NOW HERE IS A SCENE FROM A MARRIAGE SEEMINGLY made in heaven. It is the height of the glittery ski season in Aspen, and Lyle Lovett is in superb spirits as he makes the late afternoon sound check for his two sold-out concerts at the cozy, 450-seat Wheeler Opera House. All seems right with the world until the 35-year-old country crooner requests—in his soft-spoken, gentlemanly way, no doubt—that all present vacate the auditorium. Immediately. Hey, what’s this all about, the band members and roadies wonder? Actually something quite dangerous: romance. As soon as everyone else has left, Lovett stands, acoustic guitar in hand, and gives an unscheduled solo concert for an audience of one: Julia Roberts.
She must have liked what she heard. Lovett’s 26-year-old wife, who had flown in on Disney’s corporate jet from the Los Angeles set of I Love Trouble that February day, stayed on for both shows, even getting up onstage with Aspenite John Denver late in the evening to help Lyle sing a tune. Afterward, Roberts and Lovett enjoyed a midnight supper at the members-only Caribou Club. “They just laughed and talked until closing time,” says a nearby diner. “They seemed very close, very affectionate.” The next morning, though, Roberts was on a flight back to L.A, and Lovett was back on the road.
Imagine a marriage composed of stolen moments. A fab July 4 weekend at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago some 13 months ago; a secret snuggle at Hugo’s restaurant in L.A. last May. Five months into his life with Julia Roberts, Lyle Lovett sat wearing a sweater his wife had knitted him and matter-of-factly told PEOPLE that, what with her putting in long hours on far-flung movie sets and him touring and recording nonstop, “we’ve never spent more than seven days together.” If anything, the pace of their separate lives has picked up since then. “With Julia making a film, the spotlight is on her,” says a longtime friend of Lovett’s, “but his schedule is just as busy.” A Texas relative of the singer agrees. “Lyle,” the source states, “is a workaholic.”
One of the odder couples in show business now seems, in some ways, a perfect match—overachievers too busy to get bogged down in each other’s business, endlessly forgiving of each other’s career-related foibles and faults. How busy are these people—she the daughter of two acting teachers from Smyrna, Ga., he the son of oil-company middle managers from Klein, Texas? So busy that they sometimes, quite blatantly, put labor ahead of love. On May 12, Lovett—in France to finish filming Robert Altman’s send-up of the fashion industry, Prêt-à-Porter—boarded a plane at a Paris airport, bound for Houston and his music career. Meanwhile, Roberts—coming in from New York City on the Concorde to shoot scenes for the same film—touched down at that field 12 hours later. Quel dommage! Asked once if Lyle ever slowed down enough to concoct a romantic dinner, Julia just laughed. “He’s made me toast, he’s ordered me room service,” she said with a chuckle. “That’s the extent of his cooking services.”
And just look what happens when one of them does try to change gear. On May 15, Lovett, driving down near Klein, backed up his black Chevy Suburban, heard a crunch and discovered that he had struck a Toyota containing a reporter from the National Enquirer. Things could have been worse, though; no one was seriously injured, and the incident never did turn into a three-car pileup involving the van belonging to a private investigator, hired by the same paper, that was parked nearby. Says police officer Calvin Jones, who was on the scene: “Mr. Lovett was super nice and cooperative, even though the van had been outside his house for three days and the Enquirer reporter said he was there to gather information about Mr. Lovett’s impending divorce.”
The D word? Really? Well, no. Though it has been dangled by some hard-up-for-copy types, no legal action has been initiated, and friends say none will be. Some reports had had Lyle and Julia spending their first anniversary—June 27—thousands of miles apart, with him in L.A. shooting videos for his upcoming album, I Love Everybody, and her in England making a movie. Pure nonsense, says Lovett’s favorite uncle. Calvin Klein—a 59-year-old Texas cattleman, not the designer—says that Julia and his nephew were, in fact, together in London on their big day. Klein says he got his information from Lyle, who before he left for the airport turned to him and said, “I guess we’re still on our same honeymoon.”
Okay, Dolly Parton’s marriage is weirder. But goodness knows, Julia Fiona Roberts and Lyle Lovett boast one unconventional union. The two were an unlikely duo from the moment they married last summer in the wood-paneled St. James Lutheran Church in Marion, Ind. Their wedding was planned in 72 hours after a courtship of three weeks. And from the start, they have maintained separate residences: Lyle lives in a renovated farmhouse that once belonged to his grandfather in Klein; Julia in a penthouse co-op she purchased last year on a tree-lined street in Manhattan.
