The Last Days of Brittany Murphy

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When the final curtain came down for Brittany Murphy on Sunday morning, Dec. 20, 2009, the drama played out in the one room in her Hollywood Hills mansion that had become her refuge: her bathroom. This tiled, peach-colored sanctuary was where she went to get away from the mounting pressures of her life: a house she hated, a city where she no longer wanted to live, a career that was imploding and the constant burden of being a caregiver.

Even though she didn’t feel well herself, Brittany was there to care for her mother, Sharon Murphy, a breast cancer survivor suffering debilitating neuropathy, and her ailing husband of three years, 39-year-old Simon Monjack. For nearly a year, the England native had been having seizures and a month earlier suffered an apparent heart attack. When he had a seizure, his arms and legs flailing on the big four-poster bed, Brittany would rush to his side. Although weakened by anemia and gasping for breath from her own ailments, Brittany held his 300-pound body down, using a spoon to keep him from swallowing his tongue.

Simon joked that his wife’s bathroom was “her comfort zone.” He called it the “Brittany-sized room,” reflecting her diminutive 5-foot-2 stature, and recalled how she spent hours sampling the cosmetics and perfumes that crowded every inch of counter space, critically studying her body image, sometimes singing to herself or writing bits of poetry in a journal, listening to music or paging through magazines from which she would tear out pages with clothes she just had to have.

That Saturday night was chilly and windy. The electric power kept going out, and the backup generator failed. They used flashlights when it went dark, afraid to light candles near the wheezing oxygen machine Simon relied on to ease his sleep apnea, bouts of asthma and frequent respiratory infections.

While Brittany dozed on the big bed beside him after midnight, Simon and Sharon talked about the practical aspects of their plan to move to New York. They discussed selling the big house Brittany had purchased in 2003 for $3.9 million, fully furnished, from Britney Spears, who had lived there with Justin Timberlake. Brittany always felt the tri-level Mediterranean at the top of Rising Glen Road was unlucky. She wanted to start fresh in 2010 in New York, where they could start a family, Simon would find work as a screenwriter and director and she’d star in independent films that would revive her career.

“She absolutely hated the Rising Glen house,” Simon told me in January 2010. “Every time we would drive up Sunset, Brit would say, ‘Please, can we stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel?’ I’d say: ‘Honey, you’ve got to be realistic. We have our house, a 10,000-square-foot home. We’re going to stay in it.’ ”

As it turned out, it was where Brittany and Simon were to die, in surprisingly similar ways, only five months apart.

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I first met Brittany in 1992 in L.A., when she was 14. She had become close friends with my daughter, who was also an actress and singer. Brittany and her mother became part of our extended family in those years, often sharing dinners, holidays and birthdays. At times, Brittany turned to me as a father figure, and we talked about her life and career. She lacked higher education, but behind the giggles, Brittany was a sponge who soaked up knowledge. She educated herself and had interests ranging from politics to science to the intricacies of show business. We spent many happy times sharing thoughts.

I hadn’t seen a lot of Brittany after she married Simon in 2007, but when the news flashed of her unexpected death, I went with my wife and daughter to her house to try and comfort Sharon and Simon. I helped them deal with the media onslaught in those first days and, at their request, gave the eulogy at Brittany’s funeral on Christmas Eve.

In those first weeks after Brittany died, as Simon lay on the bed, rarely rising or bathing, he encouraged me to write an independent book about Brittany that would tell her true story. He and Sharon gave me a series of on-the-record interviews, which are quoted throughout this article. Only later would I realize that much of what Simon told me — about his family, education, marriage and career — was exaggerated or simply fabricated.

Simon wanted the book because he was convinced — before the autopsy report on Brittany came back — that she had literally died of a broken heart caused by the shoddy way she had been treated in Hollywood. He wanted to expose the studios, producers and talent reps he believed had used rumor and innuendo — about her alleged lateness, inability to remember lines, drug use and partying — to destroy her career. “I honestly think Brittany’s life has to serve a purpose,” Simon told me. “Her true fans, and young people coming off the bus, deserve to know the bubble can burst.”

