ONCE THE MISTRESS OF A LAVISH, five-story New York City town house, Jocelyne Wildenstein—currently embroiled in a nasty divorce from her husband, Alec, scion of a billionaire—has been banned by her spouse from most of the mansion. Since September she has had access to only one servant (she used to have seven), a sitting room (decorated with 10 Pierre Bonnard paintings, valued at $100 million), a gourmet kitchen, a bedroom and an indoor pool. And while she has the company of her five Italian greyhounds, her capuchin monkey May Moon—which used to play in the floor-to-ceiling glass cage behind her tub ("He swings while I take a bath," she says)—is stranded in Paris. The little primate doesn't get around much anymore now that he, the dogs and Jocelyne herself have been denied access to the family jet. "[The pilot] said, 'I am not at your disposal; otherwise I get fired,' " says Jocelyne, 52, in a thick French accent. "Every day it is something."

That's the way it has seemed, anyway, much to the delight of the New York City press. The Wildensteins may not be household names, but the public breakup of their 19-year marriage has made them bizarrely riveting symbols of wretched excess. Jocelyne, who began life as the only child of a modest haberdasher in Lausanne, Switzerland, is asking Alec, 57, for $200,000 a month in temporary support, access to an array of family homes, and $50 million in escrow to ensure his compliance with whatever future settlement is reached. But what fascinates people is not those numbers; it's her face. The New York Post dubbed Jocelyne the Bride of Wildenstein, and New York magazine called her the Lion Queen, a reference to her dramatically jutting cheekbones, studiously almond-shaped eyes and tawny skin. Jocelyne, judging from old photos, was remarkably attractive before she began a lengthy campaign of plastic surgery that Alec claims, in New York, was engineered to make her look "like a cat." She won't say just how many times she has been under the knife ("Not more or less than a normal woman") but concedes, "I did one face-lift, and after that I did little things to not let the skin go, to keep it tight.... If one day I need something else, I will do it. And I will not stop."

For his part, Alec—a horse breeder, art dealer and an heir to a $5 billion fortune—may also be unwilling to stop certain behavior. Since last spring he has been involved with other women, including a 21-year-old Russian model named Yelena Jarikova. Still, Alec maintains that it's his wife's addiction to cosmetic work—performed by New York City plastic surgeon Richard Coburn, a longtime family friend—that was at least a partial cause for their breakup. "She has the impression that you fix a face the way you fix a house," he says. "I must say I have trouble recognizing her up close."

"[Alec] wants to destroy my spirit," says Jocelyne. "He thinks if he says, 'She's a piece of plastic,' everybody will hate me." In any case, Jocelyne notes, Alec is in no position to point a finger at anybody, having himself submitted to a face-lift, an eyebrow-lift and several liposuctions. And what does Alec say to that? Pure nonsense—he has had only one eyelid-lift. "She's the one who wanted me to," says Alec. "She thought my eyelids were not good."

Once, they only had eyelids for each other. Alec first noticed Jocelyne Perisset on his family's 66,000-acre Kenyan ranch, Ol Jogi, in 1977. Invited by a friend with business connections to the Wildensteins (Alec is the elder-son of family patriarch Daniel, 80, and his first wife, Martine Kapferrer, 77), Jocelyne, then 32, a licensed pilot and crack shot, spent her first day there hunting lions with the Marseilles-born, New York City-educated Alec. The next day he took her for a motorcycle ride. "On the motorcycle you have to hold on tight," she says. "When we stopped at the top of the hill, we had the first quick kiss."

After Jocelyne returned to Paris, where she lived with French filmmaker Sergio Gobbi, Alec sent her a roomful of white orchids. They soon reunited, and after their fourth date "he said, 'I know you will be my wife,' " she recalls. "He didn't really propose."

The next year they wed in Las Vegas and later moved into their Manhattan town house, where Jocelyne became accustomed to the ways of the notoriously secretive family. (Investigative reporters believe that Daniel Wildenstein's father, Georges, though Jewish, added Nazi-purloined works of art to his vast collection. Daniel refutes the charges.)

"They were a reclusive couple," says one longtime friend. "They had a tight group of friends and were very quiet people." Instead of hobnobbing with New York society, Jocelyne oversaw the sprawling Ol Jogi ranch, apartments in Paris and Lausanne, a French château and a Caribbean retreat. Alec supplied her with a Chanel wardrobe—including a one-of-a-kind $350,000 dress—a jewelry collection worth $10 million and, of course, the surgery.

After Jocelyne gave birth to Diane (now 18 and a student in Montreal) and to Alec Jr. (now 17 and living in Paris), she says that for a while she and Alec were "like a team, a happy family." But, she says, in the last few years he began to seem depressed. She blames his father's stringent control over the family businesses, especially the Allez France racing stables, which Alec has helped make one of the largest and most successful in Europe. "When you are 50, you want to put your imprint on the business," she says. "But he never had the power."

The marriage broke down completely, she says, when Alec told her he had decided to date other women. It was clear to her, however, that he was serious about model Jarikova, whom he met through a friend last March. "I don't think I was ever in love—until now," says Alec of the young woman whose modeling portfolio he proudly shows visitors. "She's a girl who is very impressive."

Last April, Alec moved out and filed for divorce a month later. But on Sept. 3, in an incident both claim the other set up, Jocelyne entered their town house and found Alec wrapped in a towel and pointing a gun at her as a naked young blonde, not girlfriend Jarikova, ran down the hall. (He was charged with menacing his wife and faces up to one year in prison.)

Since then, Jocelyne has brought on Ed Rollins, the high-powered Republican public-relations guru, and top divorce lawyer Bernard Clair. Alec, meanwhile, claims he makes only $100,000 a year and can't meet her demands. A settlement seems unlikely at present. "I don't give in," says Alec. "If her lawyers had been able to [arrange it], she would have had me shot." But Jocelyne says she's not hateful—just hurt. "I really think," she says, "I was living with somebody I didn't know."

PETER AMES CARLIN
ELIZABETH McNEIL in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Elizabeth McNeil.