Newsreal: Been there, Dunne that

Karen Grigsby Bates on how Dominick Dunne's gossipy, glittery O.J. "novel" only tells half the story.

Published October 30, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Dominick Dunne has a genetic explanation for why he so enjoys getting even with his enemies: "It's the Mick in me," his alter ego, Gus Bailey, flatly explains in Dunne's latest book, "Another City, Not My Own." That's as good an explanation as any for this disjointed recollection of the first Simpson trial, which Dunne has coyly subtitled "A Novel in the Form of a Memoir." In fact, this book is most definitely a memoir masquerading as a novel. So much so that there is little point in keeping up the Gus Bailey pretense, which Dunne has used in three previous books that chronicle homicides of the rich and famous.

During the bizarreness that imbued much of Los Angeles while the Trial of the Century droned on, I'd been in rooms with Dominick Dunne, but I hadn't actually met him until the day of the verdict in what many of us now refer to as O.J. 1. An Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times, I'd been working since about 6 a.m. as a commentator in CBS's treetop deck at Camp O.J., in the parking lot across the street from the Criminal Courts building. There, up on a skimpy platform that swayed with each early-morning breeze, I sat between a power-suited Latina politician, a blowhard talk-show host from Orange County and a black community activist/author. As "community voices," we back-and-forthed with Dan Rather via satellite while waiting for the verdict to be read.

Like the rest of the world, I poised, stock-still, in the silence that preceded the forewoman's reading. I watched the booth's monitors as Simpson blinked in teary disbelief at his good fortune, saw his ex-wife's family stare ahead in stony resignation, watched Fred Goldman try to console his anguished daughter and stifle her howls of outrage. And I tried to decide whether Dominick Dunne was going to collapse in a stroke on the spot. It's an indelible picture: the petite, gray-haired man with his jaw literally dropped to his striped silk tie, mouth still agape as he looked around him at the weeping Goldmans on one side, the rejoicing Simpsons on another, the stone-faced Browns behind him.

A half-hour later, he staggered into the CBS booth for a brief chat with Rather. He was followed by an anxious young woman (an assistant? someone from CBS?) whose face said it all: Please God, don't let him keel over on my watch! (The combination 90-degree heat of our Indian summer and the fairly arduous three-story climb up a rickety ladder to the booth made this more than hysterical conjecture: Dunne was, after all, 69 at the time.) As he did in his earlier ad hoc interview with CNN, Dunne repeated his conviction that the jury was "stupid" and "hadn't done its job." He was white-faced and trembling with outrage. Two years later, he still hasn't recovered.

During the trial, Dunne enjoyed a prime, and much-coveted, courtroom seat. Visitors to Judge Lance Ito's fiefdom and viewers around the world could see Dunne every day, leaning forward intently, staring through his signature tortoise-shell glasses, taking copious notes with his Mont Blanc, an angry, elegantly dressed guardian angel for victim's rights. On weeknights, in the early evening, he was always making the media rounds somewhere or other. You could see him insisting on Simpson's guilt with Geraldo Rivera (who was himself accused of having an intensely personal relationship with Denise Brown). Or savaging Simpson with Charles Grodin, whose blatantly false hairline moved when his eyebrows rose to make a point. Or pontificating to an eager Dan Rather in the regular Friday night trial wrap-up. At the end, Dunne's East Coast society whine became as familiar to us as Walter Cronkite's heartland bass had been a few decades before.

"I have a tendency to get too personally involved in these trials I cover, even emotionally involved at times," Gus/Dunne warned the CBS producers when they asked him to contribute his weekly impressions of the trial and its participants. Apparently, the producers didn't care (which makes one wonder how the news division got away with it, since news is -- at least in theory -- supposed to be reported impartially, from a journalistic remove), and Dunne proceeded to get as personal as he liked. He commented on how the families were holding up, what strategies the defense and prosecution might be making and how the trials were going. And, of course, on Simpson's guilt.

After the early evening media rounds, Dunne spent his nights far removed from the gritty and often grisly details of what happened in the Criminal Courts building. Like the hoi polloi, what passes for L.A.'s haut monde needed a regular fix of trial-related gossip, too. So Dunne was invited to sup with the city's glitteratti and give a brief talk afterwards -- a kind of quid pro quo for the crème brûlée. He began to refer to this singing for his supper as his "floor show." And he loved it. Oscar-winning actors, prominent directors, studio moguls and their ambitious society wives clamored to be seated near him at dinners in Bel-Air and Beverly Hills. He dined with Nancy Reagan, per invitation of ex-U.S. Information Agency chief Charles Z. Wick, to offer her a divertissement from caring for the Alzheimer's-struck former president. He lunched with Elizabeth Taylor, who confessed that she "can't staaaand ... Mr. F. Lee Bailey," as she flashed a sapphire bracelet given to her by another of Johnnie Cochran's clients, Michael Jackson. ("'Michael is not a child molester'" Taylor firmly admonished Gus when he made mention of Jackson's legal woes, "as if she had said the same sentence over and over again in previous conversations.")

His Simpson cachet even netted him audiences with royalty: Queen Noor admitted they watched snippets of the trial in Jordan, too, "but we're not caught up in it the way everyone is here." The late Princess of Wales charmed him with her sly humor and, early on, predicted a full acquittal with eerie prescience. Diana's aunt-by-marriage, Princess Margaret, mortified him at brunch before a bunch of local swells and expatriate Brits when she sniffily declared the trial "such a bore" after one of his floor shows. (To which he could quite justifiably have responded: "Takes one to know one, Meg.")

