O.J. Simpson Prosecutor Marcia Clark on Her Unexpected Redemption
Over tea in Calabasas, Marcia Clark tells Broadly about her new career as a mystery novelist, the real story behind her bad hair day, and how Kris Jenner was an unexpected domestic violence victim advocate.
Photos by Nathaniel Turner
At Pedalers Fork, a restaurant in Calabasas, CA, Marcia Clark is smiling. Since the end of "the trial," as she refers to the O.J. Simpson case, she has accomplished her dream of writing mystery novels, publishing four successful books. Next month, her fifth book, Blood Defense, hits stores, and her publicist has just told her about a positive early review. "The book just [received a] starred review!" Clark yells. "Publishers are like, 'Yay!'"
The restaurant's host—a muscular guy in a tight black shirt that straight males would only wear in Los Angeles County—keeps looking at Clark. She's currently the most buzzed-about woman in Calabasas—an accomplishment, considering the Kardashians live in town. After years being portrayed as a "bitch" in the media, Clark is an American hero. For the past ten weeks, actress Sarah Paulson has portrayed her on FX's scripted drama The People v. O.J. Simpson. The program shows Clark trying to prosecute a celebrity who had beat his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and then allegedly murdered her and her friend, Ron Goldman, while the American media berates her hair, laughs at nude photos of her that were leaked to the National Enquirer, and calls her "shrill." In retrospect, Clark looks like a feminist hero, and the whole American public looks like a bunch of dicks. "It's crazy [The People v. O.J. Simpson] turned out to be so good—never expected that," Clark says.
Between her black leather jacket, straightened black hair, and glossy lips, she looks like a Hollywood version of a female general. She originally moved to Calabasas for a less Hollywood and more homey vibe. "It was like a cow town when I moved up here [in 1997]," Clark says. "There was a beaching post in front of the post office."
Pedalers Fork looks like a bougie version of the Cracker Barrel, one that serves cobb salads. Clark sits outside at a wooden table. There's a green gazebo nearby, and across the street, a statue of a horse sits on a roof. Clark eats here in between working on her mystery novels. "I'm writing about investigating crime," Clark explains. "Since I know how that goes in real life, it makes it easy for me." Her new novel, Blood Defense, revolves around the double murder of a female TV star; her second book, Moral Defense, explores how committing a crime can make a criminal famous. Clark uses crime as a Rorschach test to see how people conceive of fame.
"People have different agendas regarding who they're willing to cooperate with based on where the celebrity is in the case," Clark says. "I like to look at that and people's response to celebrity—how they deal with it, how it's part of the mix."
When a woman commits a violent crime, for instance, Clark says she has a higher chance of becoming famous than a male offender. "When you have a female who is a murderer and doesn't look like one—you have Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony—there's an inherent fascination," she explains. "Casey Anthony murdered her own baby the way she did, and [during] the time [Anthony's] missing [she] is in wet t-shirt contests." (The jury acquitted Anthony.)
"Today's world feels to me like Chicago the musical, where criminal trials have become their own soap opera," Clark says.
Clark always wanted to write mystery novels. While her family repeatedly moved across the country (her father worked for the Food and Drug Administration), she read mystery books and Ray Bradbury novels. "I was born into crime—born loving it!" Clark says. "From the time I was five years old, I was making up crime stories. It was very sick. Can you imagine a five-year-old talking about, 'I think there was a body in that house?'"
She became the victim of a crime at age 17. In a Hollywood Reporter interview, Clark describes how a waiter raped her when she was on vacation in Israel. The criminal tore her clothes and violently sexually assaulted her, leaving bruises. She kept the incident a secret until after the O.J. Simpson trial.
At the end of high school, Clark was shaken. She doubted she could afford a living as a novelist. In 1972, she enrolled in UCLA to study political science with a specialization in Middle Eastern international relations.
While other college students experimented with drugs, Clark experimented with the Church of Scientology. "It's actually really instructive at the beginning because it's the greatest hits of the best of meditation and all the best of psychology," she told the Hollywood Reporter. "It melds it all together, and it's very helpful."
