A remembrance of the prolific crime writer who died Wednesday at age 83

By Judith Newman
Updated August 27, 2009 08:05 PM
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Best-selling author Dominick Dunne died in New York at age 83 Wednesday. PEOPLE book reviewer Judith Newman remembers the highly admired writer.

A great writer can take personal tragedy and make it into something meaningful and even beautiful to the rest of us. Nobody proved this point better than Dominick Dunne, who died of bladder cancer on Wednesday. A successful film producer in the ’70s who flamed out in a haze of booze and coke, Dunne had pulled himself together and was casting about for another career when, in 1982, his life was again shattered: His daughter Dominique, an actress, was strangled by her boyfriend John Thomas Sweeney.

Fueled by rage at the injustice of the judicial system – Sweeney was given only a six-year sentence – Dunne found his calling: He wrote novels of murder in high places (The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, People Like Us) and then began reporting on high-profile trials for Vanity Fair.

Dunne’s chronicling of the lifestyles of the rich and potentially homicidal – including the notorious profile of Claus Von Bulow, and coverage of the trials of the Menendez brothers, and, where he was practically a courtroom fixture, O.J. Simpson – made for riveting reading and gave gruesome truth to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous observation: “The rich are different from you and me.”

But Dunne was hardly an outsider. He moved easily in the social circles of the people on whom he reported (and sometimes eviscerated). And he was, as his first editor Tina Brown has noted, a consummate listener. “As much as the duchesses, movie stars and heiresses told him their troubles, so did the discarded call girls, the fired masseuses, the washed up hairdressers and the downwardly mobile TV producers,” Brown has said.

Shortly before he died Dunne, who is survived by two sons, including the actor Griffin Dunne (An American Werewolf in London), said only half-jokingly he’d rather be shot to death than die under anesthesia. He lived for drama; and drama is what he gave us.