By Pam Lambert
December 14, 1992 12:00 PM

IT WAS TATUM O’NEAL AND JOHN MCENROE’S WORST NIGHTMARE. Splattered across the front pages of the New York City tabloids were headlines trumpeting the breakup of their six-year marriage, the oasis in their lives they had struggled so hard to keep private, to keep normal. Two volatile, headstrong personalities—the tennis brat and the Oscar-winning Hollywood princess once nicknamed Tantrum—had defied the odds by staying together through one, two, three children. “They’re such an intense couple,” says one friend, “and with that intensity you can probably expect big shifts. It’s like the earthquake predictions: a bunch of small tremors, and then you know the big one is on the way. Well, I think the big one hit the McEnroe house.”

The couple actually have not just one unhappy home but five—in Malibu, Sun Valley, on New York’s Long Island and two in Manhattan. Last week, Tatum, 29, remained in New York City. John, 33, was with two of their three children (Kevin, 6, Sean, 5, and Emily, 1½) and their nanny in Fort Worth, Tex., where he was scheduled to compete in a Davis Cup match against Switzerland. On Dec. 1 he issued a sober public statement in response, he said, to the “wildly inaccurate” stories that had appeared in the press. (One account had him canceling Tatum’s credit cards so she couldn’t buy a Thanksgiving turkey.) It was a reminder that a very human drama was playing itself out, even if those involved had famous faces and a net worth in the millions. The statement confirmed that both he and his wife had “each engaged counsel to deal with their marital problems.” McEnroe continued, “I intend to work hard at finding a sensible solution that’s best for our entire family. This is a very painful time for me and. I’m sure, for Tatum as well.”

Just how painful, few members of the pair’s tightly knit circle were saying. “Everyone who knows them is pretty blown away by it,” says one of McEnroe’s friends. “They are really close to their kids and have worked real hard to spend time with them. John is probably more in shock than anybody. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that he really loved being a family.”

And you didn’t have to be an intimate to appreciate how devastating the split, with its specter of a potential custody battle, might be to a couple who had placed such a high premium on togetherness. “John seems really committed to marriage…he seems like no matter what happens, this is it for him,” O’Neal said only last year during interviews for a profile in the now defunct New York Woman magazine. “It’s refreshing in this day and age where people lose the lust and then they lose the commitment.”

O’Neal has acknowledged the ongoing conflicts in her marriage—chief among them her desire to restart her movie career and McEnroe’s belief, as one friend puts it, “that the mother’s place is in the home and probably not out on the lot making a feature film.” O’Neal herself has voiced, often poignantly, her overwhelming desire to give her children the kind of stable, supportive environment that she fell she never received. “I just do everything opposite of what was done to me,” she once said, only partly in jest.

“It’s very difficult because you want to get ahead, you want to succeed, and yet having children is a full-time job, unless you want to slough them off with some nanny,” O’Neal observed last year. “Women are in a tough place.” But, she added, “We all know that the core of your life is family, and good work comes from that. Good work doesn’t come from having just work—that’s what I learned early.”

About 2½ years ago, with sons Kevin and Sean spending part of the day in school, O’Neal took the first steps toward what she hoped would be an acting comeback. After a six-year absence from the screen, she accepted a small role in the low-budget independent film Little noises. She said then that although she had thought about having more children, “I’d like to wait just a bit.” With her husband’s globe-trotting, tennis-playing days apparently numbered, O’Neal reasoned that he would be able to assume a greater role in childrearing and free her to work.

McEnroe at that time expressed his support. “I think that for her it’s just beginning,” he said of her acting career. “I think there’s a lot inside there that hasn’t been brought out yet. I don’t think a lot of people know how attractive a woman she is and how smart.” But, he added, “I’d like to have more kids.” The next year, O’Neal gave birth to daughter Emily and once more put her career plans on hold. And now that her youngest child is approaching an age at which O’Neal feels able to stretch her wings a bit, it seems that the homemaker-Hollywood conflict has erupted again. “There were scripts coming in all the time,” says a friend of both Tatum and John. “I don’t think there’s anyone else in the wings. This is basically a career thing.”

Whatever her acting aspirations, O’Neal appeared to have found the role of her life in motherhood. “She never had a mother figure, so she wants to be a great mom,” said McEnroe. “Tatum is very strong-minded about the way she would like to see her kids brought up.” With her own brood, O’Neal seemed determined to be the kind of healthy, happy parent she wished she could have had. “I can’t relive it, but I can certainly provide a different life for my children—provide consistency and stability and extreme fun and no loneliness and no craziness,” she said. “I have the opportunity now to see normal children grow up.”

Growing up normal was not an option for her. As a youngster she was often forced to fend for herself, not unlike the precocious, scrappy-but-vulnerable orphan she played in Paper Moon. The 1973 film costarring her father, Ryan, won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the age of 10, the youngest performer to do so. O’Neal did have two parents, but during her early years they were far from parental. Her father split when she was 2, leaving her and her brother, Griffin, 11 months younger, with his soon to be ex, Joanna Moore, an actress then dependent on alcohol and drugs. As her mother’s problems worsened, little Tatum tried to assume the role of homemaker as best she could.

