In 1993 Dominick Dunne was already famous for saying “he did it” whenever it came to a high-profile murder case he reported on for Vanity Fair. He almost always sided with the prosecution against the defendant, and he did so with the same unbridled partiality he honed a decade earlier when, making his debut in Vanity Fair, he covered the trial of John Sweeney, the Ma Maison chef who strangled to death Dunne’s 22-year-old actress-daughter, Dominique.
Erik and Lyle Menendez were on trial for double murder in 1993. The two young men and their two middle-aged victims were not celebrities, but they were wealthy, lived in Beverly Hills, and had ties to the movie business. Even more newsworthy: The victims were Erik and Lyle’s parents, Kitty and Jose Menendez, a top executive at Live Entertainment. The brothers loaded and reloaded their 12-gauge Mossberg shotguns 14 times in the TV room of the family mansion at 722 North Elm Drive.
There was no doubt that Erik and Lyle had murdered their parents on August 20, 1989, as the couple sat watching “The Spy Who Loved Me” on the VCR. The big question of the sensational Menendez trial was whether the father had sexually abused his sons. Dunne said he believed without a doubt that Jose never molested them. He said it before the trial began, and he said it 12 years later when interviewed for a documentary based on his life. “I never ever believed for a second that he sexually abused them,” he told the camera.
Actually, Dunne did believe the two son’s accusations against Jose Menendez, and he believed it for more than a second. He believed it for the better part of a day. September 11, 1993, was Lyle Menendez’s first day on the stand in his own defense. Defense attorney Jill Lansing questioned him on the stand, “Why did you kill your parents?”
“Because we were afraid,” Lyle whispered, the tears already beginning to form. “He raped me.”
“Did you cry?” asked his lawyer.
“Did you bleed?”
“Were you scared?”
“Did you ask him not to?”
“How did you ask him not to?”
“I just told him, I don’t…I don’t…”
According to Lyle, Jose Menendez thought of their sex together as a male bonding ritual. Lyle was only six years old when first raped, and said being anally penetrated made him feel he was “the most important thing” in his father’s life.
The most heartbreaking moment in his testimony, however, came later when Lyle talked about his younger brother. He revealed his father also raped Erik, and that he, in turn, replicated that sexual abuse by taking his kid brother into the woods to molest him there in a similar matter. In the courtroom, Lyle looked away from his lawyer, and leaning forward on the stand, he faced Erik to apologize, “I don’t understand why, and I’m sorry!”
Erik and Lyle were not the only ones crying. Several jurors and reporters also wept. Ashen, Dominick Dunne shook his head. “I wonder if I’m wrong. Could I be wrong?” he asked Shoreen Maghame, a young reporter from the City News Service.
Out in the courthouse hallway, Dunne repeated his “I wonder if I’m wrong” statement to another reporter, and added, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I believe this. I think he’s telling the truth.”
Unlike Shoreen Maghame, Playboy reporter Robert Rand agreed with the man from Vanity Fair about almost nothing that happened during the Menendez trial. In fact, Court TV had hired Dunne and Rand to disagree, and late every Friday afternoon throughout the trial the two journalists gave opposing weekly rebuttals on camera. Crime watchers had never seen anything like it. The Menendez trial was only the second one for which the cable network presented gavel-to-gavel coverage, the first being the ten-day Williams Kennedy Smith rape trial in 1991. On Court TV during the months-long Menendez trial, it was Robert Rand for the defense and Dominick Dunne for the prosecution.
In the hallway, Dunne repeated himself a third time, “I may be wrong.”
The Menendez trial represented everything Dunne loathed about the criminal justice system. It was all about a couple of wealthy brats using their money to buy themselves justice and, in the process, ruin the good reputations of their victims. Dominick saw the same thing happen to his own daughter, Dominique. The defense raised unsubstantiated charges of abortion and drug use against her, and then, in Dunne’s opinion, the killer got his rich boss to pay for his defense.
The Menendez trial also proved personally complicated for Dunne. Like Jose Menendez, he, too, had raised two sons in the rarefied hot-house environment of money, privilege, and celebrity that is Beverly Hills. Even more disturbing, Dunne found he strongly identified with one of the young killers and confessed, years later, of being “fascinated” by Erik Menendez.
Erik was the handsome son, the likable one. He overcame a severe childhood stammer, as did Dunne; and much more significant, Dunne believed Erik to be “homosexual.” In the private journals he kept as an adult, Dunne wrote of not understanding the “equation between” the young heiresses he dated in his hometown of West Hartford, Connecticut, and the adult men he met in the town’s public restrooms, but that he pursued them with “the same fervor.” He claimed to have been only “nine or ten” when he first began performing acts of oral sex on men in the local park.
Then there were the beatings he received from his father, Dr. Richard Dunne.
The Menendez trial compelled Dunne, for the first time in his life, to write and publicly talk about the physical abuse he experienced as a child at the hands of his own father. He linked that abuse to what happened to the younger Menendez son. Dunne never publicly revealed the other thing that drew him to Erik: their sexual orientation. While he believed that Jose Menendez called Erik a “faggot,” Dunne would only say that his own father had called him a “sissy.”
