February 19, 1990 12:00 PM

What began as the exuberant union of two college-age strivers is coming to a devastating end after 18 years, and the Gotterdammerung is being fought out not in court but inside the couple’s perfect house. Rather than divvy up the spoils, Oliver and Barbara Rose (he, a lawyer, and she, a caterer) are conducting guerrilla raids on one another’s possessions. He runs over her cat; she locks him in his sauna. He stumbles mock-drunkenly into a dinner for her best clients and relieves himself on the poached bass. She chases him in her customized GM Jimmy when he tries to flee in his Morgan; after she crushes his cherished car, he climbs out and declares, “All right, the gloves are off.”

As portrayed by Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in The War of the Roses, Oliver and Barbara are an obsessive pair who are all too recognizable. “A lot of people who have been through divorce know what they’re talking about,” says director Danny DeVito (who also plays Oliver’s lawyer). “Divorce can be very, very funny—but very, very dark.” Although he doesn’t speak from personal experience—neither DeVito nor Douglas nor Turner has been divorced—the film stands as a cautionary tale for our competitive times. Since its December release, it has grossed more than $75 million, and it is still pulling in crowds in 1,432 theaters across the country.

While few divorces approach the movie’s intensity, the Roses’ situation—living together but apart—isn’t unique. L.A. Law’s Harry Hamlin and wife Laura Johnson (formerly of Falcon Crest) have been sharing the same Coldwater Canyon house since Hamlin filed for divorce last September. Johnny Carson sidekick Ed McMahon and estranged wife Victoria lived in separate wings of their Bel Air home for several months after they made the decision to part, and daughter Katherine Mary, 4, was shuttled between the two. At times, the three ate en famille, “for the baby’s sake,” as McMahon put it.

A less celebrated couple provided the inspiration for The War of the Roses, which is based on a novel by Warren Adler. In 1979 Adler had a cocktail-party encounter with a wealthy Washington, D.C., man who was going through a bitter breakup. Explaining that his lawyer had advised him to stay in their house to watch his property, the man outlined an arrangement that sounded ludicrous: He and his wife put locks on the doors of their bedrooms, divided the refrigerator and agreed to use the washing machine at different times. “It was a horror,” says Adler. “I knew I had something.”

Although the screen rights to the novel were bought in 1981 by producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, the original script sat in limbo for six years. “They said it was too brutal,” Adler remembers. It was executive producer Polly Piatt—who was divorced from Peter Bogdanovich (“The Last Picture Show) in 1974—who rediscovered the script and took it to James Brooks, himself the veteran of a divorce. “The Roses fought over things,” Platt points out, “but the things represented their love for each other…. They’re using objects to express this horrendous, possessive love.”

And while the Roses may carry the hostilities further than most offscreen couples ever dreamed of doing, their tactics sound chillingly realistic to attorneys such as Boston divorce lawyer David Lee, who has seen partners sparring over paper towels and rolls of masking tape. “It’s not rational,” he says. “Underneath the possessions, there are real issues of control and pain. If one person feels that he has been able to take advantage of the other, then he feels he has his dignity.”

Dignity, in fact, often seems to be at a premium in many divorce disputes. As these tales demonstrate, even the most rational sorts can lose all sense of propriety when a partnership goes a wry.

Tanks for the memories: a fish story that ended badly

While some couples have gone to the mat over Jacuzzis and Cuisinarts, it was a 6-lb. catfish named Pinky that sparked a battle between Peter and Jane Picknelly of Springfield, Mass. When they agreed to end their five-year marriage in 1984, Peter, 59, who owns the Peter Pan Bus Company, and Jane, 49, a lawyer turned trucker who owns Silk Road Transport, had a substantial amount of property to divide, including a 14-room home in Springfield. Completed in 1978, it featured a solarium with a waterfall and a 17-foot man-made stream where Pinky had lived more happily than his owners for two years.

A four-inch fry when Jane bought him for 75 cents in 1981, the catfish had grown to 2½ feet under her care, and she considered him to be a credit to his species. “I loved that fish,” says Jane. “He was all white with a pinkish tinge. He was beautiful.” Not so, says Peter: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I thought that catfish was the ugliest thing you ever saw in your life.”