Simon was especially bitter at Warner Bros. because Brittany had been dropped as a voice actor on Happy Feet 2 after stories about illegal drug use appeared on tabloid websites. He recalled Brittany crying for hours about her stalled career. She hadn’t starred in a studio movie since 2004’s Little Black Book, and Simon believed there had been a conspiracy against her among former agents and managers. That was a major motivation to move away from Hollywood.

“It wasn’t about the money,” he told me. “She wasn’t going, ‘Oh, I’m not being offered $10 million to do a movie.’ It was: ‘I’m not getting offered anything where I can really show what I can do. I can sing. I can dance. I can do all these things I was put on Earth to show the world,’ and somehow she was being blocked from doing it.”

The irony, Simon insisted, was that Brittany literally could not do drugs. In her early teens, she had been diagnosed with a heart murmur, so Brittany knew illegal drugs could endanger her life. That fear, Sharon said, that made it impossible for Brittany to use cocaine or stimulants.

The tabloid noise had increased over the years as Brittany got thinner and blonder in a quest for leading roles in movies, which also raised the specter of anorexia, which haunts many Hollywood actresses who feel the need to be thin. Brittany was 115 pounds when she died, a healthy weight for her height, even though she looked fragile and her limbs were reed-thin. “She had curves in all the right places,” Simon said. “She was just miniaturized. She ate whatever she wanted when she wanted.”

Still, Brittany had self-image issues. “The thing she was very conscious of was her height,” said Martha Coolidge, who directed Brittany in the 2009 Lifetime movie Tribute. “She felt she was short, so one reason she controlled her weight was the thinner you are, the taller you look. She was knowledgeable about her body and what would exaggerate her height.”

In the meantime, Brittany had learned to live with physical pain: Ever since a car accident shortly after Clueless came out in 1995, she had coped with a recurring ache in her jaw. Sick or well, she struggled to keep going and keep working. She was the family breadwinner. But after becoming a name-above-the-title star in such movies as Just Married and Little Black Book, things weren’t going well with her once-promising career. In the months leading up to her death, she had seen the end of her lucrative, long-running voice role as Luanne on King of the Hill and, in addition to losing roles in Happy Feet 2 and 2008’s Tinker Bell, had been dropped from The Expendables.

“The nature of this town is exploitive,” Simon told me. “Brittany would be alive today if she was a housewife in Edison, N.J.” — where she grew up — “or a successful person in another business.” But showbiz had been her dream since she was a small child pointing to a TV screen and telling Sharon she wanted to be on television some day. 

It was wonderful that Brittany never lost her childlike innocence and sense of wonder, or that infectious giggle. But what worked for her as an actress made for a troubled life: She never learned to drive or balance her own checkbook. She looked to her mother, business managers and finally Simon to care for her. It was the need for a father — her biological father was rarely part of her life — mentor, teacher and anchor that led her to Simon.

Brittany had an unusually close relationship with her mother. Sharon told me they “grew up” together. I was able to witness firsthand their unique bond. They referred to each other as “soulmates.” Ever since Brittany came to Hollywood at 13, with her mother following shortly thereafter, Sharon had dedicated herself to her daughter. In turn, Brittany had put her career on hold twice when Sharon had bouts of breast cancer shortly after the making of Clueless and again in 2003, when Brittany camped out in her mom’s hospital room and I was among the many friends she recruited to donate blood on Sharon’s behalf.

Sharon “worked hard being a single mother,” her sister Deborah “Debba” Murphy told me shortly after Brittany died. “I don’t think she forced Britty into the showbiz stuff. Britty wanted to do it.” JoAnne Colonna, Brittany’s agent or manager for a decade, recalled meeting her when she was 16 and being struck by her energy, talent and how close she was to her mother. “They were adorable together,” she said. “They finished each other’s sentences. Both were bright and bubbly, and that relationship never changed.”

Growing up in Edison, Brittany said her first words at six months, according to Aunt Debba, but didn’t walk until she was nearly 15 months. Sharon described her as an outgoing child who loved to dance and sing. She got her showbiz start in school and local theater, starring in the musical Really Rosie at age 9. After that performance, Sharon recalled, Brittany told a local TV station: “I’m going to get an agent and do commercials and work in New York. Then I’m going to move to Los Angeles, be in movies in Hollywood and then come back and do Broadway. Then I’ll probably have a huge musical career. I am going to change the world.”