Still, though Roberts recently admitted it can be “a little difficult to go from spending time together to not spending time together,” the rhythm and rules of their marriage seem to suit them. “When they’re together,” says Uncle Calvin, “they are like two peas in a pod.” And, to hear Roberts tell it, when apart they are pod-ners still. “I think that when you have a great love, and you’re secure in that,” she said recently, “it doesn’t matter how far apart you are. I feel wherever I go, I now, by virtue of being married, represent both of us.”
They certainly seem to enjoy their time together. Last Thanksgiving, Roberts gleefully cooked a turkey, with all the trimmings, for her new in-laws at a house she and Lovett rent in L.A. And though they missed each other in May, they spent an apparently glorious two weeks together in Paris last March. “They ran to each other and c’est bien!” says Serge Benhamou, a French photographer who was on the scene when Julia arrived. “A long kiss, and they stayed in each other’s arms a very long time. They were like kids in love.”
If Lovett and Roberts are in fact on “that same honeymoon,” theirs has been no straight path through the Poconos. The Oscar-nominated actress and the Grammy-winning ironist seem to relish sending mixed signals to the world—and sometimes, maybe, stern signals to each other. They have had tough times. On April 18, nine days before Julia was photographed dancing in New York City with actor Ethan Hawke—an incident that Lovett would later joke about in concerts—the singer spoke at a tribute to director Robert Altman at Lincoln Center. He had flown in from Paris for just 24 hours for the event; Roberts was already in Manhattan. But though some 1,500 turned out to honor Altman—including Lily Tomlin, Lauren Bacall and Robin Williams—Roberts chose not to accompany Lovett on his one night in town.
Consider, too, the matter of Julia’s apparent combination mood-wedding ring. She had it on while shooting Prêt-à-Porter, then off at the Todd Oldham fashion show in New York City, then on again later. Then there is her behavior on the set of Mary Reilly, a high-minded, veddy English drama in which she plays the housekeeper of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. For the first two weeks she seemed positively nunlike, spending her time between takes by herself, often alone in her trailer. Then, just before flying back to the U.S. for an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman in mid-June, Roberts impulsively invited Welsh actor Michael Sheen, her handsome 25-year-old costar on the film, to join her on her private jet. Almost certainly, it was nothing more than a friendly gesture. But given the Hawke interlude, as well as her well-known history of involvement with her leading men—Kiefer Sutherland, Liam Neeson and Dylan McDermott, among them—it was also quite likely to be blown out of proportion. Sure enough: JULIA TAKES A SHEEN TO MICHAEL screamed the London Daily Mail on June 21.
Lyle, for his part, prefers not to provide clarification on marital matters. His references to married life on his current tour have been meager and mysterious. “You know, it’s a common misconception that musicians get a lot,” he deadpanned during a recent Cohasset, Mass., concert. “My concern is for the musician who, you know, doesn’t get any. Because it’s one thing to not get any, but to not get any and have people think you are, well, that’s tragic.”
Still, it’s hard to be pessimistic about a marriage in which the husband travels the countryside singing songs, even enigmatic songs, about his wife. And in the end, all the digging into their marital life has produced very little dirt. After Roberts’ highly publicized encounter with Hawke, the two never made the news again. Likewise, tabloid reports that Lyle has been romancing actress Ashley Judd, Wynonna’s sister and an old flame, didn’t pan out. Lovett and Judd did dine together in January at the Pancake Pantry in Nashville—but when the subject of Julia came up, says Joyce Stubblefield, the waitress who served them, Lyle got all syrupy. “It was all on the up and up,” she says. “He talked about Julia the whole time, about what a great person she is.”
For Julia and Lyle the real challenges of married life probably hover just on the horizon. Mary Reilly wraps Aug. 25, and Roberts’ next movie, Grace Under Pressure, isn’t scheduled to start shooting, in Tennessee, until November. Lyle is due to get a break from the road at the same time. Finally there is a chance for the two to spend a few unbroken months together—unless they can quickly find some contracts to sign. Work, and the separation that comes with it, may be the only way to preserve what Julia has called that feeling when “he opens the door and [I] go, ‘Oh, my God!’ ” Perhaps there is a way to squeeze in something far away and impossible-sounding—Pretty Woman Visits Latvia—while
Lyle does an extended Vegas gig. You know, make fall a little frantic. Why kick back and ruin a good thing?
LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles, JOAN JENKINS and ANNE MAIER in Houston, VICKIE BANE in Aspen, CATHY NOLAN in Paris, and bureau reports