June 05, 2000 12:00 PM

During her stay last weekend at the luxurious Palace Hotel on ‘Italy’s fabled island of Capri, Elizabeth Hurley enjoyed spectacular sunsets over the Bay of Naples. At night, Hurley, all alone in her romantic S600-a-night suite, could gaze at the heavens from the hilltop hotel that boasts it is “just two steps from the stars.”

Since then the biggest star in Hurley’s life has spun out of her orbit. On May 23, London spokeswoman Karin Smith announced that Hurley, 34, and her live-in boyfriend of 13 years, actor Hugh Grant, 39, had agreed to “temporarily split up.” Smith described it as “a mutual and amicable decision” and added that the two would continue to run Simian Films, the successful production company they co-own, and that they would even continue to maintain their two London homes. To quell the inevitable rumors, Smith added, “They very much want to stress that there are no third parties involved.”

The announcement came as a surprise to friends like London fashion maven Trinny Woodall, who says that as recently as two weeks ago Hurley and Grant seemed “very much together.” Hurley’s whiplash schedule had her flying from Los Angeles, where she wrapped her latest film, Bedazzled, on April 18, to New York and on to London and St. Bart’s in the Caribbean before heading to Cannes May 18. Following a weekend magazine photo shoot on Capri, the actress and Estée Lauder model returned to England on May 22 for a brief stay before she begins shooting her next film, Double Whammy, in L.A. in June. None the worse for wear, Hurley was “very pleasant, friendly, serene and didn’t seem at all nervous, sad or angry,” says a Palace Hotel staffer.

Grant, meanwhile, returned from the May 16 New York City premiere of Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks, in which he costars, to begin work on the London set of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Sources on the set say Grant appeared relaxed and engaged. “I like both of them,” says London celebrity journalist Baz Bamigboye. “I’m glad that it doesn’t appear that plates have been hurling around their kitchen.”

While the separation announcement was low-key, warning signs of trouble in the relationship have been apparent for months. Speculation that all was not well with the couple, who have not been photographed together in public since the Jan. 23 Golden Globe Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, heated up in February when the two spent Valentine’s Day apart. Rumors began to boil over in March when Hurley attended an Oscars party without Grant, who British tabloids later reported had been spotted in a Paris eatery “licking the elbow of a mystery woman.”

While Grant’s publicity rep insisted he and the woman were “just good friends,” Hurley denied rumors that she is romantically involved with Wall Street financier Teddy Forstmann, 59, with whom she attended a New York Knicks basketball game on April 26, reportedly sporting a skimpy T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Porn Star in Training.” At that point, spokeswoman Smith now says, Hurley and Grant had already begun to discuss a possible breakup.

The daughter of a British army major and his piano teacher wife, Hurley met Grant, then a budding actor and son of a London rug merchant and a schoolteacher, in 1986 on the set of Rowing in the Wind, a melodrama about Lord Byron and the Shelleys. “Hugh did look particularly fine in those cream britches,” Hurley told Britain’s Tatler. For his part, Grant was smitten by Hurley’s “passion” and love for risk taking. “I’m even a little afraid of the camera,” he once said. “She adores it.”

But some observers believe they were never able to recover from the emotional trauma caused by Grant’s humiliating 1995 arrest for lewd behavior with a former L.A. streetwalker, Divine Brown. Hurley appeared to forgive the publicly contrite Grant but may not have forgotten the pain inflicted by the scandal. While the glamorous duo pursued their highly successful, often intertwining careers—Hurley produced Grant’s 1999 film Mickey Blue Eyes—their schedules left precious little time for healing. Still, the relationship seemed rooted in mutual respect. “Hugh and I drive each other demented half the time, but he really is my best friend,” Hurley recently told Glamour magazine. “And if we split up, I’d feel like my brother had died. It takes a lot to come to terms with feeling that way about someone. If you’ve got it, hold on to it.” Apparently something changed, and it was time to let go.

Steve Dougherty

Sarah Delaney in Rome and Liz Corcoran, Pete Norman, Sarah Hemingway and Nina Biddle in London

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