By Kevin Chaffee
I was a big fan of Dominick Dunne’s right from the start of his writing career, but did not have the chance to meet him until the mid-’90s when we bumped into each other while both covering one of the Mike Tyson prize fights in Las Vegas. (It may even have been the year Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear off). I told him that I had hung out with his younger son, Alex, in San Francisco some years previously, and we had a cordial chat.
We met again few years later at a Vanity Fair White House Correspondents’ Dinner after-party, but didn’t truly bond until our mutual friend, Susan Mary Alsop, invited us both to her house for drinks while Nick was in town covering the Clinton impeachment trial. I offered to drive him to his hotel afterwards, but he would have none of it. He wanted to see and be seen, take the pulse of Washington at Washington’s top celebrity watering hole.
I still remember the hubbub that ensued when he walked through the door of Cafe Milano in Georgetown. Everyone seemed to know him by sight and we spent the entire evening being interrupted by wellwishers and fans, many of whom knew him personally or had a friend who did.
Milano instantly became Nick’s Washington home-away-from-home. As our friendship grew, largely by periodic catch-up phone calls, I became his unofficial rep in the nation’s capital (despite the fact that he had far better pals here – Bill and Deeda Blair, Jane Hitchcock, and Polly Kraft among them). I took it upon myself to organize Cafe Milano parties after he published two of his books, The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of A Well Known Name-Dropper (1999) and Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments (2001).
These events required lots of work but I never minded a minute of it. Everyone wanted to be invited and both fêtes were jam-packed with grandes dames, socialites, diplomats, politicos, and journalists of every stripe. Even better than getting Nick’s list of those whom he wanted there was his list of people he didn’t want there. I may take some of those stories to the grave.
One well-known socialite actually burst into tears when she learned she was among the cordially uninvited. Others pulled every crasher’s trick in the book despite the phalanx of list-bearing gorgons at the door, including a number of people who really should have known better. In the end, Nick let them all stay. After all, they were his fans.
Both of the events were a huge success, with all the breathless press coverage and flashing cameras everywhere. I still chuckle when I recall a young photographer sheepishly asking Nick if he minded her shooting him over and over again.
“Honey,” he said with an indulgent smile, “I looove it!”
My most poignant moment with Nick came when he asked me to accompany him on a visit to the World War II Memorial. As we walked around the recently constructed monument he suddenly grew silent and I immediately sensed it would be better not to interrupt his thoughts for a while.
Later, as we sat on one of the stone benches nearby, he said he had been drafted just out of prep school at the age of 17 to fight on the European front in World War II. After a minimum of training he soon found himself armed, terrified, and charging enemy lines at the infamous Battle of the Bulge. In the midst of heavy fire he rescued a badly wounded fellow G.I. by carrying him on his back to safety. “We were both completely covered in his blood,” he said, adding somewhat sorrowfully that he was never able to find out if his comrade had survived. I was so impressed when he said that had been awarded a Bronze Star for heroism.
“You know something?” he told me in a confidential whisper. “My father never called me a sissy after that.”
Many have recounted Nick’s world-class storytelling abilities and it would be redundant to add to their efforts here. But he did recount the most amazing tales, most of which would never see print. I’ll never forget him confiding that a scion of a prominent American family wanted him dead and that he had hired private security for protection. Other asides about the peccadilloes of Hollywood stars, financial titans, and titled Eurotrash were equally astounding. I always knew a particularly juicy tidbit was on its way when he prefaced it with: “Now, this is totally off-the-record [pregnant pause with stern look] and that means NO BLABBING!”
“Of course not, Nick! You know I never repeat anything you say!”
Nick was incredibly funny and occasionally terrifying. His anger and mirth, like his loves and hates, were of equal intensity. Every moment in his company was a delight because he knew the art of making you feel as if you were the most special person he had ever met.
He was a friend of the heart, a friend of the soul. I’ll always miss him, dear, dear Nick.
One thousand mourners turn out for the funeral of America’s most celebrated society chronicler
By Kevin Chaffee
New York – Dominick Dunne was my treasured friend and confidante during the last 15 years of his life, and I knew his funeral was going to be rough going. Whirlpools of fond memories flooded my mind as I sat in Manhattan’s ornate Church of Saint Vincent Ferrer on Sept. 10 waiting for the service to begin. Not even the spectacle of the rich and famous swanning into the pews could divert my thoughts from the many wonderful moments we shared.
Nick, as he was known to his friends, had meticulously scripted every detail of the ceremony long before his death from cancer on August 26: the homily and hymns, the cordon of 14 honorary pallbearers (Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter, playwright Mart Crowley, and composer Stephen Sondheim among them), the eulogists, and, of course, the list of those he wanted invited afterwards to the reception at the Union Club.
Nick loved names, so you’ll get names (in no particular order) of a mere few notables from a crowd I estimated to be nearly 1,000 strong: William McCormick Blair Jr., Jane Stanton Hitchcock, Diane von Furstenburg, Arnold Scaasi, Carl Bernstein, Richard Gere, George Stevens, George Hamilton, Uma Thurman, Dina Merrill and Ted Hartley, Mica Ertegun, Peter Duchin, Virginia Coleman, Pat Patterson, Harry Evans, Brooke Hayward, Jean Harvey Vanderbilt, Wendy Vanderbilt Lehman, Sam Peabody, Iris Love, Mimi Van Rensselaer Strong, Nancy Biddle, Casey Ribicoff, Fernanda Niven, Jamie Niven, Mort Janklow, Charlotte Ford, Marie Brenner, Reinaldo Herrera, Steven Aronson, Melinda Blinken, Boatie Boatwright, Ann Slater, Audrey Gruss, and Karen Lerner.