "Play," John and Joan were well on their way to becoming known as the Didions, a couple sitting at the top of the screenwriting heap after amassing impressive bylines in New York publishing. Dominick, on the other hand, suffered severe substance abuse after having been a successful TV executive in the 1960s.

“Nick knew everyone in the movie business in Los Angeles, and when John came out there Nick introduced him to everybody, helped him,” said Freddy Eberstadt, a close friend from Dominick’s days in live television at NBC. John never returned the favor, and often used his adopted daughter as an excuse, escorting her to industry events instead of his brother. “When Quintana was still a little girl, John would take her to dinner where Nick might be expected to go. John would phone Nick to tell him that they were taking Quintana instead,” Eberstadt recalled.

Some of it had to do with drugs. “Nick got more into the 1960s social scene,” said the TV director Billy Hale. “John was an Eastern suit. He was pretty straight.”

Dominick always said that the three of them got along fine on "Panic." "Play" was another story.

The movie was a difficult project to bring to the screen for no other reason than the executive in charge of the movie at Universal Pictures hated it. In fact, Ned Tanen only agreed to greenlight the film because he personally liked its director, Frank Perry, and Universal had done well with Perry’s previous movie, "Diary of a Mad Housewife." But that’s where Tanen’s affinity for the project ended. Regarding "Play It as It Lays," he called it Didion “vomiting up her life.”

The film, unlike "Panic," performed poorly with critics and the public, but it did launch one major Hollywood career. Dominick hired Joel Schumacher to design costumes for "Play It as It Lays," the future director’s first film credit. Equally important, “Nick introduced me to his brother and sister-in-law. They were fantastic to me,” Schumacher recalled. “They had this house on the beach in Trancas, and they had what would be called a salon. It was very international.”

John knew people from Life and Time; Joan had written extensively for Vogue and the Saturday Evening Post. “It wasn’t just movie people. Which was unusual at that time. Back then it was such a tiny, one-industry town. You didn’t meet people from outside the film business,” said Schumacher. “But at John and Joan’s, there were a lot of great reporters, people who were covering wars. It was an incredible mix of people.”

That incredible mix in Trancas, however, did not include Dominick.

“Nick was never invited,” said Schumacher. “Something was going on.”

Peter Bart was one of many Hollywood power brokers who sometimes offered Dominick a ride home after an industry event. “He drank a lot, was confused,” said Bart, then a vice president and head of production at Paramount Pictures (and later Variety’s editor in chief). “Nick would emerge from a function and wander around looking for a car or a cab. He was always a little mystified what he was doing there. I was surprised how he figured out to get from here to there.”

What Dominick always feared happened in 1977. He found himself broke, out of work, and, like many desperate souls in Hollywood, he thought about writing a screenplay. It’s much quicker than writing a novel; there are so many fewer words, and it pays better. The only problem: he didn’t have an idea for a screenplay. He spoke to his friend Tony Kiser, whose years as associate producer on Rock Hudson’s long-running TV series "McMillan & Wife" were coming to an end. Kiser looked to segue from television to movies.

“I pitched to Dominick [a story] about a rich guy falling in love with some hooker,” said the producer. “It was along the lines of that Richard Gere movie with Julia Roberts.”

Apparently, what Dominick wrote was no "Pretty Woman." Plus, he gave it the unpromising title "A Time to Smell the Roses" and made the even greater mistake of showing the screenplay to his brother and sister-in-law. John and Joan had just written a great box-office success, the 1976 remake of "A Star Is Born," starring Barbra Streisand. The critics hated it, but because many moviegoers actually paid to sit through "A Star Is Born," what the critics thought didn’t matter. It was not the best time for Dominick to be asking their advice, but he showed them "A Time to Smell the Roses" anyway. He thoroughly enjoyed writing it and considered his work top-notch. The Didions did not. Joan sat quietly. Even when she deigned to speak, Dominick often complained he couldn’t hear his very petite sister-in-law. It’s why he called her Frail behind her back. John, whom Dominick nicknamed Big Time, took a much more active role when it came to analyzing the many problems of "A Time to Smell the Roses." He read aloud some of the screenplay’s dialogue, emphasizing its clichés and general clumsiness of style. Frail sat there and said nothing as Big Time proceeded to eviscerate his older brother’s ego.