And she did almost all of it. She starred on TV series; in addition to King of the Hill, she did guest roles ranging from Frasier to Nash Bridges. She was in more than two dozen movies, from her breakout role in Clueless to the romantic comedy Love and Other Disasters. She even returned to Broadway in the 1997 revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. New York Times critic Vincent Canby called Brittany’s Broadway debut “exceptional.” Even when her movies got mixed notices, Brittany often stood out, as in 8 Mile, the 2002 screen debut of rapper Eminem. “It will be a shame if she becomes a star via this embarrassing siren turn,” critic David Edelstein wrote for Slate. “That said, she has it. When she turned those huge black-rimmed eyes on Rabbit, she made me think of Morris Day’s line to Apollonia in Purple Rain: ‘Your lips would make a lollipop too happy.’ ” Roger Ebert didn’t like Just Married but saw in Brittany “a rare and particular quality.” But Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday just didn’t get her, saying that after 8 Mile she should understand “her true calling is that of a bad girl, with or without a heart of gold.”

But, in fact, Brittany was more than any one thing. She could disappear into a role, as she did in Girl, Interrupted and Don’t Say a Word; the latter I believe should have earned her an Oscar nomination. Said Penny Marshall, who directed her in Riding in Cars With Boys: “Her timing was impeccable. She could be funny. She could be dramatic. She was a terrific actress.”

Time critic Richard Corliss noted shortly after her passing that Brittany was a “gifted actress” who “didn’t win the acclaim she dreamed of and might have deserved.” He was right that her work has been underappreciated, just as there is no doubt a part of her tragedy is that the potential she showed for greatness was snuffed out so early.

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The bug that would play a major role in Brittany’s passing — Staphylococcus aureus — was imported from Puerto Rico, where Brittany had gone six weeks before her death to star in The Caller, a low-budget thriller that was the latest in a series of ever-lower-budget movies she had done during the previous three years, mostly for the payday.

Brittany had arrived in San Juan with Simon, her mother and her Maltese puppy, Clara. Press reports later said she was fired after the first day and that Simon had been drunk on the set, but the movie’s producers, prodded by Simon’s lawyer, called it a mutual parting. Simon told me that Brittany had been unhappy when she realized the thriller she had signed to star in had morphed into a horror flick. “She said, ‘There’s too much Santeria in it,’ ” Simon recalled. “And it was spooky. She told me, ‘I’ve been offered lots of horror movies, and I’ve never done them. And I’m not going to start now.’”

She parted company after one day of shooting when the producers insisted on banning Simon from the set. Still, they stayed eight more days vacationing in San Juan, so, as Simon said, it wouldn’t “be a wasted trip.” But Simon and Sharon caught colds — Staphylococcus — while there. On the flight home to LAX on Nov. 28, 2009, Simon had what he described as a “mild heart attack.” Simon said Brittany administered CPR on the plane, even though Brittany was quoted as calling it an asthma attack. News reports of Simon’s medical problems and Brittany being replaced on Caller became the latest in a barrage of negative press about the couple.

He had entered Brittany’s life at a very vulnerable time. She had risen so quickly and fallen so far in such a short time that even fans had to wonder what was happening. Most of her final films headed straight to video. It was a sad chapter in what had been a career filled with promise. “She was incredibly talented,” Chris Snyder, who worked for Brittany’s first Hollywood agent, Iris Burton, told me. “There were very few people who could do what she could do in comedy. She had a Lucille Ball kind of humor. She was a force of nature in comedy, but she could also do drama, which is very rare.”

Said David Latt, who directed Brittany in one of her last productions, the cable TV movie MegaFault, “I compared her to a really great old-movie star.”

Gary Fleder, who directed Don’t Say a Word, said: “What people don’t appreciate is that she was fearless. Whatever eccentricity or vanity existed in her life, in her work as an actor there was none. She was willing to go for it, to be raw, to be ugly and to expose herself emotionally.”

