06/20/2007 11:01 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Phil Spector: The Case of the Zippered Purse

Being a Beatles' baby, I didn't grow up with Phil Spector's name on my lips... mercifully... since as his current LA gig -- standing trial for second degree murder -- has proved that the Wall of Sound impresario and blondes (not to mention brunettes and redheads) are a lethal mix. Especially when it came to actress Lana Clarkson. As the world knows, in February 2003, Spector -- making the final stop of a night (actually week-end) spent falling, nee, leaping, off the wagon -- ended up in the VIP lounge of the House of Blues (and how, as it turned out). And it was there that Clarkson, its newly-minted hostess, fatally accepted his invitation to come up and see his etchings -- make that arrangements.

Two hours later, the six-foot blonde beauty, slumped in a chair in Spector's foyer, was dead, a single bullet to the brain from the gun she happened to have in her mouth. Her diminutive host, meanwhile, in a spectacular breach of etiquette, turned on his three inch Cuban heels and ran out the door, gun in hand, announcing to the Brazilian driver of his black Mercedes: "I think I killed somebody." All in all one helluva nightcap.

Though not the first of its type chez the reclusive Spector. Over the years the Norma Desmond of Rock, turned separation anxiety into a macabre art form. Using his ever-fading fame to lure women to his lair, Phil invariably flew into a full-blown, gun waving, invective-spewing hissy fit if they wanted to leave (presumably avoiding the even worse fate of sleeping with the whacko). Brandishing one of his 14 (registered and not) guns, the 5'4" cowboy pointed it menacingly in his date's face until she either acquiesced or escaped -- clearly what Clarkson was trying to do. But Spector, fueled on booze and anti-psychotics, enraged by foreplay-Phil-interruptus, forced the gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger.

Not, of course, what his high-priced, low-rent Wall of Defense team is selling. (If you're innocent, do you really need six lawyers to convince twelve jurors?) They claim Clarkson did the deed... that depressed over a career going nowhere, the 40-year-old actress picked that night to commit the most intimate of acts -- killing yourself -- in the most impersonal of settings: plopped in a chair in the back entryway of a man she'd just met... using her own gun (unregistered and unknown to friends) to destroy the beautiful face she'd spent years trying to get noticed. Moreover, she carried out the oxymoronic "accidental suicide" with her faux leopard print pocketbook slung over her right shoulder, heeding -- even in her final moments, apparently -- every mother's admonition to: "never let your purse out of your sight."

Tilt. A dame sitting a foot from the exit with her bag on her shoulder, is trying to get out of the door -- not her life, as Court TV's intrepid Nancy Grace pointed out. Facing down a guest familiar with the crime scene, Grace cut to the handbag chase. "Zipped or unzipped?" she demanded. Zipped, it turned out. "That settles it," she crowed, "No woman who zips up her bag is going to kill herself."

(For trial junkies like myself, the Spector outing is bittersweet indeed... the last, glorious, victory lap of the Court TV we know and love, the BBC-like, no frills, uber-lawyered, brilliantly explained, coverage of the American legal system. This fall, the network that taught me everything I know about blood spatter, DNA, parole violation, victim's rights, death by succinylocholine and Scott Peterson is getting Hiltonized with a new name and face: Star Jones who'll, undoubtedly, do for American justice what Anna Nicole did for weight loss: "Juris Prudence, Baby!").

When I heard a woman ended up dead in Spector's 8,000-square-foot castle in suburban Alhambra (a trigger's pull from exotic Glendale), I immediately thought: 'What took so long?" My first clue came in the early eighties when I did a TV interview with his second wife, Ronee (who'd then never publicly discussed her husband). Life with Phil as it turned out, had been a nightmare of control and abuse, starting when he molded her into the lead singer for the Ronettes, Spector's most successful Fifties Girl Group (records for which she, like Phil's other money-making female singers -- The Crystals' LaLa Brooks, and DeDe Kinnebrew, currently reborn on TV as talking-Phil-Heads -- never saw a cent).

Once married, Spector treated his wife like a caged animal (ditto their two adopted sons, one of whom recently characterized Clarkson's demise as the inevitably tragic conclusion to their father's lifetime fascination/abuse of weapons). Locked in their mansion, cut off from all outside communication, living in constant fear of her husband's violent rages, verbal assaults, gun-wielding threats, Ronee, finally -- mustering a last ounce of self esteem -- made a successful Midnight Express dash to freedom.

It was a story too tough to forget -- but revitalized again years later when Dorothy Melvin (one of Spector's four former flames who testified against him in court), then working for my pal, Joan Rivers, recounted to me the same saga she told jurors: of Spector, incensed over Dorothy leaving, chasing her down his driveway with the gun he slammed upside her face.

Upon hearing this, I knew that Phil Spector was a hand grenade with the pin pulled out.

Like all California celeb trials, this one has no shortage of theatre, starting with the defendant's (everyday-is-red-carpet-day) ceremonial court entrances. Flanked by two huge, black bodyguards, (superfluous considering his only real enemy is himself), Spector, clearly enjoying being the center of attention, again, even this kind, struts before cameras, swathed in a carefully-considered wardrobe lurching somewhere between Shaft and Ricky Ricardo: frock coats, open-collar raspberry shirts, Cuban heels. At least initially. Now that testimony has moved to the night of the crime, he's added ties, as if everything prior, largely about Clarkson, didn't rate sartorial formality.

Stuck to his side is his latest wife, 26-year-old Rochelle, added to the entourage after Clarkson cooled. (Love to see the catastrophe death clause in that pre-nup!) Rochelle, as it turns out, was the assistant to his former assistant, Michelle, who reportedly shot that charming home video of Phil -- Afro weave, Hawaiian shirt, shell necklace -- sitting in his foyer/death chamber, pitching a reality show about a music producer on trial (in which he refers to Clarkson only as 'the female' or 'decedent.').

