Real O.J. Simpson: His Image Masked Private Complexity -- A Tough Past Behind An Eternal Smile
LOS ANGELES - At the time Eunice Simpson told the anecdote, it was meant to be a funny story about the long odds her son had overcome on the way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and what seemed to be a charmed life as a professional athlete, television broadcaster, actor and million-dollar spokesman for corporations.
But in the stark light of another day, the words of O.J. Simpson's mother are filled with irony and sadness for a fallen hero and the three families he stands accused of destroying.
"He always said, `One of these days you're going to read about me,' " Mrs. Simpson recalled on the sunny summer afternoon of Aug. 3, 1985, when her son was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, "and my oldest daughter would always say, `In the police report.' "
Today, O.J. Simpson, 46, sits in a 9-by-7-foot cell at the Los Angeles County Jail, accused of the double homicide of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her 25-year-old friend Ronald Goldman.
Millions who believed they knew O.J. Simpson are now reading about someone they don't recognize. They are learning about him from police reports.
Until last week, he seemed to have led a wondrous life. Somehow, things always worked out for "The Juice." People bent to his wishes and were swept away by his smile, his disarmingly cordial demeanor, his matinee-idol looks, his raw talent. His body responded to every demand he put on it. The people around him did the same.
Several dozen of Simpson's friends, teammates and business associates interviewed over the last week, as well as reams of court documents, provided small hints that the neatly packaged image of O.J. Simpson was more perfect than true.
In many ways, some friends have come to believe, his image was his profession, nurtured across career lines that swallow lesser men alive, carried over the great racial divides that marked his time. He was a nice guy in an age of spoiled celebrities. He signed autographs anytime, anywhere. He liked it. Perhaps he knew that once the fans were gone, Simpson would be no more.
As a man, Simpson is infinitely more complex than the image his celebrity projected. But his goals in life were straightforward: to own his own home, a large one at that; to rise above race and become an American hero devoid of any color; and, most important, to be liked. He had largely achieved all of that.
Then, about a month ago, Nicole Simpson told him they could never reconcile. It was perhaps the first time in his adult life, friends say, that Simpson had ever been told no. What resulted, Los Angeles police allege, was a man who lost complete control of his senses, a man who allegedly stabbed two people to death.
But back home on Potrero Hill in San Francisco, in the cement-block projects that wind in tired fashion up to 906 Connecticut St., where Simpson was raised, and in the toniest mansions of West L.A., where his new friends live, people insist they don't recognize that man.
The question is, which is the real O.J. Simpson? Was he the Hertz pitchman with the eternal smile who company surveys revealed was "colorless' to the American public? Or did he still carry much of the cruel persona of the gang leader he had been, the kid who pulled robberies and who once said, "It wasn't a weekend if there wasn't a fight. I enjoyed it."
The bowlegged sprinter
Sometime after Orenthal James Simpson was born to Eunice and Jimmy Lee Simpson, in 1947, they noticed something funny: He was slow to walk. Doctors there found the boy ravaged by rickets - a vitamin D and calcium deficiency that weakened his legs. If he was to walk, they would have to break and reset his legs or fit him with braces. The Simpsons could afford neither, so they fashioned a set of homemade braces with his shoes placed on the opposite feet.
The result was that he ended up bowlegged - and a 9.3 sprinter in the 100-yard dash. Such a contradiction would become typical of his life.
"I remember once when he was a little boy, he was watching the Rose Bowl on TV," Simpson's mother has said. "He told me he'd play in that game someday. How could I believe him? He didn't even have his shoes on the right feet."
Although children would call him "Pencil Pins" because of his thin legs, by the time he found the Potrero Hill Rec Center, he was also called fast. Soon, he was picked first on most every team.
Simpson was the leader of a social group known as The Superiors while attending Galileo High School and of an antisocial group known as the Persian Warriors, a street gang. The former organized dances and community events for youths in the project. The latter stole food and drink for those dances.
Marguerite Whitley was Simpson's high-school sweetheart; Simpson stole her from his best friend and fellow gang member Al Cowlings, married her and later divorced her in 1980, months after their 23-month-old daughter, Aaren, drowned in their swimming pool. Whitley described Simpson's early life in a 1968 Look magazine interview.