The word “sissy” in the guarded 1930s of Dunne’s boyhood had been replaced by “faggot” in the less circumspect times of Erik’s youth. “He mimicked me,” Dominick said of his own father. “He called me a sissy. ‘Sissy’ is a tough word. It may not sound tough, but it’s words that hurt. It lingers.”
The word “sissy” fastened itself to Dunne’s consciousness because it labeled his greatest fear about himself. He was not a real boy. He was a girl trapped in a boy’s body.
Dr. Dunne was not the only one who said it. An uncle told Richard that the 6-year-old Nicky Dunne “ought to have been a girl.” A friendly Italian barber told his mother, Dorothy Dunne, the same thing: “He ought to have been a girl.” What remained burned in Dominick Dunne’s memory is that neither parent disagreed with that opinion; no one came to his “rescue” to claim the real little boy within. “I never felt I belonged anywhere, even in my own family. I was the outsider of the six kids,” he said.
Dunne’s deeply instilled homophobia regarding his own sexual orientation influenced and played into his coverage of the Menendez trial.
“There was a strain of homosexuality running through the trial,” said the prosecutor, Pamela Bozanich, whom Dunne quickly befriended. “We knew Erik was gay and having oral sex with the inmates.” They also knew of homoerotic photographs taken of Erik. In addition, Dunne liked to gossip about Erik’s possible physical attraction to his high school friend Craig Cignarelli, a witness for the prosecution. Dunne and Bozanich even speculated on why Judge Weisberg often disallowed the word “homosexual” in the courtroom.
According to Bozanich, defense attorney Leslie Abramson was “panicked that people would find out or think Erik was homosexual. We had this strain all through the trail and Dominick would whisper things people told him.”
And it didn’t stop there. Early one morning, Bozanich awoke to a frantic phone call. It was Dominick Dunne. He heard he was going to be outed if he did not stop writing about the Menendez trial. Bozanich had to wonder, “Why is he telling me this at six o’clock in the morning?”
ABC News’s Dan Abrams recalled the hubbub. “It was really a very, very gossipy case,” said the legal analyst. “There’s no question when it came to the trial gossip Dominick was the leader among the reporters there. He was hearing everything. Some of it wasn’t true.”
One tidbit that turned out to be true, and which Dunne uncovered through his reporting, was a homoerotic photograph taken of Erik Menendez. A detective gave him the tip to contact the photographer Philip Kearney.
“Dominick was very apologetic when he first phoned me,” Kearney recalled. “He was very respectful.” Which did not stop Dunne from asking if the photographer had an intimate relationship with Erik. In Vanity Fair, Dominick recorded Kearney’s response as being “Spiritually, yes. Physically, almost.”
Nearly a decade and a half after that interview, Kearney said the relationship was actually “more physical than it was spiritual. I’d give Erik a massage and it would lead to other things.”
Erik always claimed not to be homosexual but told the photographer, “If I was gay, Craig [Cignarelli] would be my boyfriend.”
“The statement is nonsensical, but I didn’t challenge it,” said Kearney.
One day, Erik gave Kearney a screenplay he had written, about a teenager who kills his parents to collect the insurance money. Kearney did not read it but knew the general outline from what Erik told him. “It’s horrible enough reading your own stuff,” Kearney surmised. “And I shelved it.”
In Dunne’s conversations with Kearney, he focused not on the script that presaged the double murders but rather the photographs. In his testimony Erik claimed that his father forced him to pose naked over an oval mirror to obtain a more dramatic view of his naked torso. Dunne rejected that story. He believed Erik got the idea of the mirror from one of Kearney’s photo sessions, and it was this photo that Dominick insisted illustrate his Vanity Fair article.
Dunne and Kearney also discussed at length the fateful day that Erik showed up not in the usual sports car but an old clunker. Kearney never knew for sure if Jose Menendez had molested his sons. “What I do know is the father cut them off. He cut them off where it hurt the most in Beverly Hills,” Kearney said of money, cars, and clothes. “And that’s where it was all trailing from. The car wasn’t in a shop. The father had taken it away from him.”
According to Kearney, Dominick always believed that Lyle masterminded the murders, and “Erik wasn’t strong enough to defy that hook Lyle had in him.”
The first Menendez trial ended in two hung juries. Dominick Dunne, however, did not cover the second trial, which resulted in two murder convictions. By then, the Vanity Fair writer was engulfed in the O. J. Simpson murder trial. Not that he ever forgot Erik Menendez.
In 2001, Dunne wrote a letter to Erik to request a face-to-face interview in prison. He had read Erik’s many unproduced screenplays, written before the two sons committed murder, and in the letter he went on to lavish praise on the young man’s talent as a writer. “How often you come to my mind,” Dunne wrote.
His fascination didn’t stop there. He also made copies of Kearney’s shirtless photograph of Erik, and on special occasions, Dunne would show the photo to guests at his country house in Hadlyme, Connecticut.
“He could be a Calvin Klein model,” said the man from Vanity Fair.
Adapted from “Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts” by Robert Hofler. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2017 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.