Julia Roberts and Danny Moder stage a stealth wedding on the Fourth of July

By Karen S. Schneider
July 22, 2002 12:00 PM

Her friends thought they were gathering for a late-night drink. Some would probably have preferred to just hit the hay. After all, July 3 had already been a full day: In the past 24 hours 60 or so family members and close pals, answering an invitation to “celebrate Independence Day,” had boarded planes in Manhattan, Atlanta and L.A., en route to Julia Roberts‘s 82-acre ranch in Taos, N.Mex. In 86° heat they had passed hours chatting by the pool, playing football and basketball and eating homemade turkey Roberts had cooked up that afternoon. “When, come nightfall, some mentioned going to sleep, Roberts simply urged them to “hang around,” says a pal.

By midnight it was an expectant bunch (some holding sleepy toddlers) who sank into an assortment of lawn chairs arranged in a semicircle outside the 19th-century morada—a small adobe religious meeting house—on her property. The sight of flickering candles and Chinese lanterns signaled something was up. But not until Roberts and her beau, Danny Moder, stepped under an arch made from white and pink silk sheaths and into a circle of scattered red, white and pink rose petals did most guests understand what exactly was about to happen.

As the realization spread, “there was a cheer, a sort of wave of cheers that echoed against the mountains,” says one close friend. “Danny got down on one knee and said, ‘In front of everyone we love, I want to know, will you marry me?’ And Julia grabbed her heart and said, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ And all the guests were saying ‘Yes, yes, yes’ along with her. The canopy was billowing. It was such a magical, intimate gathering, it felt like we were eaves-dropping, like we were invited into someone’s secret.”

And so with nary a paparazzo in sight, Hollywood’s Bachelorette No. 1 decided once again to take on marriage—and this time she wore shoes. But nine years after the barefoot 25-year-old stunned fans with her wedding to country singer Lyle Lovett, flat sandals were the bride’s only nod to formality. Let pals Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt have their 50,000 flowers, four bands and fireworks. The 20-minute ceremony between the Oscar-winning Roberts, 34, and L.A. cameraman Moder, 33—officiated by Roberts’s longtime friend and lawyer Barry Hirsch—included no flower girls, no bridesmaids, no groomsmen and no celebrity guests. Just the outline of the 13,000-ft. Sangre de Cristo Mountains against the star-filled sky. And Roberts, in a pale pink cotton halter dress embroidered with pearls and antique beads and hand-painted with flowers, and Moder, in a red ruffled shirt and tan pants, exchanging simple handwritten vows.

Or trying to. “Somewhere in the middle, someone dropped a glass and a person shouted out, ‘Mazel Tov!'” says one guest. “There was a lot of laughter.” And a fair bit of friskiness too. “Julia and Danny kissed throughout the ceremony,” says the guest. “They kept asking, ‘Is it okay if we kiss?’ ”

Judging from the postnuptial whooping that woke up neighbors at around 12:30 a.m., the answer was yes. Just as Hirsch happily declared Moder and Roberts husband and wife, so too did her longtime friend and business partner Elaine Goldsmith Thomas, along with husband Dan Thomas, eagerly serve as witnesses on the couple’s marriage certificate. “There was great relief,” says a close Roberts friend, “complete and utter joy that these two people found each other.”

Dancing under the stars to tunes by the likes of Bob Marley and Sade, no one was fazed by the repeated skipping of the CD player—or the romances of the bride, including her 21-month marriage to Lovett. “She’s gloriously happy,” says L.A. costume designer and good friend Michael Dennison (who was, like Judith Beylerian, the L.A. designer who created Roberts’s wedding dress, and the bride’s sister Lisa, who arranged to have the flowers flown in from Cornucopia in Manhattan, among the few given an advance heads-up). “These two people are deeply in love.” As evidenced in part by the gleeful grin the missus flashed at her groom around 2 a.m., after everyone else had climbed into SUVs and made the short trip back to the cluster of guest houses on the property and to local inns. Looking at Moder sitting in the rear seat of a sedan driven by her security guard, Roberts playfully asked, “Shall I get in the back with you, husband?”

In the past, even some of Roberts’s friends said she seemed skittish about settling down. After the ceremony those thoughts seemed as distant as the coyotes howling in the sagebrush. “She found the right person,” says a guest. “There wasn’t a shred of doubt about that on the property.”

