October 25, 1999 12:00 PM

It had been a typical summer in the Big Apple for the King of Pop. Oh, there were the usual (extravagances Michael Jackson is known for, such as the reported $75,000-per-month, five-story townhouse off Fifth Avenue that he rented while working on a new album (expected by Christmas). And between, recording sessions, Jackson did find time to purchase David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind Best Picture Oscar for $1.54 million, enjoy an audience with the Dalai Lama and spend a couple of hours with an unidentified young boy shopping at Manhattan’s Abracadabra Superstore. After a salesman taught him a few card tricks, Jackson, 41, spent $200 and departed, leaving no hint that anything was amiss.

But no amount of smoke and mirrors could long conceal the fact that Jackson’s nearly three-year marriage to Deborah Rowe Jackson, the mother of his two children, was nearing its denouement. Rowe, 40, filed for divorce on Oct. 8 in Los Angeles, ending a relationship that many had speculated was even more bogus than Michael’s previous 20-month marriage to Lisa Marie Presley. According to biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli (Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness), Rowe and Jackson’s life as a couple had always been “cut and dried.” Rowe, adds Taraborrelli, was simply “a very good friend of Michael’s who agreed to have his children. They’ve not done interviews to profess their undying love,” as Jackson and Presley did with Diane Sawyer in 1995. “They never lived together to my knowledge or to the knowledge of anyone I’ve ever talked to.”

Rowe, the former assistant of Jackson’s L.A. dermatologist, met the superstar in the early 1980s. They soon became close, and following his 1996 divorce from Presley, Rowe agreed to bear Jackson’s children “as a favor to a friend,” she said at the time. In November 1996, Rowe, already six months pregnant with Michael Joseph Jackson Jr. (nicknamed Prince), married Jackson in Sydney, Australia.

An amiable woman with a taste for motorcycles, Rowe was living in an $840-a-month apartment in blue-collar Van Nuys, Calif., when she met Jackson. Soon after giving birth to Prince, now nearly 3, Rowe moved into a $1.27 million home in L.A.’s affluent Franklin Canyon purchased for her by the Jackson camp. Both Prince and his sister Paris-Michael Katherine Jackson, now 18 months, are being raised by Jackson, who travels with the children and their entourage in tow. Carole Bayer Sager, who is cowriting a couple of tunes for Jackson’s new album, says Jackson is an attentive father. “He would bring Prince [to the studio] and do little things that I thought were very loving: making sure he ate, cutting his little chicken.”

For a while the odd arrangement seemed to work. “The foundation of [Rowe and Jackson’s] relationship had to do with trust, friendship and Michael’s desire to have children,” Taraborrelli says. “They made an agreement and were happy with it.”

But trouble began brewing last June when opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti dramatically announced that Jackson had bowed out of a charity concert in Italy because “his son may be dying.” Heeding TV news reports that Prince was lying in a Manhattan hospital gravely ill and suffering seizures, Rowe flew from L.A. to New York City, only to learn that Prince’s illness was not severe and that he had been released from the hospital after spending just a brief time there for observation. “To hear that your child is dying and to find it out on the news and it not to be true is terrifying,” she told an L.A. TV station, “especially when I’ve spoken to his father, and he told me he was okay.”

From then on, “things started to get tense between Michael and Debbie,” Taraborrelli says. “That was the first time that Debbie began to question her role in the relationship with Michael and her relationship with her children.”

Details of the split have not been revealed, but famed divorce attorney Raoul Felder says that based on similar contracts he has drawn up, Rowe “probably” received about $200,000 annually from Jackson. According to papers filed in L.A. Superior Court, financial, custody and visitation agreements have been stipulated and are likely to be approved within six months. “It wasn’t much of a marriage,” says Felder. “It was a chance for immortality being Jacko’s wife. He probably had a hard time finding someone. He was, no doubt, trying to repair his image.”

Steve Dougherty

Lyndon Stambler, Michelle Caruso and Edmund Newton in Los Angeles and Joseph V. Tirella in New York City

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