August 11, 2003 12:00 PM

They said it wouldn’t last: the cynics who mocked their celebrity circus of a wedding, the humbugs who pointed to her mercurial matrimonial history and sneered at his seeming fondness for waxing his eyebrows and wearing bronzer. In fact, they said it so often that when Liza Minnelli and hubby No. 4, event producer David Gest, planned a first anniversary gala for 1,200 last March, the couple had invitations engraved with those very words. And then the party was abruptly canceled. About four months later, on July 25, the marriage was too. Even friends aren’t all that surprised. “They were never going to celebrate a gold wedding anniversary,” says Minnelli’s pal, New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams. “This was not what you call [a match] made in heaven. This was showbiz glitz.”

That it was. Minnelli, 57, and Gest, 50, met in June 2001, when she agreed to perform on a television special he produced to honor his friend Michael Jackson. Overweight and reeling from two hip replacement surgeries and a bout of encephalitis, she had hit one of several life and career bottoms. He, it appears, was looking for a project. “David had not been in a permanent relationship ever, I think,” says his friend Petula Clark. “Liza was going through a hard time. It seemed they found each other.” Gest helped Minnelli slim down (see box) and kept her from overeating and abusing alcohol. In March 2002 he orchestrated a seven-figure wedding ceremony that included Liz Taylor as matron of honor, Adams, Janet Leigh and Mia Farrow among 14 bridesmaids and Michael Jackson as best man. The groom moved into Minnelli’s sumptuous Upper East Side apartment, promptly redecorated and, say Liza’s friends, changed her phone numbers so they couldn’t reach her. “He is a control freak,” says Adams. “He got rid of a lot of people she relied on.” While Minnelli’s half sister Lorna Luft says Gest turned his wife into a “freak show,” Liza’s stepmother, Lee Minnelli, saw Gest as a positive influence. “He would send her flowers,” she says. “He went out of his way to be nice to her.”

Their 16 months together were nothing if not eventful. With Gest driving her, Minnelli released a CD and went on a concert tour. They talked of adopting a child, signed up to star in a VH1 reality show that ended in litigation and used every opportunity to display their affection. (“Every night I go home and I fill my baby with love,” Gest told British TV host Ruby Wax on May 9.) But this spring Minnelli, drinking again, checked in and out of rehab. “There were several drinking binges,” says Gest’s friend Larry Moss. Gest, who is lying low in Hawaii, told Adams the impending divorce is “going to get ugly.” Says his attorney Raoul Felder: “He rejuvenated her career. She owes him a lot.” For her part, Minnelli seems to be keeping her chin up. “She’s sober, strong and just ready to move forward,” says her friend, publicist Liz Rosenberg. “There is something about her that makes you root for her.”

J.D. Heyman

Rebecca Paley in New York City, Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles and Courtney Rubin in London

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