What price Fame? Apparently, $25 a pop.
By Jonathan Veitch
MARCH 9, 1998:
ANOTHER CITY, NOT MY OWN: A NOVEL IN THE FORM OF A MEMOIR, by Dominick Dunne. Crown, 360 pages, $25.
Dominick Dunne writes: "The Simpson case is like a great trash novel come to life. It's a mammoth fireworks display of love, lust, lies, hate, fame, wealth, beauty, obsession, spousal abuse, stalking, brokenhearted children, interracial marriage, the bloodiest of bloody knife-slashing homicides, and all the justice that money can buy." One ought to be grateful for a great trash novel -- after all, really good trash is not that easy to write.
It is hard to imagine anyone better suited to the task; one of his critics aptly describes him as "Judith Krantz in pants." But what Dunne gives us in Another City, Not My Own is not a novel so much as the notes to a novel -- or, to be more accurate, the notes to the articles he published in Vanity Fair, especially the sloughed-off material he couldn't use. Those notes -- conveyed here by his (barely) fictional alter ego, Gus Bailey -- consist mainly of snippets of conversation that he jotted down from his dinners with the rich and famous, periodic outbursts of moral indignation at the miscarriage of justice in the courtroom, and behind-the-scenes details about the Simpson trial's participants.
Only the latter retain the power to stir the embers of interest. The raunchy details range from the titillating to the fatuous to what can only be described as the genuinely disturbing (in a trial surfeited with disturbing behavior). We learn, for example, that Nicole Brown's pet name for Marcus Allen (Simpson's "best friend" and her sometime lover) was "Driftwood" because of the size of his penis; that Paula Barbieri reprised Sharon Stone's most famous cinematic moment, for the viewing pleasure of her imprisoned boyfriend, during her visits to the Los Angeles County Jail; that Tanya Brown (the victim's sister) had to be admonished by the judge for making out with a male companion while the trial was in session; that on the night of his release, Simpson put on a disguise and went to see the movie Showgirls (we aren't told whether he found the movie as awful as everyone else did); that Robert Kardashian (another one of Simpson's "best friends") made a secret book deal in which he would be the anonymous source for a behind-the-scenes exposé that would net him $2 million; that Judge Ito's wife had a previous romantic relationship with Detective Mark Fuhrman that would have disqualified the judge from the "trial of his career" if he had chosen to disclose it. (Only Johnnie Cochran knew his secret, and he held that knowledge over Ito's head during the trial).
Hardly anyone, it seems, remains uncontaminated by the muck of this affair, from the victim to her alleged assailant to Simpson's friends to the judge himself -- not to mention the jury, whose bags were already packed before their deliberations began, and the Los Angeles County sheriffs who passed the verdict along to Simpson the night before he was exonerated. Dunne records the sordid details of this pop Satyricon with the bitchy glee of a bon vivant who has seen its like many times before yet somehow never tires of poring over the minutiae.
In fact, he trades on his inside knowledge of these sordid details -- using them, as he readily admits, to earn a place at the city's most "respectable" dinner tables. Gus is an indefatigable name-dropper. In the novel's opening pages he admits, "There had been a time . . . when he was thought to be an unserious person by people who mattered, because of his relentless pursuit of social life." (This book will do little to help Dunne overcome that reputation.) No piece of information is too small, no digression too irrelevant, if it permits him to breathe the name of his august interlocutor.
But when it comes to naming names, Gus disappoints us, for those he invokes have a generational cast that places them just this side of Lawrence Welk (albeit with a bit more swing) -- Liz Taylor, Nancy Reagan, Merv Griffin, Lucianne Goldberg, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Roddy McDowell, and Old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. One expects Dino, Jerry, and the rest of the bedraggled rat pack to make their appearance at any moment. (If only Sammy Davis Jr. were alive to offer his observations on the trial. As a black man who was seemingly embraced by white America and enjoyed many of its perquisites, Davis was to his generation what Simpson is to ours. Unlike his contemporaries, however, he might actually have had something interesting to say.) For the most part, the concerns of this crowd as they pertain to the trial are confined to problems with the help. The latter find themselves so outraged by the pronouncements of their white patrons on the subject of Simpson's guilt that they abandon their jobs in medias res. "At least we finished dessert and coffee before they left," one disconsolate hostess observes. And for one of the few times in his life, our man about town finds himself in the unceremonious position of having to do the dishes. Such is the impact of O.J. Simpson on the haute monde.
