Rites of Passage

updated 11/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

MEDIA MOGUL RUPERT MURDOCH was there and so was supermodel Iman. Jordan's Princess Basma Bint Talal made an appearance, as did Mary Robinson, president of Ireland. But the spontaneous ovation that erupted in the ballroom at the recent gala benefit for the Noel Foundation, which finances aid for needy women and children around the globe, wasn't for any of the international dignitaries who'd made their way to the Hilton in Beverly Hills. It was for a petite guest who tried to slip in unobtrusively: lead O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark. As the crowd stood to applaud, Clark found her table, where Christopher Darden—her colleague in the failed murder prosecution—was already seated. Later the two posed for photos, like the celebrities they have become, before ducking paparazzi and leaving in a limo.

Before the Simpson case, Clark and Darden were unknown litigators on the Los Angeles County payroll. Clark, 42, who was in the beginning of a bitter and costly divorce battle with her second husband, Gordon, a computer engineer, had such high credit-card bills that friends had to lend her designer outfits to wear at the trial. Darden, 39 and single, had been a prosecutor since 1981 and lived a quiet life in a modest 1,200-square-foot bungalow in Carson, near Long Beach. Now the lawyers' every move is scrutinized, recorded and—increasingly—speculated upon. Several late-night outings to bars, including the DNA Lounge in San Francisco, where Darden reportedly checked the scene while Clark waited in the car, have been the source of unfounded speculation about their relationship. "They've just been through an incredible experience together, like going through a war," says Roslyn Dauber, a filmmaker and lifelong Clark friend, who says the support the two lawyers give each other is purely platonic. "They've shared this unique experience. Who else could they really talk to about this?"

After nearly nine months of appearing almost daily on television as key performers in the so-called Trial of the Century, Clark and Darden have emerged to find that celebrity has both ups and downs. Certainly the perquisites of fame extend beyond the occasional standing ovation. During a weekend in San Francisco shortly after the verdict, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel upgraded the pair to (separate) VIP suites, and at the trendy restaurant Aqua, the chef created a special seven-course meal for them, including his signature caviar parfait. "I've waited on all the stars, and they do nothing for me," says Tom Fichera, Aqua's general manager. "Marcia Clark rocked my socks." On a flight to Reno for a getaway a week later, Darden and Clark were introduced to singer Ray Charles, who invited them to his show at Harrah's Tahoe and afterward greeted them backstage.

On the downside, the lawyers have found it hard to resume their formerly private lives. Both have reportedly received death threats and have been accompanied by bodyguards paid by the county. On a recent visit to friends in Santa Barbara, Clark had to be escorted through a mob of well-wishers when she tried to leave a casino. Then there are the rumors. Though Darden and Clark have spent time together most weekends since the trial's end, they have focused on regrouping with family and friends. Jonathan Kleks, Clark's brother, was a constant companion in San Francisco. In Tahoe the two were joined by Clark's sons, ages 3 and 5, their nanny and two friends.

To help fend off the sometimes unwelcome intrusions—Playboy, for instance, reportedly offered Clark $1 million to pose nude—both lawyers have signed with the William Morris Agency, which will represent them in any book or television ventures, though none is yet sealed. "No one's in here to make a lot of quick deals," says Norman Brokaw, the agency's chairman and CEO. In the meantime, Clark, an aficionado of mystery novels, has been reading, doing crosswords and enjoying her sons—as well as gearing up for a custody battle with her husband. "She's doing mom stuff," says Lynn Baragona, Clark's close friend and colleague at the D.A.'s office. Darden, who has paid a couple of visits to his office chums, is teaching a criminal law course at Cal State University, Los Angeles. After the two catch their breath—they still have many months of accumulated vacation time—what comes next is anyone's guess, though Baragona offers one possibility for Clark: "Well," she says, "she is about due for a hairstyle change."

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER
LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles and bureau reports

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