By Art Harris, The Bald Truth, www.artharris.com, all rights reserved
She splits her time now between New York City and Atlanta, where she hit her hot streak as a Fulton County prosecutor (almost 100 felony cases, no losses at trial), then wound up as the late Johnny Cochran’s sidekick on “Cochran and Grace,” a legal show with a brief run.
But Nancy Grace had legs, and kept running to make her own TV history: from Court TV anchor to CNN Headline News superstar with a loyal 700,000 nightly fan base of true crime afficionados, to author and now gifted novelist.
Recent book signings for her first novel and New York Times bestseller, “The Eleventh Victim,” (Hyperion, $25.99) strongly autobiographical, stretched out the door of an Atlanta book store the other day, as she posed and signed autographs for friends, fans, and locals who thanked her for once keeping their city safe.
Like Nancy, the protagonist is a steel magnolia prosecutor named Hailey Dean, heartbroken after her fiance is murdered, who pours heart and soul into putting bad guys behind bars and fighting for victims rights–Grace’s own gutsy back story extraordinaire. She’s donating a portion of the proceeds to a favorite charity, a Georgia home for the mentally disabled, and supports too many causes to count, battered women’s shelters at the top of the list after putting the perpetrators of such abuse behind bars for years. Satirized from Saturday Night Live to skewered by MSNBC host Keith Olberman, who she now beats in the ratings, to branded on air promos for CNN sister network, TNT, Nancy Grace is a brand, recognized and stopped for autographs wherever she goes.
Naturally, she longs for moments of peace only anonymity brings, and telling me how she found one the other day in the most unlikely placeâ€”the aisle at Target. There, one of her gorgeous celeb twins who will turn two in November, Lucy Elizabeth, does a face down, belly flop protest while shoppers step around gingerly, perhaps wondering what kind of mother could inspire that kind of behaviour, and brother John David looks around wide-eyed, as if ready to disavow blood ties.
“Bye, bye, Lucy,” coos Nancy, hoping that pretending to leave will work. Stunned she might be left behind, Lucy scrambles to her feet to chase Mommy down.
“At least she wasn’t doing her bobcat imitation,” laughs father and husband David Linch, Wharton MBA and managing director in the Atlanta office of investment banking firm Stephens, Inc. over dinner the other night. “Sometimes it sounds like we’ve got a wildcat loose in the house.”
With offices conveniently in New York and Atlanta, and around the world, David may not have imagined a Grace and twins deal, but he’s hands-on and supportive to a fault…Linch and Grace, longtime friends before they married, both Mercer University grads, a fine team off air, and both quick on the draw when it comes to whipping out photos of the twins, on Blackberry and I-phone. We can also report her father is doing fine after a scary collapse at her Atlanta book signing.
“Aren’t these Nancy Grace’s children?” squeals the Target cashier, giddy over her favorite crime queen’s kiddies who appear to be in her lane at the checkout counter.
“They do look like them,” says Grace, blond, but unrecognizable in baggy t shirt and no make-up.
“She had no idea who I was, which is just fine with me,” says Grace, “how many people do you know who can become invisible by looking like a wreck? It’s a very cheap disguise.”
Grace may be able to go poof, and elude recognition, but the punks, pimps, child molesters, wife beaters and serial killers she’s put away in real life â€”and Hailey Dean nails in The Eleventh Victim â€“ can run, but cannot hide forever, and in her super page-turner of a novel, sometimes wind up stalking her.
“Seconds passed; minutes. She could hear movement now in the waiting room she had just left…It was the metal magazine rack, she was sure, that crashed to the tile floor. Then quiet. She strained to hear in the darkness. Nothing more and then…The air moved in the room and she knew. He was here.”
It’s the kind of gripping scene she writes that Nancy Grace has lived. When she worked in the DA’s office, I learned of her little known story from my step-sister and Nancy’s friend, Meg Mantler Roop, a fiesty, fellow prosecutor in family court â€“and knew I had to write about the workaholic assistant DA driven by a passion to help victims because she’d been one. It was a personal story of courage and redemption that she’d never gone so public with before.
As a young college student, Grace planned to marry the Valdosta State baseball star, then teach English. But, like her alter-ego in the novel, a bullet shattered those dreams, when a convicted criminal out of jail by mistake gunned down the young man she loved on a job site.
Shattered, Grace attended the trial in a heart-broken daze, enrolled in Mercer Law School in Macon, Georgia, then got the assistant DA job in Atlanta and began seeking justice for those whose own pain she knew all too well — and who still touch her as tears well up for the families of the murdered and missing whose killers she now pursues on air.
“In court, prosecuting violent crime…putting away the bad guys one rapist, doper and killer at a time,” the book jacket reads about Nancy’s heroine Hailey Dean, “dedicating her life to justice takes a toll after years of courtroom battles and the endless tide of victims calling out from the crime scene photos and autopsy tables. (Then) just as she grows weary, a serial killer unlike any other she’s encountered begins to stalk the city of Atlanta, targeting young prostitutes, each horrific murder bearing its own unique mark.”
In profiling Nancy the prosecutor, I got to watch her in action in the days when she did her own make-up, dashing on lipstick and racing to get out the door of her small one bedroom apartment near Emory University, after dark, knocking on doors to find a witness in a ‘hood infested with gangs. She went unarmed, and without a cop as backup.
I talked to defense lawyers who trash-talked her for refusing to cut deals, for her high drama theatrics in court, accused her of wearing low cut blouses to win over male jurors. One even called her the “B word.”
“They were just mad because I beat them in court,” she shrugged at the time.
One day, I was in court when she splashed a glass of water on the floor for one jury that convicted an Atlanta millionaire of murder for allegedly dousing the staircase of his house with lighter fluid to set a fire he hoped would cover up killing a wife who was about to leave him.
In another case, she was prosecuting a pimp, but puzzled over how to create empathy for a 15 year old black prostitute spilling out of a low cut dress, as the accused pimp smirked and stared her down. A jury salted with rich white soccer moms looked on with seeming disapproval at the so called victim.
That is, until Grace turned fire-breathing preacher, leaned into the jury box and began a sermon that made them squirm.
“You heard how he beat her! She didn’t have the chance your children were blessed to haveot have,” said Grace, tearing up as she pointed to her victim and star witness. “In the eyes of the lawâ€”and the Lordâ€”we are all children of God!”
It took the jury about ten minutes to return a verdict: Guilty.