Perelman and Barkin declined multiple requests to comment for this story, citing the confidentiality of their divorce agreement. Interviews with friends and associates, however, begin to give definition to their tempestuous relationship. What emerges is the portrait of a marriage in which both parties started out in love, but finally split up when their fundamental differences and mutual hardheadedness—the very things that attracted them to one another in the first place—created too much friction to sustain.
Ellen Barkin never had much interest in meeting a Ronald Perelman. Not at first. Suits with cigars? Not her type. She grew up in the outer boroughs—first in the Bronx, then Queens—with her older brother, George. Her father was a salesman for Fuller Brush and also worked as an usher at Yankee Stadium. Her mother, Evelyn, was an administrative assistant at Jamaica Hospital. From an early age, Ellen was rebellious. As a teenager, she wanted to go to Woodstock, but her parents refused. In protest, she stayed up one night dropping acid. She hung out in the Village and, at 15, auditioned at the prestigious High School of Performing Arts on a lark. She was accepted, but when she got there, her teachers didn’t have high hopes for her. “She’s just not pretty enough,” she remembered a teacher telling her parents in one interview. “She has a little talent but no spark.” She went on to Hunter College, paying her way by waitressing in punky clubs and no-frill restaurants. An acting career seemed far-fetched. Barkin once recalled in an interview that she was so emotionally unstable in her early twenties she didn’t bother lining up auditions. “I couldn’t even turn the lights on,” she once said. “I was so depressed. I used to just sit in my dark apartment.”
Perelman’s roots were all country club and business. He grew up in a conservative home in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, a Jewish suburb north of Philadelphia (Perelman is a modern Orthodox Jew who is known to speak with his rabbi once a day and is said to travel with him). His father, Raymond, a factory owner and deal-maker, would dress up young Ronald in a blazer and tie and have him sit in on his board meetings. The pressure turned Ronald into an angry and conflicted child, overly mature, distant, and “a loner,” according to Christopher Byron’s book Testosterone Inc.: Tales of CEOs Gone Wild.
Perelman went to Wharton, as an undergraduate (like his father) and then for his M.B.A. As a student, he made a reputation for himself as a financial prodigy by pulling off a million-dollar deal for his father. At 21, on a summer cruise to Israel, Perelman met a shy 17-year-old named Faith Golding. Her grandfather was the wealthy real-estate mogul who built the Essex House on Central Park South. After marrying and finishing grad school, Perelman went to work for his father and started a family. He and Golding would have four children. Perelman was busy—and restless. After failing to convince his father to retire and let him run the business, Ronald and his family moved to New York to begin a new life.
To start his empire, Perelman borrowed $1.7 million from his wife to buy a stake in a jewelry chain, Cohen-Hatfield Industries. Then, with the help of junk-bond guru Michael Milken (another Wharton alum), Perelman went on a borrow-and-buy tear. Surrounding himself with a team of aggressive and loyal attorneys, he took control of companies including MacAndrews & Forbes (originally dealing in licorice extracts, it’s now Perelman’s holding company), Technicolor (a film-processing company), Pantry Pride (a supermarket chain), and Consolidated Cigar (which custom-produced a long, skinny H. Uppman for Perelman, hand-rolled from its factory in the Dominican Republic).
As his business prospered, Perelman was rarely home. Then one day in the winter of 1982, Faith Golding received a mysterious bill for a gold bracelet from Bulgari, according to Richard Hack’s unauthorized biography When Money Is King. Suspecting an affair, Golding hired a team of private eyes to follow her husband. They reported back that Perelman was having an affair with Susan Kasen, an Upper East Side florist; during the subsequent divorce proceedings, Golding also claimed that her husband had charged at least $100,000 on gifts and lavish trysts to the company she had loaned him the money to buy. In a hard-fought settlement, Golding would ultimately win $8 million in alimony, reportedly the least amount received by any of Perelman’s four wives.
In 1982, Barkin made her first feature-film appearance in Barry Levinson’s Diner. She got rave reviews, then continued to impress critics in a variety of film and theater roles with her quirky looks and tough, sensual demeanor. In a Times review of the Off Broadway play Eden’s Court in 1985, Frank Rich summarized her performance this way: “If it were really possible to give the kiss of life to a corpse, the actress Ellen Barkin would be the one to do it.” After major roles in The Big Easy, with Dennis Quaid, in 1987, and Sea of Love, with Al Pacino, in 1989, Ellen Barkin the not-pretty-enough teenager and depressed New York waitress had become Ellen Barkin the unusual Hollywood sex goddess.