According to Jane, nothing about the divorce—the second for both—was easy. “Peter said, ‘You want to leave this house, then you leave everything in it.’ I finally gave up fighting over the crystal, the china, the silver service,” she says. “I wanted to go.” It was Pinky’s misfortune that all the ill feeling between the couple became focused on him. When Jane moved into a one-bedroom apartment, Peter insisted that she take Pinky, although she had nowhere to keep him. “We argued for about two months,” she says. “Peter threatened to throw him in the lake behind the house. Then he threatened to eat him for supper. Peter said, I don’t want that catfish in my house.’ ” He had also taken to calling the feisty fish Jaws.

When Jane (who had two grown sons from her first marriage) realized that Peter was serious, she scrambled around to find an aquarium big enough for her beloved Pinky. Finally, she found a $425, 6- by 2-foot used tank whose owner insisted that she also take his large brown Amazonian pacu. Prevailing upon son Adam, 27, to scoop Pinky up with a net into a plastic trash can purchased for the occasion, Jane tied the container down in Adam’s pickup and transferred her fish to its downscale new quarters.

That was the beginning of the end for Pinky; out of the main stream and cramped in the small aquarium, he became ornery and began harassing his new tankmate. Four months after he was plucked from his solarium paradise, Jane’s catfish was no more. “He just had a heart attack and died,” she says.

These days Jane (who now shares office space with the pacu and a smaller catfish dubbed Pinky II) says she doesn’t miss marriage or the material goods that she gave up. She does, however, miss the original Pinky and wishes that she had managed to keep him from becoming a pawn. “It wasn’t just symbolic. That catfish was a living being,” says Jane. “But, at least I had a few months with him.”

Robert Klein and his wife both wanted the house

In the fall of 1988, at a time when his 16-year marriage to Metropolitan Opera singer Brenda Boozer was coming to a clamorous close, Robert Klein found himself sitting in an airplane near War of the Roses producer James Brooks. Klein, who was living in a Roses-style clash of wills with his wife at their $3 million, 10-acre estate in Westchester County, N.Y., launched into a monologue about the horrors of coexisting with one’s estranged spouse. “Brooks said, ‘You’ve got to get out of there now. How can you live in the same house?’ ” remembers the 48-year-old comedian. “I said, ‘I’ll leave, but I can’t do it now.’ He said, ‘No, no, you don’t understand how bad it can get. I’m doing a movie on this very subject.’ ”

And while none of Klein and Boozer’s escapades made it into Brooks’s movie, their two-year battle was a perfect demonstration of the principle that when a marriage goes sour, strong-minded characters will go to extraordinary lengths to protect their turf. Like the Roses, Klein and Boozer, 42, lived in an exquisite house that became an emotional obstacle course while they hammered out the terms of their divorce.

As Klein tells it, their split was rocky from the beginning, but they both agreed not to “give it to the lawyers,” he says, and he had expected the division of property to be peaceful. That, however, was before Boozer decided that she would contest his initial motion to gain possession of the house and custody of their son, Allie, now 6. While their attorneys did battle in New York State Supreme Court, Klein and Boozer became “mortal enemies,” as he puts it, living behind locked doors under the same roof.

For her part, says Boozer, “it wasn’t a matter of giving up the house—I couldn’t leave and take my son with me because custody hadn’t been decided. If I took the kid with me, [Robert] could have sued me for kidnapping—he could have put me in jail.”

Eventually, Boozer became the primary custodial parent, and she is now living in separate peace in the Georgian brick manor house designed in 1903 by noted architect Stanford White, which is currently on the market. She remembers the separation as “absurdly painful.” Klein, she says, was “angry all the time”; Boozer, he says, was “angry all the time.” Whatever, the two frequently had slapstick tiffs: “One time he chased me out of the house in his bathrobe,” she said in court papers. “Another time he threw a bagel and cream cheese all over my dress when I was going to the Met.”

According to Boozer, in order to sidestep angry confrontations with Klein, she bought a walkie-talkie and put her cousin, whom she hired as a live-in bodyguard, on the lookout. “I’d pull up to the driveway,” she reports, “and say, ‘Is it safe to come home?’ ” That tactic worked only until Klein discovered that Boozer hid the walkie-talkie under a chest of drawers; soon afterward, the device disappeared.

