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NICOLE BROWN SIMPSON'S TWO CHILDREN do not really understand where their mother has gone, or why. Since her daughter Sydney, 8, and son Justin, 5, have been kept away from television and newspapers these last six weeks, it has been mostly up to their maternal grandparents and Nicole's sisters—their aunts Denise, Dominique and Tanya—to offer an explanation. "Mommy," they have been gently told, "has died and gone to heaven." It is an explanation both children, in their own way, evidently absorbed. "Look," Sydney has said to her grandmother, "Mommy's up in the clouds."

Not long ago the Browns of Dana Point, Calif.—father Lou, 70, a retired businessman, mother Judy, 63, a travel agent, and Nicole's three sisters—were ordinary people, with lives they could call their own. Now America knows them as the family that sat, united in their loss, in the Los Angeles courtroom where O.J. Simpson received his pretrial hearing on charges of murder. They said little during the proceedings, except for a few muted words to each other about how they might leave the building with a minimum of flashbulbs and fuss. During the six-day hearing, they showed emotion only rarely—once when prosecutors presented color photographs that showed the lifeless body of Nicole Simpson, blood-soaked and nearly decapitated, lying on its side on the concrete in front of her home. "Nicole's sisters dabbed their eyes with Kleenex," says one courtroom observer. "But after 10 minutes they regained their composure. They all stayed strong."

That is a tall order these days, when the family's grief is still raw, and bizarre twists surface almost daily. O.J. is reportedly offering $500,000 for information leading to the arrest of Nicole's killer at the same time that Nicole's own reputation is under attack. In recent weeks supermarket tabloids have presented her as a party girl, pictured her being fondled on the deck of a vacation condo by a younger man a few days after her divorce from O.J. and even suggested that her behavior was somehow responsible for sparking the rage that killed her. "It's not fair to forget that Nicole was the victim here," says a close friend. "It's really sad that people are questioning her integrity now that she's not here to defend herself."

Who was Nicole Simpson? There are several answers: a daughter, a mother, a wife. A victim. She was beautiful. She had a temper. She liked the high life and all the good things that money could buy. But there was nothing about her that should have marked her for murder.

As a little girl, every night before going to bed, Nicole Brown recited the Lord's Prayer in German, her mother's native tongue. Lou Brown, raised in Kansas, had met and in the 1950s married Juditha Baur in Rollwald, West Germany, where he was a correspondent for the armed forces newspaper Stars and Stripes. When Nicole and her older sister, Denise, were toddlers, the family moved to Garden Grove, Calif. There Nicole led an unexceptional, middle-class childhood: Brownie and Girl Scout meetings, dance lessons, the Pep Club and a crown as homecoming princess at Dana Hills High School.

During her high school years, Nicole had a reputation as a beach bunny, a "kind of wild, free spirit who had a zest for life," says a friend. In 1977 she was just 18 and working as a waitress at a swank Beverly Hills nightclub, the Daisy, where she met the still-married football superstar O.J. Simpson. "She loved the person, not the figure," said her sister Denise. "When she fell in love with him, she fell hard." In 1985 she and O.J. were married in a splashy affair at his Tudor home in Brentwood.

By all accounts the two had an opulent, extravagant lifestyle, with expensive trips to Mexico and Aspen, homes in Laguna Beach and New York City and a small fleet of luxury cars. Nicole was given more than $5,000 a month in pin money alone. She got along well with O.J.'s children from his first marriage, daughter Arnelle, now 25, and son Jason, 24. But it was her own children, Sydney and Justin, say friends, who became the center of her existence. "I'd see Nicole and the kids around the neighborhood all the time, and she and they would be singing and laughing," says Roni Blak, Sydney's former ballet teacher. "You could tell the kids were her life."

Many other mothers in her tony Brentwood neighborhood employed full-time nannies, but Nicole insisted on hands-on mothering, carpooling, shuttling the kids to karate and dance lessons, picking them up daily after school, often followed by a stop at a local Bas-kin-Robbins. "She was going, going, all day long," says a friend.

