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A Message After the Bleep

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WHEN IT COMES TO CARDS, YOU’VE GOT to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em, Kenny Rogers advised in his 1979 hit “The Gambler.” Same for marriages, it seems. Deciding it was no use bluffing, the bewhiskered country crooner, 54, and his wife, Marianne, 47, confirmed last week that they had separated after 15 years of marriage and one son, Cody, 11.

Outwardly the couple seemed to have been dealt a winning hand. He was the poor kid from a Houston housing project who had sung and acted his way to a personal fortune that ranks as one of the largest in country music. She was a bubbly country girl from Athens, Ga., who had starred for 19 years as one of Hee Haw’s Honeys. Rogers, also father of two now-grown children by two of his three previous marriages, met Marianne on the show’s set in 1975, and the couple wed two years later. Then last month word came from Aspen, where Marianne was vacationing, sans hubby, that a breakup was brewing.

In fact an impending split has been rumored ever since Rogers was socked last fall with lawsuits filed by three Texas women who alleged that lie had coaxed them into playing kinky phone-sex games. One of them, aspiring actress Lisa Applewhite, 27, also charged that in 1990 Rogers used the lure of a TV role to entice her to a While Plains, N.Y., hotel, where he then made sexual advances. “He’s a con artist,” says Applewhite, “and he’s sick.”

While acknowledging that he did have a private 800 number on which he recorded sexually explicit messages, Rogers insists that the women called voluntarily and that he never pressured anyone into having sex.

Whether or not the suits—no court date has yet been set—precipitated the separation, neither Rogers nor his wife has said. Last week the couple’s publicist said that no divorce papers had been filed and that neither had plans to file any. Rogers, whose latest TV movie, Rio Diablo, airs Feb. 28 on CBS, is currently on tour, while Marianne is with their son on their 1,000-acre Georgia farm. For now, it’s anybody’s guess where the chips will finally fall.