Party Of The Century

THE TAN LEATHER SWIVEL CHAIRS were still at the bar -- the same bar at which Det. Mark Fuhrman parked Kato Kaelin while he went rooting around out back for some evidence. To the left was an O.J. shrine, a recessed pool-table room still filled with old footballs and other memorabilia. To the right was the desert-white-and-beige family room, with its baby grand piano and a media center, where homicide detectives had watched the Simpson ""Frogman'' tape. And now, one night last week in Simpson's Rockingham estate, here was O. J. Simpson, in what might be called different circumstances, dressed in black tie and sipping champagne, trying to get all that messy stuff behind him.

Outside the house, a fund-raiser for an L.A. anti-violence group was going on -- an affair critics derided as tastelessly hypocritical, as if the Menendez brothers were raising money for an orphanage. Inside, O.J. was talking to two NEWSWEEK reporters. ""I'm not a big fan of NEWSWEEK,'' he said at first, but then, displaying his usual confidence and chattiness, he talked about such matters as how his life consists of little more than playing golf. ""Nobody's knocking on my doors now,'' he acknowledged. ""I'm a realist. I take pride in the fact when I was a so-called star I didn't let it go to my head. I'm no different now. Now that I'm somewhat infamous, I'm not taking that to heart.''

The fund-raiser was in aid of the Stop the Violence/Increase the Peace Foundation. That well-respected, seven-year-old group works to reduce gang violence and runs a 24-hour domestic abuse hot line. The event came about, said Khalid Shah, the group's executive director, who served 12 years in prison for his role in a drive-by murder, when Simpson attended an earlier fund-raiser. Moved by the event, Simpson offered his place for a future affair, Shah said, and the group accepted.

About 500 people showed up, though it was hardly the gathering of ""hundreds of VIPs and celebrities'' that sponsors had promised. There were no Hollywood stars, few members of the African-American movie or business elite and not even O.J.'s older children, Arnelle and Jason. Instead, the lush estate was filled mainly with gang and ex-gang members and just regular, mostly black folks, dressed in formalwear or T shirts proclaiming STOP THE VIOLENCE. Sponsors suggested donations of $100 to $10,000.

Guests dined on baked chicken, rice, corn and green beans, and listened to the recorded music of Al Green and James Brown. Somehow that didn't seem the attraction. ""I bought a ticket because I really wanted to see him and his place,'' said Justine Walker, a nurse practitioner. ""I know I should have come to support the organization, and I guess I did a little. But I have to admit I just wanted to see O.J.'' Donte Granite, an admitted Crips gang member, felt the same way. ""I didn't know what to expect from him with everything that's been said about him and stuff, but he was cool and told me to let him know if we needed something to get us back on track.''

Guests were restricted to a side lawn and the tennis court, where tables covered with white cloths and flowers were arranged. Still, there was enough to see to satisfy trial buffs: the area where the limo pulled in on the night of the murders, or the spots on the driveway where the drops of blood were found.

It was precisely this voyeurism that provoked critics. ""It is grotesque and macabre that any group devoted to stopping violence would hold a fund-raiser at the home in which a murder victim's blood was found,'' said lawyer Gloria Allred, speaking for Nicole Brown's family. The house was also the sight of the 1989 incident in which Simpson punched Nicole (he pleaded no contest). Outside Simpson's mansion a few pickets made the point, carrying candles and signs, with one reading, HEY O.J., CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME.

Simpson made no excuses: he was innocent, he said, so ""why can't I do what I want to do?'' Besides, he told NEWSWEEK, he'd helped out many groups in the past. He rattled off his old causes, at one point grabbing an old photo of himself with some camp kids. ""I am offended by people who say I'm only doing this to rebuild my image,'' he said.

Maybe not, but Simpson does have to worry about his next big act: his civil trial, scheduled for September, on a wrongful-death suit brought by the families of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. Simpson said he's feeling very positive. ""This trial is going to go further in explaining to the open-minded person that [the crimes] have nothing to do with O.J.'' If the party is any indication, it will take some doing to find those open-minded persons.