The Full Cheese


Society couple, Billy and Ann Woodward, circa 1950’s.

I make no bones about missing the writing of Dominick Dunne who died a few days ago, having reveled in a sumptuously colorful life. Reading his column in Vanity Fair was always such a deliciously guilty pleasure. Like the consummate prized guest, he moved in those rarefied circles that most only glimpse on occasion and never in the way of the truly familiar, the socially accepted, the close intimate friend, the trustworthy confidante, the keeper of secrets. Usually, the vantage point of the one-time-only interloper provides scant details and the most basic of observations: “Oh he’s not as tall as I thought,” or “for a movie star, she has such an ungainly walk, don’t you think?”

Dominick Dunne used to be one of them, a regular insider of the beautiful people, mingling among the rank and file of the certifiably rich and famous; a successful television producer with a glamorous wife, a palatial estate in Beverly Hills, a member of the celebrated circle in the truest sense of the word. Yet, what made him so interesting was that having enjoyed the largesse of the privileged, he shared in equal measure the sorrows of the fallen, particularly in the unforgiving town of Hollywood where the usual suspects, alcohol, drugs, and divorce, sent him reeling into self-imposed exile in the backwoods of Oregon where he took up writing and redemption.

Perhaps it was the tragedy of his life, the loss of his family, the murder of his daughter, the actress Dominique Dunne, or his ruined reputation that compelled people to trust him, to talk to him, to spill their innermost thoughts and secrets.

Or perhaps it was a certain indescribable sense, a quality that Dunne possessed, that rare ability, like a social sorcerer, to bring out the undisclosed in people.

A review of his memoir, The Way We Lived Then, (highly recommended) tells of a wedding reception for Dennis Hopper that Dunne attended many years ago. The author of the review, wrote: “But in the midst of it all there was one man who was getting what ceramic artist Ron Nagle would call ‘the full cheese,’ one guy everyone gravitated toward and paid obeisance to.” That individual was Dominick Dunne. The final line of the review about Dunne quoted Dennis Hopper wishing he “had a picture of myself with Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer.”

That was the genius of Dominick Dunne. He became the eyes and ears of those who would never sit across the table from Claus von Bulow, share a laugh with Warren Beatty or regale a white-minked Elizabeth Taylor with a story or openly admire a gimlet-eyed Princess Margaret, poised with a cigarette holder. And do it all with a kind of wide-eyed innocence. Musing on Lana Turner, he once said: “I have always been intrigued by the kind of people who call their lawyers before they call the police after a murder. It’s a rich-people thing.”

I was reminded again last night of how much I was going to miss his commentary when I stumbled across this interview taken from the September 1985 issue of Interview, when Dunne spoke with Anthony Haden-Guest about moving out of Hollywood and the writing of his second novel, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, based on the sensationalized and well-chronicled 1955 murder of banking heir Billy Woodward by his wife, Ann, the former John Robert Powers model from Pittsburgh, Kansas, winner of the dubious title “The Most Beautiful Girl in Radio,” and holder of the youthful dream-come-true crowning achievement: showgirl at the fashionable New York nightclub, FeFe’s Monte Carlo, where she allegedly met the senior William Woodward, who rumor has it mistressed Ann and, in the English tradition, passed her on to his son, whispered to be harboring a homosexual lover.

Undaunted, the conniving temptress moved in, appearing on young Billy’s arm, her junior by five years, incensing the stag line of hopeful debutantes, and ultimately scoring her life’s ambition: wife, mother, socialite and crack shot.

In sharing his own impression of the socially unassailable Mrs. William Woodward, Jr. (Ann), on whom his novel, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles was based, Dunne recounted for Anthony Haden-Guest at Interview nearly twenty-five years ago, his thoughts on seeing Ann Woodward for the first time:

“I saw her once in the Stork Club when I was a young man in college, I saw her dancing with this guy and she was singing into the guy’s ear when she was dancing and it’s something that I never forgot. I used it all through the book—it was a very sexy sort of thing. … She was somebody who you just looked at. I had a girlfriend at that time whose father had married someone connected with the family, so I used to hear about her—this showgirl who had married into this very swell family. I’m very interested in outsiders, and she was an outsider and remained an outsider throughout the thirteen years of their marriage and beyond, after the shooting.”


~ by eaesthete on 08/30/09.

2 Responses to “The Full Cheese”

  1. I just finished “The Way We Lived Then” about two weeks ago. I am so glad I read it. Loved DD’s column in VF. Always the first thing I read.

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