Peter Beard, whose death was confirmed on April 19, was married to Cheryl Tiegs in the early 1980s
Cheryl Tiegs and Peter Beard
Credit: PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty

Cheryl Tiegs’s marriage to the late photographer Peter Beard was filled with enough ups and downs to last a lifetime — but she’s nothing if not grateful.

“He was, I have to say, the most romantic love of my life. I fell deeply in love with him, and for that, I’m forever grateful,” the model, 72, tells PEOPLE of their romance, which culminated in their 1981 marriage but ended in divorce a few years later. “I had a love that most people don’t have. You can’t force it… I’ve always had a piece in my heart for Peter.”

It was on April 19 that Beard, 82 and struggling with dementia, was found dead three weeks after he was reported missing from his home in Montauk, New York, where he lived with wife Nejma.

The death of Beard — known as much for his stunning wildlife shots as his hard-partying ways — came nearly 40 years after he and Tiegs tied the knot, kicking off a roller coaster of a union that she says fluctuated between “sweet as can be” and “off the wall.”

Cheryl Tiegs and Peter Beard
Peter Beard and Cheryl Tiegs in 1982
| Credit: Robin Platzer/IMAGES/Getty

The marriage was the second for both, and though Tiegs says she considered him “the most handsome man on the planet,” it was fraught with tension as she struggled to balance her “Minnesota nice girl” persona with his frequent mood swings.

“He was not nice to me all the time, and I was not nice to him,” she says. “So it just became not a healthy relationship.”

The model recalls days and months when Beard would disappear, only to return without an apology or indication as to where he’d been: “That’s not really a marriage,” she says.

“It was the highs and the lows. The highs were just the most romantic I’ve ever [had],” she continues. “He changed my life in many ways, just by being Peter. But I couldn’t put up with the other side.”

Still, she adds, “I always loved him.”

Cheryl Tiegs and Peter Beard
Peter Beard and Cheryl Tiegs in 1981

Together, they’d dine with artist pals like Francis Bacon, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, and take trips to Africa — journeys that were entirely transformative for Tiegs.

“Being with Peter in Africa was so magical and it changed my life,” she says. “I really saw nature, and earth, and everything through his eyes… Those were by far the most magical days of my life.”

For Easter, he’d arrange a special treasure hunt throughout their two-room apartment, leaving antique Easter cards and personal postcards for her to find with lyrics or little drawings on the back.

Peter Beard
Peter Beard
| Credit: Rose Hartman/Getty Images

“He was very creative, in just the way he lived,” she says, “and I always appreciated that.”

After the couple called it quits, Tiegs says she did not stay in close touch. He went on to marry wife Nejma in 1986, and welcomed daughter Zara two years later.

Tiegs — who married again twice — says Beard wasn’t one to ruminate on death and fate, as he stayed focused on presenting himself as alive and free-spirited, even if that free spirit put him in peril.

Take, for example, the 1996 incident on the Kenyan-Tanzanian border in which he was charged by an elephant, speared in the leg and nearly died.

“He would always flirt with [death]. Going too close to the elephants, going too close to the rhino, driving a motorcycle too fast,” says Tiegs. “He would always be on the edge.”

Following the weeks of uncertainty after he was reported missing by his family, Tiegs says the official confirmation of his death brought back many memories of their time together.

“When I think about him now, I think of his smile and his laughter and the way he walked and the way he talked,” she says. “I think he deeply loved me too, in his own way… Even though we got divorced and even though it was unpleasant at times, I’m eternally grateful that Peter Beard held out his hand and lifted me to a higher level in life.”