FOR NEARLY HALF her life, Nicole Brown Simpson was known as O.J. Simpson's girlfriend, his wife, and then his ex-wife.
But in her last days, after she had broken off efforts to get back together with O.J. Simpson, she had been struggling to be Nicole Brown.
Hours before she was killed, Nicole Simpson and her family - her two children, her parents, and two of her sisters - were celebrating her freedom at Mezzaluna, one of her favorite neighborhood restaurants.
"She was just so vivacious, so full of life," her older sister, Denise Brown, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "She had just gotten it all together, and it was so exciting. I was so happy for her. For the first time in her life, she was able to have her own friends. We were talking about going to Yosemite, camping, taking the kids to Club Med. Everything was going to revolve around the kids.
"She was so happy. She had broken up with O.J. a week and a half before. She was going to start her life over. It was going to be without O.J., with her children. Funny thing, she still loved O.J. She just couldn't live with him."
Sometime after she left the restaurant that evening, Nicole Simpson was slashed to death on the steps of the townhouse where she had hoped to forge a new identity. She had just turned 35.
Even now, it is her former husband, charged with the murder of Nicole Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman, who is drawing all the attention.
The record of his public life is detailed. Far less is known about Nicole Brown.
They fell in love when she was still a teen-ager, and until their divorce in 1992 they seemed to define the California dream.
His life was her life:
The $5 million mansion in Brentwood.
The $2 million oceanfront house in Laguna Beach, Calif.
His and her Ferraris.
Vacations in Vail, Colo., and Mexico.
But there was a price. Friends of the couple said he tried to control the relationship and even after their divorce appeared to be possessive. Several times in the last years of their marriage, she called police to the Brentwood home. Friends noticed bruises on her arms and neck.
Now, her death has touched off a national debate over spousal abuse. But Denise Brown, 37, says she doesn't want her sister to be remembered only as a victim.
"She was not a battered woman," Brown said. "I don't want people to think it was like that. I know Nicole. She was a very strong-willed person. If she was beaten up, she wouldn't have stayed with him. That wasn't her. Everybody knows about 1989. Does anybody know about any other time?"
Back at Dana Hills High School in Orange County, Denise and Nicole Brown had been homecoming princesses. Jo Hanson, Nicole's home economics teacher, said: "Everybody was in awe of her. We get a lot of beautiful students. But she was the ultimate beauty. The girls liked and admired her. The guys were in love with her."
But it was Nicole's father, Lou Brown, who escorted his daughter to the homecoming dance, Hanson said. "I thought she was going to be a model, or a movie star," Hanson said. "I used to tease her, `I should get your autograph now.' "
Nicole, born in her mother's homeland, West Germany, grew up steps from the beach in Monarch Bay, Calif., an upper-middle-class beach community in Orange County west of Dana Point. She had three sisters and one brother. Her father was a small-business investor, who now runs a Hertz rental-car franchise. Her mother, Judy, had dabbled briefly in modeling.
"All the sisters were very pretty, very popular, very nice," said Valerie Rigg, who graduated between Denise and Nicole. "I remember thinking, `The Brown sisters are going to go someplace.' It wasn't their beauty alone. It was something about their personalities."
Nicole Brown seemed destined for big things, Rigg said. …