Repetition Compulsion: Dominick Dunne and Baroness Marion Lambert

By Alissa Bennett

Robert Gober, Untitled, 1997–98. Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo: Erma Estwick

  • Dec 1, 2018

There is nothing unusual about the tendency many of us have to fall into the loop of the repetition compulsion. We revisit the traumas or victories of the past in an attempt to correct or capture; we reopen old injuries with the fantasy that the present holds the capacity to address injustice, to bring back what we’ve lost, to correct our errors, to ameliorate our regrets. There is an undeniable psychic pleasure to be found in the recapitulation of the familiar. We are all tourists of the past, all bound to the people who haunt us.

I first wrote about Baroness Marion Lambert in July of 2017. She’d been killed in an absurd accident one year prior when she stepped into the path of a city bus in London, and though it would be inaccurate to claim that we were ever particularly close over the 10 years of 25 our acquaintanceship, her death saddened me deeply. The two of us met in 2007 at a particularly precarious moment in my life. I’d just begun a new job—my first in the art world—where it quickly became clear to all involved that I was unprepared and ill informed, unqualified to the point of comedy. In the month of March, I’d been a passionless shopgirl halfheartedly shilling designer clothes at a boutique in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. By April, I was working on the fifth floor of an Upper East Side townhouse where I secretly kept a list of unfamiliar technical terms and artists’ names with the errant belief that, if I could commit them all to memory, I could somehow prove to the strangers who employed me that we were the same. It was the first week in May that I received a text-message breakup note from my husband of six years, an artist whom my employers had been interested in working with at the time. I knew then that my secondhand allure had vanished for good, that I would never belong with these people, and that I was no different than I’d been two months prior when I’d wept in the boutique’s stockroom and depression-slept in purloined cashmere sweaters that I couldn’t sell and hence couldn’t afford to buy.

I was interested in Marion before I even met her, mostly because it was made known to me that she was a necessary but difficult (a word that followed her so closely it remains impossible for me to detach it from my idea of her) art-world fixture, a woman whose presence was to be tolerated even if it was not always enjoyed. I will not recount the details of our initial interactions (it would be an unnecessary loop in this particular repetition), but I will say that she navigated her insider status according to the impulses of her outsider nature. She maintained an obdurate refusal to kowtow, which, in a world where codes of conduct are fiercely policed for the sake of business, often telegraphed itself as social disobedience. The time that she was willing to spend with me made me feel seen in an environment where I often felt insignificant to the point of invisibility, and though she undeniably appreciated the fact that glamour gilds misfits (as was evidenced by the artists she supported), I never suffered from the misconception that her willingness to send me notes about my writing, or sit with me in my office, or complain with me at an opening indicated anything especially significant. When I learned shortly after our first meeting that I was precisely the age that her daughter, Philippine, would have been had she not taken her own life in 1997, I understood immediately why she had shown such easy interest in me when others had not. The jagged pieces of our respective outsiderness seemed to fall into place, mostly because there was comfort in the shared space of our need. While Marion was busy collecting a series of young women who could function as rotating surrogates for her absent daughter, I was busy looking for a person in the art world who could reliably follow through with a performance of liking me. It didn’t matter that it meant I would be cast as one of many understudies for the ghost of the girl she’d lost.

The final letters between [Lambert and Dunne] are painful to read, appalling in their cruelty.

In 1997, Marion began to air a series of pointed charges that Philippine had made in her diaries, among them that the London philanthropist Vincent Meyer had sexually abused her from the ages of 12 to 15. This decision to seek public redress was one that would cast a shadow on Marion’s position within European society, not least because the accused belonged to a family as well known as the Lamberts themselves. In a direct affront to aristocratic conventions dictating that public expressions of grief are stained with unmitigated vulgarity, Marion chose to honor her daughter’s request that justice be pursued against a man she claimed had contaminated her life. ‘I want him,’ Philippine had written shortly before her death, ‘to pay 40 million Swiss francs and go to jail for the rest of his life.’ Taking up the directive literally, Marion spoke freely of the allegations; she named names in newspapers and magazines, at charity balls. Entirely undeterred by the raised eyebrows that her actions elicited, she sought every avenue toward rendering the accused’s name irreparably destroyed, even if his freedom was not.

The desire to understand Philippine’s suicide was an obsession for Marion, and the loss of Marion became one, in turn, for me. The tragedy of their interlocking deaths spoke to me in all the familiar ways of my obsessive curiosities, but it held an additional heartache because this tragedy felt personal in ways more literal than the lurid stories I regularly write about. My interest in the deaths of strangers is one that always feels easy to explain; it is simply a mechanism of self-identification that happens to be routed through circuits of loss or disappointment. This is the pleasure of déjà vu, the uncanny thrill of childhood memory instigated by the smell of a particular type of hand soap, the masochistic comfort we find in recounting our greatest mistakes. When I first wrote about Marion, it was in part to reconcile my own failures, to examine my own losses and deficits through the lens of her life. I wanted to use my sadness over her death as a reflecting pool in which to contemplate not only our relationship, but my own regrets that I didn’t know her in a more complete way. My initial research was typically chaotic—I read and re-read old items in British newspapers; I searched family trees and e-mailed strangers; I asked mutual acquaintances if they would share seemingly insignificant details with me so that I might get closer to a shadow of something that I wanted to understand. It was only after the publication of my initial essay on Marion that I stumbled across a newspaper clipping that eventually led me to an box of archived letters in Texas. It is those letters that have taken back to a story that long ago reached its conclusion.

