Chasing the ghost of O.J.

Times Staff Writer

Amid the fallout and finger-pointing surrounding O.J. Simpson's hypothetical confession "If I Did It," there's one man who knows everything but has said nothing -- ghostwriter and longtime L.A.-based screenwriter Pablo Fenjves.

He was Nicole Brown Simpson's neighbor and a witness at the 1995 murder trial, the man who famously testified that he heard a dog's "plaintive wail" the night of her murder, a key plot point in the prosecution's case. Now he's at the center of the Simpson saga yet again, muzzled by a confidentiality agreement and hounded by the media and movie producers eager to tell his story.

It's a familiar, perhaps even nostalgic, place for Fenjves, a bookish sort who during the Simpson trial couldn't step outside his own apartment without being recognized by tourists or approached by reporters. But in the last 11 years, he drifted back into the periphery of fame, penning books for Bernie Mac; Amber Frey, the ex-girlfriend of convicted murderer Scott Peterson; Richard Pryor's daughter Rain Pryor; and model turned reality show star Janice Dickinson, among others.

Fenjves never confirmed he was Simpson's ghostwriter to the National Enquirer, which five weeks ago named him in the story that broke the news of the ReganBooks/HarperCollins book. In the weeks since, his name has resurfaced in several New York newspapers, including the New York Post, which suggested he and Judith Regan were once romantic. The New York Daily News quoted him as saying only that ghostwriters were "contractually barred" from talking about their projects. And in a New Yorker article that appeared online last week, he was quoted seemingly justifying having taken the job.

"I think you'd be hard pressed to find a reporter in this country who, given the opportunity to sit down and take a confession from O.J. Simpson, no matter how oblique, would have refused to do so," Fenjves told New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin.

Fenjves, who as a writer has toiled in anonymity for much of his career, is reaching an almost surreal career high with a work he cannot claim as his own. Though News Corp. canceled the publication Monday -- and a Fox interview that was set to promote it -- several copies popped up on EBay two days later with one bid reaching $1 million. By Friday, however, all copies had been withdrawn from the site.

In another odd twist, Simpson seems to be blaming Fenjves for the fact that the public views "If I Did It" as a confession. In a radio interview, Simpson even suggested that the detail in the book about the night of the murders indicates that Fenjves himself committed the crimes.

"When I saw what he wrote, I said, 'Maybe you did it because they're saying the chapter contains things only the killer would know,' " Simpson said on WTPS-AM in Miami. "I don't know these things."

So far, Fenjves hasn't taken the bait. He had no comment when reached by phone Friday.

"I'm really sorry," he said. "I can't talk to you. I can't even talk to the movie producers who have been calling."

His comments about Simpson to the New York Times back in 1995 still resonate today. When asked where his sympathies lay, Fenjves responded: "That's like asking me, 'Do I think O.J. did it?' I have an opinion on that, but I don't think it would be wise to express it."

Although Fenjves' role in the scuttled Simpson book remains mysterious, this much is known: He's an active part of Regan's stable of writers, with three titles at ReganBooks this year, and a player in the netherworld of gossip journalism and ghostwriting.

Mike Walker, a gossip columnist at the Enquirer, remembers him at the tabloid in the 1970s as a young, hard-working reporter with writing talent. Before news of "If I Did It" broke, Walker interviewed Fenjves on his KABC-AM radio show. Fenjves told him ghostwriting was the best of all worlds for a writer. It provided steady, lucrative pay and uncomplicated work.

Fenjves' path to this sensational genre was a bit circuitous. Fenjves, now 53 and divorced, was born to Hungarian parents in Venezuela and speaks Spanish and French. He started out in journalism, writing for the Canadian Press in Montreal, then was hired as a general assignment reporter at the National Enquirer, where he met Regan, then a fellow reporter.

In a photo on the HarperCollins website, Fenjves appears in wireless round glasses and with a graying goatee. He's been a screenwriter for 20 years, according to the site, and "had deals with everyone from Universal to Warner Bros. and ABC to HBO." He collaborated on three New York Times bestsellers.

Fenjves moved to L.A. from New York in the late 1980s after he sold a couple of movie scripts. He never had a feature film made, but Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy were once attached to his projects. One of his unproduced scripts, a romantic comedy that sold to Paramount Pictures in the late 1980s called "The Last Bachelor," was featured in the November 2005 issue of the Writers Guild magazine Written By. This year, "The Trophy Wife," which he wrote, appeared on Lifetime, and he has two others that recently sold: "The Good Brother," about two con artists, was purchased by Full On Entertainment, and "Adrift," a thriller set on the ocean, was bought by A-Mark Entertainment.

Many of the TV movies-of-the-week that Fenjves had produced in his career came in the years surrounding the murder trial, from 1994 to 1997. They included "The Devil's Child" and "When a Dark Man Calls." This was apparently a short-lived burst of success because by 1999, Fenjves wrote in his divorce papers that his screenwriting career was on a "downward trajectory," thanks to the narrowing TV movie market and his own declining youth.

"I am no longer young, no longer hip," he wrote in a declaration filed May 2000 in Los Angeles Superior Court. "I can't name a single song by Nine Inch Nails.... In 1997, my then agency Paradigm as much as told me that they couldn't sell me anymore."

Regan, though, considered him marketable. When she opened her own imprint in the mid-1990s, Fenjves became one of her stars and an obvious choice to ghostwrite "If I Did It," for which he was reportedly paid $100,000 for two to three months of work.

This year, Fenjves is credited with "A Million Little Lies," a parody of the discredited James Frey novel; "Even After All This Time," the story of Afschineh Latifi, one of two Iranian girls separated from their families; and "How I Broke Into Hollywood: Success Stories From the Trenches," a collection of vignettes co-written with Rocky Lang and featuring Sidney Pollack, Bernie Mac and Erika Christensen.

Fenjves' name also appears in the acknowledgments of books by Frey ("This book couldn't have happened without you," she wrote); Anne Bird, Peterson's sister (Fenjves "helped me shape this harrowing experience into a book," Bird wrote); Jose Canseco's ex-wife Jessica; and Pryor's daughter Rain. Janet Pelasara, for whom he ghostwrote "Love You More," called Fenjves her "unlicensed therapist."

For now, Fenjves remains holed up in his Brentwood home -- the same one he lived in when he was Nicole Brown Simpson's neighbor -- fending off reporters who are awaiting the conclusion to this latest chapter of the Simpson drama. Ironically, when he was interviewed recently on KABC-AM, Fenjves said that one of the perks of his job was anonymity.

gina.piccalo@latimes.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 28, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction Ghost writing: An article in Saturday's Calendar section about ghost writer Pablo Fenjves and O.J. Simpson reported that Fenjves wrote a book for Richard Pryor's daughter, Rain Pryor. Fenjves was involved in writing the book, but Cathy Crimmins is credited as co-author.
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