IN A note prepared for the suicide he never committed last week, O J Simpson begged his fans, 'Please think of the real O J, not this lost person.' But now everyone knows the O J Americans thought they knew was not the real O J at all.
Over the years he was always the charming, handsome, adorable, decent football star, who became a Hollywood actor, television ad personality and man about town. He seemed, by all accounts, to be the most balanced, even-headed celebrity in American history, but as the inquiry into the murder of his wife, Nicole, and her waiter friend Ronald Goldman unfolded, it became clear that O J's inner demons were at least dark enough to turn him into a ferocious wife- beater, if not a murderer.
The coming court case, in which he has pleaded not guilty, is bound to explore the identity of that 'lost person'. Some people must already know who it is, people like his lifelong buddy and football partner Al Cowlings, who drove O J in the white Bronco van around LA's freeways in a futile bid to avoid arrest. The two men had grown up together in a bleak government housing project on Potrero Hill, one of San Francisco's toughest neighbourhoods. As he left all that behind and his fame grew, O J had talked about the way people like himself, ghetto kids who became national stars, can so easily become 'lost' souls. In a recent interview with Parents Magazine he said: 'I've seen too many guys get lost in the glamorous world I move in. My family helps me keep in touch with who I really am.' But even before the gruelling cross- examination begins there are some clues, a hint here and there of the undercurrents of rage and obsession and the feeling of general immunity to which all celebrities are prone.
When O J talks of his family, it seems he is speaking of his mother, Eunice Simpson, a strong-willed woman who worked in the mortuary at San Francisco General Hospital and brought up O J and three other children mostly on her own. O J's father, who was a bank guard, separated from his mother when O J was five. The 'projects', as they were known, housed many abandoned mothers and to survive they had to be strict with their children. They were always encouraging them to better themselves.
O J had a handicapped start. He developed rickets - a Vitamin D and calcium deficiency - had to wear leg braces and was left bow-legged by the disease. Apart from his skinny legs, though, he grew up with an athletic body which made him a natural leader in the rough and tumble of the housing estate. O J was a father figure in a land of no fathers. 'The best thing you can say about me and trouble was that I was borderline. Some of the kids I ran around with got hooked on narcotics and crime. If it hadn't been for football, that would have been me. What could I have done? What chance would I have had?'
ONE DAY, he was arrested by the police and spent a weekend in a youth detention hall. When he was released, a social worker arranged for him to meet his idol, the San Francisco Giants' baseball star Willie Mays, who occasionally helped troubled youngsters.
Mays took O J for a drive, stopping at the dry cleaners and ending up at his house in the posh Forest Hill neighbourhood. O J was impressed that Mays was an ordinary guy with everyday problems; his laundry was not ready, for one thing. 'I saw that he was human,' Simpson recalled. 'A lot of people thought I was good at football, and I realised I could be this guy. I could be Willie Mays. . . . I don't think I got in any real trouble from that point on. I got more focused.'
Forcing himself to gain better school grades, he finally entered the University of Southern California - 'a place where I can learn which fork to use at dinner'. He was an immediate success as a running back and in 1968 led his team to a national championship and received the coveted Heisman Trophy, college football's highest individual honour. The past was quickly erased. The same year, the Los Angeles Times, reflecting on his troubled childhood, declared: 'There is no longer any violence in the eyes of O J Simpson. There is no violence in his manner or talk. One would surmise that he has achieved an inner peace.'
In 1969 he joined the Buffalo Bills as a professional football player and in 1973 he broke the league record for rushing yards. O J, or 'The Juice' as they called him, made it seem so easy that they said he 'always looked as though he was running downhill'. He had become a star, and with that came movie contracts. His new life also took him steadily apart from his first wife, Marguerite Whitley, his college sweetheart with whom he had three children. O J had stolen her from Al Cowlings, a hulk of a man who followed O J into professional football and had been so enraged at the deception that he had tried to upend OJ's car. But, like other outrageous events in his life, it was smoothed over. O J once recalled: 'Time and again I got away with things.'
Outsiders missed the inner conflict, and typically inflated the true value of the success. In 1975 Newsweek wrote: 'There is a new serenity about O J Simpson this year . . . an expanding, well-rounded personality that now seems equally attractive to Buffalo labourers, and Hollywood moguls, ghetto kids and Madison Avenue moguls.' In fact, his acting career was never much more than cameos, but he was 'talent' and that covered a lot of job descriptions in Hollywood.
O J never stopped hustling, or chasing women. At one point his friends said he 'hit on everything that walked'. But word about such things was not allowed to spread from his social galaxy of sporting stars and Hollywood agents to his huge, thoroughly devoted fan club.
In 1977 he met Nicole Brown, a beautiful blonde model, in a Beverly Hills nightclub where she was working as a waitress. She had grown up in a white upper-middle class beach community in Republican Orange County. She was barely 18 and he was 30 and at the end of his football career. His knees, which had always troubled him, were failing. Like all fading sports stars he needed a new prop, but she immediately became much more than that.
THEY started living together - wherever his fast-track schedule of B-movies, yuppie advertising for Hertz and his football broadcasting took him. There was one tragedy. Before the divorce with Marguerite became final, his youngest child, a son, died after being found unconscious at their home in Los Angeles. O J never talked publicly about the death.
Simpson married Nicole in 1985 and they had their first child, a daughter, the same year, and three years later a son. They lived in a dollars 5m mansion on the same street as Meryl Streep in Brentwood, which is so peaceful, they say, you can hear movie deals being made from several houses away. His income was estimated at dollars 1m a year, most of it coming from football commentaries. They were a 'beautiful couple'; taking holidays in Hawaii and Mexico, owning a house on the Pacific Ocean, an apartment in New York and a Ferrari each. O J gave Nicole dollars 6,000 a month and she threw parties and liked to dance all night.
Once again his jobs took him out of town a lot; she was left minding the children and he had opportunities to roam. The marriage foundered. When he was at home they started to row and during seven years Nicole apparently made numerous calls to the police complaining about his abuse of her. Nicole herself was no 'Little Miss Suzy Homemaker', as one friend put it, but it was the incident on New Year's Day 1989 that finally convinced her to leave him. According to the police report, Nicole rushed across the lawn wearing a bra and sweat pants andyelled, 'He's going to kill me, he's going to kill me.' O J appeared in a bathrobe, shouting: 'I got two women and I don't want that woman sleeping in my bed anymore.' He pleaded no contest to spousal battery, was put on probation for two years, ordered to perform 120 hours of community service and to receive counselling.
Then his business ventures came unstuck. The Los Angeles riots had destroyed his profitable fried chicken franchise, and the recession forced the closure of three of his eight honey- baked ham stores. An unwise stock purchase had further reduced his funds. By 1992, the couple reached an amicable divorce settlement - she received dollars 433,000 and dollars 10,000 a month child support, and Nicole and the children moved into a rented house. Last October he broke into her apartment and again, according to police tapes, abused her to the point when she called for help. In her last months, Nicole had decided that, much as she still loved O J, she could never live with him again.
In desperation, O J is said to have ended dates with other women - at least for a while - and was stalking Nicole, trying to get her back. One of her friends recalled how he had driven up as Nicole was having coffee in a cafe, stopped his car and stared at her for fully a minute before driving away. He was hopelessly jealous of her going anywhere without him and he would tell her: 'If I can't have you no one else can.' Among all his successes it was his big failure.
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