Yet there was tension and trouble behind her smile. "Those who knew her loved her, but there was another side to Nicole," says a former neighbor. "She seemed guarded and not too quick to be friendly. I bumped into her walking down the street one day. We were talking and I said, 'I'm sorry, I forgot your name,' and she got offended."

It is clear now that her marriage had begun to fray years before her 1992 divorce. Six years ago, the daughter of a friend of O.J.'s who had been lunching with him at La Scala in Beverly Hills emerged with him from the restaurant. "All of a sudden, out of the blue, came Nicole," the woman says. "She just flipped out. She was screaming obscenities at us from her car. She screamed at O.J., 'If you're going to cheat on me, why don't you at least pick someone pretty.' She was absolutely crazy with rage. It wasn't a pretty sight." The tirade ended, says the woman, only when a Beverly Hills police officer drove up in a squad car, at which point Nicole drove off.

Simpson's philandering, as well as his continuing violence against Nicole, finally led her to seek a divorce. "When I saw her, she looked nothing like the woman in the photographs you see in the papers," said a source of the period following the separation. "She looked like a waif—scared, frightened and depressed. I felt such a sense of dread...."

Her life after O.J. should, in theory, have been less stressful. Her divorce settlement included a lump sum of $433,000, tax-free, and $10,000 a month in child support. That was enough to maintain her in comfort. Soon she was a fixture in her Brentwood neighborhood, tooling up San Vicente in her white Ferrari, patronizing the upscale boutiques at Brentwood Gardens, lunching with girlfriends at the Daily Grill, dining at the trendy Italian bistros Toscana and Mezzaluna. She appeared most often in black Lycra pants and leotard top, well-toned from her workouts at the Gym, where she met an admiring cadre of twenty-something males, most of whom seemed awed by her. She did date after the split, and Simpson was wildly jealous of even the most casual attention paid her. But, her friends insist, none of those relationships was serious. "She knew she was gorgeous," says Kerry Kane, the man who sometimes did her hair. "Once, she pulled up and got out of the Ferrari and I said, 'Nicole, please, I'm having a heart attack.' She joked, 'Then don't look.' "

On Thursday nights she would appear at the hip Santa Monica club Renaissance, where, recalls bartender Ray Barron, "she'd work up a sweat dancing, do a shot of tequila, and then head right back out on the dance floor."

Still, those who knew her maintain that she never let her nightlife interfere with responsibilities to her family. "She just enjoyed having a good time," says one friend. "There were a couple of times I was there when she had been up late. She had been partying, but she made sure the kids were taken care of."

"She went out at night, but who has the right to judge?" adds another. "She was a good, diligent, caring mother."

In the months before her death, Nicole was considering a reconciliation with O.J. but had finally decided against it. Optimistic about the prospect of life on her own, she was upbeat as she dined with her children and family on the last night of her life. She seemed relaxed and, as always, proud of her children. Outside Mezzaluna, "my dad saw her and called her over," says 14-year-old Sara Hakan, who baby-sat for Justin and Sydney. "I was playing with the kids. My sister was riding on my back. We were commenting on Sydney's pants. She had just come home from the dance recital. She had on little bell-bottoms."

Every morning now, Denise Brown lights several white votive candles on a table covered with photographs of her slain sister. "I tell her how much I miss her," Denise has said, "and I pray to God that He's looking out for her."

That is not the only ritual observed by the family. Every night, much as they did when Nicole was a little girl, her parents now tuck their two grandchildren into bed and with them recite the Lord's Prayer, in German. It is a prayer about acceptance in the face of incomprehensible events and, most of all, about hope.

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE
LORENZO BENET, JOHNNY DODD, MARIA EFTIMIADES, KAREN JACKOVICH and LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Benet,
  • Johnny Dodd,
  • Maria Eftimiades,
  • Karen Jackovich,
  • Lyndon Stambler.