“They weren’t getting proper food and care,” said her grandmother Pat O’Neal years later. “Joanna would take them to a bar and drink and then disappear, and the bartender would call us. Tatum always knew our telephone number. Then my husband would go find them, and I’d bathe them and put clean clothes on them.”

When Tatum was 7, Ryan whisked his daughter off to live with him in Malibu. But for reasons Tatum said she never understood, he left Griffin behind for several more years with Joanna—whom Tatum has since said she has “forgiven.” While Tatum was living the Hollywood high life, hanging out with Cher and going to parties with Andy Warhol, her brother, she said, was tape-recording their mother while she was drunk to try to force her to confront her alcoholism.

By the time Griffin was 11, a year before he joined his father and sister, he was driving his mother’s car and generally running wild. (He is still running. Just last month he agreed to spend a year in a live-in drug-rehabilitation program after pleading no contest to a charge of shooting at his ex-girlfriend’s unoccupied car. His previous troubles include being sentenced for negligence in the 1986 Annapolis-area boating accident that killed his friend Gian-Carlo Coppola, director Francis Ford Coppola’s son.)

Meanwhile, Tatum was having problems of her own. Beneath the designer finery, she was still a very needy little girl. Although O’Neal credits her father with giving her “a long period of unconditional love” at the height of his own career, she has said that like many single parents he didn’t know where to draw the line. And neither did she.

“I really thought he was my mother and my father—which he really was,” she said. “And that was so hurtful, for me to be that attached to him, because every woman in his life to me was somebody that would take him away—she was taking my spot.” Their separation began in 1980 when Farrah Fawcett, now the mother of Tatum’s 7-year-old half brother, Redmond, set up housekeeping with Ryan. Tatum, then 17, and Griffin moved into an apartment together. Both dropped out of school, and Tatum briefly joined her brother in a “period of substance abuse.”

Tatum’s next housemate would be John McEnroe, at that time the world’s top-ranked—and most tempestuous—tennis player. She met him in 1984 at the Los Angeles house of record producer Richard Perry and moved into his homes on both coasts after two months and four dates. “She reminded me of a female version of myself,” McEnroe has said. “The good parts.” Although many observers saw a certain wild Irish kinship between O’Neal’s new love and her father—who not long before had punched out Griffin’s two front teeth—O’Neal saw nothing of the sort. “They’re opposites,” she claimed. “My dad lives in a high drama to the point that you just can’t believe what he’s saying. Off the court, John is very inward and shy.”

The couple married in Oyster Hay, N.Y., in August 1986, three months after Kevin’s birth. At the time, O’Neal explained her hesitation to marry by saying that she hadn’t wanted to walk down the aisle “looking like an elephant.” But a few years later she said that something else was going on. “It was going to be a marriage where we had to sign agreements, and that turned me off,” said O’Neal, who eventually did sign a prenuptial agreement. (She could, however, win considerably more if she successfully contests the pact’s validity.)

Initially, O’Neal appeared to revel in domesticity. She cooked homemade pasta sauce and a casserole McEnroe’s mother gave her the recipe for, while continually searching for “more interesting ways of preparing chicken”—even though, as a vegetarian, she didn’t eat it herself. She accompanied her husband, with Kevin, on the grueling tennis tour until Sean’s arrival in 1987. Then she began the usual motherly routine, chauffeuring the kids to preschool and to play dates and karate classes. McEnroe pitched in when he was home, she said, but added, “He’s not home that much.”

And then O’Neal started wanting something more. Maybe it was the moment she recalled seeing “how quickly my kids were so focused on themselves, and I went, ‘Wow, I’d better think about doing the things that fulfill me.’ ” May be it was the arrival of another new crop of Hollywood hopefuls, the Bridget Fondas and the Julia Robertses, that made her realize just how long ago her moment had been. Or perhaps it was something more personal, like trying to help her husband—whose tennis skills were obviously in decline—decide what to do with the rest of his life.

One buddy says McEnroe is not the temperamental tantrum thrower the press sometimes depicts. “John is not the easiest person in the world, but lie’s not like he is on the court either,” the friend says. “He’s been raised a real gentleman.” The question of Tatum staying home to raise the kids, this friend says, is merely a matter of nuance: “John is just a little more conservative than she is. He would like her to pick and choose. And when she chooses to go away [on location], it would be best for her to do it when he is not away.”

Perhaps there is some common ground on which the couple might eventually meet. “I think John is really wanting to work it out,” his friend says. “I’m sure the split] is something he never planned on doing. He had planned to spend the rest of his life with his family.”

Still, the conflict was clearly on O’Neal’s mind when she spoke to a reporter just two months ago. She said her dream was that “when John’s career is finished, he takes care of the kids while I make two pictures a year. I need something for myself, and if I don’t get it, then I worry for me and my marriage.””


VICKI SHEFF in Los Angeles