He was having a fine time dining out, staying in, exchanging confidences -- which, much to the horror and outrage of his confidants, he consistently and promptly betrayed in his columns and by leaking choice tidbits to simpatico journalists -- and looking forward to the day when Simpson would be publicly certified as the murderer of two people. His only problem was he was talking with people who held the same view that he did and who were telling him what he wanted to hear.

If Dunne had bothered to spend any time away from the rarefied cluelessness of the Platinum Triangle that comprises Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills and Bel-Air, he might have gotten a more rounded view of how other parts of Los Angeles saw the trial and its players. It's possible that he hung out in the 'hood and kept a low profile, but I never saw him at any of the community forums, strolling through the Baldwin Hills Plaza (a veritable treasure trove of man-on-the-street opinion working journalists frequently mined) or sitting in the pews of the city's large black churches.

In his racially homogenous circles, Dunne was much like the guests at producer Ray Stark's dinner party who interrupted their conversation to demand the opinion of Stark's long-time black butler, Wilbur, "because I'm the closest most of them will ever come to knowing a black man." Wilbur, like many blacks employed in white households, took a pass on voicing his true thoughts ("Oh, I'm not getting into this one"). Later, his employers would discover his opinions anyway when, at Dunne's goodbye dinner, Wilbur and the black catering staff walked off the job after dessert but before the dishes were done: "They didn't like the way you talked about O.J., calling him guilty after the jury found him innocent," Stark's daughter, Wendy, explained. "Oh well, at least we finished dessert and coffee before they left." Nothing like having one's priorities in the right place.

"This is going to be the O.J. legacy," Dunne declared to the bemused Stark after Wilbur's exit. "He's divided the races. We're back to where we were before Rosa Parks wouldn't sit in the back of the bus anymore in 1955, and the civil rights movement started." And in this irredeemably flawed analysis, Dunne is typical of much of white Los Angeles, indeed, of white America. The Simpson trial didn't cause a racial divide. It merely illuminated -- in the fashion that those huge lights the INS places at the Mexican border do -- the magnitude of the problem. Black Americans have been aware of the divide's existence for years. White Americans, post-Simpson, are reluctantly concluding the civil rights era didn't fix "the race problem," and are finally starting to measure, with dismay, the depth of that chasm. 1955 and 1995 are, in some very meaningful ways, too close for comfort. Simpson's legacy is their shattered naiveté, their realization that the natives, while generally better off than they were 40 years ago, are still restless.

Dunne's chronicle doesn't examine any of the substantive reasons many people in the black neighborhoods I traveled through and spoke with (including my own) felt they couldn't immediately subscribe to Simpson's guilt: the obvious one-sided approach of the mainstream media, which reported on the trial even as it socialized with the Browns and Simpsons; the poisonous atmosphere between the LAPD and many of its black and brown communities, post Rodney King; the rush to judgment most of white America chose to make before all the evidence had been presented and considered; the scant coverage of those persons of color (and there were a substantial number of them) who thought it was possible Simpson had committed the murders and who wanted him punished as long as his investigation and trial were conducted by the book.

In the end, the book doesn't tell us much we didn't already know about this over-reported trial. Unless you think it's signally important to know that pro football player Marcus Allen, good friend and supposed lover of Nicole Simpson, has, in several ladies' humble estimation, the biggest penis they'd ever seen. (Nicole even nicknamed it: "Driftwood.") Or that, mid-trial, the Brown family had to be cajoled to reappear in the courtroom and when they did, it was in the person of Nicole's sister Tanya, who proceeded to neck with her fiancé in full view of the jury. Or that designer Carolina Herrera, feeling sympathy for O.J. Simpson's family, sent beautifully wrapped gift packages of her fragrances to Simpson's sisters, brother and mother. (They sent thank-you notes.) Or that Dale Cochran shops for Johnnie's boxers at Sulka.

The last time I met Dunne we were guests on the Charles Grodin show, a few days after the trial. Grodin preceded the hour with a rambling soliloquy on race that encompassed everything from black jubilation over the verdict ("Black people feel this is wonderful -- 'Thank you, Jesus!'") to his reaction to the Simi Valley King verdict a few years before to his feelings on anti-Semitism ("I never had to deal with [it]; I don't look Jewish ..."). Dunne and I blinked at each other. "What is he talking about?" Dunne muttered. We never found out. The rest of the hour wasn't any less psychedelic. Afterward, we walked out to the parking lot together and chatted for a moment. He asked for my number, and placed it in one of his little green leather notebooks. "This is it," he said, shaking hands, "I'm out of here." Soon after, he flew back to New York to resume his life, and we tried to return to normal, or what passes for it here. We're still struggling.

Like Truman Capote after his infamous "La Côte Basque 1965" was published in Esquire, Dunne will, in all likelihood, find himself banished from some of the elegant homes he used to frequent -- something, ironically, he'll have in common with Simpson. Unlike Simpson, he will, in all likelihood, consider it a price well paid. (Hey, nobody ever promised getting even wouldn't be expensive.) "This is my last murder trial," Dunne promised a Baltimore Sun reporter during an interview.

"Grafton says if you ever do another ... after this one, he's going to have an intervention," his fictional youngest son, Zander, says, half joking. That's a promise Dunne should keep. For his sake and ours.

By Karen Grigsby Bates

Karen Grigsby Bates is a news correspondent for the West Coast Bureau of People Magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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