There came a time in the middle and late 1970s when Dominick Dunne knew he was washed up. For most of his life he had been trying to get into Hollywood by acting as more than he was. Or without pausing to ask what he was. As a stage manager for NBC TV he’d been picked to work on their 1952 production of The Petrified Forest – with Humphrey Bogart repeating his classic 1936 role, Henry Fonda doing Leslie Howard, and Lauren Bacall as Bette Davis. The show went well. Bogart, always a bit of a snob, and once chucked out of Andover, was impressed that Dunne had been to Williams College. He invited the nobody kid to a party at his home in the Holmby Hills. Dunne knew he was out of his element there, but he took it all in: Judy Garland and Sinatra singing ‘impromptu’ with a hired piano player. All the stars. ‘Before the night was over,’ he writes, ‘people jumped in the pool in their party clothes. I jumped in, too. I wanted to be a part of it. I thought to myself, this is how I want to live.’
He’d done better still. In 1953, his mother threw a party in Hartford, Connecticut (where the Dunnes came from) for the opening night of a play called Late Love. It was a hit, and the party was fun. That’s where Dunne met Ellen Beatrix Griffin, ‘Lenny’. Her father was rich from cattle in Arizona, but the Griffin family was richer still: they had made most of the railroad wheels in the US. He asked Lenny to marry him, and she did. She was dropped from the Social Register because of it, but Dunne had just become a movie producer, and they became a Hollywood couple – everyone knew, though, that the money, the clout and the class were hers.
Does the Social Register have leverage in Hollywood, the place that fashioned those universal freedoms – the freedom to fantasise, to desire, to envy and to want to be someone else? Is there ‘class’ in such a wide-open place? Is there ever.
Dunne tells a chilling story about how class operated. (And might still). One night, when Dunne was out of town, there had been a party given by Swifty and Mary Lazar at the Beverly Hills restaurant, the Bistro, in which the Dunnes were investors. In public, Frank Sinatra had verbally attacked Lenny Dunne. Yet Dominick was his real object – Lenny was being browbeaten for bringing in an outsider. A couple of weeks later, the Dunnes were at the Daisy – another hot place in town. Sinatra, his two daughters and Mia Farrow (to whom he was then engaged) were at another table. George, the restaurant captain, came over to the Dunnes’s table. ‘I’m so sorry, Mr Dunne. Mr Sinatra made me do it,’ he said, and then he punched Dunne in the head. The Dunnes got up and left, and on the way out, George, sobbing, admitted that Sinatra had paid him $50. How much for a full execution?
I do not doubt the story. This was 1965 or so, when Sinatra was among the most powerful and surly men in that world, a chronic bully as much as a charmer, and yet in the minds of so many – at 33 rpm at least – an epitome of class. He was also a lowlife from Hoboken, New Jersey, who had been used and snubbed by the Kennedys and used and courted by the Mob. He knew he could get away with having Dunne humiliated – Dunne was peanut brittle – but, because of all the above and these uncontrollable scenes of temper, he could never get into that inner circle that he yearned for. He could have got in: married in, bought his way in, humiliated in, had his opponents killed maybe. But he’d have known he was never in – that’s how he could sing like an outsider, out of gloom and resentment. This is American class at work, and one reason celebrity undermines true class, or virtue, faster than economic redistribution.
There are ways in which Dunne asked for it, and he isn’t shy about them. He was, by his own admission, a name-dropper and a star-fucker. Invited to tea at Lord Plunkett’s conservatory in the garden of England, he couldn’t resist taking a picture of one of the guests – Princess Margaret. With arms folded and eyebrows arched, she gave his lens a very fishy look, as if to say, how did the press get in? But Dunne was honestly star-struck, and how was he ever to prove he had been there, seen her, if he didn’t snap the Princess and grin his way past her sour look?
