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Well, you can't blame Judge John Merrick. It was Merrick, now a retired justice of the peace, who performed the August 1985 marriage of Madonna Louise Ciccione and Sean "KO" Penn. "I felt they were serious about their vows," says Merrick. "I remember a line from the ceremony: 'Although there will be times that your moods may falter, and you'll question each other's motives, the faith and love that you share will help to show that your inconsistency is only for the moment.' "

Trouble is, for Sean, 27, and Madonna, 29, that moment seemed to persist for a little over two years. Now, after 27 months of holy matrimony and unholy acrimony, the material girl and her rebel without a pause are positively, absolutely, this-time-they're-not-kidding headed for that crowded community called Splitsville. "The marriage is definitely over," says Madonna's spokesperson, Liz Rosenberg. Seconds Penn's publicist, Lois Smith, "The two of them have called off the marriage."

Surprise? No. The real question is, why? Or, maybe, what took so long? The Poison Penns—or S&M, as they are known to some—have never been an Astaire-Rogers sort of match. He's art; she's commerce. He hates publicity; she attracts it the way velvet draws lint. He frequently appears in public looking like an unmade bed; she usually greets her public looking like her makeup was done by Sherwin-Williams.

That incompatibility, of course, wasn't apparent to either enfant terrible in the beginning, both of them seeming the most volatilely successful adolescent iconoclasts of their generation. "We have so much in common that he's almost like my brother," Madonna said before the wedding. "His temperament is also similar to mine. That doesn't always make for ideal relationships, but I don't know what will happen." Prophecy, thy name is Virgin.

They met in February 1985 when Penn visited the set of her Material Girl video. He was one of America's hottest serious young actors. She was the rocker with the most famous black bra in the world. He had a reputation as a love 'em, propose to 'em, leave 'em kind of guy, having mentioned marriage to Elizabeth McGovern. She was just ending a relationship with record producer Jellybean Benitez. They started off as friends, dating non exclusively, but by the spring Penn had met her family in Detroit (while Madonna was there on tour) and had brought his parents to see her L.A. show.

The families met each other at the marriage that August in Malibu. Presiding over the nuptials, Judge Merrick was only disturbed by the paparazzi choppers flying overhead, not by the couple's prospects. "I felt they were as much in love as any couple I've married," he says, "and I've married hundreds of them."

You can't be right all the time. According to a close associate of Madonna's, the singer always had trouble with Sean's unpredictable outbursts and sought psychiatric help for herself soon after the wedding. Some of her friends urged her to persuade Penn to get professional help, but it's not known whether he did. Later he was forced into therapy by court order. Madonna's associate adds that many of the singer's closest friends disliked Sean. They saw him as spoiled and immature and were amazed by his drinking and temper tantrums.

The world soon shared their amazement. As the months went by, Penn seemed increasingly out of control. A chronology of early, early major bouts:

•June 1985: While in Nashville, he hurls a rock at a photographer, camera-whips him, then punches out a reporter.

•April 1986: In an L.A. nightclub, Penn sees songwriter David Wolinski bussing Madonna, an old acquaintance, and savagely attacks with fists, feet and a chair. He's fined $1,000 and gets a year's probation. "The marriage had been undergoing stress all the time," says a friend of Madonna's, "but this was the first major stress, the first really traumatic episode for her. Wolinski was someone she knew, and it really shook her up."

•August 1986: Sean and Madonna are accosted by paparazzi outside their Central Park West apartment. Penn baptizes one photog, Anthony Savignano, with saliva. Savignano shoves him. Penn socks him and a fellow photographer, Vinnie Zuffante.

By now, Madonna was spending less and less time with Sean at close range. "It didn't seem like they got along," says Madonna's great-aunt, Elsie For-tin, of Bay City, Mich., a matriarch of the Ciccione clan. "If you can't get along, why prolong the agony?" What was the couple's main problem? "I'd say Penn was insanely jealous of her." Penn had displayed a strong possessive streak even before Madonna. "I saw him on the set of Racing With the Moon," says one source, of the 1984 film Sean made with then-girlfriend Elizabeth McGovern. "A male reporter was sitting with McGovern in her trailer. When Penn found out about it, he threw a tantrum. He went over to the trailer and started rocking it. I don't think it was because he was afraid of McGovern saying anything about him. I think he was upset because there was a man in her trailer."

Marriage did nothing to change Penn. The David Wolinski incident bears this out. So does the Nick Ka-men episode. A singer-model, Kamen was recording "Each Time You Break My Heart" with Madonna, and the fact that they were working together, says one source, "made Sean wildly jealous." Despite some vigorous protests to the contrary from Madonna, Penn refused to believe that she and Kamen weren't having an affair. "Sean caused a lot of problems in the studio," says the source.