“It was a real stinker,” Kiser said of the screenplay. Dominick didn’t disagree after John’s critique, but he never forgot, or forgave, his brother’s brutal words that day. Years later, Dominick wrote a letter to John, recalling the humiliation and “every comma” of his criticism regarding "A Time to Smell the Roses." He even went so far as to blame John’s extreme negativity for his “nearly dying of shame” three days later.

Tony Kiser recalled the contretemps. “At that point in their relationship, which was chilly, I’m sure John would’ve not been in the least supportive, especially since he and Joan were enjoying a successful career as screenwriters. The toast of Hollywood, as it were at the time,” he added.

“John and Joan were bad behaviorists, full of themselves,” said the director Joseph Hardy, who worked with Dominick on the TV movie "The Users." “They were unkind. Nick had introduced them to everybody in Hollywood, and then they wanted nothing to do with him.”

Asa Maynor, another friend, also remembered the intense sibling rivalry and how it affected Dominick. She’d been married to the "77 Sunset Strip" heartthrob Edd “Kookie” Byrnes and often ran into Dominick at parties where she and her husband were “one of the dress extras,” as she ruefully described their nine-year marriage.

“Dominick always wanted to write and he hadn’t because John was so famous. Dominick didn’t want to look like he was hopping on John’s bandwagon,” said Maynor, who later became her friend’s financial analyst.

One of Dominick’s sons put that competition between brothers in even stronger terms. “Dad always felt that John followed him [in the entertainment business], and when Dad got into the writing profession, John was like, ‘How dare you, on my territory?’ Very indignant,” said Alex Dunne.

Three days after his brother tore into "A Time to Smell the Roses," Dominick checked himself into the hospital for a routine operation to have a cyst removed. Very unexpectedly, he suffered cardiac arrest, almost died, had an “out-of-body experience,” and emerged from the hospital a “very different man,” he wrote in his private journal.

Soon thereafter, he sublet his Beverly Hills apartment. His agent, Arnold Stiefel, had taken an unproduced teleplay written by Dominick and gotten Michael Korda at Simon & Schuster to purchase it. The teleplay-turned-novel would be the sequel to Joyce Haber’s 1977 best seller, "The Users." Korda wanted to call the new novel "Joyce Haber’s 'The Users,' Part 2." Dominick hated the former Los Angeles Times gossip columnist almost as much as he hated Korda’s title, but he had no choice. Simon & Schuster gave him a $75,000 advance, half on signing, and with that hefty advance, Dominick took off for Oregon to write a roman à clef about Sue Mengers, Ray Stark, and other Hollywood power brokers. He holed up in a one-room cabin at the Twin View Resort in Camp Sherman but never got much writing done on the much-loathed "Joyce Haber’s 'The Users,' Part 2." He did, however, write many letters. Long letters.

“The letters would be five pages,” recalled his older son, Griffin Dunne. “Then ten pages and then twenty pages single-spaced. He was using them like a workshop to find his voice.”

In one letter of confession to John, written in November 1979, Dominick came out as a gay man. He wrote of going to a retreat called the Advocate Experience in San Francisco. It offered est-like therapy for gay men and lesbians, advising them to disclose their true sexual orientation to family and close friends. In that letter, Dominick told John about one telling episode from their youth. At their father’s wake in 1947, when his mother and five siblings were grieving, Dominick left the family to have sex with a college student named Andreas Devendorf in the family’s big black Buick parked near the ninth hole of the local golf course. Dominick also mentioned Didion’s novel "Play It as It Lays" in the letter to John. He doubted that Joan would be surprised at his “I’m gay news” since she had based the BZ character on him, Dominick believed.

