The Journalist and the Other Murderer

front page of Los Angeles Times Extra, October 3, 1995, headline reads Simpson Not Guilty: He is freed after 15 months in jail. In the photo, he is in a tan suit in the courtroom, slightly smiling.
Los Angeles Times Extra, October 3, 1995

by Carrie Frye

In July 1994, word circulated that the journalist Joe McGinniss had secured a $1.75 million deal from Crown for his next two books (roughly $3.74 million in today’s money). The first of the two books would be on the O.J. Simpson trial, getting underway in November.

Getting a seat in the courtroom was tough, but Judge Lance Ito awarded McGinniss a permanent spot in the front row of the gallery, next to Dominick Dunne and in the same row as Ron Goldman’s family. The O.J. book was to be McGinniss’s ninth, a sure-to-be hit from an author who had been publishing bestsellers for decades. Three of those previous books had been true-crime doorstops found on nightstands across the U.S. in the 1980s, most famously Fatal Vision, on the trial and conviction of the Army doctor Jeffrey MacDonald for the shockingly violent 1970 murder of his pregnant wife and two children.

When the Crown deal came through, McGinniss’s family thought he was the right writer to take on such a high-profile project. The scale of the canvas, the outsize personalities of the courtroom players—it all seemed a fit for the journalist’s talents, his cynicism, his “ability to see through bullshit,” as his son Joe Jr. (in his 20s at the time) recently put it.

All of which is to say, if a punch card existed of what a book needs to be written, McGinniss’s O.J. book would appear to have everything ticked off: a hefty advance; courtroom access other reporters would have chewed an arm off for; support at home; and, not least important, past experience of juggling one’s way through “a big book.” 

McGinniss sat in the courtroom for all eleven months of the trial, was there for the verdict of “Not guilty” in October of 1995, then flew home to Massachusetts to start drafting. But the book never happened. The following year, about nine months after the trial’s end, he wrote a letter to his publisher, formally chucking the project and forfeiting the advance.

“There is no book,” he wrote. “At least not one I can write.” It was big enough news to make the New York Times and Time magazine. 

In the wider scheme, this is just a footnote—both to the Simpson trial and to McGinniss’s decades-long career. Still, as someone who enjoys visiting the graveyards of books that never came to be, I was curious. What happened?

All-American Murder 

McGinniss was in his early 50s when the trial started. A tall, lanky man with graying hair, an alert way of holding himself, and a long face with the sad, down-tilted eyes of a person you’re not surprised to learn is in battle with personal demons. Alcohol, early cheating, a couple marriages—all part of the public bag. Across his previous books, he’d established himself as possessing a mind that liked to range around different topics, his journalism following the fit of his passions. A fox, not a hedgehog. 

At first, however, the trial of O.J. Simpson must have looked not so much like new ground as old. In Fatal Vision, the figure of Jeffrey MacDonald presides over the book’s start as an avatar of a certain type of All-American masculinity—a former high school quarterback, voted most popular, who went off to Princeton, then became a doctor and, on joining the Army, a Green Beret. He and his wife Colette had been junior-high sweethearts who got back together in college. Colette and their daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, were killed deep in a rainy, cold February night on Fort Bragg. Their murderer dispatched them in a brutal and frenzied attack involving three different weapons—a club, an ice pick, and a knife. Colette was 26; the girls were 5 and 2. MacDonald would claim four “hippies” of a Manson-like variety had broken in and attacked the family and that he’d passed out while trying to fight them off; they included a woman in a floppy hat who chanted "Acid is groovy" and "Kill the pigs." They had written “Pig” in blood on the headboard, upended a coffee table, then disappeared into the night. Fatal Vision’s narrative tensions lie in the push-pull between MacDonald’s self-presentation, which has the blandness of a Ken doll, and the grisliness of the murders for which he stood accused.

With the O.J. case, here was another All-American man—a handsome former college football star and NFL MVP who’d successfully pivoted to a career as an actor, pitchman, and well-liked celebrity figure—accused of a horrific double murder. Nicole Brown, who’d divorced Simpson a couple years before, and Ron Goldman, a friend randomly on the scene, were murdered on the evening of June 12, 1994, outside Brown’s condominium in Brentwood. Both had been stabbed multiple times, and images of the blood-drenched murder scene circulated in news stories. Again, there was a dissonance between the viciousness of the killings and the accused’s golden public image. 