In 1998, Page Six, the gossip column in the New York Post, ran a photograph of the celebrity crime journalist Dominick Dunne and a four-paragraph Liz Smith item under the headline ‘No Job Un- Dunne.’

Real life has again stopped Dominick in his tracks. He is heavily involved in examining the facts behind the suicide of Philippine Lambert, the beautiful heiress (Swiss, Belgian and French banking) who left a diary accusing Vincent Meyer, another big banking name, of having molested her when she was growing up.... This prominent man will soon be up for trial on the charges leveled by this girl’s family, and the Lamberts have become one of the most unpopular bastions in European society." Surprised by a connection that had been previously unknown to me, I began a series of searches that eventually led me to the website for the University of Texas at Austin. It did not take long to learn that Dunne had bequeathed a lifetime of papers and correspondence to the school’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. The search term ‘Philippine’ produced a reference number; I immediately began the process of locating a researcher who could document the contents for me.

It was three weeks later that I received a zip file from the woman I’d hired to photograph every scrap of paper that lay inside Box 2009-337/14. It contained 195 images, the complete correspondence between Marion and Dunne from 1998– 2001. I read the letters in a state of disbelief, not quite able to reconcile that Dunne had long before anticipated the fact that there would always be people like himself and like me, who harbor an overwhelming desire to search for meaning or answers in places where we don’t belong, to rifle through the drawers of lovers who are not our own, to press our ears against strangers’ walls and feel satisfaction when we finally hear exactly the secrets we are looking for. Sometimes the only way really to know someone is to examine the things they never meant for anyone to see.

The letters between Dunne and Marion are inarguably private—they document a mother’s desperate need to reconcile the loss of her child, and they frame Dunne not only as a man whose hallmark was the investigation of the lurid crimes of the untouchably rich but also as the father of a murdered daughter. It was the connective tissue of this shared loss that undoubtedly attracted Dunne to the story in the first place, and the letters between them make clear that both are trapped in a vortex of mourning and revenge. In spite of the familiarity each recognized in the other, the letters are a master class in the arc of failed negotiation, a blueprint for how desperate sadness and unyielding single-mindedness can collude to spoil the machinations of seduction.

‘I am not, nor would I ever be, in your pocket. That is the kind of writer you appear to be looking for, someone to cave in to your dominance and control.’

The correspondence began in early 1998 following an introduction by a mutual friend who understood that Marion was interested in speaking with the press regarding Meyer’s upcoming sexual abuse trial in Geneva. (Meyer ultimately never went to trial; Swiss officials ruled that insufficient evidence existed for a prosecution.) Initial faxed missives contain promises to deliver secret investigatory files and psychological assessments; Dunne delves briefly into the details of his own family tragedy and says that his understanding of the Lambert’s grief is ‘perhaps...why I have always been so touched by your beautiful daughter’; there are translations of Philippine’s poetry, details transcribed from her diaries, unsubstantiated and incendiary gossip about high-society families who harbor their own squalid incest and sex- crime secrets, and a fervent insistence by Marion that the only acceptable outcome of the entire ordeal is to see the accused incarcerated for life.

Amid gritty legal details and withering assessments of mutual acquaintances, the letter writers discuss books and lunches and restaurants; Marion expresses tender concern over Dunne’s ongoing battle with cancer; she addresses the possibility that Dunne will encounter gossip about her personal life suggesting a series of affairs that she stridently denies; she offers to introduce him to a notable psychiatrist whom she suggests might be of help in an ongoing family crisis; she passes along inside information on another European society doyenne whose own domestic scandal had recently surfaced in the news, and she expresses again and again her desire for Dunne to take up Philippine’s case in the pages of Vanity Fair.

It is immediately apparent to anyone who reads the letters that Marion used every tool in her arsenal to secure a public damnation from America’s foremost expert on the dirty secrets of the filthy rich, but Dunne repeats again and again that if the article is to go forward, it will be his work and not her sense of vengeance that defines it. ‘As an advocate, and as the father of a murdered daughter, my sympathies in this tragic story are with you and your husband,’ he wrote in 1998, ‘but I am not, nor would I ever be, in your pocket. That is the kind of writer you appear to be looking for, someone to cave in to your dominance and control.’ It seems improbable that the two would have maintained contact, but the letters show us otherwise—for months and months, Dunne and Lambert continued to fax letters to one another, letters often punctuated with the subtle cruelties perfected by the very wealthy and those in their orbit.

