By Alex Tresniowski
April 16, 2001 12:00 PM

Ellen Fein always had a nifty trump card to play when people trashed The Rules, the best-selling guide to snaring Mr. Right, which she co-wrote with Sherrie Schneider in 1995. Attacked for setting feminism back with tips like “Be demure and ladylike,” she’d simply bring up her own long and happy marriage to pharmacist Paul Feingertz. During a 1996 appearance on Oprah, for instance, Fein squared off against Rules critic Regina Barreca and asked how many times Barreca had been married. “I said, ‘Well, twice,’ and she said, ‘[Sherrie and I] are on our first marriages,’ ” recalls Barreca, 44, a professor of feminist theory at the University of Connecticut. “So I said, ‘Yeah, honey, but I’m on my last marriage.’ ”

Catty, yes, but Barreca, it appears, had a point. After 16 years of marriage, Fein, now 43, filed for divorce in January 2000, leading to ongoing divorce proceedings that Fein managed to keep secret until now. News. of her split from Feingertz, 41, emerges only shortly before the May 9 publication of the latest installment in the hugely successful Rules series, subtitled, with unintended irony, Time-Tested Secrets for Making Your Marriage Work. “It is a little bit depressing,” admits Jennifer Sergi, 24, an ardent Rules enthusiast who had four private phone consultations with Fein (at $150 a pop) and started her own Rules support group in her hometown of Levittown, N.Y. “You ask yourself what does happen when you get the ring and go to the altar and get married? Is your marriage going to fall apart?”

Not necessarily, suggest the Rules authors, in a brief reference to Fein’s divorce that was hastily added to some copies of the new volume. “Lessons learned in working on this book have taught her the true value of a rules marriage,” reads the book’s introduction, “and she is more committed to the rules than ever.” The failure of Fein’s marriage to Feingertz, with whom she has a son, 13, and daughter, 10, should not lessen her influence as an advice giver, insists Caryn Karmatz Rudy, the Warner Books senior editor who worked on the last two Rules books. “Ellen still believes in a rules marriage,” says Rudy. “It’s just not where she is right now.”

A native of Long Island, Fein worked as an accountant before teaming with her friend Schneider, a magazine writer, to pool their retro courting tips. (Schneider, 41, married Roger, a hardware store owner, in 1994, and they have a daughter, 4.) The Rules was a runaway smash, selling more than 2 million copies and spawning seminars, support groups and even a lipstick line. (A second volume came out in 1997, with 350,000 copies printed.) “The ” book is not only stupid, it’s evil,” says Barreca, who feels it encourages women to be subservient. “It should be called How to Start Your First Bad Marriage.”

Still, it made stars of Fein and Schneider, which may have been a factor in Fein’s divorce. “When Ellen got married she was not known,” says Rudy. “Maintaining a successful marriage is difficult if you’re in the public eye. Celebrity can take its toll.” But New York City attorney Louis Reich, until recently Feingertz’s lawyer, says it was Fein’s temper, not her fame, that led to the split. “She is loony and out of control,” says Reich. “At meetings she is just irrational about everything. Paul said to me, ‘This is why I got out.’ ” (Both Fein and Schneider, as well as Fein’s lawyers, declined to comment.) One of Fein’s friends, however, says it was Feingertz who changed and became increasingly critical of his wife. “She didn’t think the marriage was rocky,” says the friend. “She thought everything was fine.”

The couple have agreed to share custody of their children, who will live with Fein but will visit frequently with Feingertz. Beyond their kids, however, “they haven’t agreed on anything,” says Reich. “This is going to get messy.” How a contentious divorce will affect sales of the new book—which includes a chapter on divorcing with dignity—is anyone’s guess, but Jennifer Sergi, for one, remains a true believer. “The rules can be successful in getting the proposal and making it to the altar, and for some people that’s good enough,” says Sergi, who is still single. “From that point on, it’s in the hands of God.” Or the lawyers, as the case may be.

Alex Tresniowski

Rebecca Paley in New York City