Simpson Circus

The afternoon is young, but the fan club is already gathering in the downtown haze. "We came for a week on vacation," says Pat Heckstall, lingering outside the Los Angeles County Criminal Courts Building where O. J. Simpson is on trial for murder.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 29, 1995

The afternoon is young, but the fan club is already gathering in the downtown haze. "We came for a week on vacation," says Pat Heckstall, lingering outside the Los Angeles County Criminal Courts Building where O. J. Simpson is on trial for murder.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 29, 1995

Simpson Circus

The afternoon is young, but the fan club is already gathering in the downtown haze. "We came for a week on vacation," says Pat Heckstall, lingering outside the Los Angeles County Criminal Courts Building where O. J. Simpson is on trial for murder. "We're going to The Price Is Right and we're doing this. We've already been to Nicole's house on Bundy and O.J.'s on Rockingham. And now, we want to see the lawyers." She grins. She is 41, a data entry operator from Long Island, N.Y., who has come clear across the country with her mother, brother and sister, intent on seeing the O.J. sights just as tourists have long flocked to the homes of their favorite stars. "I like Johnnie Cochran's style, the way he carries himself," adds Heckstall. "And I like Robert Shapiro. I like the Dream Team - they just have this magnetism, this charisma."

Greg Simms wants to see Simpson's lawyers, too, but first he wants to buy a watch. "I saw it on TV," says Simms, a 25-year-old San Diego disc jockey. "It's got a picture of O.J. in the centre of it, and around that it's got two police cars chasing a white Bronco. And I don't know where to buy one." Simms tries Darryl Brunson, but the vendor is only selling Simpson buttons and $25 T-shirts saying, "We love you, O.J." and "Don't squeeze the Juice." When he's not peddling Simpson souvenirs, Brunson is a stand-up comic and actor who recently starred in a commercial for a psychic hotline. "The acting is coming pretty good," he says. "But the money isn't coming as fast as with the T-shirts" - the latter net him as much as $200 a day.

Around 4 p.m. - this is conjugal-visit day for the jurors, and court will be out early - a black Isuzu Rodeo pulls up to the courthouse. Out steps Keno Jenkins, Shapiro's stocky, shave-headed security guard. The crowd has swelled to more than 100 now, and soon people are posing with the bodyguard and snapping each other's pictures. "I get this a lot," Jenkins tells a reporter. A passing motorist yells at the assemblage, "You guys need to get a life" - but no one seems to notice. Camera crews, who have been camped for hours on folding chairs like kids dogging tickets to a rock concert, now begin to stir. Finally, Shapiro, tanned and dapper, emerges and bounces up the steps through the media gauntlet. The crowd does a brief chant of "Robert, Robert," and someone shouts, "Way to go today, Bob," and then Shapiro is gone. Next comes Cochran. Flashing his trademark smile, acknowledging the gathering's "Johnnie, Johnnie," the lawyer tosses his green suit jacket into the trunk of a copper-colored Lexus and drives off, too - ending yet another day in the case of The People vs. Orenthal James Simpson.

"Case," of course, doesn't begin to describe it. Nearly one year since the brutal June 12 slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, the double-murder trial of the football-great-turned-actor is the biggest, strangest, most rivetting, most quintessentially American extravaganza anyone can remember. Live coverage of the four-month-old trial has driven up ratings sixfold on CNN, while the twice-a-day 15-minute wrap-ups on CBC's Newsworld have boosted viewership for those periods by nearly half. The case has spawned a growth industry of pop-culture spinoffs, from a TV movie to The Tonight Show's Dancing Itos to Internet newsgroups devoted to O.J. jokes. That is not to say North Americans talk about nothing but prosecutor Marcia Clark's changing hairstyles, or whether Judge Lance Ito will run out of jurors. And more horrific news, especially the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma, may overshadow the trial for awhile. Even O.J. junkies allow that the proceedings have at times turned tedious, especially now as prosecutors present the critical but sometimes incomprehensible DNA evidence, trying to nail the 47-year-old Simpson through blood samples.

But the most addictive mini-series has its mundane moments. And in a town that lives for good scripts, the Simpson saga has it all: murder, sex, drugs, jealousy, fame, wealth, Hollywood, beautiful people, interracial marriage and, so far, a suspenseful plot. The case has blurred the line between mainstream and tabloid journalism and produced so many instant stars, from shaggy-haired houseguest Kato Kaelin to elusive maid Rosa Lopez, that it may have permanently devalued America's very notion of celebrity - a prospect that seemed all but impossible after the overexposed exploits of disgraced skater Tonya Harding and the battling Bobbitts. "Every person who gets on that stand has the opportunity to be made a star by the media," says ABC's Jerry Giordano, who broadcasts the latest to 180 affiliates from a platform in Camp O.J., the jumble of media trucks, trailers and satellite dishes in a parking lot across from the courthouse. "I mean, all of a sudden we're chasing El Salvadoran maids down the street. It's very bizarre, but these people are an integral part of the story."

