By Karen S. Schneider
August 02, 1993 12:00 PM

It was the Fourth of July, and Tom Hanks and his Sleepless in Seattle costar Meg Ryan were standing around the backyard of his Los Angeles home, watching his barbecue grill heal up. A few feet away, the neighbors, a bohemian, hippie-looking lot, were loudly going about their own raucous holiday festivities. “Those were the people,” Ryan said, “who intimidated me in high school.” Hanks, a close friend since he and Ryan costarred in the 1990 comedy Joe Versus the Volcano, was charmed by the Proustian moment. “It’s not everybody,” he says with a smile, “who can remember exactly how disconnected she felt in those primal stages of adulthood.”

More significantly, Ryan, 31, not only can recall those insecurities—better yet, she can (at an estimated $2.5 million a picture) tap into them. To the millions of moviegoers who fell in love with the quirkily winsome beauty in 1989’s When Harry Met Sally…and now empathize with her lovestruck journalist in the sentimental summer box-office smash Sleepless, she is an enchanting admixture: a reminder of everything we goofed up in life—and all the reasons we still struggle to get it right.

In many ways, Ryan herself has got it right. For two years she has been married to actor Dennis Quaid, 39, with whom she lives in Los Angeles and Montana. They are, says her sister-in-law Evi Quaid (wife of Dennis’s older actor brother, Randy), “madly in love, physically in love.” In April 1992, Ryan gave birth to their first child, Jack Henry, and fell in love all over again. “He’s a very strong character, a tough little guy,” his mom recently bragged. “He’s very manly and has a swagger.”

Yet, as she herself acknowledges, there are some rough edges around Ryan’s life. She rarely sees her own father, Harry Hyra, 55, a math teacher living in White River Junction, Vt., though they are—relatively speaking—close. “I have a talking relationship with my daughter that I fostered for years, that I have worked hard to mend,” says Hyra. As for her mother, Susan Jordan, 52, a former stage actress in Fort Lauderdale who was divorced from Hyra in 1976, Ryan has not spoken a word to her in three years. “I wish there would be forgiveness. To be frank, I pray for it,” says Jordan. “It’s a painful business to be estranged from your child.” Hyra agrees—but holds out little hope for an early reconciliation. “After all that’s happened,” he says, “you can’t expect things to be normal overnight.”

“All that happened” began two decades ago in little Bethel, Conn, (pop. 15,000), where Harry and Susan moved their young family—sister Dana, then 13, Margaret (or Peggy, as she was known then), 12, Andrew, 10, and Annie, 8—from nearby Fairfield in 1974. Harry was a math teacher and baseball and basketball coach at Danbury High School. Susan was a bright and pretty housewife. When Peggy entered Bethel High, she became almost instantly the girl everybody wanted to know. “Usually, in high school, when a beautiful, smart person arrives, you want to hate her. You want to scratch her eyes out,” says longtime friend Tracy Parsons, 32, now an attorney in Manhattan. But Peggy was different. Intelligent, thoughtful, unaware of her all-American beauty or perhaps just unimpressed by it, she radiated a captivating sparkle. “There was something about her that stood out from the day she walked in, a charisma thing,” Parsons says. “Everyone wanted to be her friend.”

But if happiness came easily for Peggy, for her parents it did not. Their relationship, in fact, was unraveling. Harry and Susan had married young—he was 22, she 20—and over the years they had grown apart. “Susan was talented and had been a housewife since we got married,” says Hyra. “She wanted more.” To that end, in 1976, they agreed to split (amicably, both say) and made what was then an unusual decision: Harry would stay at home with the children, and Susan would move out, find a job, and take them to live with her as soon as she could.

And so began for Meg a new—and, friends say, painful—life. Susan drove off in her old Ford Pinto, bound for Manhattan and a career, she hoped, in regional theater. Harry was left to tend to the four children—a chore he admits he performed poorly. “When I was pulling on the hats of mother and father, getting the dinner and doing the laundry, I found out it was pretty hard work,” he says. “You have to realize, at this time, Dad’s going through a bit of turmoil himself and not always paying a lot of attention to the kids. I wish I’d been more caring, more affectionate. Now, I tell the kids I love them. But then I didn’t. Maybe Meg felt out on her own.”