By Klein’s account, Boozer hired a detective to track his movements. “I once saw a bill,” he claims. “Among other things, it cost her $2,200 for two nights of following me. That included $60 for gas and tolls and developing. I thought, ‘Mickey Spillane, take the job,’ ” says Klein. ” ‘Right, I’ll take it—$2,000 a day, but don’t forget gas and developing.’ ”

No detail, claims Klein, escaped the attention of his in-house adversary. When he showed her photos of Allie he had taken with a Nikon that he had once given her as a present, “she pays no attention to the pictures, and she says, ‘That’s my camera,’ ” he remembers. Even the question of parking became an issue. Claiming that her car blocked delivery trucks, Klein says he repeatedly asked Boozer to park it five feet away. “She would refuse, so I would pull up the car,” he says. “She would then pull it right back.” (Boozer claims there was “plenty of room.”)

Unlike the Roses’ war, the Boozer-Klein hostilities eventually ended with a pax domestica. According to Klein (who is living nearby in Westchester), “We’re not the best of friends, but we’ve calmed down.” Still, like any good comedian, he hopes to incorporate the divorce theme into new routines. “My work comes from my life,” he says.

Viveca Novak battled an ex-love over Reggie

Although Viveca Novak, 33, and Jim Lewis, 34, were never married, the intensity of their struggle over a newspaper photo signed by Reggie Jackson rivaled the post-breakup battles of many a wedded pair. The clip itself—a 1977 New York Daily News account of Jackson’s third home run in the Yankees’ landmark World Series game against the Dodgers—originally had belonged to Viveca.

Five years after the homer heroics and after Jackson had switched teams, the pair headed for an Angels-Orioles game in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, where they staked out their man by the dugout. Attracted, perhaps, by the striking Viveca, Jackson—who is notoriously fickle with autograph hunters-accepted a pen from Lewis and signed the cherished paper. Framed and proudly displayed in their apartment living room, the artifact became an object of contention in 1985, a year after they broke their engagement. Though it had remained with Jim in the beginning, Viveca (an investigative reporter for Common Cause magazine who now lives in Washington, D. C.) began dropping hints about repossessing it.

For months Lewis (who works in New York City as a writer for Muppet creator Jim Henson) ignored her. “It was my pen, my ink and her paper,” argues Jim. But when the subtle approach failed, he says, “It grew more heated.” Finally, he capitulated: “I couldn’t look at it anymore.” That didn’t stop him from wrapping the object so poorly that the glass broke.

Viveca, triumphant, maintains, “Reggie would never have come over if I hadn’t been there.” But the loss of the picture still rankles Lewis. “It’s the ultimate cultural icon,” he says. “Plus I’ll hate myself when she sells it for $50,000.” That’s not likely. According to autograph merchant Charles Hamilton, “She’d probably get around $50.”

Threatened with divorce, a Seattle man razed his house

Sandra Kirkman, a 26-year-old home-maker in Enumclaw, Wash., had been separated from contractor Raymond Kree Kirkman for three months when told him that she wanted to end their six-year marriage. The following morning, while Sandra and their three children were visiting her cousin, Kree, then 28, took a bulldozer and backhoe to their $90,000 ranch house near Seattle. By the time she got back, the house had been reduced to rubble.

Four years later, the ex-Mrs. Kirkman is still unable to forget the horror. “I don’t think about it every day like I used to,” says Sandra, “but it will always be there. I still wonder—what if I had been home? He could have killed me.”

According to Sandra, it was the issue of dividing the property that had prompted Kree’s October 1985 rampage. Although both agreed that they had grown apart during their marriage, he became enraged, she says, when he realized that his wife would petition the court for her share of their assets.

Kree’s anger didn’t end with destroying the house; the day after, he was arrested for threatening a TV cameraman. Committed to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center for psychiatric evaluation, he was later released and acquitted on charges of assault. Since he had canceled the insurance on his house and obtained an $11.50 demolition permit, he faced no charges in connection with the bulldozing. And while he reportedly received numerous calls from divorced men who applauded his action, he declined to take up the mantle of folk hero; he still refuses to talk to reporters, and his only comment came during his November 1985 assault trial. I shouldn’t have done it,” he told the jury. “I shouldn’t have bulldozed the house.”

Reported by Gayle Verner in Boston, Nick Gallo in Seattle, Liza Uhlmann in San Francisco, Jeanne Gordon and Lorenzo Benet in L.A., Teresa Riordan in Washington, D.C.; other bureau reports

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