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The Walter Winchell of the elites: the triumph of celebrityism in high-brow America.

The triumph of celebrityism in high-brow America

Wherever he is today, Walter Winchell must be positively pea green with envy. A pioneer in the field of celebrity journalism in the 1930s, Winchell gave John and Jane Q. Public the inside skinny on the stars of the society, sports, and entertainment worlds and was among the first to lump that new elite together. But Winchell plied his craft in an era when, although the general public devoured his work, the cultural and intellectual elite never paid him much attention. Name dropping and celebrity gossip sold, but it didn't win you much respect.

Today, all that has changed. No longer must one choose between the labels of scandalmonger and serious writer. And as the cult of celebrity informs every rung of the social, economic, and cultural ladder, the line between achievement and acclaim has been pretty much dissolved: comedienne Roseanne Barr can guest edit The New Yorker and actor Rick Moranis' prose can appear on the op-ed pages of The New York Times.

But perhaps nowhere has the new status of celebrity journalism been better illustrated than in the reception of the most recent novel by Vanity Fair contributor Dominick Dunne. Another City, Not My Own is a fictionalized account of the O.J. Simpson trial as told by the author's alter-ego, Gus Bailey. Though subtitled A Novel in the Form of a Memoir, more than a few reviewers have made the obvious observation that Another City is, in fact, the exact opposite -- a thinly veiled, mostly true look at Dunnes personal experiences covering the Simpson trial. And, more specifically, all of the A-list celebrities he sat around gossiping with in the course of his reporting.

"Dunne's antennae are always tuned to the offbeat story ... He is magazine journalism's ace social anthropologist whose area of social study is the famous and infamous up close and personal." -- San Francisco Examiner

In simpler times, an "anthropologist" such as Dunne would have been called a gossip columnist. Far less interested in `"what" than "who," Dunne's book is a study in strategic name-dropping -- no connection to O.J. is too tangential if a persons star power is bright enough. And, not surprisingly, with the notable exception of the author, none of the names have been changed to protect the innocent:

Whoopi Goldberg said to Gus when he kissed her

on the cheek in greeting, "Gus, this is awful about O.J.

I can't stop thinking about it." She shook her head in

sadness. Harrison Ford, who before he became a star

had once done construction work on the house that

Gus' brother Malachy and his wife, Edwina, rebuilt in

Malibu, said he knew Simpson. "I mean, I met him a

couple of times, at closed-circuit games and boxing

matches, stuff like that. I didn't really know him"

Robert DeNiro and Francis Ford Coppola were telling

stories about O.J. Simpson. Michael Eisner, the CEO

of Disney, said, "O.J. just did a television pilot called

`Frogman' for NBC."

Though Dunne makes a modest effort to work the names casually into the prose, at times all pretense at narrative must be abandoned to achieve maximum name density:

"You get more messages than anyone in the hotel,"

said Mario Maldonado as he handed Gus a fistful of

messages at the front desk. Mary Jane Stevenson of

"Court TV" and Shoreen Maghame of City News.

Reunion of the Menendez reporters at Orso on Third

Street Friday night. Mrs. Marvin Davis, dinner for

Placido Domingo. Linda Deutsch of Associated Press,

lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunday with Elaine

Young, the Beverly Hills realtor, and Theo Wilson, the

great crime reporter. Janet DeCordova, dinner at

Chasen's Sunday night. The Billy Wilders would be

coming. Mart Crowley, dinner at Orso. Martin Manulis,

dinner at Morton's. Tita Cahn, dinner at her home.

"He is one of those writers who seems effortlessly to collide with copy. Movie stars confide to his answering machine. Wanted men bail the same taxi. Heiresses unload their life stories in elevators." -- Tina Brown

Whatever one thinks of Dunne's approach to writing, one of the most striking things about it is its embrace by the same elite that once scorned the Winchells of this world. Such acceptance is perhaps best illustrated by The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and of course Vanity Fair lining up to weigh in on the value of Another City as both prose and social commentary. While the reviews were not entirely positive, the fact that Dunne has reached the point where such high-brow publications, as a service to their A-list readerships, feel compelled to address his work gives it the stamp of elite legitimacy.

Dunne's exalted position in the media world is something he also takes pains to share in his book. While hanging out with other (perhaps more serious) reporters isn't as eye-catching as dining out with Liz Taylor, it does let readers know you are, in every way, in the loop.

Gus liked to have dinner with the reporters so that

they could spend the whole time talking about the

case. David Margolick of The New York Times and he

went to Cicada. Shirley Perlman of Newsday and he

went to Morton's. Harvey Levin of KCBS and Pat Lalama

of "Hard Copy" went to Eclipse. That night, he

went to dinner at Drai's with Dan Abrams, the young

commentator on the Simpson trial for "Court TV."

Being sought after for media appearances, however, is an entirely different matter, significantly enhancing one's celebrity cachet: "That evening, after taping a segment for `Rivera Live,' Gus was in his suite... " or: "`We watch you [Gus] on Larry King and Dan Rather.'" or: ... I'm going to be on `Good Morning America' and we go on the air at 4 a.m., so I have to get back to the hotel ...' said Gus." or: ..."`I go on Michael Jackson's radio show several times a week.'"

"He knows every story there is to tell, precisely how it happened, and why." The New York Times Book Review

For one who embraces the cult of celebrity, part of the goal -- and the payoff -- is achieving celebrity status yourself. The true measure of Dunnels worth then is how many of the beautiful people recognize him as one of them. Conveying this importance within the confines of a narrative can pose something of a challenge. Sometimes it can be achieved through stilted dialogue:

"I'll be going out there myself, I can't remember

exactly when," she said. "Harry's publishing Gore

Vidal's memoirs, and we're going to give a party for

Gore at L'Orangerie. You know Gore, don't you?" "Do

I know Gore? When I was twenty years old, I met

Anais Nin at Gore's house in Guatemala, and she took

me away with her to Acapulco. Top that!" said Gus.

or:

Gus loved to talk about old times. "Do you remember

that night in Rome when Elizabeth [Taylor] got

so furious at Andy [Warhol] when she discovered he

had a tape recorder hidden under her mink coat on

the banquette and was recording every word she said?"

or:

"Do you remember that lunch that Franco Zeffirelli

gave at the house on the Via Appia Antica, and Hiram

Keller shocked all the titles when he jumped in the

pool nude?"

At other times, the description of an actual event is manipulated to highlight the magnitude of the author's A-list status:

Gus moved on into the room. He shook hands with

Liz Tilberis, the editor of Harper's Bazaar. He hugged

his friend Jesse Kornbluth, the writer, on whom he

had based the character of Bernie Slatkin, who married

and then divorced the richest girl in New York

in his book People Like Us. He posed for a picture for

his friend Heather Cohane, who was the editor of

Quest. He kissed Fran Lebowitz, the honoree, on both

cheeks, complimented her on her tuxedo, and got her

to sign his book.

"[Dominick] Dunne is a genius." -- Newsday

Perhaps the ultimate triumph of Dunne's book is the paper-thin layer of irony he weaves into his glamourfest. "I'm not really the celebrity hound I seem," his prose winks knowingly, "but isn't it fun to play along?" And alongside the winks, of course, there's the veiled threat: If you don't play along, you're a humorless Puritan. To their shame, much of our intelligentsia has flocked to Dunne's whispers.

Piper Monroe is the pseudonym of a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.
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Title Annotation:Dominick Dunne
Author:Monroe, Piper
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 1, 1998
Words:1420
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