From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Backstage at The View, it didn't take long to tell May 23 was definitely not another day at the office—or even an ordinary skirmish in Rosie O'Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck's ongoing war of words. As the two tore into each other onstage, staffers in the greenroom "went from laughter to giggles to silence to 'what the hell is going on?'" says Dancing with the Stars' Maksim Chmerkovskiy, who was waiting to appear with other Dancing stars and actress Alicia Silverstone. "It was like watching a domestic dispute unfolding. It was really uncomfortable. Alicia's segment was on [first], and she was like, 'I don't want to go on now.'" When The View finally cut to commercial, another source says, Joy Behar came backstage to find a producer, "saying 'How could you let this happen? This is embarrassing.' Then they went right back to work like nothing ever happened."

But something did happen. On the air, O'Donnell, 45, accused her conservative cohost Hasselbeck, 30, of not defending her against media criticism (O'Donnell's anti-war sentiments have drawn the ire of right-wing pundits). The 10-minute fight ended in a split-screen shoutfest—and marked the final straw in O'Donnell's tumultuous eight-month stint on The View. O'Donnell took the next day off to celebrate her wife Kelli's 40th birthday. (Meanwhile one of her staffers was caught drawing a mustache on a picture of Hasselbeck at The View studio.) And then on May 25, while Rosie prepared to take pals Cyndi Lauper and Kathy Griffin out for a celebratory dinner, ABC announced that O'Donnell had asked to be released from her contract; the network agreed to let her leave the show three weeks before her planned June 21 exit. "She was tired of the day-to-day fighting," says Rosie's lifelong friend Jackie Ellard. "She doesn't second-guess her decision at all. In fact, I'm sure she's sleeping better than she has in a long time."

What made O'Donnell toss in the towel? Sources say for all her bluster, she was genuinely upset by the bickering on the day she now refers to as "nuclear Wednesday." O'Donnell "is definitely hurt by Elisabeth," says a source close to Rosie. But she was most angry about the producers' decision to show the drama in a split screen. As she put it to pal Griffin, "I didn't want to do Hannity and Colmes."

Hasselbeck tried to smooth over the situation. "We're friends, and when friends differ so strongly in their opinions things are bound to get heated," she told a reporter after their blowup. But to O'Donnell, it appears there's no friendship to salvage. On May 29, the first time The View was back on air without Rosie, Hasselbeck said she and O'Donnell were "in communication a lot." But O'Donnell herself said on her Rosie.com Web site that the two had only exchanged one brief e-mail, though Hasselbeck had spoken to Kelli. "I haven't spoken to her," O'Donnell said, "and I probably won't.... I never tried harder to be friends with someone than I did with her. But I don't think we ever got there, or anywhere close."

So what's next for Rosie, who was credited for significantly pumping up The View's ratings? Sources say she has been approached by CBS, NBC and even Telepictures—the producer of the original Rosie O'Donnell Show—about getting her own talk show again. For now, she'll go on the road in June with Lauper's True Colors Tour, aimed at raising awareness for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights. And this fall she'll release a book titled Celebrity Detox about her struggles with fame. Besides that, O'Donnell plans to spend a lot of time hanging out with Kelli and their four kids. "She's incredibly happy," says her pal Jackie Ellard. "She's in a great place." As O'Donnell wrote in her trademark haiku style on her blog: "its nice 2 b home."

  • Contributors:
  • With Bryan Alexander,
  • Diane Clehane,
  • Michelle Tan.