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OJ Simpson

[The Strip Sense]

He Dunne it

How a famous writer taught me to savor my O.J.

As recently as 10 days ago, I was just like most of you out there. I had absolutely, positively, 100 percent no interest in whatever tawdry affair would unfold in a criminal trial that was news solely because it involved one Orenthal James Simpson.

Heck, I can go one further. I wasn’t just indifferent; I was actively resentful that I was about to have to turn over my career and life—in the middle of the most fascinating election of our time, no less—to sit in a courtroom for weeks just because this maniac took some screwy characters on a misadventure in search of some keepsakes. And I felt the lash of condescension—and thought I deserved it—from Review-Journal columnist Jane Ann Morrison when she explained her disdain not just for the topic but even for the journalists documenting it.

Then I met Dominick Dunne, and I fell in love with this story.

I don’t expect any of you to take more interest in what’s taking place on the 15th floor of the Regional Justice Center right now. I understand why you may be repelled. And I don’t pretend that it has the broad societal significance of, say, Jane Ann’s series on naming her kitten.

But my assigned seat in the courtroom is beside that of the diminutive white-haired man with the Coke-bottle glasses, a latter-day (and heterosexual) Truman Capote who feeds anecdotes and observations about such events to high society via his monthly pieces in Vanity Fair and his TruTV appearances.

That was a bizarre glitch of fate, because the night before I met him, I had read Dunne’s latest column. In it, per the occasion of Vanity Fair’s 25th anniversary, he reflected on his career as a film producer, on his turn toward journalism at 50 after his daughter’s murder, about being in the thick of the trials of Claus von Bulow, William Kennedy Smith, the Menendez brothers, Phil Spector and, of course, O.J. Simpson. Alongside this piece, VF ran the classic photo of Simpson at his 1995 murder trial trying on that glove—you know, “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”—with a riveted Dunne as the most distinctive presence in the audience.

Here’s the last line, the last thing I read before turning off the lights on September 14: “What a swell party it’s been. Next, it’s off to Las Vegas for O. J. Simpson’s trial for armed robbery and kidnapping.” The next morning, I entered the courtroom to sit down, and, holy cow, there he was!

I took to Dunne instantly; everybody does, because he’s warm and funny, and his smile draws you in. The lot of us journalists were groaning about having to cover that damn O.J. and this convoluted tale of hotel confrontation populated by unsympathetic, equivocating victims and prosecutors with no flair at all. We felt like posers, bummed we were charged with chronicling the weak sequel. We’d missed the Trial of the Century and now were stuck with this bloodless hangover edition.

Dunne, however, was thrilled to be here. Oh, this is far from the most interesting case he’s handled, but at 82 and battling bladder cancer he nonetheless forced himself against his doctor’s orders to sit in the courtroom as a witness to something he felt was worth the hassle. He fell ill Monday to the point of needing hospital attention, but there he was again in his seat on Tuesday. This is his final celebrity trial, he says, and when a journalist of that stature is taking his last at-bat and doing so with such courage, it behooves his admiring colleagues to take a closer look at what we’ve got here.

So what do we have? Well, there’s the most famous murder defendant of our time facing a possible life sentence, for one thing. Should he be convicted, the events in District Judge Jackie Glass’ courtroom will become part of the lead sentence in what will someday be a front-page obituary everywhere.

We also have an armed robbery and kidnapping case. Those are usually run-of-the-mill, but this one sure isn’t. Part of that is the O.J. factor, but this is also a setup by an ex-con to take things from victims who talk first about calling the tabloid press. And—get this!—someone audiotaped the whole thing, including the private chatter of the cops processing the scene!

How often does that happen? Uh, never. These are wacky, unpredictable people who say wacky, unpredictable things both on the tapes and on the witness stand. How could that possibly be boring? Why, with the intersection of bizarre crime and historic celebrity, should this story be ignored?

I’ve watched Dunne closely as he scribbles on the notepads he has with his own likeness sketched on every page. (Uh, I want one. So badly.) Here’s what I’ve learned: There’s the story most see, and then there’s the rest of the story. Daily scribes report what’s happening on the witness stand, but Dunne seeks a broader yarn. He’s entranced by weird offshoot angles, like the fact that Simpson’s co-defendant’s attorney once killed a man in a bar fight or that Phil Spector once sang at the bar mitzvah of one of the victims’ lawyers.

When I started cozying up to Dunne, my colleagues assumed I was working on a story about him. And I did go on to profile him for The New York Times on September 21. But the story came much later, after our two breakfasts and my being privy to his many tales of an extraordinary life.

No, I didn’t want to know him because he was good copy, although he is. I wanted to know him because when you’re an ambitious young writer and you get a chance to sit next to, dine with, speak to a living legend, you go for it.

Evidently, I’m not the only one. Dunne’s dance card has been full while he’s been ensconced in a suite at the Wynn. On September 19 he dined with the Associated Press’ Linda Deutsch and the R-J’s Norm Clarke, the next day he was out with Simpson attorneys Yale Galanter and Gabriel Grasso, and the day after that he was eating with Elaine Wynn.

Dunne leaves Vegas this weekend after two weeks in court for a biopsy in New York. Then he plans to be back for the close of this trial. I’ll miss his companionship, but I’m grateful for the validation.

Because, contrary to what the Jane Ann Morrisons of the world may think, this is a good and worthy story. It’s got loads of twists and turns, there have been terrific courtroom exchanges, and the outcome is a total mystery to everyone.

If it’s good enough for Dominick Dunne, it’s good enough for me.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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