Los Angeles, city of floods, fires, riots, earthquakes and a burgeoning multicultural population of 3.5 million, is also an integral part of the story. The trial has already cost local taxpayers more than $5 million, but it is expected to generate over $200 million in everything from souvenir sales to hotel bookings. Those tourists not parading on their own past Brentwood's big-three Simpson sites - the mansion, the condo murder scene, the trendy Mezzaluna restaurant where the 25-year-old Goldman worked and Nicole, 35, ate her last meal - can see them courtesy of Grave Line Tours, which drives a Cadillac hearse past the settings of "Hollywood deaths, sins and scandals." Even residents without cable can catch the trial live on at least three stations - seven during the most anticipated testimony - along with endless analysis and recaps (O.J. Tonight is the name of one show). Many locals do not like what they see. "No one can believe that it's such a farce," says Lesley Hollenberg, a 28-year-old Canadian who moved from Toronto to Los Angeles six years ago and now works as an executive assistant for an entertainment lawyer. "It has nothing to do with the law, with justice. I have a friend who said, 'It's the end of society as we know it.' "

Not everyone thinks so. For all the trial's excesses, some observers zero in on the telling issues it has raised. The case has pointed up the inequities in the U.S. justice system (the Dream Team's estimated bill: more than $20,000 a day), shined a spotlight into the dark corners of spousal abuse and offered insight into the very different experiences - and perspectives - of black and white Americans. "It's a healthy thing," argues Nancy Steitz, a 42-year-old Santa Monica psychologist. "Domestic violence - and race relations - are thorns in the paw, and it's very American to work it out this way, right out there in public. It's unfortunate that people had to die, but at least it's raising awareness."

Others see the story in more grandiose terms, elevating it to the realm of myth and metaphor - to the epic tragedies of life and literature. Othello, Agamemnon, Oedipus - Simpson has been compared to everyone but Jesus Christ. "O.J. is a modern-day Achilles," declares Richard Greene, a lawyer from Encino, Calif., and a frequent commentator on the trial. "Remember Achilles was this warrior who raced through and people couldn't kill him - it's just like O.J. carrying the football. Achilles was this gorgeous man; all the women loved him. But he had this heel thing. We now get to see what an Achilles heel of a modern-day hero looks like - drugs, sex, obsession with women, control issues, pride, ego - all these things. I think it's fascinating."

The ninth-floor courtroom looks small and banal, like a movie set viewed in person. The walls are wood-panelled, the ceiling uniformly lit. There are 27 seats for the media, shared by some of the 150 to 200 newspeople covering the case; 21 seats for the Simpson, Brown and Goldman families, and between seven and 10 seats for the general public. Notices taped to the backs of the benches warn spectators against any visible displays of emotion, including "the rolling of eyes, facial grimaces, hand gestures and other obvious expressions." A single rotating camera sends the action out to the world, like some giant magnifying glass. It does not do Simpson justice. In the confined quarters, hemmed in by his lawyers and plainly constrained by their admonitions to remain calm, the six-foot, two-inch, 220-lb. former running back looks all the more massive, and all the more boxed in.

The camera, of course, also does not show the 12 jurors or now-five alternates, seated in blue-cushioned seats beneath it. Ito has already dismissed seven jurors, and a late-April revolt of the sequestered panelists raised doubts about whether he can keep them content enough to complete the trial. They are well dressed and well coiffed. One recent day, during technical testimony from a police chemist, most took at least occasional notes. But one doodled, and, overall, they looked bored, like university students grimly surviving a science course they need to graduate.

Whom will they ultimately believe? Was Simpson, as the prosecution claims, a jealous, obsessive and violent man who had abused his wife before, and who, when she was breaking away at last, killed her in a rage, dispatching Goldman because he happened to be there? Or was he, as the defence counters, a man with neither the time nor inclination to commit murder, fingered by police who were at best incompetent and at worst corrupt?