He was heartbroken when John, a few weeks later in his 1979 Christmas letter, made no mention of Dominick’s coming out.

Early the following year, Stephen Dunne, their youngest sibling, committed suicide. Dominick didn’t have the money to attend the funeral in New Canaan, Connecticut, and had to ask his brother for an airplane ticket. Dominick’s begging didn’t go as expected. John explained that he was “all tapped out,” having lent Stephen $35,000 for a design business he wanted to start. John added that it wasn’t absolutely necessary for Dominick to attend the funeral. Because of their age difference, Dominick and Stephen were never that close, in John’s opinion. The remark incensed Dominick. Who does not go to his brother’s funeral? He instead borrowed the travel money from an aunt.

“I just would have stayed on and on,” Dominick said of his recluse life in Oregon. “But I had to go back for the funeral. Suicide is so utterly heartbreaking. I thought, I will never commit suicide. It had been on my mind for the last two years.”

Dominick ultimately finished the Haber novel in New York City, not Oregon. Simon & Schuster, in an act of mercy and less clumsy syntax, changed the title to The Winners but gave it an awkward subtitle, "The Sequel to Joyce Haber’s 'The Users.'" The novel didn’t do well with the critics, nor did it make any best-seller lists, and a disappointed Michael Korda left it to another top editor, Crown Publishing’s Betty Prashker, to pick up the option on Dominick’s follow-up novel. "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" went promptly to the top of the best-seller lists.

While working on that novel, Dominick received a 5:00 a.m. phone call on Sunday, October 31, 1982. Det. Harold Johnson of the Los Angeles Homicide Bureau informed him that his daughter, Dominique, had been brutally attacked and was now in a coma in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills. Dominick asked if his ex-wife, Lenny, knew. The detective said he was making the phone call from her home in Beverly Hills. It was Lenny Dunne who gave Dominick the horrendous news: Dominique had been strangled by her ex-boyfriend, John Sweeney, a sous chef at Ma Maison. Dominick would later write about the murder trial in his debut article for Vanity Fair, titled “Justice.”

Four days after the attack, doctors took Dominique Dunne off life support, on November 4. When Dominick wrote about those four days leading up to his daughter’s actual death, he thanked the “relay teams of friends” who took telephone calls, arranged for food and coffee, and managed every other detail of the Dunne family’s life. What he did not write about in that Vanity Fair article was the behavior of his brother and sister-in-law, which, by the end of John Sweeney’s murder trial and the ensuing ordeal, would ignite a major feud that ended only months before John Gregory Dunne’s death in 2003.

People often asked Dominick about his famous sister-in-law. “You want to know what Joan is really like?” he would say and then tell the following story.

The day after John Sweeney’s attack on Dominique, John and Joan arrived at Lenny Dunne’s house to offer their support before Dominique was taken off life support. Due to her critical condition, the family decided early on to use one phone line in the house to make calls and to keep the other line open in case the doctor or police called.

Shortly after asking if there was anything she could do, Joan Didion retired to the master bedroom to place a call on the outgoing line. She closed the door. Later, needing to use the telephone, Dominick walked into his ex-wife’s bedroom. There, he found his sister-in-law on the bed, the phone clutched between her neck and shoulder, a pen in hand. Galleys of her next book, "Salvador," littered the bed spread. She was on the phone with her editor in New York.

Joan looked up at Dominick. “Yes?” she asked.

Dominick told variations of that story to friends. Alex Dunne told a slightly different version. “Alas, there was only one line in the house so no one else could call through to send their condolences to my mother while Joan was editing her piece,” he recalled. “But it is quite possible that Joan was not aware that was the only line in the house. And yes, my father was incensed but [I] do not recall him actually asking her to get off the phone so my mother could use the line, although he very well may have eventually done so. Very tense couple of hours there for a while.”

Joan Didion’s phone call was only the beginning.

