February 17, 1997 12:00 PM

A romance can be born in a wink, as Valentine’s Day sweethearts know, but what is it that keeps some lovers happily, entwined for a lifetime? Alas, there is no secret formula, says writer Laurie Wagner, who helped chronicle the lives of 30 long-attached couples in a new book, Living Happily Ever After (Chronicle Books, $19.95). “We’re not robots, “she says. “If it was as simple as following five easy rules, we’d all be in great relationships.”

Wagner, 36, and photographers David Collier, 34, and Stephanie Rausser, 30, traveled the country looking for older couples who could detail their years together, from the intimate moments to the angry ones. “Whenever anyone said they never had a fight, I turned off the tape recorder,” Wagner says. “I wanted to hear honesty.” Ultimately these couples gave it, opening up about their sex lives, the temptations they resisted—or didn’t—and their fears of losing each other in death. Aside from the length of their years together, the lovers have little in common. Two pairs of identical twins married as a group, two other couples are carrying a second marriage to the finish line, and three couples are gay. Proving that true love may be everlasting, two couples divorced, only to find themselves drawn back together again. What they share, says Wagner, “is a sense of humor, the capacity to forgive, and the enthusiasm to interrupt each other when talking about their passionate lives.”

Jazz musicians Paul and Inez Jones of Kansas City (in 1995, right, and with their drummer in 1935) had been married 60 years when Inez died in 1995, at 82. Before meeting Inez, “I used to smoke and drink quite a bit—I was traveling in a fast crowd,” says Paul, who was 81 when she died. “What changed me was her. She was a family woman, and a career woman. She pulled me into the right path, and I been there ever since.”

Identical twins Bob and Al and Vera and Verna Murray (in 1935, below, and at the Leroy, Kans., house they all shared) had mirror-image marriages for 57 years. “It worked out pretty well,” says Vera (whose sister Verna died last year). “There were two of them, and two of us, and it just made it handy.”

We’re opposites,” says Alice Johnson, 75. “I talk and he listens.” It’s a winning blend—the former hospital worker and her retired post-office worker husband, Ancil, 81 (in 1945, above, and 1996, right), have been wed for 51 years.

Bruhs Mero, a Broadway dancer, and Gean Harwood, a composer, kept the true nature of their relationship private until 1985. Even so, says Gean (at left with Bruhs in 1942, above, and 1995, right), “we built a life together which supported who we were and what we cared about,” They were a couple for 64 years, until Bruhs died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1995, at 83. “We both had the same ideal,” says Gean, who visited his beloved at a nursing home even after Bruhs could no longer speak or recognize him. “We didn’t want to ever leave each other.”

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