She considered writing papers the best part of school, but planned to work at the State Department in the foreign office after graduation. The government refused to hire her. "Back then, they weren't fond of girls working in the field," Clark says. "They asked me if I could type—so yeah, not a gendered remark there!"
Clark proceeded to earn her Juris Doctor at Southwestern University School of Law and then started working as a defense attorney. "I never wanted to work for the man—never, never," Clark says. " I only wanted to defend, and the thought of being a prosecutor was disgusting. Ew. That was not cool, and that continued as long as I was handling dope cases." But when her job required her to defend guilty violent criminals, Clark became disgusted. "I realized I wanted to stand up for the victims, and that's when I became a prosecutor," Clark says.
In the early 1980s, Clark decided to make major life changes. She parted with Scientology in 1980, turned off by the religion's weird theology, and the next year she joined the Los Angeles District Attorney's office as a prosecutor. Still dreaming about writing mystery novels, she loved writing her own motions, a task that other prosecutors passed onto underlings.
Although Clark prosecuted in a town filled with screenwriters and actresses, she describes the job as low-key during the 1980s. A high profile case meant a photographer showing up to the arraignment. In 1991, Clark prosecuted Robert John Bardo. Authorities accused Bardo of stalking and murdering the TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer, but the press still only interviewed Clark after some hearings. Occasionally, Court TV showed clips from the trial, but the channel had only just launched; few people watched the network.
[Kris Jenner] brought out the witnesses of the domestic violence.
Clark noticed a change in the media coverage two years later. In 1993, the DA investigated child sexual abuse allegations against Michael Jackson. Where Schaeffer was at best a B-list star, Jackson was an icon like Elvis. MTV News, E!, and Court TV covered the investigation 24/7. Clark watched a grand jury ultimately decided to forego pressing charges against Jackson, and she understood their decision. "Michael Jackson is a really interesting case because you have extortion sitting in the middle of it, and when you have extortion like that—a request or a pay off—it raises questions," Clark says.
Clark thinks legally. In 1994, she heard the evidence against O.J. Simpson and saw a slam dunk. The DA had found a bloody 12-size shoe print (Simpson wore a size 12), a pair of bloody socks at the foot of Simpson's bed, the victim's blood in Simpson's Ford bronco; the list goes on and on. At first Clark—still obsessed with writing—even wrote all her motions in the case.
Then the media got involved. Press vans equipped with satellites parked outside the courthouse, and reporters roamed the halls and sat in the parking lot. Judge Ito, who presided over the trial, would eventually let celebrities visit the chambers and request Clark meet with them. Three months after Nicole's death, her alleged friend Faye Resnick decided to use her death to launch her own career. She wrote a book called Nicole Brown Simpson: The Private Diary of a Life Interrupted. With her co-writer, National Enquirer scribe Mike Walker, Resnick claims that O.J. hung out with Donald Trump and alleges Nicole was a sex fiend who had fucked everyone, including Resnick herself.
"Nicole and I shared a dream," Resnick writes. "We wanted to stop being male-dependent, give up alcohol and drugs, and open up a Starbucks coffee house."
Resnick says that O.J. thought she had gotten money from a drug lord to open that Starbucks. Simpson's defense later latched onto the scene and used it to fuel his theory that Resnick's alleged drug friends could have murdered Nicole. The drama turned Resnick into the kind of star who appeared on Larry King and modeled nude in Playboy, but it caused huge problems for the prosecution. (Today, Resnick causes drama on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.) Clark still hates Resnick. "I don't even call that a book! What do you call that?" Clark says. "Oh my god! That was so upsetting when that came out."
Simpson then hired famed defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, and Clark knew the trial would become a discussion about race. Cochran was one of the first attorneys to win huge settlements for victims of police brutality; he saw his legal work as activism. In 1983, Cochran won a $1 million settlement for the the parents of Ron Settle, a college football player who died in a jail cell in Signal Hill, CA. The city and police department of Signal Hill alleged that Settle had committed suicide; Cochran and the Settle family believed a police officer had strangled him. Settle had been arrested for a speeding violation.
