Ronald Perelman was born on New Year’s Day, 1943, and celebrates the occasion in extreme style. His annual New Year’s Eve–birthday party in St. Barts is one of the world’s most exclusive social events. The billionaire takeover artist hosts the gathering on Ultima III, his multi-million-dollar, 188-foot yacht, which he keeps docked in Gustavia harbor. In past years, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Jerry Bruckheimer have attended the event, and for Perelman’s 60th, Barry Manilow sang “Happy Birthday.” This year, Russell and Kimora Lee Simmons, Owen Wilson, and Usher were among the 200 guests.
The highlight of the evening is, naturally, the countdown to New Year’s. Shortly before midnight, the guests gather on the observation deck of the boat. A cake is typically waiting, with the candles lit. When the big moment arrives—“three . . . two . . . one . . .”—the people in the crowd shout “Happy New Year!” Then, in chorus, they sing “Happy Birthday” to Perelman. A canopy of fireworks explodes against the nighttime Caribbean sky.
The scene feels magical, in an over-the-top mogul-fest sort of way. Or at least it has in years past. This year was different. Something was plainly wrong. Ellen Barkin, the feisty, flop-mouthed actress and Perelman’s wife of five years, was not at Perelman’s side at midnight. Later, she would tell friends she was trying to stay as far away from him as possible. The night before, she had told them, she and Perelman had had a particularly brutal fight, their worst ever.
Perelman and Barkin had always been an unlikely and combustible pair. Cynics said that he married her because he wanted a Hollywood trophy wife with a marquee name and that she married him because she wanted his money (Perelman’s net worth at the time was estimated at about $3.3 billion; it’s now valued at $6.1 billion). The couple’s romantic histories, doubters noted, didn’t foretell a lasting union: Perelman was divorced three times; his last breakup was an ugly and highly public split from the doe-eyed Democratic fund-raiser Patricia Duff. Barkin was divorced from actor Gabriel Byrne and, when their relationship had fallen apart, she took to dating the much younger actor David Arquette (he was 23; she was 40). Still, friends say that Perelman and Barkin, at least for a time, were truly in love. As different as they were outwardly—he the pit-bull corporate raider and Upper East Sider, she the downtown boho actress—they had a fierce attraction, friends say. Their relationship drew energy from their differences. “We never bore each other,” Barkin once said.
Barkin also liked Perelman’s charm, generosity, and impulsiveness, a friend of Barkin’s says. He sent her a gold Cartier watch on her birthday after knowing her only two weeks, the friend says; his marriage proposal followed just two weeks after that. Perelman, in turn, seemed to like Barkin’s salty, frank demeanor. They also had great physical chemistry. “They couldn’t keep their hands off each other,” one of her friends says. “A very physical relationship,” one of his friends says. They fought, but they had always worked things out. “High highs and low lows,” says a friend of Barkin’s. In the end, their dramas had always ended happily.
But not this New Year’s Eve. Tonight, Perelman and Barkin weren’t speaking, a friend of Barkin’s says. They hadn’t been intimate for months, and Barkin speculated Perelman might be cheating on her, the friend says, although Barkin had no evidence. As the clock approached midnight, hundreds of revelers in linen shirts and party dresses had gathered on the docks, as they do each year, to watch the fireworks and toast in the New Year. On the Ultima III, the guests soon stood waiting in place for the big birthday moment. Perelman’s cake was ready, the candles flickering. But Barkin was elsewhere, on the top deck with a friend, not at Perelman’s side.
“The tension,” one observer says, “was thick.” Back in New York the next week, people close to Barkin say, Barkin was still raw from the fight they’d had on the boat. Even so, she never thought that weeks later, she’d be served with divorce papers and booted from her home.
Divorces are intensely personal and often contentious affairs. Spouses fight. Anger grows. Accusations are traded back and forth. It can be impossible to know with certainty what goes on inside a marriage, or what causes one to end (divorce agreements are confidential, and people loyal to ex-husbands and ex-wives invariably color events in the ways that reflect best on their family members and friends). But when two such well-known figures as Ron Perelman and Ellen Barkin divorce, the relationship inevitably becomes a matter of public discussion. The news that Perelman and Barkin were splitting up was first reported in January in the New York Post. According to gossip columnist Liz Smith and reporter Phil Messing, Perelman’s motivation for divorce was financial. If Perelman didn’t seek a divorce soon, the Post reported, a clause in their prenuptial agreement stated that Barkin would be entitled to a significant increase in alimony.