A year passed before Meg even mentioned the split to her friend Tracy. Says Parsons: “She didn’t want to let other people in on her pain.” Nor, in any obvious way, did she let it disrupt her life. Meg studied hard (graduating 11th in her high school class of 253), dabbled in theater (she played a Conehead in a junior-class production of Saturday Night Live) and fell for a boy who was “the male equivalent of her,” says Parsons, “a nice-looking, quiet, cool guy who every girl wanted to go out with.” But inside, Meg was very much changed. “She had to take care of herself,” says Parsons. “Her father tried, but it was overwhelming for him.” And though Susan chose to live in Connecticut and commute the 65 miles to Manhattan so she could remain involved in her children’s lives, Meg’s Friends say she felt a terrible absence. “It was hard for her not to have her mother at home, in terms of proms and first dales and first kisses,” says Parsons. “She was very unhappy.” Adds Hyra: “Susan never left the family, just the house. Still, Meg got the idea that her mother abandoned her.”

In 1979, Susan was offered a job teaching English and drama at Choate Rosemary Hall prep school in Wallingford, Conn., and took Annie and Andrew to live with her. By then, Dana, now 32 and a housewife living in Fairfield, Conn., was on her own, as was Meg—a freshman at the University of Connecticut, acting in TV commercials to help pay her way. Annie and Meg remain close, but her relations with her other siblings were splintered by then and have never much improved. “We’re really kind of, not on bad terms,” says Andrew, 29, a musician who last spoke to Meg three years ago. “[But] I really don’t know her that well.”

In some ways, the bond between Susan and Meg remained tight. It was Susan who first introduced Meg to the agents who helped get her parts in commercials. And when she got her Screen Actors Guild card in 1978, Meg, then Margaret Hyra, took her mother’s single name—Ryan—as her own. And yet, the strain that had developed between the two was evident. When, for instance, the 18-year-old visited Choate to meet Susan’s new boyfriend, novelist and freelance journalist Pal Jordan, the tension, as he recalls it, was palpable.

“So,” he asked her, “you want to be an actress like your mother?”

Her reply, Jordan recalls, was a frosty, “Do I?”

“Well, your mother said you did,” Jordan pressed on.

“Oh,” retorted Meg, “did she?”

Meg did want to act, of course, and in 1980 she landed her first screen role, a small part as Candice Bergen’s daughter in Rich and Famous. Ryan left UConn for a two-year stint playing the hapless Betsy Stewart Andropolous on the CBS soap As the World Turns. When in 1984 she got a part in a short-lived Los Angeles-based TV series called Wildside, she headed for Hollywood. “Looking back, it was scary,” Ryan said recently. “I have a certain amount of confidence in my talent. And there are times you have to pretend to have it, just to see you through.”

There was little need to pretend. From her small role playing the wife of Anthony Edwards in the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun to her star-making performance in When Harry Met Sally…, Ryan emanated onscreen the very same something that, years earlier, had won over her classmates at Bethel High. Intelligence was part of it. And, of course, her luminescent good looks. But there was something else. Simply put, says Nora Ephron, who scripted Ryan’s career-making delicatessen orgasm scene with Billy Crystal in Sally and directed her in her plain-Jane reporter mode in Sleepless: “She’ll do anything for a laugh. She has no vanity.”

Offscreen, wandering about Beverly Hills in baggy sweaters and frumpy thrift-shop dresses long before the rest of young Hollywood got into grunge, Ryan made a distinct impression with her own goofy brand of antiglamor. (And not always a good one: “Oh, my God! My daughter!” cried Susan when she saw Meg included in Blackwell’s 1988 10 Worst-Dressed Women in the World list as “the ragbag doll of the year.”)

Not surprisingly, the man who impressed her back was a fellow known to saunter away from dinner tables at fancy restaurants and get all the way to valet parking before noticing that he’d forgotten his shoes. Dennis Quaid, an impulsive, swaggering suitor, met castmate Ryan in 1987 on the set of Innerspace, and began wooing her a year later on the set of D.O.A. “He courted me relentlessly,” said Ryan. “I remember thinking, Oh, no! Him?”