Dunne never made it in Hollywood. The movies he produced – Play It as It Lays, The Panic in Needle Park, The Boys in the Band – were never mainstream, and they often indulged friends or relatives. (Play It as It Lays was scripted by Dominick’s brother, John Gregory Dunne, and his wife, Joan Didion, and was an adaptation of Didion’s warning novel on Hollywood.) But he threw parties, and for a few years real class people came, and he took their pictures. He hadn’t set out to be a studied photographer, but he didn’t need to be. He hunted for moments of intimacy and exposure in people whose business it was to let the camera see something lovely or remarkable. So there are gorgeous pictures: Truman Capote dancing with Tuesday Weld at Dunne’s black and white ball; Warren Beatty, scrawny, bespectacled, hunched over a piano; Tony Curtis and Belden Katleman (a Las Vegas gentleman) at a wedding, looking like Corleones. There are also fearsome glimpses of melodrama, or worse – a quarrel springing up among Gig Young, George Hamilton and Elizabeth Montgomery. And there’s absolute vacancy – as in one picture of Edie Goetz, a daughter of Louis B. Mayer.
These pictures say so much more than discreet testimony could ever allow. Even if he was never a sure movie-maker, Dunne had enough of an eye and an instinct for gossipy history to know this. But his tide went out. He betrayed Lenny, and there was a divorce. He started to drink heavily and do drugs. He came close to killing himself. ‘Today,’ he writes, ‘I think the reason that I write assholes so well in my books is that I have had the experience of being one.’
Dunne collapsed. He drove off into the celebrity-free wilds of Oregon, sat in a bare cabin in the mountains, reflected and decided to become a writer. If that’s what Dominick Dunne has become. The Way We Lived Then works very well as an illustrated script or storyboard (there are even snapshots from the Oregon retreat – I can see that episode as a brooding interlude in the movie, with a song slowly swelling on the soundtrack). Of course, who plays Dunne at 45 or so is no easy matter. Still, we’ll always have the photos, because, if he lacked class, he had instinct.
When the worst came, and he had to sell off his belongings, he spared little. He sold the furniture, the porcelain, the crystal, the silver, the linen, the books, the monogrammed Turnbull & Asser shirts, even the ashtrays he’d swiped from Claridge’s. He sold the cutlery that Natalie Wood once used as a mirror for checking her make-up. But he saved the scrapbooks.
Dunne is now a real figure, at last. Character has grown into his face, with loss and solitude. He has helped me with research, and I know people who cherish his loyalty. He came back from Oregon. At Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair, he became maybe the best gossip in an age devoted to that genre. His daughter, Dominique, was murdered in 1982. The man who did it got two years in prison. So Dunne became a kind of lawyer by bereavement, a fierce foe of gentleness towards murderers. He wrote a few bestselling novels (The Two Mrs Grenvilles, for instance), some of them modelled on real showbiz and society scandals. And in the O.J. Simpson trial, he found a great subject, as well as the best proof of how ironic the operation of class is in Los Angeles.
But that dream persists, and Dunne’s photographs are relics of its existence. In all the wrangling over Simpson’s Bruno Magli shoes, there was unnerving evidence of how a black athlete from the San Francisco projects had sought to haul himself up in the world, and find respect. To that extent, his present state – of being free, yet minus respect – only shows that scriptwriters can’t always match juries in their sense of poetic justice (though, in LA, half the members of any jury are probably working on a screenplay).
We need photographs (and the helpless, passing backgrounds in all those movies shot in LA) to help us believe that the place has altered so much. There are a few hotels in the city – smaller places, not the star establishments that revel in ‘now’ – that have blown-up landscape photographs of what the town was like in the 1920s and 1930s. They show farmland and orange groves, with outcrops of buildings at crossroads. When you see a photograph of Samuel Goldwyn in jodhpurs, that’s not because he’s dressed for the role of whip-cracking dictator. No, he often rode a horse to the studio, following bridle paths.
When California achieved statehood in 1850, the ‘pueblo’ of Los Angeles had about 1600 residents. By 1920, Los Angeles ‘County’ had 900,000. In 1930, the figure was over 2.2 million. Today, greater Los Angeles has well over eight million. It is a city of great restaurants and art galleries; it has an astonishing system of freeways and two major league baseball teams (all of which only arrived in the 1950s). It is beginning to acquire an underground railway system. By now, its manufacturing and business interests have outgrown the movies, but the city was shaped by people who moved there because they were the titans of the picture business, and because they wanted a city of their own where they would not be looked down on because they were European or illiterate or Jewish or suddenly rich. They wanted class, and they wanted it in a hurry.
