Inside electronically controlled iron gates that secure the 416-acre Maryland estate known as Peregrine Cliff stands the unlikeliest of lawn ornaments: a military tank. A gift to Tom Clancy, 51, from his wife, Wanda, 50, the tank long stood as a monument to derring-do and to Clancy's nine bestselling techno-thrillers. But it now seems a testament to something more prosaic: the asset battle surrounding the dissolution of the couple's 28-year marriage.

In a motion brought in a Maryland court on April 22 to speed the divorce (first filed last November), Clancy's attorneys claim that the writer "merely wishes to terminate the parties' moribund marriage as soon as possible and move on with his life." That's legalese for Clancy's intention, spelled out in court papers, to marry Alexandra Llewellyn, a 31-year-old former television reporter at WKBW, the ABC Buffalo affiliate once owned by her father, J. Bruce Llewellyn. "I've never seen Tom happier," says a Clancy friend. "Alex is full of life, worth millions and 20 years younger. Who wouldn't be happy?"

Wanda, for one. Last November she packed her belongings in a moving van and vacated the family's 8-bedroom, 15,000-sq.-ft. home for a 4,800-sq.-ft. 5-bedroom house nearby. "At first I was angry over this, but I'm past that now," she told PEOPLE. "I will always love him in a certain way as the father of my children [Michelle, 25, Christine, 23, Tom, 15, and Kathleen, 12], but I have no interest in reconciling. I want to settle this and move on."

If only it were that simple. At stake is Clancy's reported $190 million fortune, built on a vast empire of books, movies, videos and multimedia projects, as well as holdings that include an estimated 23 percent share of the Baltimore Orioles. According to Sanford Ain, a Clancy attorney, Clancy has been exceedingly generous: "It is astounding to me how straight up he has been with his family in terms of the financial arrangements. I've never seen anything like it." Counters Wanda, who is consulting with high-profile divorce lawyer Raoul Felder in her bid for a share in future profits from the Clancy factory: "I'm willing to compromise, but I want a fair settlement. Tom's idea of a fair settlement and mine might not be quite the same."

Probably not, though there was a time when the couple saw eye to eye on most matters. Four years after they wed in 1969, Clancy and Wanda moved to Maryland's Calvert County, where they spent the next nine years running an insurance company formerly owned by Wanda's grandparents. By 1982, Clancy had decided to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. While the chain-smoking former English major tapped away at his first novel, a worried Wanda, then pregnant with their third child, managed the company finances. "Tom would set up on the kitchen table in the dining room and write," she says. "We ate off TV trays for six or seven months until the book was done."

The Hunt for Red October rocketed onto the bestseller list in 1985 (then-President Ronald Reagan called it "the perfect yarn"), and the Clancys traded TV trays for White House china. "Tom was very concerned in helping Wanda find the right dress," recalls Susan Artigiani, a publicist for Clancy's first publisher. Soon, Clancy was hobnobbing with the likes of Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery and even toyed with running for the Senate. "Tom had always thought of himself as a nerd," says Deborah Grosvenor, the former acquisitions editor who bought his first book. "All of a sudden he was attractive to a lot of people. It was something he had not experienced before."

Wanda kept him grounded. "She didn't have people telling her she was brilliant every time she turned around," says writer Larry Bond, who collaborated with Clancy on his second book, Red Storm Rising, published in 1986. "She brought him back to earth: 'Yes, you're famous. Now go change a diaper.' "

In March 1995, Clancy moved out. The following month—less than two years after Clancy told the Washington Post Magazine that "I can't admire anyone who plays around on his wife"—Wanda filed for divorce, citing his affair with Katherine Huang, then 31 and a prosecutor in the Bronx district attorney's office whom he'd reportedly met on the Internet. (Clancy declined to comment.) "I tried to talk him into staying," says Wanda, "but he wouldn't."

The Clancys reconciled in October 1995, then legally separated in December 1996. Five months later, at a star-studded meeting of the philanthropic American Academy of Achievement in Baltimore, Clancy met the vivacious Llewellyn, a relative of retired Gen. Colin Powell.

Since then, Clancy, who returned to his half-empty estate in November, has been spotted dining with Llewellyn at local restaurants. On March 17 he and Llewellyn cohosted a charity event at Peregrine Cliff in honor of Prince Philip, attended by 30 business associates. Then, over Memorial Day weekend, in Jackson Hole, Wyo., the two rubbed elbows with other celebs at the American Academy of Achievement's symposium. "They seemed like a pretty happy couple," says one guest, who saw them nuzzling over margaritas. "They really liked the CIA guys [there for security]. Clancy kept asking to see their guns."

Still, the legal battle may not have left Clancy unscathed. On May 18, three months after announcing his intention to place a reported $60 million bid (as part of a roughly $200 million package) to purchase football's Minnesota Vikings, Clancy failed to show up for a key meeting with the National Football League finance committee. On May 20, Clancy officially withdrew his offer. "Mr. Clancy's ability to finance the transaction was an issue," says Greg Aiello, an NFL spokesman.

It's unclear how much the divorce will cost Clancy, whose next thriller, Rainbow Six, is due in August. He now pays $6,500 in monthly support for kids Tom and Kathleen (Clancy and Wanda have joint custody; older children Michelle and Christine no longer live at home). Meanwhile lawyers may well battle for months over the total value of Clancy's holdings. For now, says Wanda, Clancy "refuses to talk to me. We communicate through e-mail about the children's schedules."

Such reports sadden friends who remember the couple's 25th-anniversary celebration at a lavish candlelit party on the sloping lawns of Peregrine Cliff less than four years ago. "The suddenness of success put an unbearable strain on the marriage," says Grosvenor. "Fame and money are what destroyed it."

Susan Schindehette
Jane Sims Podesta in Calvert County, Margie Sellinger and Rose Ellen O'Connor in Washington, D.C., Jennifer Frey in New York City, Simon Perry in London, Julie Jordan in Wyoming and Margaret Nelson in Minneapolis

  • Contributors:
  • Jane Sims Podesta,
  • Margie Sellinger,
  • Rose Ellen O'Connor,
  • Jennifer Frey,
  • Simon Perry,
  • Julie Jordan,
  • Margaret Nelson.