Within weeks of the murders, books about Simpson were being “airlifted” to bookstores. The mega-blockbuster Fatal Vision had established that McGinniss was the writer to turn the story of a high-profile multiple murder into a bestseller. But the new book would have a wider focus than the murders alone. As Crown’s editor in chief Betty Prashker told the New York Times when the deal was announced, it would also “explore modern-day heroes, sports mythology and the incredible power of the media.” 

The 13th Juror

Three book covers and one book-shaped hole. Titles: A Problem of Evidence by Joseph Bosco, Another City, Not My Own by Dominick Dunne, and The Run Of His Life, The People v OJ Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin

As the trial got underway in L.A. that October, there were three other “book writers” on the scene. One of them was Jeffrey Toobin, who split a courtroom seat with Joseph Bosco. In a remembrance published after McGinniss’s death in 2014, he gives a sketch of the book McGinniss planned but never wrote. In it, there’s no mention of the “modern-day heroes” framing. 

Instead, McGinniss’s “original conceit,” Toobin writes, “was that he was going to watch like a juror and, also like a juror, avoid all news reports and even all discussion about the case.” As another news item put it, he was going to be a “13th juror.” It strikes one as an odd tack—for any writer, but especially one of McGinniss’s temperament.

When he thundered to fame, at age 26, it was for The Selling Of The President 1968. McGinniss had installed himself inside Nixon’s campaign team as they filmed a series of TV spots for the election. The book quotes a 29-year-old campaign operative, Roger Ailes: “Let’s face it, a lot of people think Nixon is dull. Think he’s a bore, a pain in the ass. They look at him as the kind of kid … [w]ho was 42 years old the day he was born. … Now you put him on television you’ve got a problem right away. He’s a funny-looking guy.” And so on. That’s the sort of disclosure McGinniss was good at getting. 

While doing the original reporting on Fatal Vision, McGinniss had lived in a frat house on the campus of N.C. State with MacDonald and his defense team, privy to all their councils despite the hesitation of at least one member of the legal team. He was, in other words, a reporter who not only liked being backstage but was also uniquely gifted at working his way there—charming, likable, with a friendly and flattering curiosity about other people that led them to invite him in. 

So in the forensics of “why did this book die?” the “13th juror” concept appeared as an immediate clue. Why come up with a book concept that would work against your particular gifts as a reporter? It seemed emblematic of a certain writing tic in which, whatever kind of writer you are, you wish to be the opposite. If you’re a writer who thrives on access, well, here you will go the opposite direction: whose access and experience of a trial is more circumscribed than a juror’s? And reading about it, I thought I understood why McGinniss was casting around for a shift in approach.

In 1984, MacDonald, the subject of Fatal Vision, sued McGinniss for breach of contract and fraud, in effect saying that the book McGinniss had written—one that presented MacDonald as a calculating and murderous psychopath—wasn’t the book they’d agreed on. A trial ended in a hung jury, and the parties eventually settled out of court for $325,000. Then in 1989, Janet Malcolm wrote a two-part series about the lawsuit over Fatal Vision for the New Yorker, which then became the book The Journalist And The Murderer. So whatever private agonies and financial worries the lawsuit might have occasioned for McGinniss, there was now, for the handy reference of his peers—as well as any of his own private 3 a.m. reflections—a slim damning record of his way of practicing his profession. We may revere Janet Malcolm and still: which of us, dragging through a career low point, would have welcomed seeing her shrewd sharp face on our doorstep? If it had taken McGinniss about 650 pages to paint MacDonald as a narcissist and a psychopath, it took Malcolm just 163 to pin McGinniss as a bad-faith operator. In the book, she set out the terms of the contract between MacDonald and McGinniss (a strange profit-sharing deal for a journalist to have made with his subject!) and reproduced the letters McGinniss wrote to MacDonald expressing his warm friendship and support, long after he was privately sure of the doctor’s guilt. 

Here she is on his love for access:

Although none of us ever completely outgrows the voyeurism of childhood, in some of us it lives on more strongly than in others—thus the avid interest of some of us in being “insiders” or in getting the “inside” view of things.

She sets McGinniss in this camp, an adherent of a type of journalism that is in her description literally childish. In the tone you get a sense of the strange, disorienting quality of seeing yourself “photographed” in Malcolm’s writing. If, say, you hoped you were the sort of person people perceived as charming and generous, her portrait might show you someone smarmy and limited instead. It's the opposite of the Vaselined lens.

Then in the summer of 1993, McGinniss published The Last Brother: The Rise and Fall of Teddy Kennedy, a biography of Ted Kennedy, which was greeted with the warmth for a book that is not just sloppily written and possibly plagiarized in spots, but also very, very bad. (Jonathan Yardley in the Post: “It is, by a wide margin, the worst book I have reviewed in three decades; quite simply, there is not an honest page in it.”)