"Sean has a lot of insecurities," says another source. But he isn't alone in that respect. "I have my insecure moments," Madonna admitted at one point during the relationship, "and that puts a lot of strain on people. You take things out on the person you love, and that causes fights, alienation, grief, shrink sessions and a lot of ca-ca." Penn's camp agrees. "The divorce is not all his fault," says one of his associates. "If that's the story you're getting, you're getting it wrong."

Whoever was responsible, the marriage was coming apart bit by bit. A few more entries in the log:

•April 1987: While making Colors, a movie in which he plays a cop, Penn assaults Jeffrie Klein, an extra who is trying to snap some candids of the star. The attack is a violation of Penn's probation for the Wolinski incident.

•May 1987: The LAPD picks Penn up for speeding and running a red light. An alcohol content of .011, just above the legal limit, is found in his blood. The charge is reduced to reckless driving, but it's another probation violation.

•June 1987: Because of the twin offenses, Sean is sentenced to 60 days in the pen. In a move that raises questions about preferential treatment, he eventually serves five, leaves to make a movie in West Germany, returns to serve another 28 and gets the rest of the time off for good behavior.

Ironic, that, because more and more, Sean's well-deserved reputation for less-than-sterling behavior preceded him. "I understand what Sean has gone through," says his friend Judd (The Billionaire Boys Club) Nelson. "It's tough on him, and it's gotta be tough on his marriage. We've both had people follow us on the street and say, 'Hey, man, come on and hit me.' It's like this big snowballing effect."

While Sean was serving his time, Madonna was putting on a hopeful face. "I think Sean will emerge from jail as a better person," she said, "and as an even greater actor." A fitting remark from the woman who sang True Blue. Apparently a total of 33 days in jail didn't do much in the way of character rehabilitation. Après prison, while the couple were spending time together in L.A. after his mid-September release, a friend of Madonna's suggested a separation might be good for her. "We're separated all the time," replied Madonna, "and that doesn't make it any better."

Things came to a head Thanksgiving week. According to the first published report of the split, from gossip columnist Liz Smith, Madonna was steamed because Sean had gone four days without contacting her, then suddenly showed up in their New York apartment expecting Thanksgiving dinner. Instead of serving turkey, she served him divorce papers. But both Penn's and Madonna's publicists say that story isn't true. "The decision was mutual," says Penn's person, Lois Smith. "The thing about him disappearing for four days is nonsense."

"There was no one direct incident leading up to this," says Madonna's Liz Rosenberg. "It was a series of cumulative pressures. There were many moments in their marriage when it was shaky, and Madonna was finally forced to face the reality of the situation—that they weren't happy together." The papers, adds Rosenberg, weren't served on Thanksgiving: Madonna didn't start divorce discussions with her attorney until the following week.

There's been much speculation that the divorce is the best career move Madonna has made in two years. In this theory, Sean's personality problems—not to mention Shanghai Surprise, the disastrous 1986 movie the couple made—have hurt her movie bankability. Rosenberg doesn't think that was a factor. "She wanted the marriage to work. All the jokes about the marriage motivated her to work hard at making the marriage go. I don't think she considered him in terms of her career." Besides, with the acting talent Madonna displayed in Shanghaiand Who's That Girl?, Penn is the least of her career problems.

But enough about business. On Wednesday night Penn went to the Columbus café (a hangout he and Madonna often frequented), broke the news of the divorce to friends and left the Manhattan apartment the next day. Madonna spent Thanksgiving at her sister's home in Brooklyn. Over the next few days, rumors about her love life grew a bit rampant. When her brother, Christopher, stayed over at her apartment one night, paparazzi immediately assumed she'd found a new squeeze.

Meanwhile, Sean has moved back to L.A. and is scheduled to begin shooting another film soon. "He's not very happy," says Lois Smith. "It's not a very happy experience having your marriage break up, and it's very difficult when you have to do it in front of the world. He feels terrible."

So it seems. On the night after Thanksgiving, Penn showed up at Helena's, the exclusive late-night watering hole in L.A., where he proceeded to drown his sorrows. He also spotted photographer Vinnie Zuffante (whom Penn had slugged last year) having a drink at the bar with singer Billy Idol. Getting progressively pie-eyed, Penn insisted that Helena make the photographer do a quick dissolve. She complied, throwing out Zuffante even though the photographer was without camera. But Penn wasn't quite through making a splash. A short time later he got up to go to the bathroom, took a look at the long line and headed outside to relieve himself against the side of the building.

Sound familiar? When Penn was in jail, he talked with a visiting friend about all the trouble he'd been going through. "There's a fire storm out there," he said. "I'm just going to go about my business quietly and hope it all calms down." But the fire storm is still raging, and despite Penn's characteristic contribution to the exterior of Helena's, nothing has dampened it.

—Written by Joanne Kaufman, reported by Victoria Balfour and bureau correspondents

  • Contributors:
  • Victoria Balfour.