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Dominick Dunne and Edward Kennedy: two American lives with a second act

By Katherine Delaney and Brendon O'Connor - posted Tuesday, 20 October 2009

When Andy Warhol said that in the future we shall all have 15 minutes of fame perhaps he should have considered the case of Dominick Dunne and added that even this 15 minutes might not happen if we die at the wrong time.

In August this year, the death of the renowned special correspondent for Vanity Fair and best-selling author who chronicled the trials and behind the scene affairs of American high society barely made a blip on the international news radar, with his death coming one day after that of Senator Edward Kennedy. Yet Kennedy and Dunne shared more than the same era in American history. They both made significant contributions to American public life. Kennedy, who was both blessed and burdened by his famous family name, used his long service in the Senate to enact legislation that impacted the lives of tens of millions of Americans. Dunne’s fame came later in life when the personal tragedy of his daughter’s death led to him covering other famous trials for Vanity Fair.

Both men also endured personal tragedy and battles with addiction. The personal tragedies of Edward Kennedy were many and started young - he lost the first political heir in his family, his brother Joe Jr, and a sister Kathleen, in airplane accidents when he was only a child and the family also endured the botched lobotomy of his sister Rosemary. Then there were the assassinations of John and Robert in the 1960s. The “Kennedy curse” continued to haunt the family with a number of the next generation also dying young, most famously JFK Jr in yet another airplane accident and earlier one of Robert’s 11 children, David Kennedy, from a drug overdose.


Dunne too endured death in his close family; first, the deaths of two children within days of being born, followed by the suicide of his younger brother Stephen, and then in 1982 the murder of his own daughter Dominique at the age of 22. The rising young actress was strangled by her ex-boyfriend and died later in hospital.

Kennedy and Dunne also shared an ill-fated love of alcohol (in Dunne’s case this extended to drugs). Despite denials of alcoholism by Kennedy, his heavy drinking and sexual escapades made the headlines regularly during the turbulent period between his two marriages in the 1980s. While there were regular reports of binge drinking, it was rarely suggested that drinking affected Kennedy’s performance in the Senate where he, in fact, seemed to be carrying out his duties with ever increasing dedication.

For Dunne, however, addiction to both drugs and alcohol forced him to abandon a successful career in Hollywood. In the new industry of television and then in film, Dunne rose through the entertainment industry ranks. He moved with his family to LA but never felt he belonged in the film industry. As he said “I didn’t have a defined place, and I didn’t even know what defined place I even wanted. So I went the drug-and-drink route all the way.”

A stint behind bars for drug possession was the final straw. He retreated to the woods of Oregon where he conquered his demons and began a new career as a writer. His brother John Gregory Dunne was already a successful journalist and writer and his sister-in-law was feted novelist and commentator Joan Didion. In fact before his Hollywood career had imploded, Dunne had produced their screenplay for the movie The Panic in Needle Park. Dunne’s relationship with his brother had its strains over the years but they did reconcile before John Gregory Dunne’s sudden death in 1985.

Perhaps the most spectacular similarity between these two very different men is the fact that both their lives could, and often have been, dissected into two quite distinct acts. For Kennedy the first period was as the underachieving understudy to his brilliant brothers. The second act, with presidential ambitions finally vanquished, was as the “lion of the Senate”. For Dunne the first act was a promising Hollywood career spectacularly destroyed. The second act began slowly with his gradual emergence as a writer. A chance meeting then saw the tragic death of his daughter become the segue into his successful career spanning almost 25 years at Vanity Fair.

For Kennedy, the second act of his life as one of America’s most tenacious and successful Senators was born out of two incidents - one undoubtedly tragic and the other, in the end, welcomed with relief. The first - the Chappaquiddick incident as it became known - saw Kennedy accidently drive his car over a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island near Martha’s Vineyard after leaving a party late at night. Kennedy escaped but the young woman who was his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, died. Kennedy did not report the accident until the next day and was sentenced to two months in jail which was reduced to a suspended sentence. The incident, overshadowed at the time by the first landing on the moon, still effectively meant an end to any short term presidential ambitions.


Finally, Kennedy succumbed to the pressure to run for president in 1980. Noted political commentator Joe Klein was there to see him finally “liberated from ambition” with his loss at the New Hampshire primary. It had been an abysmal campaign by both Kennedy and his team, probably best summed up by the fact that in a TV interview he appeared to be unable to answer the simple question of why he even wanted to be president. Kennedy’s truthful answer probably would have been because he was supposed to, but as Klein noted, “Well, that was the truth, but it wasn't an acceptable answer”.

What Klein recounts is that once Kennedy knew he was going to lose, he became much more relaxed. Klein recalls that “The nomination was clearly lost, but he continued to fight on, stubbornly, disastrously for the Democratic Party, but he actually seemed to be enjoying it, for a change. He gave the speech of his life, “The Dream Will Never Die”, at the Democratic Convention that year, and began the far more satisfying Second Act of his life.”

This second act - as orator extraordinaire and accomplished back room negotiator of legislation in the Senate - in the end saw him make the most long lasting contribution of any member of the Kennedy family. Senator John Kerry “did the math”: JFK spent 1,000 days in the White House, Bobby campaigned as president for 88 days but Edward Kennedy spent more than 17,000 days in the Senate.

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About the Authors

Katherine Delaney is a Research Assistant at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney.

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Katherine Delaney
All articles by Brendon O'Connor

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