By Karen S. Schneider
Updated May 16, 1994 12:00 PM

His marriage is unusual, Lovett says—but solid

SHE ARRIVED FOR DINNER AT Lola’s in Manhattan at 8:45 p.m., ate salmon and an arugula salad, drank a glass of Cristal champagne, talked a little, laughed a little, danced a little. Then, tired and content, she wandered off into the night. When she awoke the next morning, she picked up the telephone and warned her publicist to brace herself. “You’re going to be getting calls,” said Julia Roberts, 26, “because I was out last night.”

And not just “out” but “with.” Close by Roberts’ side that evening—and drinking beer with her the next—was 23-year-old slacker-hunk Ethan Hawke, star of last year’s Alive and this year’s Reality Bites. For weeks there has been a distant rumble of rumors that Roberts’ 11-month marriage to Texas-born country singer Lyle Lovett, 36, was in trouble. Roberts’ PR woman, Nancy Seltzer, had been dodging relentless press inquiries. Why, for instance, do Roberts and Lovett keep separate homes? And why, when Julia attended the April 7 Todd Oldham fashion show at Bryant Park in New York City, wasn’t she wearing her wedding ring? Now reporters wanted to know why Mrs. Lyle Lovett seemed so comfortable with Mr. Ethan Hawke—whom she had reportedly just met that night. This time Seltzer had an answer. “They’re friends,” she said.

“They were friendly,” echoed producer Cary Woods, who arranged the April 27 dinner at Lola’s with Hawke, Harvey Weinstein, cochairman of Miramax films, and a few others to talk about Pagan Babies, an upcoming film project in which Roberts and Hawke may possibly star.

“Everybody was drinking, everybody was dancing,” says Weinstein. “This talk of romance is utter nonsense.”

“I’m so glad Julia and Ethan went out dancing,” said Seltzer with a weary laugh, “because prior to this, I had no idea dancing was a crime.”

True, no one has ever been arrested for lindying without a license. And the evening probably wouldn’t have caused a ripple if it weren’t for two factors: Roberts somewhat unpredictable romantic history—splitting with Kicfer Sutherland four days before their scheduled wedding and marrying Lovett after a three-week courtship—and the newlyweds’ unconventional domestic arrangements. As Lovett has readily admitted, they do not live together in a traditional sense. “I live in Houston,” he told Esquire magazine recently. “Julia has a place in New York [City].”

They have, in other words, spent most of their married life apart. Two days after their June 27 wedding last year, Roberts was back at work on The Pelican Brief, and Lovett was soon on the road with his band. After a reunion in L.A. in November, she flew to Portage, Wis., to shoot I Love Trouble, due in late June, while Lyle parked himself in L.A. to work on his upcoming album, I Love Everybody (which, before he married Roberts and became suffused with a postnuptial glow, had been titled Creeps Like Me). “We’ve never gone more than a week without seeing each other since we got married,” Lovett told PEOPLE in late November. “But we’ve never spent more than seven days together.”

However, by mid-December, the couple had settled in L.A. for a few months, when Roberts returned to shoot some interior scenes for I Love Trouble, and Lovett was in town finishing his album. That record was broken again when the stars aligned for two weeks in Paris this March, so that both could film their scenes in Robert Altman’s movie about the fashion industry, Prêt à Porter.

Lovett flew there in the first week of March. Roberts joined him on March 12, spent 14 days shooting and then returned to New York City. Lovett saw his wife when he came back for a quick visit on April 18 for the Film Society of Lincoln Center tribute to Altman, then returned to Paris a couple of days later.

It’s an unorthodox approach to marriage, but Julia and Lyle seem not to mind. Those who have witnessed their intermittent moments together say they seem happy. In Paris husband and wife were playful and warm with each other, whether catching a bite at a Moroccan restaurant not far from the Carré d’Or hotel, where they stayed, or watching the daily film rushes on the set. “She’s really in love with him,” says one woman who watched the two at work. Says another colleague: “She looked really healthy and happy.”

As Lovett himself put it recently, “We’re just so happy to be together when we can be.”