Dunne’s interest in continuing the communication was certainly not limited to either his thirst for scandal or the genealogy of his own trauma. His relationship to wealth and power was a complex one. His years as a Hollywood writer, within various circles of high- powered friends, had brought him, in the end, almost to financial ruin. There is little doubt that he found pleasure in Marion’s pursuit of him and almost no question that her letters, which verged on the obsequious, complimented both his vanity and his resentments. Though neither were crass enough to address the power differential in writing, Marion’s tacit financial promises were consistently met with a particular kind of punishment that Dunne discreetly meted out, word by word.

Over the next two years, the tone of Marion’s letters oscillates. She shifts between controlled displays of epistolary charm and frank assessments of what it means to be abandoned by those unable to tolerate the increasingly divisive effect of her efforts to demolish the man she believes responsible for her daughter’s death. ‘The campaign of slander against us goes on,’ she wrote in 2000, ‘but one sort of gets used to this. It certainly cleared my circle of friends, and I will never have to see a lot of people ever again. For my own satisfaction, I made a list, which is on my computer, and I add to it whenever their opinion is revealed to me in one way or another.”

With the last of the legal avenues against Meyer exhausted in 2001 came a disastrous end to the letter writing. In the absence of a trial, there was no story to 27 be had, and in lieu of an exposé, Dunne instead published a brief item in the Diary section of Vanity Fair that skimmed the surface of the case but offered neither damnation nor exoneration. Marion followed its publication by sending an open letter to the magazine that she requested be printed in response. In this letter, she levels accusations that a friend of the accused sabotaged the opportunity for a full-length article sympathetic to her family. ‘The duty of the press is to inform and listen to both sides,’ she wrote. ‘In failing to do so and in denying me the right of reply, Vanity Fair transforms itself into a publication for child molesters.’ The faxed page is heavily notated in Dunne’s looping scrawl, the words ‘gossip’ and ‘hearsay’ and ‘actionable’ written in giant letters next to bracketed sections.

The insult to Dunne was exacerbated when a letter written by Marion was forwarded to the magazine’s editor, Graydon Carter, by a society jeweler who had a very well-placed friend at Condé Nast. In the letter, Marion suggested that it was clear to her that Dunne believed in the accused’s guilt but was too cowardly to see it through in writing; it was a slight that would see their relationship deteriorate irrevocably. The final letters between the two are painful to read, appalling in their cruelty. ‘Fuck you and your gem-cutter pen pal, you stupid bitch. You deserve each other. I feel betrayed by you, I regret I offered you my friendship. It is now withdrawn. I don’t trust you anymore. I don’t like you. Stay away. I will always say a prayer for your beautiful dead daughter, but I hope to never see you again,’ Dunne wrote, adding bitterly: ‘Evil stalks you.’

Marion’s final communiqué to Dunne perhaps best sums up the entire trajectory of their brutally codependent correspondence. On April 2, 2001, she wrote him a conciliatory letter that closes with the following: "There is a huge difference between what I live and what you lived and probably live every day. Your daughter was murdered, and no one in his right mind sided with the scoundrel. In our case, not only do people not wish to believe it happened, but they blame my daughter, us, and think Meyer is a wonderful man. My rage and quest for truth comes from there, and I hoped you would understand. Even if you do not, I would like to keep my friendship for you intact, and need to talk to you. I will be in NY from the 4th onwards and will call you. Please do not hang up on me. Much love, Marion."

We will never know if she placed the call. We can confirm only that the letters stopped, that whatever social pretense served as the container for their painful friendship was damaged beyond repair when neither of them was heard in the expected way. In the end, Marion gave a lengthy interview to the Telegraph magazine; I searched fruitlessly for a copy for several months and was eventually able to read it by chance when a casual acquaintance encountered the issue at the bottom of a stack of old magazines at a beach house in the Hamptons. It is not the article that Marion had wanted, but it gives the most detailed public account of Philippine’s life and death. I have read it many times and will certainly return to it again.

In October of last year, a convoluted series of e-mail exchanges landed in my in-box from a man named Kevin, who claimed to have been Philippine’s secret fiancé in the two years leading up to her death. He had never recovered from the loss, he told me, and was writing for reasons he could neither resist nor explain—he did not need to explain why a person might seek emotional intimacy from an absolute stranger; I understood perfectly. We spoke on the phone at length, and Kevin asked again and again what had happened, what I knew that he didn’t; he made irrational references to scenarios that seemed the province of absolute fantasy to me. In the end, I felt assaulted by his need. His pain was simply too profound for me, and I stopped answering his calls and e-mails. The simple truth is that I didn’t know how to help him. I mention him here mostly because I think his desire to walk back through his life in an attempt to identify what happened is probably the heart of this story; I guess I just couldn’t figure out how to tell him that neither of us will ever know.