In the article “Justice,” Dominick wrote that “friends of ours had advised us to leave town until the trial was over.” He never identified those “friends,” but at least two of them were actually close relatives, John and Joan. Years later, John revealed his reasoning for giving such advice: “Before the first preliminary hearing, I could predict that . . . the victim, unable to speak for herself, would be put on trial, and presented, in effect, as a co-conspirator in her own murder.”

In the beginning, Dominick didn’t know whether to attend the trial or not. Then he went to a meeting of Parents of Murdered Children meeting. A grieving father insisted he never miss a day of the trial. “It’s the last business of your daughter’s life,” he said.

The following day, John and Joan asked if a plea bargain had been offered by the defense team. Dominick told them no, there hadn’t been a plea bargain. He didn’t think much about the conversation until, two days later, a friend of his brother phoned. It was Barry Farrell, who worked with John at Time magazine in the 1960s. Farrell relayed a message from Sweeney’s lawyer, a public defender named Marvin Adelson: they wanted a plea bargain, and Sweeney would be willing to go to prison for fifteen years. Farrell went on to say that Adelson saw the case as that of “a blue-collar kid who got mixed up in Beverly Hills society and couldn’t handle it.” Dominick knew what that meant, and it offended him. The case would be tried “not as a crime, but as a tragedy.”

John then made separate phone calls to Dominick and Lenny, asking each of them to accept the plea bargain. He said he had spoken to a lawyer friend, Leslie Abramson, and she told him it was not unusual for a plea bargain to be presented to the victim’s family through an intermediary. Abramson herself had been approached to perform that very duty but refused because she knew Joan and John personally.

And there were worse things than phone calls being made. “We got reports that Joan and John were going to Ma Maison,” said Alex Dunne. “In Los Angeles at that time, there were two restaurants that were the power places to be seen. One was Chasen’s. The other was Ma Maison. And we got reports that Joan and John continued to dine at Ma Maison. Being seen there was what they cared about.” What made their appearance even more galling was that many people in the entertainment business boycotted Ma Maison to show their support of the Dunne family. In fact, the restaurant’s reputation never fully recovered.

The phone calls regarding the plea bargain took place over a weekend, and neither Lenny nor Dominick had the prosecuting attorney’s home phone number to discuss the issue with him. Early Monday, they phoned Steven Barshop to ask about a proposed plea bargain. He was furious that there had been any such talk. Besides, it was out of the Dunne family’s hands, he told them. The state had taken the case to court. Barshop also didn’t like that John and Joan had written him a letter, telling him how to try the case.

John and Joan’s behavior continued to inflame Dominick. He told people he now “loathed” his brother. Like Alex, he kept hearing that the Didions dined regularly at Ma Maison. He even got word that the couple would soon be leaving for Europe with their daughter, Quintana, and wouldn’t be back until after Labor Day, “meaning that they had decided to absent themselves from the city during the trial,” Dominick noted. According to friends, Joan and John had another fear beyond their dead niece’s reputation being attacked in court. They worried that Quintana, a friend of Dominique, would be called to testify.

“Joan and John felt Quintana would be compelled to say certain things that might be used against Dominique,” said their friend Susanna Moore, a novelist. “They were very clear they didn’t want her to testify. Nick felt they had abandoned him, that they were negligent and not caring, which wasn’t the truth.”

Joan and John’s fear regarding their daughter may have been an empty one. “I don’t think there ever was an issue that Quintana would testify,” said Steven Barshop. “It would have been judged inadmissible.”

John Sweeney was convicted not of first- or second-degree murder but voluntary manslaughter and received a prison sentence of only two and a half years. Dominick wrote of his outrage at the verdict in the article “Justice,” which launched his long career as a regular contributor to Vanity Fair.

Together with the phenomenal success of "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" and other subsequent best sellers, Dominick’s tenure at the magazine marked one of the most remarkable second acts in the history of media. Seemingly overnight, Dominick emerged as real competition for John Gregory Dunne and on his brother’s turf — as a writer. Without mentioning Dominick’s name, John took a swipe and drew blood in a way that only a sibling can.