It goes deeper than that, of course -- even among the rich and famous. The Simpson trial introduced the niggling suspicions of race into the most intimate domestic circumstances. "You wouldn't kill me, would you?" one wealthy woman confesses to asking her African-American maid. (That is the sort of question planters used to ask their slaves during the Civil War!) Gus recalls another encounter with a butler who remarked that guests whom he had known for years had stopped talking in his presence. "Everyone still says 'Hello, Wilbur,' 'Good to see you, Wilbur' when they come in, but when I walk into the room, and they're talking about O.J. Simpson, somebody nudges somebody, and they all stop." The venom of suspicion is not limited to masters and their servants; it poisons the relations of husbands and wives as well. For example, the comedian Richard Pryor flies into a rage when he finds out that his Caucasian wife is having dinner with Gus. Fearing that she might give something away that will help the prosecution, Pryor tells her, " 'Don't you dare talk about O.J. Simpson with Gus Bailey, do you hear?' And he meant business. That's the way it is these days in the interracial set," she laments.
In the midst of all this, playing on racial suspicion like a demonic maestro, is Johnnie Cochran. In Cochran's vast repertoire of provocation, surely his most notorious deed took place on the night before the jury visited Simpson's home. Gus tells us that Cochran took down all the photographs of white people and replaced them with black people, adding -- in case they missed the point -- a framed copy of Norman Rockwell's famous painting of integration in Little Rock, in which federal marshals are seen leading a terrified little black girl into a white public school. Gus concludes:
This is going to be the O.J. Simpson legacy. 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. . . . All this because of a black guy who turned his back on blacks after he became rich and famous. He only liked white women, white neighborhoods, and white country clubs.
Well, not exactly. (Unfortunately for Dunne, crude and pompous analyses like this one reveal that proximity to historic events is no guarantee of insight.) Simpson didn't divide the races; nor did Johnnie Cochran. The trial merely elicited divisions that have been an essential feature of American life since its the country's birth. Perhaps more tellingly, the trial dramatized the alternative realities that blacks and whites have constructed to cope with racial divisions -- leading to a wholesale schizophrenia in which most whites insisted on Simpson's guilt while a good percentage of blacks insisted on his innocence.
This isn't really a book about race, anyway. If it is about anything at all, it is about fame. "Fame is at the root of this whole story," Gus tells us. "I'm talking about celebrity type of fame. It fascinates people." Judge Ito is certainly fascinated by it. We are told, for example, that "he is delighted with the success of the Dancing Itos on Jay Leno's show" and "shows videos of . . . [them] to celebrity visitors in his chambers." We also learn that he has taken to sending out little notes of appreciation to the dessert chef at the Bel-Air Hotel, to Helen Mirren for her performance in The Madness of King George, and to other Hollywood stars as they come to his attention. Even Marcia Clark has been bitten by the bug. She can't resist attending a soiree at the home of Ray Stark (producer of films like Funny Girl and Annie) during the hectic last few days preceding her opening arguments at the trial. Gazing around at an assemblage of guests that includes Betsy Bloomingdale, "the Kirk Douglases," Ron Meyer (head of Universal-MCA), and "billionaire" David Geffen ("The word billionaire," Gus tells us fawningly, "usually preceded his name in gossip columns"), among other notables, she remarks, "So this is society, huh?" Like Clark, the reader watches in stunned and appreciative silence as Dunne parades them all before us. Of course, the person who is most fascinated with fame (chiefly his own) is the hero/author:
It's a new experience for me, being recognized. People who read Vanity Fair were aware of me, and people who read my books. My lectures at clubs and hotel ballrooms always sell out, but I was never a name or a face to the people you pass on the street or see at the supermarket. Now I am . . . all over the television.
All over the television, indeed. When Gus's coverage of the trial is interrupted by his son's failure to return from a hiking trip, there is the anguished father in a plane sent out to scour the Arizona mountains by Entertainment Tonight. Unashamed to pursue celebrity in the midst of tragedy, he tells us that "a cameraman [held] a video camera pointed right at my face in case a discovery was made out the window."
Dunne would like you to believe that the less flattering aspects of this neurosis belong more properly to his pseudonymous character, but the attitudes expressed here are too close to Dunne's established public persona to be dismissed so easily. Like Truman Capote, the author's unacknowledged role model, Dunne has transformed his obsession with murder into a gold-edged invitation that has given him access to the highest circles of celebrity and society. (He even held his own "Black-and-White Ball" after the fashion of his unnamed mentor.) But the difference between In Cold Blood and Another City is, well, the difference between art and gossip. Even as a gossip, Dunne leaves something to be desired. He lacks the archness and offhand insightfulness that imbued Capote's dinner conversation with such memorable artfulness.
Sensing the limitations of this big, empty book, Dunne periodically seeks to prop up its legitimacy by resorting to moral outrage. He complains in windy homilies about the way the rich and famous are allowed to manipulate justice to suit their own ends -- as if he were a double agent all along. But this is a difficult position for him to take when so much of what he tells us tends to inflate the power of celebrity. Why should he -- or any of us, for that matter -- be surprised when that power is manifested in a court of law? Similarly, he never misses an opportunity to condemn those who exploit the tragedy of the Brown-Goldman slayings to raise their own public profile or fatten their wallets. But no one does this better, alas, than Dominick Dunne himself.
Jonathan Veitch, a native Angeleno, is chairman of the humanities program at the New School for Social Research.
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