LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES -- In the beginning, she didn't even recognize him, that's how unworldly she was. "That's O. J. Simpson!" her boss at the nightclub exclaimed. She'd never heard of the guy.
Later, friends and relatives would recount the episode and shake their heads. It wasn't just the naivete. By the time she married him seven years later at the age of 25, it seemed there had never been a time when the larger-than-life celebrity had not dominated her existence.
Now, the man who so shaped the life of Nicole Brown Simpson has come to dominate the story of her death as well.
Ms. Simpson has been reduced to the size of a poster child, her friends and relatives say bitterly: Murder victim; battered wife. Nothing like the strong, fun-loving woman they knew.
"It's all O. J., O. J. right now," said Rolf Baur, 46, a first cousin who was raised by Nicole Simpson's parents and whom she and her sisters considered a brother.
Cynthia "Cici" Shahian, 39, a Beverly Hills friend, added: "I feel that Nicole has gotten lost in all this."
Nicole Brown Simpson was born May 19, 1959, near Frankfurt, Germany, her mother's homeland. Lou Brown, a native of Kansas, had met and married Juditha Baur of the small town of Rollwald, where he was serving in the Air Force.
They moved to California when the Nicole and her older sister Denise were toddlers.
At Dana Hills High School, what people remembered first about the Brown girls was how good-looking they were. Nicole -- they called her "Nick" -- was named homecoming princess by the football team in 1976; the year before, Denise had been homecoming queen.
She was barely 18 and just out of high school when she met O. J. Simpson while working as a waitress at the Daisy, a trendy Beverly Hills club where the football star was a regular. Within months, she had moved in with him, dropping out of community college because Mr. Simpson "required that she be with him," according to the brief her divorce lawyer filed in 1992.
"It was a very passionate, a very volatile, a very obsessive relationship. On both sides," said actress Cathy Lee Crosby, a friend of the couple who has known Mr. Simpson for 15 years.
One source close to the family said that even before they were married, they had fights. During one, Ms. Simpson holed up in the bathroom and telephoned her mother, the source said.
lTC There were times, the source said, when she would move out and other times when he would throw her out. Then she would go home to her parents in Monarch Bay, but within days a contrite Mr. Simpson would call and apologize, she would return and for a time they would be loving again.
"They had many, many happy days together," the source said. "It just seemed like something snapped sometimes."
And while he was physically powerful, "she fought him back with words. She's a strong person," the source said.
Two months after Mr. Simpson was inducted into the football Hall of Fame, in 1985, their first child was born, a baby daughter.
At the time, divorce records show, Mr. Simpson was supporting his mother and two grown children from his first marriage; he was equally generous with his in-laws.
He hired Mr. Baur, first as the gardener at their estate, then as the manager of his two Pioneer Chicken restaurants in Los Angeles. At the same time, Mr. Baur's wife, Maria, worked as the Simpsons' housekeeper three days a week.
Mr. Simpson's father-in-law worked for him as well, running his local Hertz car rental franchise. Mr. Simpson also paid for Nicole's sister, Dominique, to attend the University of Southern California.
In 1988, the Simpsons had a second child, a son. By all appearances, friends said, they seemed to have a perfect life.
Eventually, however, the violent and jealous facets of the Simpson marriage became common -- if closely held -- knowledge in their small circle of friends.
"He'd cheat. She'd find out. She'd get angry. She'd confront him. She's a strong girl and she'd confront him. And they would fight," said one longtime friend.
This, friends say, was the backdrop on New Year's Day 1989, when police were summoned to the Simpson estate at 3:30 a.m., where they found Ms. Simpson on the lawn, dressed in sweat pants and a bra. Her eye was black. Her lip was split. His handprint was still on her neck.
Mr. Simpson later pleaded no contest to spousal battery, saying that he took the blame to head off bad publicity for him and his wife.
Ms. Simpson filed for divorce in early 1992. The divorce left Ms. Simpson single again for the first time since her teens. She was awarded $433,750 and $10,000 a month child support. She moved into a rented house five minutes from Mr. Simpson's mansion, then bought a nearby condominium.
Friends said she was as dutiful a mother as ever, handling the car-pool, showing up at all the school functions, shuttling her son to karate lessons and her daughter to dance class.
A freer, lighter Nicole Simpson also began to emerge. The transformation in her, friends said, was palpable.
Own person again
"She became Nicole Brown, her own person. She started all over again," said Cora Fischman, a neighbor whose children went to school and preschool with the Simpson children.
She got friendlier with old acquaintances, developing a cadre of perhaps half a dozen women friends.
She threw potluck dinners by candlelight. She would tuck the children into bed at night, recite the Lord's Prayer with them in German, and then leave them with a sitter while she went out dancingtill last call. Ms. Simpson dated, friends said, although the dates were few and far between. There was Keith Zlomsowitch, a restaurateur. Friends said he doted on her, but she was not ready for a serious relationship.
One night, they said, Mr. Simpson drove past her house and through the front window saw Mr. Zlomsowitch on the couch with her; she stopped dating him very soon thereafter.
There were two other men as well, the friends said -- an aspiring actor with whom she had a brief fling, and later, a six-month romance with a 24-year-old law clerk she had met in her divorce lawyer's office.
But about a 18 months after leaving Mr. Simpson, one friend said, Ms. Simpson began seeing a counselor and then announced that she had made a decision: "She called me up and said, 'I want my husband back.' "
"She called O. J. up," the friend said. He refused to take the call, so she drove to his mansion. He told her he was doing fine without her, but when she got home, he called to say he had changed his mind and wanted to reconcile.
They tried. But before long, their relationship was tempestuous again.
Finally, a week after her birthday, Mr. Baur said, she gave back the birthday gift Mr. Simpson had given her -- a platinum bracelet studded with sapphires and rubies and diamonds -- and told him that there would be no reconciliation.