A year later, Brittany’s talent and career achievements have been pushed to the background by the tabloid sensationalism that led up to her death and the many questions she left behind. What’s true is that over the years, her use of prescription drugs steadily increased as she coped with pain from the auto accident, took medication for seizures after an incident during the production of 8 Mile and coped with other health issues. That all added to her problems shortly after the return from Puerto Rico, when she caught  Simon and Sharon’s bug. She took the antibiotic Biaxin, migraine pills, cough medicine and an over-the-counter nasal spray. The day she died, she had also taken an anti-depression drug (fluoxetine, aka Prozac), an anti-seizure drug (Klonopin), an anti-inflammatory (methylprednisolone) and a beta blocker that Simon gave her, as well as Vicoprofen to ease pain from her period. But Brittany kept getting sicker, and her laryngitis during her final 10 days was the worst of her life. She was also weakened by her period — the second in a month — which was causing anemia that cut her red-blood count to a quarter of normal.

On her final night, Brittany was gasping for breath, her lips turning blue from a lack of oxygen as her lungs filled with fluid. Despite her problems, Brittany had not seen a doctor for six weeks, though she consulted by phone a few times and had talked to a pharmacist. Late Friday afternoon of her final weekend, she made a doctor appointment for Monday. She never got there.

Being sick had become something Brittany just accepted. There was no sense of urgency to see a doctor because she and Simon practiced their own form of “holistic” medicine — meaning they picked and chose among medicines and doctors. They were always afraid the paparazzi would find out if they were seen as sick and that it would hurt their job prospects in Hollywood. That was one reason Brittany didn’t go to an emergency room that night, and it was an excuse for Simon not to call for help when he had seizures or another of his heart problems. It was also why Brittany used false names to hide her identity at the pharmacy.

One druggist, Eddie Bubar of Eddie’s Drugs in West Los Angeles, became alarmed by the frequency and amounts of their drug purchases and suspected they were “doctor shopping” — getting drugs from multiple sources. He confronted Simon in August 2009 and told them to take their business elsewhere. Bubar said he feared they were being overmedicated, though he never imagined it would have such dire consequences. Simon and Sharon, he said, got drugs under their own names. But Brittany preferred an alias: Lola Manilow, which Bubar was aware of.

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The paranoia Brittany had about the public and industry learning of her medical problems played into Simon’s conspiracy theories about people being out to get her. He stoked that paranoia and used it to gain control over Brittany in a surprisingly short time.

Brittany didn’t date until she was 21, then had several long relationships: She had one with Ashton Kutcher for six months after they met on Just Married in 2002, was engaged to Hollywood talent manager Jeff Kwatinetz for four months in 2004 and was engaged to a production assistant she met on Little Black Book in 2005.

Then came her whirlwind romance with Simon, ignited when she phoned him from Tokyo in early 2007 while making The Ramen Girl to say how much she liked his script for The White Hotel, based on the D.M. Thomas novel. They agreed to meet when she returned to L.A. for what turned out to be a dinner at Hotel Bel-Air that went into the wee hours. The following week, he followed her to New York, where she was doing publicity for a movie. From then on, Simon never slept a night away from her, except for nine days he was incarcerated by U.S. Immigration Services for an expired visa. Shortly after that incarceration, on May 5, 2007, they were married by a rabbi at Brittany’s home on Rising Glen Road. Nearly all of the handful of guests were Brittany’s employees or vendors. Simon’s best man was her chauffeur.

Brittany saw the stocky Englishman with the sexy accent and deep voice as he portrayed himself: a wealthy, educated, cultured filmmaker. He had been born in the affluent London suburb of Hillingdon and grew up in Bourne End, Buckinghamshire. His father, William, had worked in the City, London’s financial district, until he got a brain tumor at 29. He died six years later when Simon was 15, an event his mother, Linda Monjack, says left her son devastated. After that, she says, her son began to exaggerate and at times seemed unable to separate fact from fiction. “His intelligence was off the scale, but he  was also a child in many ways,” his mother told me. “His father’s death completely destroyed him.”

Simon went to film school at NYU and found some success as a photographer and music video director but faltered in his debut as a filmmaker, Two Days, Nine Lives, financed by his family. A BBC reviewer described it as “a continuous volley of dead conversations.” It was never released, and his family lost the investment, which he promised his mother he would repay but never did.