These are blows. Several in a row. Does a blow hurt less because we brought it on ourselves? Not in my experience. And so, in some ways, it seems not shocking at all, that in the wake of them a writer might land on a quixotic, hollow concept like “the 13th juror.” 

The Death Of The 13th Juror 

When I spoke with Joe McGinniss Jr. by phone, he thought there might be a simpler explanation. At the trial’s beginning, his dad was staying at the InterContinental, the luxurious hotel where the jurors were (non-luxuriously) sequestered for the trial’s duration.

Joe Jr. has published two novels and has a memoir forthcoming from Avid Reader. He speaks of his dad in the rueful, protective, loving way of someone who grew up with a larger-than-life parent, as he describes in a 2016 piece he wrote for the New Yorker:

…We’d see our father again, maybe in a month, maybe longer. He’d call. He’d send postcards from various cities his tour took him to. We’d watch him on the “Today” show and “Larry King Live” and laugh at his bald spot when the camera angle shifted. We’d miss him and wish he were closer. But we knew better. This was how it was, and who he was, and what choice did we have?

It seemed obvious from the physical evidence that Simpson was guilty of Brown and Goldman’s murders. If the defendant’s guilt is clear even before the trial begins, then there’s little narrative tension to be squeezed from the weighing of evidence (as there was, say, in the Fatal Vision case). 

“It was such an obvious open-and-shut case, evidence wise, that there wasn't a whole lot to mine there,” Joe. Jr. recalled. Meanwhile, McGinniss was “stuck” in the same hotel as the jury. So why not build off that circumstance, in the way of “Hey, why don’t I just treat this like I’m in the jury?”

But McGinniss didn’t stay in the InterContinental long—feeling confined there, he rented a house in Beverly Hills. The house had a hot tub, Oscar statuettes (“that we all got a chance to hold and give fake speeches” with, says Joe Jr.) There were parties at the house, lots of ’em. One journalist “nearly paralyzed himself” diving headfirst into the hot tub. 

Very non-13th-juror, in other words.

As we spoke, Joe Jr. recalled how his older sister (“bless her”) was concerned about the expense of the Beverly Hills house. And so on a visit to L.A., “we went on an apartment search for corporate housing that was near the courtroom.” Their father originally seemed to go along with it—Okay, fine, fine—but ultimately couldn’t be dislodged from the hot-tub house. “He's like, ‘I'm writing a big book, and then I'm gonna write another big book. And, you know, if I'm gonna survive this, I’ve got to live somewhere where I can actually relax and unwind and feel like I'm not in prison myself.’”

The word “prison” is intriguing. Like the project itself was something he was already feeling stuck in. Sentenced by. Which of us haven’t felt that way somewhere in a long writing project? 

During our conversation, Joe Jr. recalled notes he’d seen in a notebook his dad kept during the trial, filled with bored drawings and notes like “What does Darden think about all day?” Another note said something like: “I want to kneel down in the aisle and just pray for this to be over.” In Joe Jr.’s recollection, there was something in the spectacle of the trial his father seemed to find simultaneously grotesque and wearying—with the “vacuous and empty” courtroom players strutting back and forth, while just a couple seats down, on the other side of Dominick Dunne, there sat Ron Goldman’s family. 

“A Weird Fucking Scene”

The journalist Jim Newton covered the Simpson trial in tandem with Andrea Ford for The Los Angeles Times. The months were intense—gathering up the day’s intel, then hurrying back across the plaza outside the Criminal Courts Building to get back to the paper’s office.

Newton remembers McGinnis as a noticeable presence, in part because of his height, and because he was generally “friendly and open and affable,” which “some people weren’t.” It was a scrappy atmosphere, with arguments about seats and hot competition about getting first to scoops. Remembers Newton, “I certainly saw myself as going over there to take the temperature of the place, and then going back out and interviewing police sources … I was there to be first you know.” 

I had originally been curious to speak with Newton to see if he thought it even would have been feasible to keep up a “13th juror” approach at the trial—if you were a journalist seated in the gallery, not the jury box, and with colleagues from the press all around. And from what Newton remembered it did seem at least possible that McGinniss was trying to make good on the “13th juror” approach. “I do vaguely remember having the feeling that he didn't want to be talking about [the trial]? At length anyway.” 

