The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story revives all the old emblems of the O.J. case, at least as we saw it on TV—Kato Kaelin, the white Bronco, the glove. And then there are the Kardashians. David Schwimmer plays O.J.’s close friend Robert Kardashian—late father of Kim and ex-husband of Kris—with his distinctive hair, a hangdog face, and lines like, “It’s like he’s not even the Juice anymore.” There’s Kris Jenner (Selma Blair), who’d been close with Nicole Brown Simpson, gossiping about O.J.’s guilt at the funeral and chastising Robert for defending his friend. The Kardashian kids appear periodically too, all their scenes written with a winking awareness of just how famous they’d eventually be. In one episode, O.J. threatens to commit suicide in the Kardashians’ house, and Robert pleads: “Not in Kimmy’s room!” In another, when a hostess recognizes Robert as O.J.’s lawyer and gives his family special treatment at a restaurant, you can see the way the first taste of celebrity lights up young Kim’s face. Whether or not these specific events actually happened, they make a kind of retrospective sense. For viewers with memories of the case itself, it might be surprising to see the Kardashians play such a central role—because, well, back then, they weren’t “the Kardashians.” They were just one of a number of families close to Nicole and O.J.’s world. And in the show, this is a looming question that isn’t directly addressed: How did one of the most infamous families in American pop culture get so entangled in the most infamous murder trial of the century?
When I flew to L.A. on July 5, 1994, to interview the close friends of O.J. and Nicole three weeks after the murders, I was working on a book about O.J. and Nicole’s marriage. “Kardashian,” needless to say, was in no way a household name. At some point at the beginning of August, I conducted a two-hour interview with Kris Houghton Kardashian Jenner, one of Nicole’s five best girlfriends. (We sat on the floor next to her bed in her Coldwater Canyon home, with her husband Bruce padding around outside.) I never interviewed Kris’s ex-husband Robert Kardashian because he was in the tight inner circle protecting O.J., but several dozen of their friends, and Kris, talked at length about his relationship with O.J. As for Kris, another female friend said that she had once been “the Donna Reed [a ’50s TV housewife] of our crowd. Appropriate. Churchgoing, always pregnant, and never did drugs.” After her divorce from Robert, Kris married Bruce Jenner and was in the midst of rebooting the former Olympian’s flagging career. Kris was devastated by Nicole’s murder. She told me that every morning Bruce would now have to remind her to get out of bed and put on her jeans. That was the Kris Jenner I encountered in midsummer 1994.
Robert Kardashian and his brother, Tom, were the sons of a wealthy, highly regarded family within the community of Armenians who’d settled in Los Angeles after the Armenian genocide, prior to World War I. The brothers attended the predominately black Dorsey High, and Robert was a kind of glorified “water boy” for the University of Southern California Trojans when O.J. was the star running back in 1967; they had at best a fleeting acquaintance. Three years later, Robert, who had become a very successful entertainment businessman and lawyer, met his hero—now star running back for the Buffalo Bills—at a mutual friend’s tennis court. They instantly bonded, and when Robert left his law practice to become an executive at the Music Corporation of America, O.J. got the spoils of his law practice: Robert’s secretary, Cathy Randa, went to work for O.J.; Robert’s office on San Vicente Boulevard in Brentwood became O.J.’s; and, through Robert, O.J. met Leroy “Skip” Taft, who would become his business manager and financial mentor—helping him transition from star athlete to a full-fledged entertainment personality. When O.J., still married to his first wife, Marguerite, was considering buying a new house in Brentwood, Kris Jenner told me: “I remember [him] saying [to Robert], ‘Why don’t you come [see it]? I want your opinion.” The house was the lovely, later-infamous Rockingham estate.
Kris, raised in San Diego, met Robert at the nearby Del Mar racetrack when she was 19, a brand-new flight attendant. He was 30. She played hard to get; he pursued her, and the first time she entered his house, with its tennis courts and Mercedeses and Rolls Royces outside, she recalled: “I rushed into the guest room, closed the door, and called my mother and whispered, ‘You are not going to believe this place!’ ” She’d been raised comfortably middle class. “This glamour was new,” she said. And new to Robert, apparently, was the family-mindedness of this black-haired San Diego girl. Unlike the starlets he’d been with, Kris wanted a lot of children. Kourtney was born nine months after they married.
O.J was still married to Marguerite in the early months of Kris’ relationship with Robert, and Kris told me that Marguerite “seemed so unhappy,” but quietly so: “I never met a woman … who kept her complaints hidden as well.” During the marriage’s frequent “off” spells, O.J. lived with Robert and Kris, and he once had Kris telephone a girl he was interested in dating on his behalf. Kris dialed the number, under orders from O.J., and asked to speak to the girl before handing the phone over to O.J. She realized, with some alarm, she told me, that the girl they called was still living with her parents; maybe she was in high school! Kris’ young female voice had been a ruse. “I never asked too many questions in those days,” Kris said.
O.J. fell in love with Nicole Brown at first sight when she waited on him at the Daisy, a chic restaurant in Beverly Hills. Kris was pregnant with her first child, Kourtney. “I remember thinking how beautiful Nicole was and how young and how blond,” Kris told me. She saw her husband’s friend transformed. “Nicole brought O.J. a lot of happiness—you could see it. … She lit up his life. They were golden together.” Kris didn’t know that O.J. was occasionally violent to his new girlfriend. (Early on, O.J. punched Nicole in the face, then bought her a Porsche to make up for it. She later told friends she felt like an idiot driving a Porsche with a black eye.)