"He was a beast," she said then. "He was pretty horrible. If there were other fellows who wanted to talk to girls, he'd make them stay away. He'd been a terrible person, right on the edge of trouble."
Although Simpson's scrapes with the law were petty, he was taken to juvenile jail at 15 and held for the weekend after a fight that began after his group stole liquor from a local store. This would be a turning point in his life.
When he arrived home on Monday, he expected to see his father waiting for him, a familiar strategy imposed by his mother when things began to slip out of control. A beating would be in order. But this time someone else was waiting.
Willie Mays, the star centerfielder of the San Francisco Giants, had been asked to intercede, and he took Simpson with him for the day. Not once did he mention gangs or cops or trouble. Instead, he took an awed Simpson to his massive home in Forest Park, one of the city's wealthiest sections. What would leave an impression on Simpson was the size of his house.
By then, Simpson was on the verge of getting his own recognition as a running back at Galileo High. As he did, he was willing to tout himself to anyone, including the world's greatest running back.
One Sunday after the 49ers had lost to the Cleveland Browns, Simpson and his friends finished collecting cushions and retired to a nearby ice cream stand. To their surprise, in walked Jim Brown, the NFL's leading rusher.
Simpson could not pass up this chance: He told the star, "Jim Brown, you ain't so great. . . . When I get to play pro ball, I'm gonna break all your records."
Brown, always portrayed as the brooding militant, replied, "We'll see what you do when you get there," and thus began a long rivalry.
The NFL seemed a far-fetched proposition for a kid from Galileo High, one of the worst teams in the city. But Simpson's talents were too vast to go unnoticed.
As a senior, Simpson's team took on mighty St. Ignatius, winners of 23 straight. As expected, Galileo trailed, 25-10, and then Simpson took over, scoring touchdowns of 90, 80 and 60 yards for the biggest upset in the city's high school history.
Unable to outrun or out-talk his C-minus average, Simpson failed his first bid to attend the University of Southern California. He briefly considered going into the Army after high school before friends persuaded him to enroll at City College.
In one game he gained 304 yards in 17 carries, and by season's end appeared headed to Arizona State, getting as far as the airport before Marguerite, in a tearful plea, persuaded Simpson to stay for another year at City College.
Had he not listened, he would never have become the greatest running back in USC history a year later. Nor would he have been as likely to win the Heisman Trophy, as he did in 1968, or run on a world-record 4-by-440 yard relay team. And maybe he would not have been the No. 1 draft choice in the NFL in 1969.
Simpson's transformation from college golden boy to professional superstar occurred in Buffalo, a hard-scrabble city in an economic downturn. Back in 1969, Buffalo was a bleak outpost of brutal winters and lost jobs. The city needed a spark, a savior of sorts, and it came in the form of O.J. Simpson, the prize draft choice of the Buffalo Bills.
He wanted big bucks
He did not want to come at first, and said he preferred playing on the West Coast to "make as much money" as he could. But tight-fisted Bills owner Ralph Wilson quickly ponied up with an estimated four-year deal worth $100,000 a year, a staggering amount at the time.
More than 2,000 people screaming "O.J., O.J." showed up at the airport to watch Simpson walk off the plane in Buffalo. Within hours, he would have 340 requests for personal appearances. And within weeks he upgraded Buffalo's image, at least as a sports town.
"A lot of bad things were happening to Buffalo at the time," said Larry Felser, a sports columnist for the Buffalo News who has known Simpson for 25 years. "And the town already had an inferiority complex. But O.J. became the personification of success and notoriety - that Buffalo was indeed a good place after all. He was our validation."
Simpson possessed a race-neutral style, which included dating white women, and while it triggered jeers in some black and white quarters, Simpson appeared comfortable. He'd later say with pride that Hertz's market research found that American consumers considered him "colorless." In 1969, he told Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times that his biggest accomplishment was that "people looked at me like a man first, not a black man."
