March 27, 2000 12:00 PM

Sitting just 10 feet apart, Bryant and June Gumbel looked as if they could barely stand to be on the same planet. After 26 years of marriage, each was careful to take no notice of the other in a White Plains, N.Y., courtroom on March 9, as lawyers prepared to negotiate another round of their increasingly hostile breakup. Bryant, typically, showed no emotion, but as Judge John LaCava invited both sides to meet behind closed doors, June’s eyes welled with tears.

It has been more than two years since Bryant, 51, host of CBS’s The Early Show, moved out of his family’s sprawling three-story Victorian home 47 miles north of New York City, settling last year in the $3 million apartment he shares with former Goldman, Sachs research assistant Hilary Quinlan, 39. “He got rid of his wife,” says June, 51. “He canceled out his old life.” She accuses the famously dapper anchorman, best known for his 15 years behind the desk at NBC’s Today, of being a bitter tightwad who once refused to pay his son Bradley’s college phone bill—a charge his lawyer Stanley Arkin calls “nonsense.” She also says he cut her allowance to $250 a month and wrote letters to, among others, her therapist, saying he would no longer pay her bills. The $5 million-a-year morning man said in a statement, “I have provided for June and for my children in the manner to which they have always been accustomed. I am very much looking forward to a prompt and fair resolution to the issues.” Bryant won’t discuss the case in depth, but Arkin argues that June “lives like a modern-day female pasha.” He adds that Gumbel spends about $40,000 a month supporting his family, and that an emergency order for financial relief she obtained in February (requiring Bryant to pay her $4,000 a month and $5,000 toward her credit-card bills) was a publicity stunt. June herself allows that she has spent some $11,000 on jewelry since Gumbel moved out.

The war between the Gumbels seems not to affect Bryant on the air. “If he had a car accident, the next day he’d say, ‘I’m okay,’ ” says his close friend Matt Lauer. But “he wishes [the divorce negotiations] weren’t so public,” concedes Ross Greenburg, executive producer of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. “I’m sure he’d like to quickly resolve the financial end and not have to read about it.”

June, however, insists that using the media is the only leverage she has. “I loathe having my personal life in public,” she says. “[But] my whole life is in the balance.” Accusing Gumbel of infidelities from the very start of their marriage, she says she stayed with him primarily because of her wedding vows which, as a devoted Catholic, she took seriously. “I always kept things private prior to now,” she says. “I have a very forgiving nature. There’s a part of me that loves him. And I had my children to consider.” June didn’t file a notice of separation from Gumbel until Jan. 14, more than two years after he left her. But long before that, she says, he “publicly humiliated” her. “One time we were at a benefit for the United Negro College Fund,” she says. “He said [to a group of people], ‘If it weren’t for me, she would be driving a school bus in Louisiana.’ My purse dropped onto the floor. Why would he say such a thing? I’ve never driven a school bus.”

Another time, while discussing art over dinner with two friends, local artists Daniel Greene and his wife, Wende Caporale, Gumbel “said in front of all of us that he wasn’t terribly interested in her opinion,” says Caporale. “It was awful.” And while Gumbel was hosting Today in Saint-Tropez in 1995, June says she returned from a tour of local shops only to be scolded by her husband in front of a crowd. “June, you’ve gone shopping again,” she says he told her. “Is that all you can do? Don’t you think about anything but spending money?” On the other hand, Lauer, who spent five Christmases with the Gumbels at their Westchester home, says, “I think June is terrific, [but] I don’t have any experience of Bryant I being the type of person he’s accused of being.”

Whatever his client’s history may have been with June, Bryant’s lawyer insists that, contrary to her charges, Gumbel has never shortchanged their children—Bradley, 21, a basketball player at Manhattanville College, and Jillian, 17, a high school student. Arkin says he gave each of them Christmas gifts worth several thousand dollars—not to mention arranging for a surprise appearance by *NSYNC at Jillian’s 17th-birthday party on March 8.

But if, as Bryant insists, he has been a good parent, his lawyer admits he hasn’t been the best husband. Arkin says Gumbel “was an unhappy man for several years in his marriage and, yes, there was adultery.” June claims she was aware of it for years. “There were women calling my house and hanging up,” she says, “and sending me things in the mail,” including correspondence between Gumbel and his alleged paramours. Yet “nobody is shrinking from him,” June says bitterly. “I don’t hear anybody defending me. The friends I thought we had will jump and go to a cocktail party with him and whatever-her-name-is.”

When the Gumbels first wed, Baton Rouge-bred June Baranco had no inkling that her husband would soon be a celebrity. The daughter of a master carpenter and his homemaker wife, June was a 19-year-old student at LSU in 1967, when she met Gumbel. He was at Maine’s Bates College, and they were introduced by a friend of June’s who was dating Gumbel’s older brother Greg, now 53 and a CBS sports-caster. June and Bryant married in 1973, shortly before he began rising in the ranks at NBC Sports. In 1982 he succeeded Tom Brokaw as Jane Pauley’s cohost on Today, which he left in 1997. He was hired by CBS the same year, and his first show for the network, the prime-time news hour Public Eye, failed. Gumbel’s follow-up, The Early Show, is sagging in the ratings, running a weak third in competition with Today and ABC’s Good Morning America.

But amid Gumbel’s public travails, friends say his private life has never been better. According to Arkin, his involvement with Quinlan, a Chicago native, began only after Bryant left June. “This is a serious relationship for both of them,” says Lauer. And Gumbel’s pals, like Bryant, seem to adore her. “She lights up a room,” says producer Greenburg.

Presumably she won’t be lighting up the rooms at the Gumbel family’s Westchester home anytime soon, though Bryant is trying to get the house to himself part-time, since it lies near a favorite golf course at the Waccabuc Country Club. Not surprisingly, June is resisting. “I’ve never forbidden him from visiting,” she says, “but I draw the line at his mistress.”

Amid the welter of charges and countercharges, friends on each side of the Gumbel rift say the principals are getting on with their lives. June continues to do charity work and has become more involved with her painting (she specializes in oils and pastels), a longtime interest she says Bryant ignored. And although the morning anchorman is “not cavalier” about his marital strife, says his friend, menswear designer Joseph Abboud, “he’s a guy who can stand up and take it.” Despite the gossip-column ink spilled about the messy breakup, Gumbel’s friend Pamela Fiori, editor-in-chief of Town & Country, insists, “I have never heard him say a bad word about his wife.”

Under New York State law, once a separation agreement is signed, it will automatically become a divorce in a year, but the last mud ball may not yet have been thrown: June’s lawyer Barry Slotnick is threatening to present evidence of Gumbel’s past affairs if the case goes to court. Gumbel’s friends, meanwhile, can’t wait for the whole thing to be over. “To me,” sighs Abboud, “when lawyers get involved, things intensify.”

Kyle Smith

Elizabeth McNeil in New York City