By Michael A. Lipton
Updated November 14, 1994 12:00 PM

IN THE COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION, Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas is a case that simply won’t die. Their vituperative “she said…he said” saga, which began during 1991 Senate confirmation hearings on Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination, became a three-day glue trap for TV viewers and launched a debate that continues to this day: Did Thomas, now 46, sexually harass Hill, 38, his former assistant at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission? Did he make suggestive and lewd remarks, as Hill claimed at his Senate hearing? Or was he the victim of “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks,” as Thomas charged at the time?

Jill Abramson remembers well the high-tension spectacle. As an investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Abramson, now 40, was busy helping coordinate the paper’s coverage of the hearings one day when the phone rang. The caller was Jane Mayer, 39, Abramson’s friend and then a New York-based senior writer for the Journal. “This is it!” Mayer said. “This is the book!”

Cowriting a book was an idea the two native New Yorkers had discussed earlier that summer at Mayer’s 10-acre farm in Charlottesville, Va. A suitable subject had eluded them then. Now, Abramson was intrigued by Mayer’s suggestion. “I was very aware of the basic imbalance of the proceedings,” she says. “Hill testified on a Friday and then she was gone. The rest of the hearings seemed to be aimed at systematically destroying her credibility.”

After arranging a leave from their jobs, the pair went to work. “Both of us were fascinated by the possibility that Hill could have been a chronic fibber,” says Mayer, who, with Abramson, was determined to find out. Some three years, more than 100 interviews, some 20,000 miles and thousands of pages of documents later, the fruit of their labors, Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, published last week, has already been nominated for a National Book Award.

The authors’ verdict is sure to enrage Thomas’s supporters, elate Hill’s and satisfy neither. “Unless an eyewitness emerges or a tape recording is found,” says Mayer, “we won’t be able to tell if Thomas lied [when he denied ever harassing Hill], although we can see a pattern of behavior.”

The pattern she speaks of shows Thomas pulling bureaucratic rank to obtain dates with various female staffers. But the authors’ interviews with Hill’s EEOC coworkers reveal only one other clear-cut instance of alleged harassment: Angela Wright, now a Charlotte, N.C., journalist, claimed she spurned Thomas’s advances. She says he told her, “I really love the hair on your legs—I think hairy legs are much sexier.” Thomas fired her in 1985.

During their reporting, Mayer and Abramson also tracked down friends of Hill and Wright who recall both women confiding in them about their boss’s alleged sexual improprieties. Yet the authors save their most damning criticism for the confirmation process itself, which, in Thomas’s case, they say, was stage-managed by the White House. “Even the African-American groups that were supposedly grass-roots supporters of Thomas,” says Abramson, “had strings that traced back to the Bush people.”

She and Mayer wondered who else might have been pulling the strings as they were writing their book. “I knew Clarence Thomas had powerful friends,” says Mayer, “but nothing prepared us for what we faced—an earthquake, flood, fire, birth, you name it.”

In proper sequence, you’d have to start with marriage. Eleven months into their research, Mayer, who joined the Journal in 1982, wed Bill Hamilton, 44, now national editor of The Washington Post, and moved to Santa Monica with him five months later, when he be came the paper’s West Coast correspondent. No sweat: the authors continued their collaboration via computer.

“But then,” says Abramson, a six-year Journal veteran, “she calls to tell me, ‘I’m pregnant.’ Of course I was thrilled. But I was thinking, ‘This book is never going to happen.’ I’ve had two kids”—Cornelia, 11, and Will, 9, by her husband, Henry, 40, a public-relations consultant—”and I know what that first year is like.”

Mayer’s daughter, Kate, was born on June 8, 1993. Two months later, Mayer and Abramson got a major break. The closest they’d gotten to Thomas was his mother, Leola Williams, in December 1992. Now Hill herself had agreed to meet the pair at a Manhattan hotel. First, Mayer had to fly from L.A., leaving Kate with her grandmother. The new mother, however, was still lactating. “I flew with an electric breast pump that set off airport alarms,” Mayer says. “People stared at me when I walked down the aisle to the lavatory. They thought I was carrying a bomb.”

The interview with Hill, Mayer reports, “was very difficult. The Real Anita Hill [by conservative writer David Brock] had come out, describing her as a lunatic.” Adds Abramson: “In her view the press brought nothing but trouble. She still feels very much under siege.”

So did Mayer on Jan. 17, after the great California quake of ’94 shook her out of bed. Grabbing Kate from her crib, she suddenly remembered: “The book!” With her baby in tow, Mayer rushed down to her basement office, which was flooded by a broken water main. Three months earlier a brushfire had burned within view of the house. Now she had to salvage waterlogged notebooks and (luckily) still-dry computer discs.

This past September, Mayer and her family moved to the D.C. area, where she and Abramson wrapped up their writing later that month. Next week both Mayer, now a senior writer, and Abramson, deputy Washington bureau chief, will be back at their Journal desks—and glad of it. “Doing this book reminded me of having a baby,” says a weary Abramson. “I have a feeling that maybe a year later you forget the pain and are ready to do it again—but not now.”