Many people believed that Cochran viewed the Simpson case as a means to make police brutality a national issue. During the Simpson trial, Cochran presented a conspiracy that a white supremacist cop, Mark Fuhrman, had framed Simpson. The defense attorney told the story through memorable poetic one liners ("If [the glove] doesn't fit, you must acquit") while wearing flashy black suits and rainbow ties.
Clark couldn't compete with his theatrics. "When a prosecutor comes in being, Wow! Wow! Wow!, a jury holds back because they're mistrustful," she explains. "I think they want someone who is more objective, more neutral, fair. They look to the prosecutor to be the fair one." She went for a simple look. This was partially pragmatic. At the time, Clark was a single mom with two young sons at home. She needed something easy that she could throw on in the morning while still looking professional. The media mocked her appearance, though, so she decided to get a new haircut.
"As for my hair, here's the true 'saga,'" Clark writes in an email. "I had it permed long before the trial. I had two babies at home and no time for hair drama. When the trial started, I got my hair trimmed, which made the perm kink up a bit (less weight on the hair makes it curl up more). Then, when the perm started to grow out and look scraggly, I had no time to get it permed again, so I just blew it out, because my hair is naturally straight. And when I did that, the press had a field day."
The People v. O.J. Simpson's depiction of the hair controversy shocked millennial viewers. To younger audiences, the sexism is apparent; they grew up with think pieces and seeing Simpson as a wife killer, not an athletic God and hero. "This subject is fascinating to me, watching the millennials come into their awareness of the case and watching their reaction to it," Clark says. "It warms my heart to see a generation so aware—so much more than mine was."
She disagrees, though, with the perception that her leaked nudes count as revenge porn. "It actually wasn't [revenge porn] because it was sold to the National Inquirer by my ex-mother in law who would do anything for money," Clark says. "It could've been, but it wasn't. It was almost her way of making money."
Clark believes the FX show's greatest success has been teaching America the complicated issues within the Simpson case. In the 1990s, Clark says, race affected every trial of a black man in downtown Los Angeles. The Rodney King riots hung over the city like a ghost. "[Defense attorneys] would always take advantage of that, and they did," she recalls. Simpson's celebrity complicated his race. "There was that feeling in much of the community of loyalty," Clark recalls. "We're not going to let him get taken down. He made it. In a white world, he made it, [the black community thought]. As [Simpson] said, 'I'm not black, I'm O.J.' He very much felt that way." Although he mostly hung out with rich white men in Brentwood, the black community still held him in high regard.
According to Clark, many people didn't understand the full context of the case. "If they knew about it, they didn't appreciate the impact it had [on] the attitude of the jurors. I think now they do," she says. "This is a tragedy across the board."
Nicole Brown Simpson's death came after years of suffering from domestic violence at the hands of O.J. According to the Los Angeles Times, she called the cops in 1989, screaming, "He's going to kill me." The cop asked, "Who?" And she said, "O.J." When a cop arrived, Simpson said, "The police have been out here eight times before, and you're going to arrest me for this? This is a family matter. Why do you want to make a big deal of it? We can handle it." He plead no contest and received two years of probation and 120 hours of community service.
"Back then [domestic violence] was still very much viewed as a family affair, something to be swept under the rug," Clark says. "[People thought], You don't wash your dirty laundry by calling the cops and that sort of thing. They didn't view it as a crime, let alone as a crime that often leads to murder—which it often does." Clark, though, remembers one person caring about the domestic violence problem: Kris Jenner. "[Jenner] brought out the witnesses of the domestic violence," Clark recalls. "She brought out Nicole's friends who saw her getting beaten or abused by him, so she was helpful."
The last thing I wanted to do was relive that nightmare.
After the trial, Clark quit her job as a prosecutor. (She also quit smoking.) She wanted to hide, but the trial brought an onslaught of O.J. Simpson-related books written by both journalists and key players. There were memoirs like Cochran's Journey to Justice and co-prosecutor Christopher Darden's critically acclaimed In Contempt, which he co-wrote with National Book Award nominee Jess Walter. Literary journalists, like Vanity Fair legend Dominick Dunne, published books as well, but there were also quack crime books like Donald Freed's Killing Time, written by people who were neither journalists nor trial participants.
