“A black ex-athlete growing older ungracefully, tenuously living a white life on the limited visa of his contract as a television pitchman; his beautiful battered ex-wife trying at age thirty-five to start over after half a lifetime on someone else’s tab; a waiter and unsuccessful male model uncertain whether to become a restaurateur or a paramedic, collecting business cards from the men on whose tables he waited in case one might decide to invest in his dream restaurant: these were characters of considerable and ambiguous particularity. With the events of June 12, however, when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were found slashed and stabbed to death, and with the arrest of Orenthal James Simpson for killing them, all three lost whatever identity they had in the frantic search to find some larger meaning that would explain the crime. The story demanded a moral: youth wasted, promise denied, spousal abuse, domestic violence, the race card. Show me a hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald once jotted in his notebook, and I will write you a tragedy.”— John Gregory Dunne, “The Simpsons,” in Regards:The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunne (2005)
In the summer of 1994, while up at the Stratford Festival in Canada, I chatted with a fellow playgoer during a performance of Othello. I couldn’t help noticing some similarities between the title character and O.J. Simpson, I told him. “Yes,” he answered. “The trouble is, everybody else is noticing it, too. It’s become a cliché.”
I understood perfectly what he meant. Still, with so many people following the events, the number of cultural comparisons already being drawn to what was shaping up as the Crime of the Nineties was already staggering.
In a prior post, I drew parallels to the 17th century Italian murder case immortalized in Robert Browning’s narrative poem The Ring and the Book and the Simpson case. But today, on the 20th anniversary of the murder of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, other aspects of this cause celebre remain to be explored.
Older brother Dominick was the one who wrote more, in essays and fiction (Another City, Not My Own), about the Brentwood tragedy, largely fueled by his never-ending rage as a father whose own daughter had been murdered. But John Gregory Dunne also wrote incisively about this, whether including elements of it in his final novel, Nothing Lost, or in the piece quoted above, which appeared originally in The New York Review of Books three months after the killings and the infamous Bronco chase watched by 95 million Americans at one point or another.
Dunne had a particular vantage point on the principals in the case: he lived in Brentwood, just like the defendant, Los Angeles DA Gil Garcetti, Mayor Richard Riordan, and Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz. Thus, he knew about the aspirations and environment of the community examined with so little insight by the rest of the media.
Before the case had even come to trial, Dunne was already jaundiced about certain aspects, notably the racial angle that Simpson’s defense team would exploit. (“So assiduously had he [Simpson] pursued racial neutrality that he had become estranged from prominent elements of Los Angeles’ black leadership.”) And, as the “Bonus Quote of the Day” indicates, he was especially attuned to the quiet desperation, the grasp for the last chance, that animated O.J., Nicole and Ron alike.
Twenty years later, Dunne’s essay still stands up well. He noticed, even then, how some commentators were striving “to find some larger meaning that would explain the crime.” Last month, in the same magazine where John Gregory Dunne’s brother vented his moral outrage about what was happening before his eyes, Lili Anolik sought for a similar overarching theme. Terming the case “TV’s first reality show,” Anolik accused Simpson, “regardless of whether the jury got it right or the jury got it wrong,” of murdering popular culture.
This is a way too cute formulation. Above all else is this: two people were murdered in the most brutal fashion that night. O.J.’s defense team, unable to find a plausible explanation for who might have murdered them besides the defendant, simply threw fairy dust in the eyes of the juror. Most outrageously, after the not guilty verdict, Simpson announced that he would immediately start searching for her killer—as if the answer couldn’t be found in his home mirror. In Doonesbury, Garry Trudeau properly mocked this pretense, devoting an entire week’s worth of the strip to “O.J. Simpson, Detective.”