By Michelle Tauber
Updated October 14, 2013 12:00 PM

The slight, casually dressed woman who tooled around Martha’s Vineyard this summer on her bike did everything she could to go unnoticed: baseball hat pulled low, aviators covering her blue eyes, head down. No flashy jewelry, no assistant, no look-at-me star attitude. On the rare occasion when Meg Ryan did give herself away – a peek of that famously tousled blonde hair, the still-girlish voice – she avoided idle chitchat. “She was perfectly polite, but she tried very hard not to talk,” says Isabella Quinones, a staffer at 7a Foods on the island, where Ryan dropped in several times. Adds another store staffer, Ashleigh Dexter: “You could tell she didn’t want to be recognized.”

A romantic heroine to a generation of fans who helped her rule the box office as “America’s sweetheart,” this is Meg Ryan today: guarded, cautious and resolutely determined to avoid the fame that she once described as “traumatizing.” She skips awards shows, rarely does red carpets and hasn’t granted a major interview in five years. Instead, two decades after her career peak in 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, the 51-year-old actress lives primarily in downtown Manhattan, where she is raising her daughter Daisy, 8, and has been happily dating rocker John Mellencamp, 62, since late 2010. Whether dropping off Daisy at school, strolling the city hand in hand with Mellencamp or visiting the latest photography exhibit, her urban lifestyle suits the woman who told InStyle in 2008 that she was relieved to have escaped the “airless bubble of rich Hollywood people.” “New York makes you different,” says her friend Delia Ephron, who teamed with Ryan on the audiobook of Ephron’s essay collection Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.) and whose sister, the late writer-director Nora, was a Ryan pal. “Los Angeles is just about movies. New York is about so much more than that, and so is Meg.”

Variously described by those who have worked with her as “shrewd,” “funny,” “self-conscious” and “aloof,” Ryan often chafed at the gap between her sweetheart persona and her own complicated reality. “It felt … like ideas were being projected onto me that had nothing to do with me,” Ryan, who broke out in 1986’s Top Gun and 1989’s When Harry Met Sally …, has said. “The girl next door to what? I never felt like a very conventional person.”

And yet when the cameras were rolling, she appeared at ease in the winsome roles that gave her a permanent spot in the Rom-Com Hall of Fame. On the sets of Sleepless in Seattle and 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, both directed by Nora Ephron, “she embodied how Nora saw herself,” says Betsy Sokolow-Sherman, a publicist on both films. “Attractive, quirky, wanting to find love and happiness.” But a source who spent time with her through the years offers a sharper-edged view. “She was only America’s sweetheart onscreen,” says the insider. “In her private life, she has always been completely the opposite. She is smart and provocative.”

In 2000 Ryan blowtorched her button-cute image by engaging in a whirlwind romance with her Proof of Life costar Russell Crowe while still wed to her husband of nine years, actor Dennis Quaid. “I found myself thinking all of a sudden, ‘So this is what it feels like to be the scarlet woman!’ ” she told W. She later said that Crowe, 49, was not the cause of the split and accused Quaid, 59, of cheating on her during the marriage. She also confessed that in retreating from the spotlight post-split, “I didn’t have to care what people thought. I have gotten to do what I guess I secretly wanted to do. Be totally under the radar and live my life.”

But a friend and former colleague says the divorce was more difficult than Ryan let on. “All of the tabloid attention really shook her up,” says the source. “She was deeply troubled by it. It contributed to her stepping away.”

As she made the choice to downshift her career, opting instead to travel and spend time with her son with Quaid, New York University senior Jack, 21, Ryan found that the variety of roles available to her began to diminish. “Mainly, this is what she was onscreen: lovable,” says the source who spent time with her through the years. “And what you can do with that is limited.”

An AOL-era star in a Twitter world – her last box office hit was You’ve Got Mail – Ryan “is not perceived as aggressively going after parts,” says a veteran talent agent. Another industry source says the actress “was so tired of rom-coms. She was so over it.” And though Ryan has never commented on the plastic surgery rumors that sparked after she was seen with notably plumper lips and smooth, taut skin over the years, multiple sources say such talk – and the merciless online mockery that came with it – may have harmed her career. Later, when she explored grittier territory in 2004’s Against the Ropes, “people didn’t really buy it,” says the agent, who also points out that her withdrawal from the Hollywood social circuit may have impeded her career: “She keeps her toe in, but the feeling is her focus is elsewhere.”

But that, say those who know Ryan, is the way she wants it. These days, life is centered on Daisy, whom she adopted from China in 2006, and Mellencamp, whom she began dating just after his 2010 split from his wife of 18 years, model Elaine Irwin. Attending the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily in June, “they looked like two lovebirds,” says an observer. And at a recent event for his album Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, “when John spotted Meg in the audience, his face lit up like I’ve never seen him light up before,” says a source. The feeling is mutual. At the 2011 New Orleans jazz fest, “she was dancing, not being shy or embarrassed,” during Mellencamp’s set, says an observer. “She seemed really happy.” Quietly pursuing her interests in photography and home design, she is also planning to direct an upcoming film project. And although she is rarely in front of the camera these days, those close to her say she still has the same magic that had audiences falling in love with her nearly 25 years ago. “Meg is enchanting,” says Delia Ephron. “She was always enchanting – and she still is.”