As for Rosa's Tale, Dunne's Mind Is Maid Up

He has written about the world's most wealthy and notorious women, but it was a maid named Rosa Lopez that Vanity Fair correspondent Dominick Dunne talked about at a Costa Mesa benefit.

"She is the most famous maid in history," said Dunne of the defense witness who was cross-examined last week at the O.J. Simpson murder trial. "It's so incredible, the lies this woman told! But you know, I don't blame Rosa. Rosa is a maid, and she was paid ."

A New York journalist/novelist who is covering the double-murder trial, Dunne has a front-row seat at "the biggest of them all," he told 125 guests Thursday at a fund-raiser for the National Victim Center in Washington held at the Calvin Klein boutique.

"I almost didn't show up tonight," the trial was so intense, Dunne told guests. "We thought they were going to shackle Rosa and take her off.

"That was the rumor all over court when I left to come here."

What sets the O.J. Simpson murder trial apart, Dunne believes, is its sub-plots. "This is not just another murder story," he said. "You have the story about Johnnie Cochran's mistress . . . Marcia Clark's husband suing for custody of their boys.

"Most of the trials I cover, the story is over by the time we get into court. But this story is still happening."

And just as interesting, Dunne said, is the all-out determination by observers "to get O.J. free."

"You can't believe the drama that is going on outside the courthouse," he said. "If you live in Los Angeles, don't miss it, the treat of driving by and looking at the nuts out there.

"It's beyond bizarre. I've never seen anything like it, ever, ever, ever . There are street corner orators, screaming at the top of their voice, 'Everybody knows the L.A.P.D. framed him!' Then everybody cheers! Every night, the crowds get bigger."

Arriving at the boutique in a pin-stripe suit and Gucci loafers, Dunne--author of "An Inconvenient Woman," "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles," "People Like Us," and "A Season in Purgatory"--sipped sparkling water with Vanity Fair publisher Mitchell Fox before addressing guests, mostly faithful boutique customers.

During his introduction, Fox called Dunne "smart, wickedly funny, popular--a writer who is able to break down the barrier between interviewer and subject."

Blushing slightly, Dunne said he was "embarrassed by such glowing introductions--but I love them, really," he said.

And then he told guests about his interest in wealth and power--especially when it comes face-to-face with criminal justice.

"It is fascinating how the wealthy close ranks around their own," he said. "It is a power that can influence the media, even the police.

"Truth and ethics have gone out of style. Now, it's all coming down to what you can get a jury to believe."

Dunne, whose daughter, actress Dominique Dunne, was strangled by ex-boyfriend John Sweeney in Los Angeles in 1982, is a board member of the National Victim Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to crime victim assistance and violence reduction.

"In our system, the rights of the victim do not equate with the rights of defendant," he said. His daughter's killer served less than four years in prison.

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When he came to Los Angeles to cover the trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez, accused of gunning down their parents, he stayed for seven months.

"I became obsessed," he said, lowering his voice. "I don't believe for one instant that poor Jose Menendez--who was a strict father, a martinet, tough on those kids . . . ever sexually molested them.

"I do not. It is a total fabrication. There, in that place (courtroom), there were lies told like I have never heard before.

"(Erik and Lyle) would come in and say they couldn't have planned this (testimony) because they were in different cell blocks, had no connection to each other.

"That was true," Dunne said. "But what I found out, writing this, was that they had the most brilliant, ingenious phone system, where, at a certain time each evening, Lyle would call someone here , and Erik would call someone there , and they would be patched through to each other.

"And, these two guys talked to each other every night, sometimes for as long as an hour, where they got it all together."

Leslie Abramson, attorney for Erik Menendez, "hates me," Dunne said, smiling. "It's a hatred I'm proud of."

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Four courses and a funeral: Tables laden with artistic centerpieces and dishes--all created by Orange County and Los Angeles artists--filled the Laguna Art Museum on Saturday night at its $175-per-person "Feast on Art" benefit staged by the Exhibitionists Council.

And while they were all brilliant and beautiful, one caught the eye.

Situated in a corner festooned with black crepe, the dining table designed by New York artist Jim Morphesis (formerly of Los Angeles) featured a tall cylindrical centerpiece painted with a skull in flames.

Standing in this "vase" were dead tree branches collected from the Laguna Beach area. Lacquer place mats echoed the morbid images and so did the decorative boxes that were placed at every other setting. Each wine glass held a black napkin and a gold-dipped rose.

"I love biblical images, mythological images, Byzantine images," explained Morphesis, who is quick to tell you he is Greek Orthodox. "They are what I deal with. End-of-the-world stuff is a natural for me. It's the most interesting part of the Bible--the part where everything gets cleaned up."

Was this a setting for a last supper? "No, just a fun funeral for anyone who rally wants to get into it," he said, laughing.

"Basically, it's for Orange County--a place that has survived a great deal in the last few years--fire, earthquake, flood and now, bankruptcy," he said.

"But here, everyone bounces back. I've been amazed. Many collectors lost everything in the fire here. But right now, my most enthusiastic collectors are in Orange County."

The event was chaired by Marsha Grinberg, with Teri Kennady assisting. Also among guests was the museum's new director, Naomi Vine. "The most important thing for me to do right away is to help bring some stability to the museum's financial situation," Vine said.

"There have been some ups and downs in the last two years and we really do need to even it out."

Vine also wants to get the good word out about the museum. "I'm not sure Orange County fully appreciates how highly regarded the museum is nationally," she said. "I would like every one in Orange County to know that and enjoy it, because it's here and it's wonderful."

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Bulgari on board: Celebrating its recent opening at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Bulgari jewelers tossed a feast for the eyes and the tummy last week when it held a reception for members of Angelitos de Oro, a support group of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Orange County.

Ruby, sapphire and diamond baubles handmade in Italy were on display at eye level, so guests could savor tidbits cooked up by chef Joaquim Splichal --owner of the popular Patina restaurant (a haunt of Warren Beatty's) in Los Angeles--as they cruised the elegant bash staged at the Robert Mondavi Wine & Food Center in Costa Mesa.

Among party-goers was Angelitos President Arden Flamson, who had her eye on a ruby necklace. "It would be perfect for the South Coast Repertory gala," she said.

After the bash was over, Henry and Renee Segerstrom joined Bulgari store executives for a veal chop and truffle supper served by Splichal himself. The private affair, staged in a small dining chamber, had been organized to welcome Nicola Bulgari, who was unable to attend the party.

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