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You've got to meet these guys, Joe Stellini told Bob and Tom Kardashian. Stellini was maitre d' at the Luau, a singles hangout the brothers frequented. Born to wealth, yet restlessly earning their own first millions, Tom, the older brother, owned a Rolls-Royce; Bob didn't--yet. Devoutly religious but also bachelors-about-town, they were regulars at the La Scala in Beverly Hills, where Sinatra sometimes dropped in; they cruised the Factory, a flavor-of-the-moment disco. The guys Stellini wanted them to meet were celebrity athletes who made many of the same rounds: O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings.
No small part of Stellini's introduction hinged on football. The brothers had played at Dorsey High School, one of the few integrated schools at the time. They lived and breathed football. At the University of Southern California, half a decade before Simpson and Cowlings arrived with athletic scholarships, they stayed close to the game as student managers, penciling in statistics and handing out towels when they might have been studying harder. You've got to meet these guys, Stellini insisted. He set up a Sunday tennis match in Beverly Hills. Harry and Pete Rothchild, two other Luau customers, had oil money and lived in a small castle with its own court on Summit Drive. Stellini arranged it.
The four met on a fine spring morning. At first Bob was intimidated. After all, Simpson had won a Heisman trophy. Though new to tennis, the athletes brought strength and superior speed to the court. Bob saw immediately that the famous running back with the big Afro was lightning at the net. His reflexes were amazing. You'd bang in a nice passing shot and he'd be rightthere. His teammate, Cowlings, owned a booming serve. Fortunately it missed sometimes. But it was Simpson's speed and agility, his awesome feet, that Bob remembered. The Kardashian brothers, skilled recreational players, ultimately triumphed in a close match lasting three sets.
After a few games, Bob relaxed. The professional jocks were friendly. At first, he felt that he was playing famous people. Then they were just a couple of guys who happened to be famous. The four went out to eat and everybody said, Hey, let's do it again next week. Los Angeles in 1970, like those four men, was in its prime. An explosion in Watts five years earlier had shaken the city's smug assumption that everyone was equally happy in the City of the Angels. But where these men lived and socialized, there were fortunes to be made on movie lots, in recording studios, in aerospace, oil drilling, banking, and bread-and-butter farming.
Legend has it that fantasy has been the backbone of reality in California since the earliest days of the gold rush and the movie studios. If West Coast culture, as popular myth insists, can reinvent itself at whim, then the rich young men swatting tennis balls that morning in Beverly Hills were living examples of the self-transformations possible in California's chaotic scramble for riches and fame. Simpson and Cowlings were ghetto-born black men liberated by athletics from the culture of poverty. For millions of football fans, they were household names. The Kardashian brothers were the grandchildren of Russian-Armenian immigrants who made a fortune through their sweat and ingenuity. Aggressive and serious, Tom was learning what the family meat packing business was all about. Bob, more of a maverick, loved music and had just opened his law practice. But that morning, all that mattered for these men in their mid twenties was male bonding and a good forehand.
Something clicked for the four USC alumni. The game became a weekly ritual. The quartet began frequenting the city's best bars and restaurants, dining expensively, drinking, trolling for showcase women. Making the rounds together, they were always stars in the most exciting show in town.
Bob and O.J. got into a tight thing very fast. Tom, four years older, stayed more at the edge of the group. He'd already made one best-dressed list and was inclined to be a little stuffy. They nicknamed him Mr. Mundane. The younger brother and Simpson shared a nasty sense of humor, a taste for practical jokes, an athletic flair, trash talk. One night they started talking to some woman in the Luau and Bob told her he was from the Armenian Mafia, an enforcer. He liked to break people's knees. She believed him; O.J. kept a poker face. Loved it. They started hanging out at night, going to dinner a lot. It seemed they talked about everything.
Simpson separated from his wife Marguerite for a year. Became interested in a young lady named Nicole Brown. He moved into the Kardashian brothers' plush home in Benedict Canyon complete with tennis court and swimming pool. The ultimate bachelor pad. He also rented space in Bob's law offices to oversee his off-the-gridiron businesses.
Life became even richer. Money followed by prestige.
Tom Kardashian had a Rolls Corniche. O.J. had a black '69 Rolls. Bob was still driving an old Pontiac Grand Prix, royal blue with black leather interior--maximum wheels by some standards. But in that crowd, the car to aspire to was a Rolls.
Then Bob finally bought his Rolls, also black. He even moved into the Summit Drive castle for a year. Priscilla Presley had bought it from the Rothchilds. Bob met Priscilla and before long Bob hosted those tennis matches. Cowlings, Simpson's childhood friend, stuck with his Cadillac. ''I had a Corvette," Bob remembers. ''My brother also kept a Lamborghini and a Jaguar XKE. We were living.''
Charmed lives. They were living everyman's--well, every twentieth-century American man's--fantasies. American Tragedy:. Copyright © by Lawrence Schiller. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.