August 30, 1999 12:00 PM

It was a dazzling scene that might have come out of a romance novel written by Danielle Steel. I On Aug. 6 the famous author’s financier husband, Thomas Perkins, celebrated the launch of his newly restored yacht with a lavish black-tie soiree at Plumpton Place, his estate in East Sussex, England. But where, guests wondered, was Steel? “From what I understand, she had helped him plan this,” says a friend. “People fully expected her to be there.”

Perkins told curious guests that the author couldn’t make it. But five days later, Steel’s publicist told the press that the couple, married just 17 months earlier, had been separated for some five months. Pals say Perkins’s prolonged business and yachting expeditions were to blame. “When Tom came home in March, she was hoping for a reconciliation,” one friend says. “But he informed her he wanted a divorce.”

Some say the couple’s relationship had been a long shot from its earliest days in 1995. Perkins, 67, Steel’s fifth husband, had consoled Steel, 52, through some of her worst trials—including the drug-overdose death of her 19-year-old son Nicholas Traina in 1997. But Perkins enjoys life on the run; Steel prefers to stay at home in San Francisco with her children and her work—her 70th book is the current bestseller Granny Dan. “She hates yachting,” says Tony Hail, a longtime Perkins pal. “I don’t know why in the world he married her in the first place.”

Perkins and Steel were drawn together by tragedy—first his, then hers. When Perkins’s first wife, Gerd, succumbed to lymphoma in 1994, Steel was there to comfort him. At the time, Steel’s longtime marriage to shipping executive John Traina, 68, with whom she raised seven children, was starting to founder. Two years later, Steel’s son Nicholas, a rock musician diagnosed as manic depressive, died from an accidental overdose of morphine. Friends say Perkins stood by her side when Nick died. Within months of a divorce from Traina, Steel wed Perkins in March 1998.

At the time, it seemed a merger of titans. Perkins, a San Francisco venture capitalist who helped found companies like Genentech and Tandem Computers Inc., showed an entrepreneurial spirit that impressed Steel, who has 390 million copies of her books in print. The debonair Perkins lived in a $6 million Marin County mansion and collected antique cars. “Both of them came so equal into this marriage,” says a mutual friend. “It was like a little fairy tale.”

As was their wedding. She bought the groom a $400,000 Bentley, and the two-day affair was held at her 1913 beaux arts mansion in San Francisco. For the reception, she donned a white Yves Saint Laurent gown with a red satin bow and displayed Tom’s wedding present, an extravagant diamond and emerald necklace. The wedding cake was baked in the shape of a yacht with Tom and Danielle on the bow.

Certainly the marriage seemed more seaworthy than some of Steel’s earlier matrimonial voyages. Her first, to millionaire banker Claude-Eric Lazard in 1965, produced Steel’s eldest child, Beatrix, 31, but ended in 1975. That same year, Steel wed convicted bank robber Danny Zugelder, whom she met while researching a magazine article about conscientious objectors in prison. Zugelder, 49, is currently serving a 40-year sentence in a Colorado state prison for rape.

Husband No. 3 was Bill Toth, 53, a recovering heroin addict who met the author while working as her moving man. They got hitched in 1978, two weeks before Steel gave birth to their child Nicholas (who was later adopted by her fourth husband). Their union fizzled three years later when Toth was unable to kick his drug habit. Steel’s fourth marriage, to Traina in 1981, would prove her most durable, lasting 17 years and producing Samantha, 17, Victoria, 16, Vanessa, 14, Maxx, 13, and Zara, 11.

Like her fictional heroines, Steel has shown resilience in the face of life’s setbacks. “She has a good sense of humor, and she’s doing well,” reports actor George Hamilton, 60, a close friend. “I think she is dating,” Hamilton adds, “but I don’t know whom.”

Alec Foege

Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles, Ken Baker in San Francisco and Joanna Blonska in London

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