By Karen S. Schneider
April 29, 1996 12:00 PM

THE SWEAT SUIT IS CASHMERE, THE slippers the softest sheepskin, but just now, Neil Diamond is looking a bit, well, frumpy. At 1 o’clock in the afternoon, sleep is still in his eyes—and the Beverly Hills sun isn’t helping. He shuffles down the hallway of the Mediterranean-style home he is renting and sits under an umbrella at poolside, a cup of coffee in one hand, a cigar in the other. Every strand of his thinning hair is neatly in place. Could this soft-spoken 55-year-old be the force behind the sale of 110 million records, behind 800-plus sold-out concerts, behind more than three decades of sentiment and sequins? You betcha. “I still have just about every costume I’ve ever worn,” says Diamond with a laugh. “You want to buy one?”

Put back your checkbooks, folks, the garage sale will have to wait. After more than 30 years of cranking out such high-schmaltz standards as “September Morn” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” the Brooklyn-born songwriter is as hot as he has ever been. (And not just on Lite FM. That’s his “Sweet Caroline” that Uma Thurman and Tim Hutton harmonize to in the current movie Beautiful Girls.) The first scheduled concerts in the two-year world tour he embarked on last month to promote his new album Tennessee Moon—a set of 18 songs, including duets with Nashville greats Chet Atkins and Waylon Jennings—are sold out. And you can be sure that middle-aged crazies won’t be the only ones dancing in the aisles.

“Some people say his music is cheesy,” says 25-year-old John Kaizen, bassist for the Neilists, a Los Angeles band that is devoted to playing Diamond’s songs in hip local clubs, “but to me it’s real. My advice to anyone who loves Neil Diamond music is, don’t be ashamed of it. Just own up to it and be cool. He’s cool.”

Cool. Not exactly the word the guy with the bushy sideburns would pick to describe himself. But he’ll take it. “I like to see young people in the audience,” he says. And the truth is, the support is needed. The sadness permeating much of the album is evoked not only by Diamond’s artistic expression but by his very real sense of loss since the end last year of his 25-year-marriage to Marcia Murphey, 54. “Creating this music helped me vent some of the feelings of guilt and failure I took on,” says Diamond. “It was better than going to a psychiatrist—more private.”

The pain Diamond can share onstage with strangers he hesitates to express to close friends. “I think the hurt is there,” says his brother Harvey, 53, a Los Angeles entrepreneur and inventor, “but it’s just my impression, because he’s really keeping things within himself.” Says the entertainer’s longtime friend and dentist Dr. Robert Abeloff: “It has to be tough, but he never complains.” Maybe Diamond considers it unseemly to bemoan a fate he believes he brought on himself. “Twenty-five years on the road, working in studios all night. I think a woman needs more attention than I was able to give,” he says. “I blame myself, absolutely.”

And not for the first time. Thirty years ago such hit singles as “Solitary Man” and “Cherry, Cherry” put the unknown songwriter on the path to stardom—and to his first divorce. Show business was all-consuming for Diamond, and he had little time for his wife, Jaye Posner, and their daughters Marjorie, now 30 and a new mom, and Elyn, 27, who heads a foundation to aid abused children. In 1967 the marriage ended. Two years later, when Diamond married Murphey, then a TV production assistant, he vowed not to make the same mistake. In 1972, two years after the birth of their first son, Jesse, Diamond called a halt to public appearances. “I learned how to go fishing—and enjoy it,” he says.

But fishing was not in his blood. Four years after leaving the spotlight, Diamond was playing to sell-out crowds from Australia to New Zealand. He starred in two NBC specials and, in 1980, made his feature-film debut—in the critically savaged Jazz Singer. Through it all, he says, “Marcia was the rock upon which I stood. I traveled the world and was always able to return to my family.”

Despite the hectic schedule, Diamond kept close ties with his sons Jesse, now 25, a songwriter, and Micah, 18, a high school senior. “He was always there, emotionally, when the kids really needed him,” says brother Harvey. Yet, absorbed in his work, he slowly stopped paying attention to the needs of his wife. “She did everything right,” Diamond says, “and I did everything wrong.”

Still, when the divorce finally came through in March 1995, Diamond was shocked by the consequences. “It’s scary,” he says. “Your whole life changes. Besides the dissolution of the marriage contract, you lose some friends. They take sides. I assume a lot of responsibility for what went wrong, but I was taken aback by how many friends dropped me.” Then he adds, “You can be as macho as you want to be on the outside, but it still hurts.”

A year later, Diamond has moved past some of the pain into phase two: living alone. “It’s gotta be tough for a guy who’s in his 50s to wake up one morning and say, ‘Holy cow. I’m single,’ ” says Diamond’s friend and Tennessee Moon producer Bob Guadio. “Neil told me, ‘I don’t know how to handle this.’ ” But he has friends who are willing to help. Says Abeloff: “My wife wants to go on a double date.” But for the moment, Diamond is demurring. “Falling in love upsets the applecart,” says Diamond. “I don’t want a serious relationship for now.”

What does matter to him right now, he says, is family. Last year, Marjorie, who, like Elyn, lives in New York City, gave him his first grandson, Alexander. “I love being a granddad,” says Diamond. “It’s one of those perks where you don’t have to do anything but let your chest swell.” Since the divorce, he and his sons have grown closer than ever, he says: “They’ve become very protective of me. They will call me, saying, ‘How ya doing, Dad? Come on, let’s go out for breakfast.’ ” Still, at the end of the day, it’s just Diamond and his thoughts. “You wonder if this is what it is all about,” he says. For years, he recalls, it was his wife who provided purpose and perspective. “Who’s doing that now?” Diamond asks. Then, after a moment, he offers an answer: “I think I am old enough to do it myself.”