For Esquire magazine’s October 1986 issue, John wrote an essay titled “How to Write a Novel,” in which he felt compelled to reveal a piece of “coincidental obscenity,” as he called it. He had been working on his novel "The Red White and Blue," and six months before his niece’s murder, John had written the following passage: “I do not understand people who attend the trials of those accused of murdering their loved ones. You see them on the local newscasts. . . . I watch them kiss the prosecutor when the guilty verdict is brought in or scream at those jurors who were convinced that the pimply-faced defendant was the buggerer of Jimmy and the dismemberer of Johnny.”

John gave no reason to repeat this quote in the pages of Esquire, other than to show his astounding prescience. If Dominick was already not speaking much to his brother, the time now arrived for others in the immediate Dunne family to join him. John’s comments in Esquire so outraged Alex Dunne that he played “a prank” on his uncle. “It took John ten years to figure out who did it,” said Dominick’s son. Alex has always kept secret the nature of that payback.

John’s abuse did not stop there. In 1994 friends leaked Dominick galleys of his brother’s new novel, "Playland," which John dedicated to Leslie Abramson, among others.

“It broke Dominick’s heart,” said Pamela Bozanich. The prosecutor and Dominick had become good friends during the Erik and Lyle Menendez murder trial in 1993. In the wake of his daughter’s murder, Dominick almost always sided with the prosecution. Which meant that he almost always sided against the defense attorney, in this case Erik Menendez’s lawyer, Leslie Abramson. Her brand of courtroom theatrics, he believed, was what had also led to Dominique’s killer being given such a light sentence. Dominick hated the curly haired defense attorney, calling her “Rastafarian,” and the feeling was mutual. Abramson even went so far as to call Dominick “the little puke, the little closet queen.”

Dominick claimed to be “appalled” at his brother’s dedication to such a person. “It’s a curious stand he’s taken in light of what’s happened to a murdered child in our family,” he complained. “If that’s what he thinks is right, that’s fine for him. But not for me. It’s not right for me to remain friendly with him.”

Dominick wrote about the feud in Vanity Fair: “After that my brother and I did not speak for more than six years.” The two brothers were already not speaking by the time "Playland" appeared in book stores. Dominick, however, found it easier to pin their fight on a public matter, like a novel’s dedication, than a private one having to do with a series of hurtful slights regarding the memory of his murdered daughter.

After not speaking for years, Dominick and John met “by happenstance” at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. In 2002 Dominick was recovering from prostate cancer and doing well. John was battling a bad heart but not doing well.

In the past, whenever the two brothers happened to be at the same party or event, Joan Didion might say a few polite words to Dominick and then go to her husband in the other room. But Joan wasn’t there that day at NewYork-Presbyterian. Alone together, Dominick and John chatted as they waited to see their respective doctors. “And then John called me on the phone to wish me well,” Dominick recalled. “It was such a nice call, so heartfelt. All the hostility that had built up simply vanished. . . . We never tried to clear up what had gone so wrong.”

The reconciliation of the Dunne brothers didn’t last long. Shortly before Christmas 2003, Quintana Roo Dunne went into the hospital with a serious case of what was thought to be either avian flu or walking pneumonia. When Dominick received a phone call from his sister-in-law late on December 30, he feared that Joan was calling to say that Quintana had passed away. Instead, Joan told him that it was John. He suffered a massive heart attack in their apartment after coming home from the hospital to see Quintana, and he died there. Dominick was the first person Joan called that night with the news.

By Robert Hofler

Robert Hofler is the author of "Money, Murder and Dominick Dunne: A Life In Several Acts" (April 18, 2017; University of Wisconsin Press); "Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos" (2014); "Party Animals" (2010); "The Movie That Change My Life: 120 Celebrities Pick the Films that Made a Difference (for Better or Worse)" (2009); and "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson" (2005). Hofler has served as entertainment editor at Life, executive editor at Us, managing editor at Buzz, and a senior editor and theater reporter at Variety. He’s currently the lead theater critic at The Wrap. He lives in New York City.

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