I just turned 48. The landscapes where I make my living, television and the written word, have turned upside down. The phone isn’t ringing like it used to. And it’s Father’s Day weekend. So for God’s sake, allow a man who always tells it like it is, to now tell it like it used to be. If Jimi Hendrix, while unleashing “Purple Haze” famously asked to be excused as he “kissed the sky,” then give me some slack for tapping into my Norma Desmond side. No, I’m not delusionally asking for my “close-up,” but rather looking to close up some things that went on with me when I was a New York Daily News gossip columnist. Yes, before the little Hollywood TV show made me somewhat of a household name – at least in houses that actually could subscribe to the fledgling E! Network and with people who actually tuned in to “Mysteries & Scandals” – my days and nights as a columnist unforgivingly sucked me into the vortex that was the O.J. Simpson murder case.
As much as the Michael Jackson molestation fiasco got me and my co-writers – Editor Linda Stasi and my co-hort Michael Lewittes – reams and reams of news-breaking column space and countless television appearances, looking back, I’d have to say the horror show of the Simpson story (not to mention the never-ending parade of publicity hounds who followed that trial) absolutely carried me and the column whenever New York City was good at hiding its own sleaze up its sleeve. Oddly, this 16-year-old O.J. ordeal only came to light because I recently got caught up and mesmorized watching director Brett Morgen deliver his slickly-shot documentary for ESPN’s “30 For 30” series, which lays out how virtually every sport – and some major athletes – were affected on June 17, 1994. It was the day that O.J. Simpson and A.C. Cowlings took the Los Angeles police, an army of TV helicopters, and 95 million Americans on a slow chase up the 405 freeway. He was supposed to turn himself in that morning and be charged with murdering his ex-wife Nicole and waiter Ron Goldman, a story that had riveted the country all week long. Anyhow, everybody over 25 remembers how that turned out.
But to a sports fans like me, O.J. wasn’t the only story. The New York Rangers had just won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 50 years, and I remember giving up my locker-room credentials and press room tickets to my roommate Chico because he was a Rangers’ fanatic and I was flying high because Rangers’ superstar Mark Messier and I were chasing the same model at the time. For some God-forsaken reason the Portuguese pretty decided to skip his invitation and hang out with me while I slithered through the city for any O.J info I could pull from any of his cronies. I remember taking her to a penthouse party that night with my buddy JohnnyBoy Calvani at the Trump Tower. Luckily, for me, O.J. and I had a friend in common – NYC and Las Vegas club owner and restauranteur, Marc Packer. When I got to Packer’s shindig, I spied all the vacation pictures that were framed all around his suite. There were shots of Packer, O.J. and Nicole on a ski trip, I believe some shots on a giant yacht of some kind. Beautiful, frozen moments in time for a few people who had the world on a string. Wherever they were, they were the kind of pictures that everyone was happy to squeeze all three heads into the frame. And O.J. had an enormous head, so that was a difficult task. At one point I turned to Packer,I grabbed his arm and went in for a sympathy hug.
“Hey Packey…whatta we know? Maybe he didn’t do it. Maybe it’s a big set-up,” I said.
Packer, God bless him, backed away from me and calmly said, “Oh no….we know he did it. We just don’t know why. He was always beating the crap outta her. He was nuts like that.” Bingo. I had my lead story for the next day’s paper and the rest of the night was reserved for fun. The kind of stupid fun that should’ve gotten me a beating. I remember, before we left the party, JohnnyBoy and I went into the coat room and switched up guests’ car and house keys with different guests’ pocketbooks. Could I have been a bigger asshole? But, what can I say, I was just giddy to know that I had a story that no other paper had – a confession from one of O.J.’s closest pals.
As Morgen’s documentary points out, Arnold Palmer was playing his last-ever U.S. Open to tears that could’ve filled up every cup on the course. The Rangers had a ticker-tape parade during the week of July 17 and several of the core guys spent the entire evening drinking like no group of men I’d ever encountered in my life. They finally finished their drunken revelry at the strip club Scores, where my roommate, Chico, was managing. After hours of drinks and shots and naughty lap dances in the VIP room (“I’ll let you touch my Cup if you let me touch yours.”) the rowdy Rangers fell into a limo and were delivered to their respective homes. One problem: They had forgotten the Stanley Cup at the strip joint. Imagine my surprise that night when I stumbled into our Madison Ave. duplex and saw Chico – holding the golden cup – with two strippers at his side.