In the City of Angels, there is no shortage of opinions on how the two sides are doing. Robert Pugsley, professor of criminal law at Southwestern University, contends that the prosecution has established Simpson's pattern of domestic violence and defined his opportunity to commit the crime - the time between about 9:35 and 11 that night when he so far has no alibi witness. And while the defence has extracted admissions of mistakes in the collection of evidence, prosecution witnesses have argued that the errors did not undermine test results showing Simpson's blood at the murder scene or the victims' blood at his house. As for the defence's assorted hypotheses - racist cops conspiring to frame Simpson, drug lords ordering the slashing - Pugsley says they are "ludicrous" but may have some impact on the jury. "They have done a truly excellent job at throwing a number of gum wads at the ceiling in the hope that one or more of them will stick," says the law professor. "And they've done a good blocking job. But the prosecution's case is a very slow-moving steamroller. It's been unwieldy, but it's now literally at O.J.'s doorstep."

Simpson's fate, though, will not be decided by lawyers. And even many Angelenos who believe he is guilty subscribe to the conventional wisdom: that the trial will end in a hung jury, necessitating another trial. Some point to that ubiquitous American issue - race. Polls have consistently shown that blacks are more likely than whites to believe that O.J. is innocent. That may not prove true on the jury - now composed of seven blacks, three whites and two Hispanics - but it is a prevalent sentiment on the L.A. streets. "There's a double standard," says Rose White, a downtown office manager who is black. "If you're an African-American male or a Hispanic, not Anglo-Saxon, then you're going to get thrown the book. That's the way it is. They automatically assume, if you have an interracial marriage, there's something wrong with you because you left your race."

A visitor to the city does not have to ask about O.J. to hear a startling variety of viewpoints. At an east Los Angeles restaurant, standing side by side at the bathroom urinal, one man says to another:

"I can't believe what this trial is costing the taxpayers. Heck, if this had been some poor guy from South Central it would've been over a long time ago. This guy's getting away with murder."

"Literally," says the other.

"Yeah," agrees the first. "Literally."

On Venice Beach, where all things hip and weird wash up like driftwood, not everyone is Rollerblading or pumping iron or getting her nose pierced or his back massaged Chinese-style. A man from Michigan, strolling the Ocean Front Walk with a man from Florida, says:

"She pushed him into it."

Florida: "That's right, she was asking for it."

Michigan: "Women know just how far to push somebody, and she pushed O.J. just a little too far."

Even locals who studiously avoid the subject find it inescapable, indelible as a blood stain. At a recent dinner party, marvels Canadian Hollenberg, "nobody discussed the O.J. trial. They did discuss the Oklahoma bombing - that was a big topic - but not O.J. People made jokes about not discussing it." She laughs. "I guess that's discussing it, isn't it."

From the South Bay to the Valley

From the West Side to the East Side

Everybody's very happy

'Cause the sun is shining all the time

Looks like another perfect day.

I love L.A.

I love L.A.

Randy Newman finishes his song, then steps out of the studio. He has been appearing on the top-rated KTLA Morning News, and now, surrounded by a small swarm of publicity and TV people, the curly-haired singer and songwriter explains his vocal boosterism: "L.A.'s taken a lot of hard shots lately. I find myself having to defend it, because people attack it everywhere." Before being hustled off to his car, Newman says he is not surprised by the sensation the trial has caused: "A double murder, supposedly by a famous person - there's never been a crime like it."

A few minutes later, as the station's all-day Simpson coverage gets going on a nearby TV screen, Sam Rubin, the morning show's entertainment reporter, points out that before the murders Simpson was actually a "C-minus star." In the arcane pecking order of Hollywood, explains the 35-year-old Rubin, the A list is the preserve of major movie stars of the moment: Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore. The B list is for second-tier film actors - Don Johnson, Mickey Rourke - and for top TV stars like Roseanne. Then there is the C list and below. "They're people who've been around for a long time," says Rubin. "I mean O. J. Simpson - what had O. J. Simpson done, really?"

The résumé, after his Hall of Fame days on the gridiron, is well-known: TV sports commentator, actor in farcical action films, spokesman for Hertz Rent-a-Car. But Rubin, who has written celebrity biographies of Jackie Onassis and Mia Farrow, and used to do show business reports for CFTO in Toronto, notes a key distinction. "There's the status of celebrity," he says, "and then there's money. A guy like Randy Newman, just here, is not a big star in the overall celebrity universe. But he owns the songs he writes, so he's probably made more money than several A-list stars. Prior to the murders, one would assume, O. J. Simpson had more financial power than he had publicity power."

He has publicity power to burn now - and some of it has illuminated other cast members of the O.J. show. The lawyers are the most obvious stars, and their personal lives have been caught in the glare (Marcia Clark's ex-husband is seeking custody of their two young children; a former mistress is suing Johnnie Cochran for palimony). In fact, writing in The New York Times last March, columnist Frank Rich noted the curious dullness of this year's Academy Awards show and concluded that "the O.J. industry has redefined celebrity in America." Complained Rich: "You can't have an exciting Oscar show without glamor, but isn't glamor as devalued as the Mexican peso when it accrues as easily to a houseguest who happened to eat at McDonald's with a murder defendant as it does to Sharon Stone?"