Clark wanted to write for a living, but she hated seeing herself as the subject of books. "What was painful about it was how much was wrong," Clark says. "There were so many people writing books who had no clue what they were writing about, and they didn't have access to us."
In 1995, Clark decided to tell her side of the story, signing a $4.2 million book deal to write a memoir called Without a Doubt. She found the memoir process frustrating. "It wasn't fiction!" she says. "It was reliving that nightmare, and the last thing I wanted to do was relive that nightmare, but I also thought, This is my chance to tell the truth."
The publicity led to Clark's career as a media personality. She provided legal commentary on NBC, hosted programs on MSNBC, gave speeches on domestic violence, and consulted for a Lifetime program called For the People.
Sometimes, she ran into other players in the Simpson saga. Whenever she ran into Robert Kardashian, she says, he would speak to her. She remembers, "The last time I saw him, he actually stopped at my table and said, 'Hi Marcia, how you doin'?'" Two weeks later he died.
With the exception of those occasional run-ins, the Simpson trial was behind Clark. She had planned to work as a prosecutor for the rest of her life, but she enjoyed the new work. In 2005, she joined Entertainment Tonight as a crime reporter. ("A hard hitting news agency!" Clark jokes.)
Her first assignment was the Robert Blake trial. Authorities had alleged the actor had murdered his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley. "It was fun and also ironic sitting in the jury box next to all these reporters who covered the Simpson case," Clark says. She considered the case a slam dunk as well, but the jury acquitted Blake.
Again, fame had got in the way of justice—but even fame couldn't free Simpson in 2008. After getting off with an alleged murder, an armed Simpson broke into memorabilia dealer Bruce Fromong's hotel room, stealing back O.J. Simpson sports paraphernalia. ET sent Clark to report on the trial. One day, Clark sat in the cafeteria with her TV crew. "All the defendants were on bail," Clark says. "[Simpson] walked past me." He stopped and turned to Clark.
"Mrs. Clark," he said.
The Nevada jurors convicted Simpson in 2008, and a judge sentenced him to 35 years in prison. Many people believed Simpson had received his due karma for allegedly murdering his wife and Goldman and then having the nerve to prowl around South Florida like a playboy. "It doesn't feel vindicating to me because he's not in jail for the crimes [he committed in 1994]," Clark says.
In the late 2000s, Clark felt nostalgic for her days in the district's attorney office: "fond memories of no Simpson, no cameras," she says. With ample money from her post-Simpson gigs, Clark decided to chase after her childhood dream of writing mystery novels. She practiced the art of fiction, completing several failed novels before writing her first fiction book, Guilty by Association. The book hit stores in 2011, becoming a best seller. "That was thrilling. That was the recognition of the dream," she says. "You can tell so much truth in the course of writing fiction."
The book follows a prosecutor, Rachel Knight, as she investigates the death of another prosecutor. The sequels describe Knight investigating stalkers, the death of a Hollywood billionaire's daughter, and a school shooting that turns criminals into superstars—classic Los Angeles stories. Clark's new book, Blood Defense, revolves around defense attorney named Samantha Brinkman. Her profession allows Clark to write a more flamboyant character.
"Writing Samantha has been unmitigated joy because she's so wild and crazy and I can do crazy things," Clark explains. "The job of a defense attorney is so interesting because it's not about finding the truth—it's about finding a plausible story. She does all kind of things to make that happen, and I have her talk about that."
Clark writes about opinionated, determined women that some people would call "difficult." In 2016, she believes more people understand these women, but thinks some people still criticize them unduly. Thanks to the internet, now there's an army of women to defend women like Clark. The People v. O.J. Simpson has been so successful because Clark's story foreshadowed the major issues that would become mainstream discussions in the new millennium mostly thanks to internet feminism: slut shaming, leaked nudes, and double standards. Twenty years after "the trial," America is finally ready for Marcia Clark.
"People characterized me in gendered ways that I think were unfair," Clark says. "[One day] I was shrill, and the next day I was tough, and the next day I was soft or whatever," she recalls. "I think it's not unfair or misunderstood to say I was tough. I was tough. I had to be tough."