Stars and (Maybe) Stripes

A crime doesn’t really make great dinner-party conversation until it shows up in that chronicle of marquee names caught doing gutter deeds, “Dominick Dunne’s Diary.” Taking a break from his exhaustive probe of Edmond Safra’s death, the writer – whose fame has far outlasted the Menendez-brothers case that first put him on Larry King – arrived at the Sotheby’s price-fixing trial last week, all but stopping the show. One young newspaper reporter leaned over and said, in lieu of an introduction, “I knew we’d gotten to the good part when you showed up.”

Before Dunne arrived, former Christie’s CEO Christopher Davidge sat in the witness box looking more like an imperious Russian officer (picture Sean Connery’s sub captain in The Hunt for Red October, minus the integrity) than a man who left school at 16 and went on to join the firm where his grandfather was a porter. A few promotions, $8 million in severance, and immunity from prosecution have made Davidge anything but servile. His jousting with Scott Muller, a lawyer for former Sotheby’s head A. Alfred Taubman, over nearly every point led the exasperated defense attorney into a Clintonian dissection of the meaning of “we” in a crucial memo from Davidge’s files.

It wasn’t until Dede Brooks took the stand for her J’accuse moment that the gallery became standing room only. Even Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art, put in a short stint at the back of the room to gaze upon his fallen idols. “I’ve seen enough,” he said as he left during a break in the testimony. “I just came to get a look at her.”

In leaving so soon, Meyer missed a rich, emotional performance. Taking the oath, Brooks came off as a coltish high-school athlete, and her voice broke with nervousness during the first few routine questions. But at times under cross-examination, she revealed her famous hard edge, refusing to admit to any malfeasance: “We gave incredibly good service that we weren’t getting paid for; what I did was wrong because it was illegal, but I don’t think I harmed our clients.” Twice during questions about her potential jail time, though, Brooks looked to be on the verge of tears. Which is exactly why Dominick Dunne was there.

Drawn by the promise of a filial drama between Brooks and Taubman, her mentor, he wasn’t disappointed. When Brooks retailed Taubman’s now-famous “You’ll look good in stripes” line, Dunne said, “Now we’re talking.”

Even if Brooks hadn’t uttered words worth dining out on, Dunne’s willingness to stake out a bench at 8:30 a.m. allowed him to intercept Taubman. “You’ve come to watch him work?” asked a lighthearted and clearly confident Taubman as he gestured toward Muller. With that, the elfin writer reached up to put a reassuring hand on the Brobdingnagian shopping-mall tycoon’s shoulder.

“I was worried he wouldn’t take my being here well,” Dunne said later, savoring an encounter that was part consolation and part benediction. “Al’s got class.”

Stars and (Maybe) Stripes