The houseguest in question, of course, is Brian Kaelin, known universally as Kato. Originally from Wisconsin, the 36-year-old Kaelin is the ultimate instant star: a wanna-be actor who had acquired a few meagre credits (including an adult movie called Surf, Sand and Sex) before arriving at his moment in the spotlight looking exactly the way Americans think a Californian should: surfer-boyish, with long blond locks and spacey eyes. Since his halting, often incoherent appearance on the witness stand, Kaelin has signed autographs at charity events, hobnobbed with politicos at a Washington gala and posed bare-chested for The New Yorker magazine. He has also been pelted by questions about his testimony - tape-recorded conversations with him for a ghost-written book paint a much darker portrait of O.J.'s relationship with Nicole than Kaelin did in court. Yet the Kato bandwagon rolls on: he has been declining interviews of late, says his lawyer, Michael Plotkin, because he is too busy mulling over offers in his "flourishing" career. Calling him a "remarkably talented guy," Plotkin adds: "He realizes where his notoriety comes from and wishes it came from somewhere else. But you play the hand you're dealt."

To many in Hollywood, Kato's rise violates the vaunted tradition of paying one's dues. Matthew Perry, a 25-year-old Canadian who had several false starts before landing the role of Chandler on the now-hit TV series Friends, describes Kaelin's celebrity status as "a little gross." Sitting in the sun-drenched garden at The Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills, amid the white roses and impatiens, the affable Perry says: "It shows you just how funny Hollywood can be when somebody - an attractive, funny guy on the witness stand - has now achieved his official 15 minutes here, showing up to Hollywood parties and stuff like that. I've seen him around. It's like, 'That's Kato Kaelin over there,' and everybody knows who he is." Perry, the son of actor John Bennett Perry and Suzanne Perry - Pierre Trudeau's former press secretary and now a communications consultant, writer and wife of broadcaster Keith Morrison - was raised in Ottawa and has received his own stamp of fame: his show's ensemble cast recently appeared on the covers of People and Rolling Stone.

Has the O.J. trial cheapened the concept of celebrity?

"The concept of a celebrity can't be cheapened," replies Perry, casual in a pocket T-shirt and rounded shades. "It's kind of a cheap notion already. It's here and it's gone. I'm in this business for longevity. I'd like people to know who you are because they respect your work and you make them laugh or you make them cry. Kato Kaelin's done none of those things and yet he's become a hot guy."

And the trial in general - what's the chat in Hollywood?

"The chat now is, 'If you mention the O. J. Simpson trial, I'll leave.' It's like, 'Enough already.' "

The public will probably never get enough of the Simpson trial, and the media will never stop feeding the frenzy. There is history here: if the Simpson case is the "Trial of the century," it is certainly not the first.

The first was the 1906 trial of millionaire Harry Thaw for the murder of renowned architect Stanford White - the case that inspired E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime. Covered by more than 100 ravenous reporters, the New York City trial involved a love triangle with Thaw's chorus-girl wife, Evelyn Nesbit, and included sexual tales so shocking that Canada made it illegal for newspapers to report them. After a mistrial, Thaw was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity; Nesbit became a vaudeville star.

But the trial that arguably brought media madness into the modern age was that of German-born Bruno Hauptmann on charges of kidnapping and murdering the baby of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. Staged in Flemington, N.J., in 1935 - exactly 60 years before the Simpson case - and ending in conviction and execution, it featured an enterprising sheriff selling tickets, busloads of sightseers touring the courtroom in off-hours, and witnesses receiving show business offers. And covering it all were as many as 500 photographers and reporters, including grey-fedoraed Broadway columnist Walter Winchell, who is widely credited with inventing celebrity journalism in America. In his book Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity, author Neal Gabler writes: "As the first trial to be covered by the full panoply of national media, Hauptmann's prosecution was a milestone in the culture. Thereafter, the media would be as much participants in an event as reporters of it, shaping and sensationalizing on a new scale and turning events into occasions, national festivals."

The Hauptmann case came during the heyday of tabloid journalism and the beginning of the age of radio and newsreels. The Simpson trial has emerged not only in the age of television but at a time when celebrity journalism has exploded and the President of the United States can read about a woman threatening to publicly describe his genitals. The O.J. trial, live from L.A., has left little to the imagination either. "It's an American pageant, free and available for everyone to watch," says Dominick Dunne, the Vanity Fair writer who has become a fixture in the courtroom today the way Winchell was in his era. "It is the show of shows we have here. There are laughs, there are tears, there are people you love and people you hate. It's an incredible experience."

