June 07, 1999 12:00 PM

On April 28, with her two young sons in tow, Diana Ross spent her afternoon the same way many of her neighbors in affluent Greenwich, Conn., do—browsing in the pricey shops along the town’s quaint main street. She rented a movie at the local video store and dallied in Walden-books before buying a vegetarian cookbook and one on New England cuisine. “She was singing,” recalls store manager Dina Bicakcioglu. “No makeup. No sunglasses. She was just out for a beautiful day.”

And looking not one whit like a woman whose peripatetic husband had just announced to the world that their intercontinental commuter marriage of the past 13 years was kaput. Yet on April 24, Norwegian shipping magnate Arne Naess, 61, the father of the singer’s two sons—Ross, 11, and Evan, 10—responded to a question on an Oslo talk show with a gruff confirmation. “Yes, we have separated,” said Naess.

And now, just four days later, an upbeat Ross, 55, was seen heading for an alfresco lunch at the Organic Planet restaurant in Greenwich, “smiling and looking beautiful,” according to a neighbor. “She appeared fabulous…happy.” Perhaps Ross was buoyed by the release of her first new album in four years, fittingly titled Every Day is a New Day. Or maybe she was anticipating the May 16 telecast of her ABC movie Double Platinum, in which she starred opposite Brandy as an international singing star who ditches her infant daughter to pursue her career.

As anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Ross knows, she couldn’t have played further against type. Over the past decade, the former Supreme has traded her stage sequins for a low-profile life as a suburban mother—ordering pizza from the Greenwich Domino’s, chatting with shoppers at the local Fresh Fields market and devoting herself to the day-to-day raising of her boys. “She’s so attentive to the kids, it’s unbelievable,” says a close friend. “If she was on a business trip and the kids got sick, she would jump on the next plane and go home. Being a good mom is her No. 1 obsession.”

Which isn’t to say that the notoriously temperamental diva (she often insists that subordinates address her as Miss Ross) isn’t still a consummate performer. “Diana and Arne could have made the divorce announcement anytime,” says former Soul magazine editor J. Randy Taraborrelli, founder of the international Diana Ross fan club and author of the unauthorized 1989 bio Call Her Miss Ross. “But it breaks the same time her album comes out. If you think that’s an accident, then you don’t know Diana Ross.”

Two weeks after her husband’s announcement, the singer finally weighed in on the subject. “The first I knew [of it] was when my publicist in London called,” she told Britain’s Daily Express. “I was hurt and shocked. As far as I was concerned, we were still working on fixing things.” Then she seamlessly wove in a plug for her new, self-produced CD: “If you listen to the album, what I have been going through is all there. I’ve been in this struggle for a long time, trying to figure out how to make the marriage work: That’s why the last track is called ‘Carry On.’ ”

Few doubt that Diana Ross will do just that. From the first moment that Berry Gordy Jr. saw the skinny little girl from Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing projects back in 1961, he recognized “a deep personality and a very strong desire to get across. Diana was hungry for whatever she was after,” recalls the former Motown president, 69, whose love affair with Ross produced her oldest daughter, Rhonda Ross Kendrick, now 27 and a regular on the recently canceled NBC soap opera Another World. (The songstress has two other daughters—actress Tracee Ross, now 26, and Chudney Ross, 23, an elementary school teacher—from her five-year first marriage to publicist Robert Silberstein, which ended in divorce in 1976.)

Ross followed a stellar nine-year stint with the Supremes (14 No. 1 hits) with a dazzling dual career as a singer-actress. She won a Grammy in 1970 and an Oscar nomination for the 1972 Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues. But The Wiz, her disastrous 1978 musical costarring her protégé Michael Jackson, helped put her movie career on the skids. She also has not had a Top 10 hit since 1985’s “Missing You.” In the late ’70s, Ross turned down a chance to star in a project that became The Bodyguard, a role that eventually went to Whitney Houston along with the soundtrack recording, which sold 15 million copies. And in 1990 she saw a former pet project—the biography of performer Josephine Baker—go to actress Lynn Whitfield, who picked up an Emmy for the HBO role. “When Ross took over her career in the ’80s [after signing a $20 million recording contract with RCA], you see what happened,” says Taraborrelli. “She made a lot of bad decisions. Luckily she was able to afford them.”

If her career flagged, Ross’s ambitions apparently never did. She recently admitted being miffed not to have been approached about succeeding Berry Gordy Jr. at Motown, following his retirement in 1988. “I’m the rightful heir,” she told The Advocate magazine last month. “Really, when they were looking for someone…I was like, ‘Why didn’t anybody ask me?’ ”

Instead, Ross focused her energies on her marriage to Naess, whom she met in 1985 while on a vacation in the Bahamas. In the early years she seemed enthralled with the hard-nosed businessman, an avid mountain climber who scaled Everest just months before their lavish Swiss wedding in 1986. “I never thought this little Detroit girl would ever go to Nepal, climb the Himalayas or be in the bush country in Africa,” Ross told The Christian Science Monitor in 1989. “In show business, you can get all wrapped up in glitz and glamor. Arne balances my life.”

Yet even early on there were signs that Naess’s swashbuckling wasn’t necessarily Ross’s style. Following a trek to the base camp of Mount Everest, Ross told a Norwegian newspaper, “God, how cold it was. Luckily, Arne and I had a double sleeping bag.” On another occasion, after getting to know Ross on the couple’s trip to Africa, Naess’s uncle Arne, 87, learned that “rustic cabin life like Norwegians enjoy was not for Diana. She said she had had enough of simple living in Detroit when she was a child,” he recalls.

By the early ’90s, Naess, the father of three by his first wife, Swedish interior decorator Filippa Kumlin D’Orey, was spending an increasing amount of time at his home in London. Ross, meanwhile, could usually be found in the U.S. at her 10-acre estate in the posh Greenwich enclave of Belle Haven. “It would be great if [Naess] could retire and travel with me,” she once told London’s Daily Telegraph. “But he would never do that.” As recently as 1995, when asked by London’s Daily Mail how her transatlantic marriage survived, she replied, “Sex keeps it going. Naess and I have little dinners together, with candles and beautiful flowers. We touch and kiss a lot and work very hard at keeping it alive.”

Apparently they did not work hard enough. According to Fritz Selby, a close friend and fellow mountaineer, Naess “is a lusty guy, and it’s pretty tough for him not having Diana near him.” Others, however, maintain that separate geography was actually more help than hindrance. According to Mona Levin, author of a 1995 biography of Naess, “He said that if they had lived in the same country, they would have been divorced long ago.”

Whatever its cause, the couple’s friction had become increasingly obvious. “In the last year or two, she has become lonelier,” says a longtime friend of Ross’s. “He was unhappy and she was miserable. But she said, ‘I’m not giving up on this. I’m staying with this.’ ”

Perhaps Ross is beginning to let go. For now, attorneys are reportedly in the midst of divvying up the couple’s considerable holdings, which include the $10 million Greenwich spread and personal fortunes that could total as much as $300 million. Ross will no doubt take comfort in her children’s love, but it remains uncertain whether she’ll find romance again. “The challenge for her is to find a man who can live up to the glory of ‘Diana Ross,’ ” says Taraborrelli. “She’s an intimidating person by virtue of her image, persona and wealth. She and Cher have that in common. All the great divas have that in common.” And she knows better than any of them that you can’t hurry love.

Susan Schindehette

Eve Heyn in Greenwich, Ward Morehouse III in New York City, Kelly Carter and Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles, Nils Myklebost in Oslo and Ellen Tumposky in London

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