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My Nights With Phil


Is it tautological to note that Southern California show-business homicide cases are so often so stupendously Hollywood? And do we only shape the stories that way in the recounting, or do celebrated Angelenos half-consciously contrive to turn their lives into neo-gothic docudramas? In this case, every detail is perfectly, exquisitely pulpy. In the courtroom, Spector—pallid golem face, absurdly fake blond hair, jittery hands, super-colorful shirts with giant collars—is a screenwriter’s dream murder defendant, a transgendered Norma Desmond in some Sunset Boulevard homage. And Lana Clarkson was the perfect Raymond Chandler/Nathanael West victim, beginning with her forties name—a sweet, blonde, 40-year-old C-list actress, still pretty but no longer nubile enough to get the bit parts in the cheesy TV series (Knight Rider, Silk Stalkings) and movies (Barbarian Queen, Vice Girls) that had sustained her. She was a former playmate of the Sweet Smell-y gossip reporter A.J. Benza.

Between 2 and 3 a.m. in his Mercedes from the House of Blues, where he’d picked her up, they watched a DVD of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, the 1950 film noir starring Jimmy Cagney as an amoral killer. Inside his turreted white 1926 castle, according to the opening statement last month by his attorney, the Gambino mob lawyer Bruce Cutler, Clarkson was “playing with guns in a provocative and salacious manner,” kissing the Colt .38 Cobra that killed her. The coroner found that the gun barrel was in her mouth when it fired. Truth is more lurid than fiction.

And murkier. According to Spector’s Brazilian chauffeur, his boss came out of the house around 5 a.m. and said, “I think I killed somebody.” After police had him in custody, however, he said that Clarkson had, in fact, shot herself.

It seems possible to me that both are somehow true. He had been drinking. She had been drinking and taking Vicodin. There were fourteen guns in the house, but his fingerprints aren’t on the one that shot her. Maybe she was depressed, as the defense says her e-mails indicate. Maybe he, as a diabetic, was suffering from a late-night bout of low blood sugar, which can cause paranoia and disorientation.

At his trial, several of Spector’s former girlfriends have testified that on various occasions between 1988 and 1995 he pointed a gun at them when they tried to leave his house or a hotel room—and Clarkson, the prosecutors will say, was the final data point in that pathological pattern.

But the trial will pivot, I think, on the grisly CSI particulars. Are the traces of gunshot residue and the blood-spatter patterns more exculpatory or incriminating? Do the shreds of flesh on Clarkson’s cuff buttons imply that she shot herself? And is it true that her DNA, but not his, was found on the bullets in the gun?

However Lana Clarkson came to be sitting in a chair with a loaded pistol in her mouth, some ugly game was evidently being played by one or both of them. The prosecution and defense agree that her death was essentially accidental; the question is who happened to pull the trigger. To convict him of second-degree murder, the prosecutors needn’t prove that he intended to kill Clarkson, but rather, in the quaint language of the criminal code, that he had “an abandoned and malignant heart” on the night in question.

My hunch is that he won’t be found guilty of murder, that as a result of the forensics he will be convicted of manslaughter or get off altogether. If the DNA evidence does indicate that Clarkson loaded the gun herself, I see an insurmountable wall of reasonable doubt.

Even if he’s acquitted, however, I’m afraid now that I’ve watched those ex-girlfriends testify I can no longer ignore the fact that my odd friend Phil, colloquially if not legally, probably does have an abandoned and malignant heart.

But the most curious thing about the first three women’s testimony is that after each of their terrifying episodes—including an attempted rape in one instance, and a pistol-whipping in another—all three declined to press charges, and, even stranger, all three maintained contact with him. And these were not powerless, pathetic strays, but successful professionals—a talent coordinator, a photographer, Joan Rivers’s manager. Why did they keep playing along? Because he was charming and pitiful? Because he was rich and famous?

He never cursed or threatened or scared me, but at the end of one long, boozy night at Elaine’s, apropos of nothing, he suddenly grabbed my hand and pulled it inside his jacket, placing my fingers near his heart. He was smiling.

At first I thought it was some drunken, sentimental mano a mano gesture. And I suppose it was. But in fact, I realized a second later, he wanted me to feel his shoulder holster, the heat he was packing.

I chuckled. The moment passed. It was almost 4 a.m. I made noises about calling it a night, but he persuaded me to stay out a little longer. And a few minutes later, he was at the piano, playing and singing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”



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