It is also tabloid heaven. Tabloid TV shows like Hard Copy and Inside Edition have had a field day with the Simpson case, and the National Enquirer, long derided as a supermarket scandal sheet, has achieved sudden respect. The Lantana, Fla.-based publication, which has at times devoted as many as 25 reporters to the story, has scored a number of scoops. (Among them: Simpson's so-called "jailhouse confession" to Roosevelt Grier, a minister and former football player to whom Simpson allegedly said, "I did it," in a conversation overheard by a guard.) "As basically an entertainment publication," says Enquirer reporter Craig A. Lewis, "we're better equipped with a source network into the entertainment community than the mainstream media is." They are also equipped with a chequebook: while the mainstream media traditionally does not pay for stories, Lewis says that the Enquirer has handed over "hundreds of thousands of dollars" for Simpson information over the past year. "We pay for exclusivity," he says. "We don't pay people to make up stories."

Mainstream reporters squirm at the way the case has obscured the divide within the media world. "The responsibility of the mainstream press is to inform," says Shirley E. Perlman, a reporter for New York's Newsday, "while the focus of the entertainment press is to entertain and titillate. But that's not to say they don't come up with legitimate hard news stories from time to time." Reporters are also sensitive to criticism that the overall coverage has been too sensational. "On some level, we forget there were two victims in this case and one person's life does hang in the balance," says ABC's Giordano, standing on his platform in Camp O.J. "But we also have to remember we're a business, and the ratings show that people want it." He stops, listening to a voice in his earpiece. "Hold on a second, I think I'm about to go live."

On and on it goes: the trial is expected to last through the summer and on into fall. For Simpson, who used to blow past linebackers and dash for daylight, this is a long, sad season, and he may not even get off the bench. Cochran says there is no decision yet on whether O.J. will testify in his own defence. Pugsley, the Southwestern law professor, speculates that if he did, Clark would cross-examine him. "And this," he says, "would not be a toss from the broadcast booth down to the field, 'How's it going down there, O.J., what's with so-and-so's knee?' These are going to be hard, gruelling questions." On balance, says Pugsley, putting the potentially volatile Simpson on the stand would probably be "too much of a risk - I think the only reason would be if they feel he's going down the tubes."

Meanwhile, Simpson - whose speed and smile took him from the San Francisco projects to Meryl Streep's and Michelle Pfeiffer's neighborhood - now resides at the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail. His children by Nicole, nine-year-old Sydney and six-year-old Justin, live with Nicole's parents at Dana Point, over 100 km south of the city. And although police barricades block access from Sunset Boulevard to O.J.'s mansion on North Rockingham Avenue, resourceful sightseers find their way through the opulent back streets of Brentwood - familiar to millions of TV viewers as the place where the surreal Bronco chase along the L.A. freeways finally ended. A green mesh fence now shields the house; a small security sign warns: "Armed response." Police cruise by incessantly, but the tourists keep coming. "This is like so cool," gushes Liz Anderson, a 35-year-old human-resources analyst on a business trip from Wilmington, Del., bounding onto the curb to get a better look behind the wall. She has just called a friend back home, a confirmed O.J. junkie, to tell her where she is. "Oh," replied the excited friend, "I'm there with you in spirit."

There is even more tourist traffic three kilometres away at the South Bundy townhouse. There, shortly after midnight last June 13, a neighbor out walking his dog discovered the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman inside the gate at the bottom of the steps - both drenched in blood, Nicole's head severed to the spinal cord. The gate is closed now. The blood is gone from the Spanish-tile walkway, which is blocked by yellow police tape. An intermittent stream of visitors stops by - pushing strollers, taking each other's pictures.

"Get the camera."

"Let me take the two of you."

"It's so little."

Michael Cayer, from Manteca in northern California, has come with his wife, Reba, and two young daughters. "We've been watching it on TV," he says. "We're taking the kids to Disneyland, so we thought we'd stop by here - this way we can relate with it better."

Is there something a little morbid about that?

"When you think about it," replies Reba, "taking the kids to Disneyland and stopping by a murder site - it is pretty morbid." Another gaggle of visitors arrive, people from Missouri. A car horn honks on Bundy, a prolonged whine at rubberneckers slowing traffic, insistent as a siren. Reba shakes her head. "I'm glad I don't live right next door," she says, "and have to put up with people like me."

Maclean's May 29, 1995