Life after the NFL
After the stadiums of the NFL, Simpson galloped into new careers as easily as he ran downfield. His step was gone, but his charisma, his character remained, this time to be featured in B movies like "The Towering Inferno" and the "Naked Gun" series, or in the broadcast booth of "Monday Night Football." He may not have been terribly good, but he was well-known, well-liked and handsomely paid. His dash through an airport for Hertz rental-car commercials may have been his most famous run of all.
So he settled back into Los Angeles, where it all began at USC. Old friends came over. New friends were easy to make. He was still O.J., only his pads were replaced by a business portfolio that included ownership of restaurants and stores and real estate on the East and West coasts.
Simpson's celebrity allowed him to meet and date most beautiful women. His marriages were no obstacles, according to friends. He met Nicole when she was 18 years old, the homecoming princess fresh out of a suburban Los Angeles high school. She was a waitress at a Beverly Hills restaurant where he dined, and they struck up a relationship immediately.
No matter that Marguerite was home pregnant at the time, fully aware of his sexual escapades.
"My wife knows I'm under control," Simpson told People magazine in 1979. Not so, though, according to Marguerite's lawyer. Though it was an amicable parting, highlighted by a lump-sum payment of $500,000 from Simpson to Marguerite and thousands more per year in support for their two children, her lawyer would say of the womanizing, "I would say she knew or sensed it." She once said herself, "I have been shoved out of the way, pushed and stepped on by more than one beautiful woman. I admit I'm jealous."
The beautiful people
Even against the backdrop of Hollywood, O.J. and Nicole were a striking couple. He was impossibly handsome, defiant of the effects of age. She was blond and gorgeous, and a slave to exercise. They openly kissed at parties, sporting events and charity benefits. They stopped by the hottest nightspots of West LA. On Feb. 2, 1985, seven years after they met, they were married in a ceremony at his Rockingham Avenue estate.
They drove Ferraris. They summered at his house in Laguna Beach. They vacationed, on Hertz, in Hawaii. Eventually they had a daughter and then a son. Nicole wanted to go to a junior college, but was prevented from doing so by Simpson, who wanted her to be available at all times to travel with him. At home, she found herself moving in the most exclusive circles of the most star-crazed city in the world. At home, a staff of help tended to her every need.
But old habits die hard, and those who know Simpson well said that women remained eager to please him wherever he went. Usually, they were very young, in their early 20s. And he didn't seem to mind.
About this time, another side to Simpson began appearing behind the tall gates to his Brentwood estate.
This became apparent in the now-infamous incident in the predawn hours of New Year's Day 1989. Police were summoned to Rockingham Avenue, and found Nicole outside the house, her eye blackened and her lip bloodied.
He received little press and only probation when he pleaded no contest in the 1989 spousal-abuse case and was allowed to attend his required counseling by telephone, so that his traveling schedule would not be affected. Hertz never wavered on his contract as their spokesman, and his football broadcasting career continued uninterrupted.
His 1992 divorce from Nicole brought the next signs of trouble, this time financial, as Simpson cited losses tied to his restaurants and investments. But, still, his net worth was valued by a judge to be more than $10 million. And despite the concerns he voiced over money, O.J. continued being O.J.
A recent AIDS Awareness fund-raiser in Los Angeles at the Beachfront Cafe in Venice was off to a slow, even miserable start. "But when O.J. came in, it became lively," recalls Shirley Morgan, a local lawyer. "People were talking to everyone else. There were hugs and kisses all about."
And there were other women, beautiful women. Paula Barbieri, a Victoria's Secret model, began dating Simpson more than a year ago. He once told a reporter it was strange getting used to someone with her own life, her own schedule; neither of his ex-wives ever worked.
"Paula, what can I say," Simpson wrote to Barbieri in what seemed to be his suicide note last week. "You are special. I'm sorry we're not going to have our chance. God brought you to me. I now see. As I leave, you'll be in my thoughts."
Simpson survived last Friday's dramatic chase without turning the gun he held on himself, but most believe he is gone regardless.
Never again can he simply be the smiling pitchman who wanted to be liked. He is seen now in a different way, with sidelong glances, sad shakes of the head and fascination mixed with horror. This was never part of the image he worked 46 years to create.
This is a new O.J., another O.J., a forlorn O.J who may never be able to return to the same complex division of public persona and private life that existed just two weeks ago.
Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.