Chico, wearing just his underwear, proudly stood straight up and said. “Hey Pope. Allow me to introduce to you Tiffany and Zoe…and Lord Stanley!”
We had a good time that night, but NY Rangers PR immediately got back the Cup the next morning.
On the night of June 17, I had had enough with O.J.’s hide-and-seek party, so I went to see the Knicks play the Rockets in Game Five of the NBA Championship. At one point, I don’t remember when, I looked up at the Knicks’ scoreboard and a 10-second clip of L.A. Police was shown on CNN slowly chasing a white Bronco up the 405 Freeway. Holy Christ….it was coming to an end. As a journalist I had to leave the game. But as a fan, I watched the rest of the game on the TV monitors where the beer is served. As soon as I knew my Knicks had gutted out the win, I raced around the city again looking for a lead, any lead from anyone who was close to O.J. Nothing.
For the next several months, with O.J. behind bars and the infamous testimony we heard coming from the mouths of The Goldman’s, Denise Brown, Kato Kaelin and others, it was just a matter of time that the circus would show up in NYC and I’d get to interview all of them. And, sure enough, I did. Luckily, Geraldo Rivera dedicated his syndicated talk show every Friday to the Simpson trial for over a year and I was always invited on to speak along with other gossips like Richard Johnson, Cindy Adams, Steve Dunleavy and the National Enquirer’s Mike Walker, who was way ahead of the story week in, week out.. And it was that exposure – mixed in with my interviews for “A Current Affair,” “Inside Edition,” and “Hard Copy” – mixed with the fact that our column was also at the front of breaking stories during his incarceration, that more or less, made me widely recognizable as a gossip columnist. But wildly different than my contemporaries at the same time.
But what I wish the public could have seen and heard in that “Geraldo” green room and during the time all of us (including Denise and Kato and others) were downing post-show drinks at our favorite Russian watering hole nearby. You would’ve seen what most of us believed to be a budding “physical” relationship between Geraldo and Denise. You would’ve seen Kato – who, I believe, had it not been for the murders – would have been a part of several successful sitcoms by now – asking what time do the strip clubs open? And, best of all, you would have seen Denise turn off the waterworks as soon as our mics were unclipped and turn to me, sit on my lap and say, “You know what’s hot tonight? What club should we hit?”
It was gross. You’d have taken a shower. Didn’t anyone care about these killings? As a journalist, I had viewed the murder scene pictures. In color, no less. The Daily News refused to print them, but the best way I can describe the carnage is to say it looked like a Mafia hit mixed in with a Muslim beheading. But then, you could’ve added me to that growing list of us who, over time, just seemed to have gotten numb over the whole thing. Mark Furman’s lies, the black glove, Johnnie Cochran’s rapping defense, Judge Ito dozing off, etc.
I’ll never forget the day the verdict was announced. Usually, a New York City tabloid newsroom has enough noise whipping around to rival a World Cup soccer match. But, at the moment leading up to the verdict, everything stopped. No phones rang. No faxes spit out paper. No beepers went off. Everyone zipped their trap and not even fingers on a keyboard could be heard. When O.J.’s “Not Guilty” verdict was announced, the newsroom erupted with cheers and curses. Everyone was torn, despite the fact that the police all but found his Heisman Trophy in the bushes for even more evidence of guilt. I was thrown for a loop myself. Despite believing he was completely dead to rights, this was a childhood hero of mine I was dealing with. This was The Juice, man.
It finally got to me one day, when O.J. was a free man and it just so happened we were going to be coincidentally riding the same elevator up to our rooms at L.A.’s Mondrian Hotel. I was no longer a gossip columnist, and was on my book tour. God knows what he was doing. But there we were. Here was a man who I still believe to this day to be a murderer. But here was also a man who – in the weird machinations of Hollywood – had helped me along the way.
We stepped in the elevator and leaned back against the wall.
“Hey O.J.,” I said, my hand extended. “I’m sorry about all that shit on T.V and in the papers.”
O.J. laughed and said, “Oh, it’s cool, you were just doing your job, A.J. We’re cool.”
My hand disappeared in his grip and I pressed the button for the 3rd floor. “Where you headed,” I asked.