The founding generation created residential areas, country clubs and nightclubs from which the ‘wrong’ sort could be excluded, and enjoyed polo, croquet and racing – ‘English’ sports that went with an interest in Western fashion and the open-air life sustained by three hundred days of sunshine. And there were parties, with A, B and C lists. It was often crazy, but it found its sharpest paradox in the anti-semitism by which some Jews found others too ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘obvious’.
I don’t know whether this social history of Hollywood can ever be written or recovered, because LA enlarged itself so convulsively and because so much of its nervous energy was given over to forgetting the past and making the future. As is the habit in frontier towns, the getting ahead was done quickly, brutally, with no great respect for law or record. The studios, in many cases, burned their paper records and tossed the cans of old negative into the Pacific.
The film world today affects to be outraged over those losses – though movies as recent as those of the 1970s are still deteriorating because of careless storage. But we should never forget the need to save the scrapbooks, the still photographs, the home movies and now the video footage. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was working on the life of David O. Selznick, the man who produced Gone with the Wind, Rebecca and Duel in the Sun. It was a great help, yet a daunting obstacle, that Selznick had kept virtually every bit of paper that passed through his office. But the family archive had other riches: miles of 16mm film footage (often photographed by studio experts) of family events – weekends at brother Myron’s ski lodge at Lake Arrowhead; children’s parties; family trips. I watched a lot of it with Jeffrey Selznick, David’s older son, and he provided a vital running commentary: ‘That’s Paulette Goddard (she lived next door, you see, with Chaplin). There’s Jock Whitney. And there, see that little girl, that’s Loretta Young’s child, Judy. Now, who is that?’
Later, he showed me boxes of snapshots David Selznick had himself taken in the 1940s and 1950s when he had been a camera bug. They weren’t ‘good’ pictures, but they were so useful – there was the party on the yacht just before David married Jennifer Jones, with the proof that Leland and Slim Hayward and Quique Jourdan were there. You could rescue chronologies with the aid of the pictures. And you could see what people meant to each other – or what they wanted to mean – in just that snap of time. They are the unofficial stills for the continuing, untidy movie of Hollywood social life.
Occasional volumes of such scrapbooks are published, and the one I noticed this season was photographs of Gary Cooper, presented by his daughter, Maria, and with an introduction by Tom Hanks (only five when Cooper died). It’s not a riveting or important book, but it makes clear how far Cooper was made into a society figure by the movies. He began acting as a cowboy, and to the end of his days he was famous for that. But he was a very beautiful young man, in love with good clothes and cars, and someone with real social aspirations in the 1930s.
His daughter’s album shows the Coopers at their Brentwood house:
This was a house that protected the family and its dreams. One day when horseback riding and picnicking in a meadow high in the Santa Monica hills, my mother and father saw two beautiful oak trees. They had them transplanted to their new house, where the trees grew to enormous size. In time, they shaded the master bedroom and dining room, and I always knew their presence had a special meaning.
We see the Coopers with the Hemingways. There’s Coop on the ski slopes with Averill Harriman. And here is something ravishing. A moment from the early 1940s, from some nightclub. There’s Coop, aged 42 or so. He’s wearing a suit and tie, but he’s a little tousled, and with that rock look to him (his wife, Veronica, was always called ‘Rocky’). He’s sitting back grinning sideways at the guy next to him at the table: it’s a naval officer, a lieutenant, sun-tanned, lean, his eyes full of adoration for the star. It’s Jack Kennedy, and he would have been 24 or 25. Cooper would have known who the Kennedys were – he’d have bumped into Joseph Kennedy. But he’s just revelling in the golden boy, and in his admiration, saying, God, to be 24 again. How could they know that the kid would be President a few months before the actor died? If anything, it’s the kid who expects to die – out there in the Pacific. As for JFK, see this picture and you will never doubt the stories that his family always expected to be in their own movie. For all that, it’s a picture of two beautiful guys who have the world by the balls, and who face a kind of duty (or curse?) in trying to be like Gary Cooper on the screen.
Maria Cooper calls her book Gary Cooper Off Camera – but he’s never ‘off’. He knows the camera’s there, like someone trusting in God. And the real reason why these casual photographs can mean so much is because they show us a new race, of people who are alive and on only when photographed. Maybe Princess Margaret was the last one with class enough to know that the camera was an arriviste.