The Kardashians and Simpsons went on ski trips to Aspen, Colorado, together. O.J. was always the celebrity—during a skiing lesson, Kris told me, “When people started to notice it was O.J. Simpson … they crowded around him and followed him around like disciples. … We were so young then. We just had the best time.” Nicole, Kris added, was exceptionally thoughtful. “After each of my kids was born, she was always the first to send a gift or send flowers.” This wasn’t a side of Nicole that everyone necessarily saw. “A lot of people over the years would tell me, ‘Gee, Nicole is so private … so unapproachable.’ I would always say, ‘No, Nicole is just shy.’ Now I look back and see that Nicole … needed to keep her distance because she was going through a lot.” Among these things were O.J.’s periodic violence—and his infidelity.
A few months before O.J. and Nicole’s 1985 wedding (they had been together seven years by then), Kris said: “Nicole came over to the house, [and] we were talking about O.J. not being true blue,” Kris told me. “She said that he had promised to turn his whole life around. He was going to be baptized at the wedding.” O.J. was taking Bible study classes with Robert Kardashian’s brother, Tom, and both men “were getting a lot out of it. ... I remember thinking, ‘This is great. Everything’s changing for them.’ ” It did—and it didn’t. On New Year’s Eve 1988, O.J. severely beat Nicole. He was arrested. His punishment? Community service. Nicole took O.J. back four months later. “He would do all these things,” Kris said, “but she’d still leave the door open a crack, so he’d have to make good to get back in, and then he’d be so relieved. That happened a lot.”
By now, Kris and Robert’s marriage was coming apart. Shortly after the birth of her fourth child, Robert Jr., in 1987, she began an affair with a young man who, at 23, was 10 years her junior. By then, “Robert was more like a brother to me,” she told me. Having lived so long as a goody-goody (“I was the straightest person; when I [would] ask forgiveness in church, it [was] for gossiping or for not being nice to my kid on Thursday”), she described feeling shocked and upset by the shunning she experienced among some of the elite young matrons in her social circle. But O.J. was protective of her.
“This guy you’re dating is going to cheat on you,” O.J. warned her. “Believe me, I know.” “He would have preferred to be able to ‘fix’ me and Robert, but since he couldn’t,” Kris said, his thinking turned to: “ ‘What is Kris getting herself into? I don’t want her to sink.’ ” So O.J. called Kris’ young lover, in her presence, and essentially told him: “You know you’re going out with someone I consider Snow White, and she’s got four kids and a husband. The stakes she’s playing with are big, buster. So if you’re not serious about her, then back off, because she’s a good person.” After telling me this story, Kris paused and said, “Sometimes when I think about … that side of O.J., I’m just so sad.”
O.J. and Nicole divorced, but Nicole was ambivalent and wanted him back. Kris tried to fortify her friend. She explained to Nicole that her own divorce was the hardest decision she’d ever had to make. “And I didn’t have an abusive situation—I didn’t have somebody who was hitting me or cheating on me,” Kris said. “I married a very decent guy. I just … loved him, but I wasn’t in love with him—there’s a big difference, I discovered.”
Nicole and O.J. eventually reconciled, then separated again. And then, just as O.J. was getting used to not obsessing about Nicole, she wanted him back. The trouble was that, during their time apart, she had allegedly rekindled her affair with his mentee, football star Marcus Allen—which left O.J. furious. As another close friend of Nicole’s told me in a line I will never forget, “You don’t leave a man like O.J. Simpson twice.”
After the hacked, bloodied dead bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were found in the courtyard of Bundy Drive in the early hours of June 13, 1994, O.J. Simpson was called at the hotel where he was staying in Chicago—at 5:45 a.m. (He had landed in Chicago an hour and a half earlier, on a flight from L.A.) He booked a return flight, and at 6 in the morning Pacific time, Robert Kardashian picked him up at LAX.
Kardashian, then unknown outside of a small community in L.A., swiftly seized the limelight. This small, pleasant-looking, earnest-seeming man with the thick shock of black hair would become an odd, accidental celebrity. Four days later, during the unreal slow-speed Bronco chase in which O.J. crouched in the back while his best friend, Al Cowlings, drove the ghostly, police-cleared L.A. freeways, Kardashian would stand before the phalanx of cameras and read his friend’s “suicide note.” Kardashian became a key member of his friend’s legal defense team, officially and unofficially, and he attended virtually every day of the criminal trial. During the trial, Kris was pregnant with Kendall and wore Nicole’s maternity clothes.
But anyone who watched that overlong, contentious trial closely might remember that when the not guilty verdict was read, Robert Kardashian did not look happy. He looked almost stricken. We cannot guess what his complex face said. He was a loyal, loyal friend, and when he died of cancer in 2003, he took many secrets to his grave. As for his ex-wife Kris, there’s one line in my book, published on Feb. 1, 1995—when Kris Jenner was merely an anonymous friend of Nicole’s helping me flesh out the story of that tragic marriage—that now makes me smile. I simply wrote, “Her supposed ambition was to have her own television show.”
As for those scenes featuring the younger Kardashians in FX’s miniseries—those are vignettes that probably come from Kris Jenner’s own book. The Kardashians have long had a habit of fanning the flames of their own celebrity—and what they didn’t fan, the tabloid media fanned for them. The kids came of age in a world enclosed, on one end, by the trial of the century, which ushered in a new era of sexy scandals as wall-to-wall TV, and on the other by the massively profitable reality TV world that they minted and in which they have achieved ungodly success. In real life, other friends were closer to Nicole than Kris was. At least one has quietly done the important work of nurturing O.J. and Nicole’s two now-adult children, who have taken pains to keep their lives pretty much private. But those friends don’t make significant cameos in The People v. O.J. Simpson—and they’re probably just as glad.