Once inside and seated, Spector is one scary son of a gun, as it were. Hands shaking, (by-product of his powerful anti-psychotic cocktail), he hunkers down in his chair like a toad, casting his unblinking, thousand yard stare on witnesses... a figure so thoroughly unsympathetic that even seasoned crime lawyers like CTV fave Brian Weiss get affected: "This guy even scares me."

Around, and because of him, meanwhile, a clear-cut, white-hat-versus-black drama plays out, the former represented by Lance Ito's polar opposite, Judge Larry Fidler and prosecutor, Alan Jackson, the Jimmy Stewart of this tawdry saga: young, attractive, clean cut, smart, dedicated. (If O.J. faced these two, he'd be looking for Nicole on Death Row). Fidler, a mind as taut as the skin on his bald head, is in complete control of his courtroom, calling the shots with clarity, fairness and, most importantly, no fear -- especially when it comes to Spector's lead lawyer, Bruce Cutler. Early on, when Cutler shouted at a witness during cross, Fidler brought him up quick and short. "You will not yell at witnesses in my courtroom. Do you understand?"

Apparently, Phil did, sidelining Cutler for weeks until, recently, letting him stand up to Fidler again. Losing an argument over allowing into evidence Spector's self-serving comments the night of the murder, Bruce whined: 'So how can we go about this?" "Put Mr. Spector on the stand," snapped Fidler. (Oh, dear God, if only.....)

When it comes to the rest of the Gang of Six... well, to know them is not to love them, nor for that matter, recall their names any more than Phil did Lana's. There's the slick, silver-haired, clipped unsentimental, anal retentive one... the disdainful, faux folksy, tall guy who spent three days trying to get unflappable limo driver, Adriano DeSouza to admit he hadn't heard what he did -- but he did; and the broad in the bunch, efficient but charmless forensic specialist Linda Kenney Baden, wife of renowned blood spatter maven, Michael, set to testify for Phil (along with Henry Lee and Cyril Wecht, a triad of the best help blood money can buy) whose long, brassy, blonde hair (extensions) deserves its own reality show; perhaps a co-star with Phil's hilarious plastered down, dull blonde, pageboy bob wig.

In contrast, the no-bells-and-whistles state has offered jurors what all of Phil's dough can't buy: a guy to root for. Prosecutor Alan Jackson, though physically outnumbered by Spector's team is, by dent of brilliance, never out-thought.

Which might not be enough. After all, California never hangs its stars. Whatever the verdict Phil Spector's trial is exposing what he is, and always was: a coward who's spent a lifetime hiding behind walls... of sound, weapons, money, hair, booze, medication, intimidation, blame, victimhood (at nine his father's suicide -- a gun, perhaps? -- leaving him with a harpy of a mother, whom he, in turn, tortured, making her sit outside his recording studio and run errands).

His touted genius was only of the moment. When rock and roll was in its adolescence, Spector was the man -- boy -- for the job. But as the music grew up, moved beyond songs about teen-age crushes and class rings, requiring a producer to bring to the mix a maturity and depth capable of translating turbulent times into memorable music, Spector -- with a couple notable exceptions -- couldn't come up with the goods. When work -- and life -- demanded he be a man, not a kid, he didn't cut it. And he knew it. Furious over his own impotency, he turned to the most clichéd of macho substitutes: guns, carrying them everywhere, pointing at everyone who dared tell him no -- ever reliant on the toys of a boy -- only now the bullets were real.

Still, there's no doubt Spector thinks he's the star of these proceedings; but it's his victim's name that's on the marquee, above the line. In death, ironically, Clarkson is getting what she sought in life: stardom, attention, appreciation, buzz. Despite damning excerpts posthumously lifted by the defense from her private diaries, e-mails, writings, (cherry picked to prove that hapless Phil was simply the target of a crazy Hollywood blonde, determined to ride the (shredding) coattails of his fame to her death), it is Clarkson's humanity, swinging between optimism and despair, that fills the room.

Awash in the virtues and vices of being human, she's on the one hand, decent, good-hearted, fun, thoughtful, vulnerable; on the other, unsure, broke, alone, depressed. A gal on her own in Hollywood, borrowing 200 bucks for food after a jobless year, ending up in the hospital her last Christmas Day with two broken wrists, the result of a spill while dancing for a kids' charity. Understandably blue, she later wrote a friend, that "all this may be too much for one girl, that she might 'put her affairs in order, be done with it."

But a month later, that same girl is elated, rushing out to buy ten new pairs of shoes for her new job at the House of Blues. Clarkson couldn't control her destiny, but she never quit trying: took the class, wrote the short story, admitted the Tequila problem, checked out rehab, ponied up two-grand-a-pop for porcelain caps on her two front teeth, blown to smithereens by the bullet, now fragments presented in court as evidence.

Whatever she got herself into that night with Spector -- his DNA was found on her left breast, her fake eyelashes on the back of the toilet -- she, ultimately, wanted out. Instead, the pretty forty-year-old veteran of 50 appearances in TV series, a handful of B movies, having spent a career cooling her heels in the foyer of stardom, ironically died in one.

Still, her last day on earth, Lana Clarkson was a blonde on a roll: an actress with a new part, a new audience, a new chance. Twenty years of Hollywood's nay-saying to the contrary, Lana Clarkson was still truckin' toward her dream. Whether it was ambition or loneliness, probably both, that made her go home with Phil Spector, Clarkson still believed enough in herself, her potential -- her own luck -- to roll the dice one more time. Maybe this man, this weird stranger with his own stardom, might finally be the one to recognize hers. After all what did she have to lose?

Only her life.