But before long, the obvious answer was, Oh, yes! She hired a plane to hoist a huge “Happy Birthday, Dennis” banner for him in the sky; he later commissioned a high school marching band to deliver a similar message on the set of The Presidio. Once a month they planned “mystery weekends” where one made the romantic arrangements and the other came along for the surprises—an arrangement so schmaltzy it makes even mush-meister Nora Ephron get misty. “When you hear that story, you feel completely humiliated about your own life,” Ephron says, “because theirs is so fabulously great.”

But the course of this true love did not always run so smoothly. Quaid had long had a problem with drugs. (“There’s a lot of stress in his life,” explains Evi Quaid. “But he’s completely recovered.”) And Ryan still wanted to improve her relationship with her mother. On Thanksgiving Day, 1989, the two women came together and set off a chain reaction that would—like the Hyras’ divorce more than a decade earlier—alter their lives. It began when Meg, who had recently announced her plans to marry Quaid, invited Susan and Pat Jordan, who had married in 1984 and moved to Fort Lauderdale, to spend the holiday with them on Quaid’s 100-acre ranch in Paradise Valley, Mont. Among the guests gathered in the huge log cabin were Dennis’s brother Randy; his mother, Nita; Evi; Meg; Susan and Pat. According to Jordan, Quaid, quiet and sullen one minute, would go out to a separate guesthouse and return the next “excited and garrulous.”

At one point, says Jordan, Dennis suggested taking a ride up the mountain. The Jordans and Ryan climbed into his Jeep, and he drove them up the dirt road. At the top, while his passengers admired the view, says Pat Jordan, Dennis suddenly pulled a pistol from underneath his seat and fired a shot out the window. “All of us jumped,” Jordan recalls. “He laughed and jammed the Jeep into gear.” (Quaid and Ryan declined to be interviewed for this article.)

That night, in her motel room, Susan recalls bursting into tears. “I was alarmed,” she told PEOPLE last month. “I like Dennis very much. But when I perceived this kind of behavior on his part—he’s such a nice guy and then he would become so completely erratic—it was worrisome. After much soul-searching,” she adds, “I called [Meg] and told her my fear.”

Ryan, she says, hung up, crying. Several months later, says Susan, as she and her daughter were discussing Meg’s wedding plans, it was Ryan who brought up the issue again. “You think he’s a drug addict,” she said.

“No, I’m just worried he might have a problem,” Susan replied.

Again, says Susan, her daughter hung up: “She was very angry.”

Angry enough, apparently, so that she did not tell her mother when Quaid entered a drug-rehab program at St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica in 1990, nor did she invite her mother to her wedding seven months later. And yet she was not nearly as angry as she became when, in April 1992, Pat Jordan published a harsh, first-person account in Whittle Communications’ Special Reports detailing his version of his and Susan’s turbulent relationship with Meg and Dennis—including the notorious Jeep ride. Ryan, according to Tracy Parsons, “was horrified. It was awful. I remember her calling me crying, hysterical, saying, I can’t believe this is my mother’s husband.’ ”

For her part, Susan says that she hoped somehow the article might help: “I thought, Maybe if she sees some of my feelings through Pat, maybe she ‘ll understand, maybe it would end the impasse.” She thought wrong. All communication between the two has ceased, and Ryan has instructed her family not to give Susan her phone number or address. “It’s hard,” says Susan. “There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think of Peggy and miss her. I mean, I love her.”

But Ryan’s friends say there is no hope that the freeze will end in the foreseeable future. “Any reaction Meg might have is completely deserved,” says Parsons. “Her mother betrayed a parental bond.” Says Nora Ephron: “Meg accepts that she’s not going to have a relationship with her mother, and that’s that.”

Today, what exists in its stead is Meg’s own motherhood. “After Jack was born, she would just look at him with amazement,” says Evi Quaid, “as if to say, ‘I did this.’ She’s adamant about her time with Jack. It’s very specific. They go to the park. He plays in the sand. She reads to him.” It’s a chance to start over, with her own family, on her own terms, and, this time, to get it right. To Ryan, it’s both simple—and impossibly complex: “I’m his parent,” she has said. “I’m supposed to take care of him.”


TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles, DON SIDER in Fort Lauderdale, YVONNE DALEY in White River Junction and RANDALL BEACH in Bethel