While there was some inherited family money, his mother says Simon ran through it long before he met Brittany. He still told her he was heir to a fortune and was able to impress her with his knowledge of art and knack for languages and music. His mother says he had a photographic memory. He also had no problem spinning tales to get his way with women on both sides of the Atlantic, leaving a trail of broken hearts, unpaid bills and angry fiancees. A woman he met in London in 1999 later described Simon as “very manipulative” and said he lied to her about his wealth and properties. He “usually cons good, honest, trustworthy people,” she wrote in a letter to the FBI, meant as a warning to others — which I accessed through the Freedom of Information Act — “simply because they cannot comprehend that a person can be so deceptive to that extent; it’s almost unbelievable. I believe he is sick and lies continuously, defrauding people, hurting people including his own family. He himself has admitted this to me.”

Richard Golub, a New York attorney and best-selling author who got involved with Simon writing a script for what became Factory Girl, says he wasn’t very good as a screenwriter but could spin self-aggrandizing stories. Finally fed up, Golub investigated Simon  and confronted him. “I said, ‘I really don’t want to be in business with someone who is flim-flamming people,’ ” Golub told me. “ ‘You’ve left a trail of people behind that are going to sue you because you took their trust funds or inheritance or conned them into investing in projects you never delivered.’ ” Later that night, Simon called Golub. “He said, ‘Look, you really have my number,’ ” Golub said. “ ‘I’ve led this really f***ed-up life, and I really have conned and cheated a lot of people. But I’m turning over a new leaf.’ ”

Several times, Brittany was confronted with evidence of Simon’s checkered past but refused to believe it or chose to ignore it. She was in love and fiercely loyal. After the late George Hickenlooper, director of Factory Girl, went public with criticism of Simon for claiming he produced that film (he really got his credit in a legal settlement), there was a late-night call from Brittany, with whom he had been friends. Hickenlooper said in an interview days before his death in October that Brittany pleaded with him to remove a scathing overview of Simon’s “frivolous lawsuit” he had posted on IMDb. “ ‘If you ruin my husband, you are going to ruin me,’ ” Hickenlooper recalled Brittany saying. “I just said, ‘Look, you’ve got to clear your head on this, honey.’ I just knew she was so fragile that anyone who lovingly gave her the time of day and could put up with her eccentricities she would be attached to immediately.”

Despite the evidence, Brittany believed Simon would provide financial security, help revive her career and allow her to fulfill her dream of being a mother. In their first year, they did find a creative flowering together. He shot hundreds of photos of Brittany and would play piano at night while she lay beneath the baby grand listening.

Brittany had been completely taken with Simon. What she didn’t know when they met was that Simon was nearly broke and in a legal battle with a producer on White Hotel, Susan Stewart Potter, who hired him to direct, then discovered he was trying to cut her out. He eventually paid Stewart a legal settlement of more than $300,000. When Simon moved into Brittany’s house, he didn’t mention he was leaving his last fiancee with thousands in unpaid rent on an L.A. apartment or that he had written numerous bad checks. Shortly after they married, Brittany paid $10,000 to a casting director who had sued Simon over a bounced check.

I first met Simon shortly after their marriage, when Brittany brought him to our house in Encino for Father’s Day 2007. Simon led the conversation, played piano and went outside to smoke a cigar, which Brittany hurried to light. Simon told us they had to take extreme security precautions because they were under surveillance by helicopters and their phone was bugged. He said he had hired a private eye who gave Simon names of family and friends who cheated, stole from them or sold information to the tabloids.

It turned out to be one of the few times we saw them in the next two years. Simon, as many of Brittany’s family members and friends came to believe, had created a web of paranoia around Brittany and used it to separate her from anyone who might have challenged his dominance. Simon even told terrible tales about his mother, apparently to keep her from telling Brittany and Sharon the truth about him. Linda Monjack says she met her daughter-in-law only once, at dinner in New York in 2007. But Simon communicated with his mother by phone and e-mail nearly every day.

Simon’s health, meanwhile, took a sudden turn for the worse in the second year of their marriage after he fell off a ladder during a photo shoot in Los Angeles. That apparently started his seizures, which he also told me were tied to brain tumors. His mother told me his use of prescription medications after the marriage was a surprise to her because before that, he had been adamant about not using drugs. She also believes her son  developed Munchausen’s syndrome, where a person fakes illness to get attention. She was skeptical about the cause of his seizures and believes her son could somehow make it appear that his heart stopped. Simon, though, claimed he had various heart problems and needed open-heart surgery. But his autopsy showed a healthy, slightly enlarged heart, and his doctor in Burbank told authorities that Simon had taken an EKG exam shortly before his death and that his heart was fine.

