THE PROVENANCE of fame is pointless. Being known—whether it's for double murders or rushing records—is all that matters. O.J. Simpson cadged free drinks and scored sweet babes ("curb girls," his handlers called them) in his exile exactly as he did in his glory years. His fame insulated him from prison, poverty and a life without golf, even when he challenged everybody's distinction between bemusement and revulsion with his money-grabbing attempt to capitalize on his ex-wife's murder with a book, not so coyly titled If I Did It. Now, even after his arrest in Las Vegas for allegedly trying to steal—or was it recover?—memorabilia, Simpson's celebrity has not failed him.
Anybody who saw him beat those murder charges in 1995 and then all but evade civil judgments of $62 million must be skeptical of Nevada's ability to put him away for life for some orchestrated thuggery in a $35-a-night hotel room. Simpson claims he was simply trying to reclaim mementos stolen by a former partner, while the victim insists that Simpson and an impromptu gang of five held him up at gunpoint. One of the items they were after, by the way, was the designer suit Simpson had worn on the day of his acquittal. Just so you know what we're dealing with here.
Again, anybody who's been watching his little hermitage knows better than to discount O.J.'s chances, not just for freedom but also for continuing what has been a surprisingly carefree and unrepentant life. Simpson, whatever else he might be, is a vicious pragmatist, going to remarkable lengths to secure his comfort. If that's to be at the expense of respectability, it's no skin off his back. According to the Los Angeles Times, just days after his original arrest 13 years ago, when supporters might have assumed he was still mourning the death of his children's mother, Simpson passed a note to Richard Gilbert (the very man who Simpson says stole the items he was trying to recover) suggesting that he could sign memorabilia while in confinement. "Imagine," the note said, "O.J. Simpson, L.A. County Jail."
His willingness to forgo the aura of presumed innocence, indeed to flaunt his outlaw status (for $50,000 he lent his likeness to a video football game; when Simpson scores for a team called the Assassins, a hooded mascot appears, making stabbing motions with a large knife), has cost him nothing beyond that respectability. Since moving to Florida in 2000, where state laws allow him to protect his assets, including a $1.1 million home, from the civil suits, Simpson, 60, has enjoyed a kind of dream retirement, living off pensions of nearly $400,000 (also exempt from judgments) and the sale of memorabilia (maybe not exempt, but the proceeds are funneled into corporations, fronted by his children, that make them nearly impossible to recover). There's been golf in the mornings, autographs and free drinks in the afternoon and, according to one source, "no lack of ladies" at night (although he no longer selects girlfriends from the keening galleries at the curb on Rockingham Avenue). Several reports in recent years have recorded a smug satisfaction that goes well beyond shameless: "I love my life."
That Simpson has suddenly ventured beyond his comfort zone and begun confronting memorabilia dealers in off-the-Strip hotel rooms might suggest a growing recklessness, or desperation. This is on top of that book idea, a pretty bad idea, which was supposed to channel $630,000 into his kids' accounts but will instead go toward satisfying the lawsuits and other debts. (As of Monday the book was No. 5 on Amazon's best-seller list.) Is O.J. running out of dough? "The demand [for Simpson-related memorabilia] is nowhere where it used to be," says John Broggi, executive director of the National Sports Collectors Convention. Simpson has never stinted on supply, so demand has trended down. The hobbyists already have what they want. "He's more of a curiosity," says Broggi.
Still, curiosity is acceptable, even useful, falling somewhere on that continuum between fame and outright disgust. Just being known is worth something, right? After all, the week of Simpson's Vegas arrest, the number of O.J. items sold on eBay tripled.
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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND
JOE SKIPPER/REUTERS (CAMERAMAN WITH HAT)