The Ex-Kardashian’s Song
A couple of weeks ago, the Kardashian family released a new video. (If you’re already tuning out, please stick around—it’s going to be worth it, I promise.) It was a birthday tribute to matriarch Kris Jenner, in the form of a remake of a short vanity film that Jenner herself had made decades earlier. And while the media lavished most of its attention on the new version, written and recorded by the Kardashian sisters and featuring cameos from the likes of Justin Bieber, I found myself much more intrigued by the older clip, which has been kicking around online for a few years. It’s a remarkably guileless celebration of its subject’s looks, wealth, and connections, disguised as a love letter to her friends, as sung to the tune of Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” Watching it now, it’s hard not to think about the strange places that life would take her, or to wonder at the change in her routine implied by the original lyrics, which mention the Cheesecake Factory, Bible study, and church on Sundays. The images of her “friends,” which include brief glimpses of Michael Jackson and O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson, carry an unavoidable charge of their own. But the moment that made me really sit up and take notice came at the very end, as the credits began to roll: Directed by Lawrence Schiller. And in all the cheeky coverage that the video and its remake have inspired, nobody seems to have mentioned the Schiller connection, which in many ways is the most surprising detail of all.
Who is Lawrence Schiller? He’s one of the great hustlers and characters of the twentieth century, a man often compared to a mercenary version of Forrest Gump, and for good reason. Schiller began his career as an enterprising photographer and ambulance chaser who first gained fame with his shots of Marilyn Monroe’s nude swim on the set of Something’s Got to Give. Later, he used his natural shrewdness to get everything from Jack Ruby’s last interview—which he snuck into Ruby’s hospital room to obtain—to an exclusive with Sharon Atkins of the Manson family. To most readers, he’s best remembered for his collaborations with Norman Mailer on no fewer than seven projects, most notably The Executioner’s Song. (Schiller got the life rights to Gary Gilmore and his girlfriend Nicole, brought in Mailer as a writer for hire, and conducted most of the interviews and background research. He appears as a major character in the second half of the novel itself, and later directed the miniseries of the same name, which provided a breakthrough role for Tommy Lee Jones.) His relationship to Mailer, whose estate he currently oversees, is neatly described by Peter Manso in the exquisitely bitchy afterword to Mailer: His Life and Times:
Like most hustlers [Schiller] was smart, full of nerve and combativeness, and what was most obvious was that he enjoyed his reputation as an independent who refused to play by other people’s rules…“Norman, I’ve just signed up so-and-so. You interested?” Schiller might offer, operating as a one-man production office, talent agency, and cash register, and if it was a Yeah, the high-energy dealmaker would scurry off to take care of all the details. Then boom, there it was, a new project on the table. How could Norman resist?
And his connection to the Kardashians is even more implausible. Schiller was friends with Robert Kardashian, an entertainment businessman and lawyer in Los Angeles who moved in similar circles. He had also been neighbors in Bel Air with O.J. Simpson. (An old profile from the Los Angeles Times notes: “Schiller had also once directed O.J. in a music video”—apparently a reference to the Jenner birthday film—”as a favor to their mutual friend Robert Kardashian.”) When the Simpson trial began, Schiller was more than ready to pounce: with the blessing of Kardashian, by then a member of the defense team, he spent thirty hours interviewing O.J. in jail, and he ghostwrote the resulting book I Want to Tell You. After the verdict, Schiller performed one of the great about-faces in the history of journalism, spinning his access to the Simpson defense into the book American Tragedy, which is best known for its account of a lie detector test that Simpson failed two days after the murders. The book and its subsequent adaptation as a miniseries, which Norman Mailer wrote, led to Simpson filing a lawsuit against Schiller and Kardashian, claiming that Schiller had obtained the interviews under false pretenses. Kardashian was also disciplined by the California State Bar for his involvement with the project, and he ultimately agreed not to practice law for two years. He died soon thereafter.
Schiller is in his late seventies now, but he hasn’t slowed down: he released a new pair of documentaries on the Simpson trial just last month. (In a weird reversal, for a later generation, the O.J. story retains its interest primarily because of the Kardashian connection: the new tidbit that got the most play involved a suicide threat that Simpson allegedly made in the teenage Kim Kardashian’s bedroom.) It’s unclear what his relationship is with the family now, although I’d guess that it probably isn’t great. But it also feels like his last big scoop. I’ve believed for a long time that there’s a fantastic book lurking at the heart of the Kardashian saga—not the cheap cash-grabs that currently populate Amazon, but a huge, Robert Caro-level treatment that would give the rise of this family the consideration it deserves. As sick as some of us may be of the Kardashians by now, there’s no denying that if we were encountering their story for the first time, it would strike us as indecently fascinating, with a cast of characters ranging from O.J. to Caitlyn Jenner to Lamar Odom to Kanye West. And Lawrence Schiller is obviously the man to write it. It’s impossible to imagine that the thought hasn’t crossed his mind: Schiller has put himself at the center of such circuses for half a century now, and even if he weren’t so close to the story already, he’d be a great choice. His books tend to be enormous, meticulously researched, and saturated with gossip, and few figures of any era would have more to say about the role that the media plays in the creation and destruction of human stories. Consider this post an open letter to Schiller. This book needs to exist; I know I’d buy it. And Schiller ought to get on it now.