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At about 3 a.m. on Brittany’s final morning, power returned to the Hollywood Hills after a 45-minute blackout. Brittany woke and made her way to the little balcony off the cluttered bedroom. At his wife’s request, Simon phoned upstairs to Sharon and said Brittany needed her. Sharon came down carrying Clara, named after Brittany’s favorite old-time star, Clara Bow, another one-time Hollywood “It” girl. What Sharon saw frightened her. “She was lying on the patio trying to catch her breath,” Sharon recalled. “I said ‘Baby, get up.’ She said: ‘Mommy, I can’t catch my breath. Help me. Help me.’ ”

Simon recalled, “She said to her mom: ‘I’m dying. I’m going to die. Mommy, I love you.’ ”

Sharon and Simon were sympathetic, but Brittany frequently complained about ailments, so they didn’t take it seriously. “She was always so dramatic,” Sharon said. “I’ve replayed that so many times. She asked if she could use the oxygen, but Simon said her heart could stop with oxygen, and anyway he then had another seizure, a long, horrific seizure.” Sharon then made her daughter hot tea with ginger and lemon. “Her lips were parched, like she was dehydrated,” Sharon said. “So I made her drink that.”

Brittany returned to her peach bathroom around 7:30 a.m., followed minutes later by Sharon. “She said, ‘Mommy, I really don’t feel well,’ ” Sharon told me. As Brittany collapsed around 8 a.m., Sharon pulled her daughter to her and screamed for Simon, who said to call 911 while he moved Brittany into a cold shower. Sharon, on instructions from the 911 operator,  talked Simon through resuscitation efforts until the paramedics arrived. Brittany was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, with Sharon and Simon following by car. Simon remembered being directed to a children’s waiting room with little green chairs. Around 10 a.m., a physician said they couldn’t save her. “I said, ‘What about medical science?’ ” Simon recalled. “ ‘Isn’t there anything that can keep her alive? Do anything!’ But then they told us she hadn’t made it.”

Simon at first refused an autopsy because he didn’t want her beautiful body violated, he said, and felt it went against his orthodox Jewish tradition. But the L.A. coroner insisted, eventually finding that she died of pneumonia, anemia and a toxic cocktail of prescription drugs: a perfect storm of ailments and overmedication. “She had been sick at least two weeks,” assistant L.A. Coroner Ed Winter said. “Had they taken her to a doctor or hospital, it would have been treatable.”

On May 23, five months after his wife, Simon died in the same bedroom at age 40, curiously from similar causes: acute pneumonia and severe anemia. He too  had been taking a lot of prescription drugs, but the coroner ruled that out as a direct cause of death. Even so, Simon’s drug use and doctor shopping, along with that of Corey Haim and others, is under investigation by a multi-agency task force led by the California Attorney General’s Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement. It is looking into celebrity abuse of prescription meds, doctor shopping and the use of aliases.

It is impossible to know if Brittany might still be alive had Simon not come along. However, it seems obvious that he brought out her worst traits and contributed to an atmosphere that was ultimately deadly to her. Rex Beaber, a L.A. clinical psychologist and attorney, didn’t know Simon but says after hearing his story that his behavior was consistent with a sociopathic personality disorder. He called what happened to Brittany “an age-old story you see commonly with people who meet narcissistic personalities and people who are sociopathic. They have a kind of blood instinct for the weakness of people around them.”

In his way, Simon did love her, but that was part of his sickness. He was mentally ill and couldn’t help preying on her at a time when she was highly susceptible to his oily charm, false promises and outright lies.

Still, even knowing the truth about Simon, I can understand from my own hours talking with him how seductive he could be. He would look you in the eye and tell his tall tales with such sincerity, and he always had an excuse for anything bad said about him. And for his myriad faults, Simon was transformed in his final days with Brittany.

“I don’t think I can be damaged any more than I have been,” Simon told me. “When ‘freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,’ as my wife would quote Janis Joplin, I’ve lost the only thing that really mattered to me. I lived and breathed my wife. She was the light of my life.”

Now the light has gone dark for both of them.          

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