This was noticeably different from his recollections of McGinniss’s seatmate. “Now, by contrast, I do remember Dominick Dunne talking about, you know, what he'd heard and who he'd seen at dinner. And he was very loquacious—and so notably different than McGinnis.” The two book writers had “a Mutt and Jeff” look around the courthouse, Newton recalled, with McGinniss so tall and thin, and Dunne shorter, stouter, and with a white mop of hair. Before the call, I’d reread some of Dunne’s coverage of the trial for Vanity Fair, and it had been like smelling a perfume that used to be everywhere and now is nowhere. Not just the names and places, but the way of understanding the case seemed vintage. Here’s a typical sort of paragraph: 

No matter where you go, you can’t get away from the trial. One night at Drai’s, I saw Faye Resnick, Robert Shapiro, and Michael Viner, all at separate tables. Another night I stopped to say hello to a friend and, by accident, bumped into a man seated at the next table. When I turned to apologize, I saw that it was Kato Kaelin.

As we continued speaking, Newton circled again from McGinniss back to Dunne. 

“There was one thing that I found utterly understandable, but kind of upsetting at times was the way that the case turned into this sort of social gathering. That's the way Dominick wrote about it which is this kind of gathering of people in this curious place of Los Angeles.” Dunne’s reporting was about gathering that atmosphere. “And what would sometimes get lost in that was that there were actual victims and actual suffering families. … I liked Dominick's coverage. I read it, I enjoyed reading it—and I also was occasionally sometimes put off by it.”

The courtroom, Newton went on with admirable pungency, was “a weird fucking scene, you know. There's no way around it.”

Newton eventually revealed what I suspect is the main reason why the McGinniss O.J. book was never written. 

Like many reporters at the time, McGinnis had gone into the case with the belief that, given the case’s physical evidence, a “guilty” verdict was a certainty. Such a foregone conclusion, in fact, he would need to find some novel dramatic angle if the book were to have any legs. That turned out, of course, not to be so. A “not guilty” verdict was delivered—and that a majority Black, mostly female jury from Los Angeles would have reason to give such a verdict was still only imperfectly, largely inchoately understood across a (majority white) media and its audience. Race, not celebrity, turned out to be the case’s fulcrum. Not Kato Kaelin but Rodney King. Put another way, there was no need for a 13th juror—just for someone to look closely at the jury box and be curious about what was being thought there.

Of the four book writers covering the trial, I’ll just note, all were white, all male. All also living through a historical moment whose legibility seemed to improve with time and distance. Ezra Edelman’s documentary O.J. Made In America would provide stunning context to the case, but that wouldn’t come out until 2016. Maybe it takes that long. And maybe as he sat in his study in Massachusetts trying to type up his notes, McGinniss was aware that what he’d seen was “an utter farce,” (as he put it in his letter to his publisher) but he was not yet prepared, or even able, to dissect its components. 

He sent a six-page letter to his publishers canceling the deal. (His relationship with his agent, Mort Janklow, ended shortly after.) About the money, he told Joe Jr., “It’s easier to give back when you don’t actually have it.” He’d collected the first payment on that $1.75 million deal but not the subsequent ones that would have followed the manuscript’s delivery and publication. 

Immediately after the deal dissolved, he went off to Italy to write a book called The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, where he went “inside” a minor-league soccer team there. It was a subject he could write about with passion, one where he could immerse himself as family in the team without fear of betraying or duping anyone. The book wasn’t a commercial success but it retains a loyal readership. It registers for me like last year’s Andre 3000’s flute album—something you’re glad to see the artist chose (and was able) to do.

One reason the people close to McGinniss urged him to write the O.J. book was for “redemption”—after the Jeffrey MacDonald lawsuit, the terrible Ted Kennedy book. As Joe Jr. would write: “I told him more than once, ‘You’re back. They want you to write the book about the Trial of the Century. To make sense of this madness. Make sense of it for all of us.’” That didn’t happen. There were other falls, other comebacks, more battling of personal demons. Self-sabotaging emails sent to editors and publishers in the night. Standing with David Carr at a racetrack in 2004, talking about a new book (this a good one, about racing) McGinniss sidestepped a metaphor of redemption when Carr offered him one. “What do I have to be redeemed from?” he replied. The question, Carr noted, carried “no hint of rancor.” He was just curious.

Back in 1995, if others felt consternation at his decision to not write the O.J. book, Joe McGinniss seemed at peace. “I feel wonderful; I feel 20 years younger,” he told an AP reporter. “The whole process of sitting out there was some sort of very expensive therapy. It finally enabled me to see that all you have in life is what you want to do.”