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AFTER YEARS DOMINATED BY O.J., NICOLE WAS SEEKING AUTONOMY

"Be Yourself."

That simple philosophy appears next to a yearbook picture of a fun-loving senior with blond hair feathered and parted in the middle, very much the "in" style in 1976.Her friends called her Nick. The world would later know her as Nicole Brown Simpson.

Within a year of graduating from high school, Nicole's independent spirit was tamed by O.J. Simpson - the dashing football star who swept her out of suburbia and into a jet-set existence that focused on HIS life, HIS friends and HIS career.

It would take years of a physically abusive relationship for Nicole to finally break away from her domineering ex-husband and regain a life to call her own. The decision came just weeks before she and a friend were murdered outside her Brentwood condo. Nicole's life began almost a half-world away in Frankfurt, Germany, where she was born to an American military man and German mother. The family moved to Southern California after the father's service ended, finally settling in the seaside community of Dana Point.

Nicole's outgoing personality got her voted homecoming princess at Dana Point High School. Her yearbook adage to "be yourself" was followed by a comment that she was interested in photography.

But any hope of pursuing such a career was short-lived. After graduating and becoming a waitress at a Beverly Hills nightclub called the Daisy, she met Simpson, and the couple quickly became inseparable.

"She met up with O.J. when she was really young," classmate Mike Cruickshank said. "And that's the last we ever heard of her."

Nicole failed to gain a college education, she said in divorce papers, because of the demands of Simpson's career.

"I only attended junior college for a very short time because (O.J.) wanted me to be available to travel with him whenever his career required him to go to a new location, even if it was for a short period of time," she said.

In 1985, the two were married, and that year Nicole gave birth to daughter Sydney. Son Justin was born in 1988.

Their abusive relationship went public when, on New Year's Day 1989, the now-infamous beating occurred, ending with Simpson's plea of no contest to spousal battery.

It would take three more years before Nicole filed for divorce, after which, her friends say, her life revolved around shuttling her kids to school, taking daily runs along the tree-lined streets of Brentwood and dressing up for a night on the town with her girlfriends. Thursday nights were set aside for Renaissance, a trendy Santa Monica club where she often would run into Ronald Goldman, the friend who was slain with her.

"Nicole danced up a storm," club co-owner Philip Cummins said. "She was really good about dancing with any guy who would ask. Someone of her beauty, that's unusual."

Underneath her party veneer, Nicole, at 35, was thinking seriously about her future and struggling to regain her independence. Since her divorce, there were attempts at reconciling, but she decided to put an end to that hope.

During the last dinner with her family, the night of her death, she spoke about resurrecting her childhood dream of becoming a photographer, said her sister, Denise Brown.

According to sister Dominique Brown, "That night, (Nicole said), `Everything is going to change and we're going to be happy,' and we had all decided to spend a lot more time together."

Nicole also indicated that she was ready to move on with her life in a literal sense. Three days before her death, she listed her condo for lease for $4,800 a month.

Nicole's state of mind near the time of her death was perhaps summed up best by her mother:

"She was 18 when she met him, and he was her daddy all along telling her what to do," Juditha Brown said of Simpson in an interview with ABC. "I think what really happened was she grew up."