Saturday, January 30, 2010
Back in my carefree New York days from the late Sixties to mid-disco, I got to know Nick Dunne in an environment with which he had far more comfort and self-confidence than I. Or so I thought. He was from a more privileged background than I, certainly: an upper class upbringing in a home in which his elder brother (like my own) was already an accomplished author, and his grandfather was what I would later call "Old Money" (the original title of my first book). He had this in common with the Kennedys as well, ironically, given they would become his prime targets later on. The setting where we first met and got to know one another was in the Hamptons, at the home of then Park Avenue ingenue Gillian Fuller (actually Gillian's mother's 'dog house,' as she called it at the time). But what we had in common was a well-hidden sense of not belonging--not just there in Southhampton, but anywhere.
I was there shooting a short "art" film that winter weekend in 1972, together with my then girlfriend jazz singer Asha Puthli, her constant partner-in-crime and then- red-hot Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn, and one of Dominick's principle cast members from his recent hit film Boys in the Band, Frederick Coombs. Nick had actually just finished producing his second feature after a long career in Hollywood, which would introduce a new young actor to the world, Al Pacino (Panic in Needle Park). Nick, unlike me, felt reasonably relaxed that weekend, and appeared as an extra in our little 20 minute short, Bad Marion's Last Year, which would be shown some months later at the Guggenheim Museum in a showing attended by Andy Warhol himself, then permanently shelved, probably for good reason. I do remember sharing "a bit" of weed with him off and on that weekend: a practice I, at least, have continued to this day. To me it was like a glass of good merlot, although apparently for him it was something stronger, and darker.
A few years later when I first turned up in Los Angeles, Nick was still there, pretty much winding down his Hollywood career. What I didn't know until many years later were the reasons for his sudden departure soon after my arrival. But meanwhile he was kind to me, introduced me to his kids Griffin and Dominique in passing, and gave me my first Hollywood job, which was to proofread his first novel, The Winners.
I was too polite to comment beyond that it was "very long", which he admitted. Basically, it was a sequel to then-hot Jackie Collins look-alike Joyce Haber's bestseller, The Users. Apparently Nick knew a lot about those things and those people, also fully chronicled by his sister-in-law Joan Didion then and since. But the book was a disaster, and I lacked the nerve to say so.
The critical response, predictably, was awful, and Nick packed up and left Los Angeles soon thereafter, only to return to cope with the tragedy of his daughter's murder a decade later. I never saw him again after that. So it was with some degree of shock when I read in his recent obituary in Bio Magazine that he'd always felt like an outcast, even in Hartford, and that he'd lost much of a decade, much as I did, after my own first mystery books failed to sell.
We had something else in common as well: we were both drawn to write by a strong sense of justice, and the lack thereof in our world. His daughter's killer had famously gotten off, followed by O.J., and while not suffering anything so traumatic in my own life, I'd worked for Civil Rights up to and including the time we first met, and I had been exceedingly shocked by the elevation of the first of several shallow and unqualified men with potentially criminal backers and proclivities to the Supreme Court, which had inspired my first book, Hour of the Manatee (originally "Old Money" then later "Storm Warning"). I could go on. But in conclusion, I will simply raise my glass and pipe, and say: "Nick, here's a toast and a toke to you. You did well. God bless."
And may justice prevail in the next world, as it has too often failed to do in this one.
(This is an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir: Almost Somebody: Reflections from a Known Unknown