Roberts and Moder first met on the set of The Mexican in the early spring of 2000. At the time, he was four years into a marriage with makeup artist Vera Steimberg Moder, 29. Though those close to the family say the union was already strained, it was, they add, Moder’s growing bond with Roberts—he helped her through her breakup with actor Ben Bratt months later—that finally led him to file for divorce last June. Eventually Danny and Julia began creating a life together. A regular at the shops and restaurants near her apartment in lower Manhattan while dating Bratt, she has rarely been seen there since hooking up with Moder. Instead they divide their time between his modest apartment in L.A. and the $5 million-plus Taos ranch—complete with a tennis court and stable for her seven horses—that Julia bought in 1995 as a retreat from big-city living. Whether it’s spending time walking her 11 dogs, chatting with neighbor and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who owns several properties in Taos County, grabbing takeout at the nearby Taos Cow or spending an evening dancing (and, says a waitress, “making out”) at the Alley Cantina, they have proven far more than a fling. “They are both solid, nonjudgmental, loving people,” says a friend of hers. And if Bratt, 38, who married his Piñero costar Talisa Soto, 35, in May, was irked by the level of her fame—”It’s like a fly that won’t leave you alone, it’s that mosquito that buzzes in your ear when you’re trying to sleep at night,” he told Vanity Fair—Moder is not. “It’s a facet of who she is, and he accepts it,” says Roberts’s pal. “He’s very supportive. He celebrates her for who she is.”

Tattooed hindside and all: Three months before declaring till death do them part, says a mutual friend, the couple declared their commitment by having each other’s initials inked on their lower backs. The finalization of Moder’s divorce on May 16 paved the way for last week’s more orthodox declaration of love. In June Roberts asked publicist and friend Marcy Engelman to call Roberts’s favorite Manhattan hairdresser, Serge Normant, and makeup artist Genevieve Herr—claiming that she needed them for a photo shoot. Local caterers from the Wooden Spoon and members of the Austin, Texas-based Toni Price Band penned in the date for what they thought was a July 4 barbecue. As the weeks ticked down to days, Roberts herself got down to business. Four days before the ceremony, the T-shirt-and-overall-clad star headed for the Arroyo Seco Mercantile and bought $200 worth of steel buckets—just the things in which to plant the shrubs she picked up the following day at Blossoms nursery. Next stop: Raley’s supermarket, where she loaded three carts of food into her light gold Land Cruiser. Finally, the day before guests arrived, Hollywood’s $20 million-per-picture powerhouse was on her hands and knees, doing prewedding weeding around her property. “She could have [gotten married] anywhere, at a castle or the fanciest hotel,” says a friend. “But that isn’t her.”

Not that she can’t get glamorous when it suits her. She stopped into the local spa Face Place the day before the wedding, and by the next night was standing on the bare ground, her dress—made by friend Beylerian, an L.A.-based designer who works mostly with private clients—set off by a delicate wire crown dotted with antique hand-carved buttons, pearls and cut glass by her pal Dennison. “She was so glorious looking,” he says, “it was unbelievable.”

Equally unbelievable: Less than eight hours later, says a friend, the “blissful and jubilant” Mrs. Moder was back in jeans, cooking breakfast pancakes for the guests’ kids, who later made a makeshift merry-go-round out of her horse walker. That night the Toni Price band, a favorite of Moder’s since he first heard them play at the Continental Club in Austin, belted out country and blues tunes. Says guitarist Casper Rawls: “It was just like a backyard barbecue at anybody’s home in America.”

Not counting, of course, the sight of Roberts singing along to the band’s waltz “Don’t You Think I Feel It Too?” as she danced with her new husband. Between dips and toasts—including one from Danny’s father, Mike, 65, a Hollywood producer (Beverly Hills Cop, Crimson Tide), “welcoming Julia into the family,” says a friend—Roberts and Moder flitted from table to table like the hummingbirds that flew down, drawn to the sweet peas, peonies and geraniums in terra-cotta pots on each table. “She was giggly and giddy,” says a friend of Roberts’s. “Danny was hugging everyone. They kept referring to each other as ‘my wife’ and ‘my husband.'” When they came up for air, that is. Says singer Price: “Every time I looked the two of them were smooching.”

Later in the evening the group turned to R&B. Bruce Willis, who had arrived that afternoon with his daughter Tallulah, 8, joined the band onstage, playing harmonica and singing a few verses of “Hound Dog” and “Chain of Fools.” “He sounded great,” says Price. Shortly after midnight Roberts turned on the stereo and hit the dance floor to disco tunes such as Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Says an admiring Price: “That girl can really throw a party.” Though by 1 a.m. the fireworks that had lit up the nation’s skies had long since ended, those sparked by Mr. and Mrs. Moder were just beginning. Partying until dawn, Roberts seemed to one good friend to be totally, finally, at ease: “There’s something bohemian and free about her. She and Danny are good people who recognize a similarity in each other and fill in each other’s spaces.”

When they’ll start making space for the “gaggle” of kids Roberts has said she wants is hard to guess. Without a new movie scheduled until the drama Mona Lisa’s Smile starts filming in October, Roberts is just planning to enjoy her new husband and life her own way. “They promised to take care of each other,” says one longtime friend. “Julia’s genuinely happy.”

Karen S. Schneider

Elizabeth Leonard, Alexis Chiu, Tom Cunneff, Michael Haederle, Julie Jordan, Zelie Pollon and Inez Russell in Taos and Elizabeth McNeil in New York City