By Karen S. Schneider
Updated October 19, 1992 12:00 PM

SHE HAS PLAYED MERMAID, MURDER suspect and the secret love of a poetic fire chief. He has played soulful folk singer, rocking party boy, peaceful political activist. But never has the spotlight caught Daryl Hannah, 32, or her longtime boyfriend, Jackson Browne, 43, acting out the frightening roles that they reportedly assumed two weeks ago in their 5,000-square-foot Santa Monica home: he the angry lover, she a battered victim. As Hannah’s spokesman, Alan Nierob, told the press on the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 23: “She received serious injuries incurred during a domestic dispute with Browne for which she sought medical treatment.”

“It’s awful,” says a close friend, given permission to speak to PEOPLE by the normally press-shy Hannah. According to the friend, Hannah suffered a black eye, a broken finger, swollen lips and body bruises at the hands of an out-of-control Browne. Says the source: “She’s still in shock.”

So are many of Browne’s friends. And they paint a very different picture of what went on when Hannah, in the process of ending the relationship, left her New York City apartment and returned to the $2.5 million house in Santa Monica, which she co-owns with Browne, to collect some of her belongings. The singer’s manager, Donald Miller, insists the incident could never have occurred because he was with Browne at an L.A. recording studio at the time. Other Browne supporters say there was violence but claim that Jackson was simply defending himself against the 120-lb. Hannah. “I know Jackson like a brother,” says his longtime pal singer J.D. Souther. “He is just not a violent guy. As far as I can tell, he was just trying to protect himself. He was gelling chased around by her.”

Still others who know the couple say it’s hard to be certain of anything about them. Hannah and Browne met about 10 years ago at a conceit in Chicago. when the twice-married singer (whose first wife, Phyllis, committed suicide in 1976, and whose second marriage, to Lynne Sweeney, ended in divorce in 1983) pulled the young actress onstage. In the years that followed, their bicoastal relationship proved rocky, and friends say they have broken up dramatically and gotten back together several times. “This has happened before,” says one friend, of the blowup, “but never this bad.”

If the sad cycle is at last broken, one person to credit, it seems, is John F. Kennedy Jr., a friend and sometime flame of Hannah’s during her tumultuous romance with Browne. In the past few months, Hannah and the 31-year-old Manhattan assistant district attorney, who reportedly met Hannah at a wedding in 1988, have been seen together frequently in Manhattan. Shortly after hearing about Hannah’s reported beating, a devoted Kennedy hopped aboard an airliner and brought her back to New York City. Days later, sources say, her hand was still wrapped in a bandage. and dark sunglasses hid all but a glimpse of her blackened eye.

The ugly incident on Sept. 23 marked the end of what for Hannah had seemed a fruitful summer. The star of Splash and Roxanne had spent the last few months studying filmmaking at New York University—and rekindling her romance with JFK Jr. Last week, the tabloid TV show I Current Affair broadcast an amateur videotape that showed the couple nuzzling affectionately on the front steps of a New York City brownstone. According to pals, Hannah’s only motive for returning to Santa Monica was to pack a few last bags and, says one, “finalize the breakup” with Browne.

It was then, They say, that she and Browne began to argue. Browne’s manager’s claim that the singer was else where at the time is contradicted by the Santa Monica police. According to Sgt. Gary Gallinot, Browne was indeed at home and at 12:03 P.M. called the station complaining that “someone was ransacking his home.” That someone, her friends say, was Hannah—not ransacking, but hiding in the guest house in fear of Browne’s fury. “Who knows what caused it?” says one. “Not even Daryl knows. He goes into blind rages and doesn’t know what he does. He was trying to kick the door down.” If so, he had regained his calm by the time police arrived. According to Sergeant Gallinot, the singer told two officers, “Everything is fine.” Since there were no visible signs of distress—they never saw Hannah, says Gallinot—the men left and did not file a report.

After the police had departed, Hannah’s friends say, Daryl left the house and contacted her younger sister. Page, also an actress, who took Hannah to a local doctor to have her injuries treated. Two days later, Kennedy flew to L.A. and, after spending the weekend with Daryl visiting her ill stepfather, Jerry Wexler, in Palo Alto. Calif., he accompanied her back to New York City and the support of her friends. “Everyone who knows her has been encouraging her to leave [Browne],” says one longtime pal. “He has an explosive personality.”

Yet Browne’s friends, who know the singer as a gentle if sometimes temperamental artist, find this description of a violent blowup almost incredible. “He’s not the macho type. I’d be foolish to say he’s not capable of it,” says one associate. “Men are not always the same person with men that they are with women. But it sounds completely out of character.”

Since Hannah does not plan to press charges, there will be no legal winners or losers. Browne, friends say, has taken off to Northern California and is keeping a low profile, speaking even to his closest friends only by phone. Says Souther: “He is completely crazy about all this.” Nobody knows whether Hannah is likely to become involved in a serious relationship with JFK Jr. What is certain, says one friend, is that this time she won’t be going back to her home in Santa Monica—or to Jackson Browne: “We would never let her do that again.”