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The Manhattan businessman sitting on the Concorde couldn't believe his eyes. He had just settled into his seat for a June 19 flight from New York to London when the man next to him gave him a nudge. "Hey, look who's sitting two rows up from us," he said. Indeed, the dark sunglasses were no disguise for the star beneath the famous mop of tousled blonde hair. Getting an up-close glimpse of Meg Ryan was a mild surprise; what happened next was startling. The man seated beside Ryan was not her husband, actor Dennis Quaid, but another of Hollywood's charming rogues: Gladiator star Russell Crowe. Earlier this year, Crowe and Ryan had spent more than a month in Ecuador filming the romantic drama Proof of Life. After a brief hiatus they were heading to London to shoot extra scenes. "He was leaning over her, kissing her on the neck and stroking her hair—and it went on that way the whole flight," says the businessman. "They were definitely very affectionate and flirtatious. It was certainly more than you'd want your wife or girlfriend doing with another man," he adds. "The guy next to me and I, we were just like, 'I guess that's what goes on in Hollywood.'"

Maybe. But until last week—when publicists for Ryan, 38, and Quaid, 46, announced that the couple were separating after nine years of marriage—fans, friends and even close family members had no clue that anything was wrong. "They always seemed so happy to me," says Tracy Parsons, a friend of Ryan's since their high school days in Bethel, Conn. "I'm flabbergasted." From the time the couple fell in love while filming 1988's D.O.A., they had a romance, Ryan's pal, director Nora Ephron, once said, that "[makes] you feel completely humiliated about your own life because theirs is so fabulously great." Time seemed only to deepen their bond. She stood by him during his battle against alcohol and cocaine addictions (he has been sober since 1990), and he backed his wife during her now famous standoff with her mother, Susan Jordan (the two have not spoken in a decade). At their homes in Manhattan, Santa Monica and Paradise Valley, Mont., they created a low-key, loving life that did not include drivers, cooks or full-time nannies, just two parents devoted to their 8-year-old son Jack—and to each other. When they were apart on location, Quaid's close friend and personal assistant Beau Holden said last year, "they're like two high school sweethearts, constantly faxing each other little notes, and God, I'd hate to see their cell-phone bills."

Nor did their recent career successes—at $20 million for Proof, Ryan is now one of the top-paid actresses in Hollywood, and the popularity of Frequency has enhanced Quaid's profile—seem to diminish their ardor. "I loved him [when I married him], and I love him now," Ryan told Britain's Sunday Mirror on March 26. "He is an amazing actor and father. We are a great team." A month later Quaid told reporters he yearned for nothing more than to spend summer vacation in Montana with his wife and son. "For me," he said, "family is most important."

Thus the June 28 announcement came, says Quaid's half brother Buddy, 25, "as a shocker." Though the official statement (released while Ryan was in London with Jack and Quaid was alone in Santa Monica) said the two had been separated for six weeks and called the decision "mutual and amicable," those close to the couple tell a different story. According to an industry insider, the split was accelerated by Ryan's deepening relationship with New Zealand native Crowe, 36. Though one close business associate of Quaid's was aware that the Ryan-Crowe friendship was growing—by early June their displays of affection in Ecuador and later in London were barely masked—he said nothing until learning in late June that the British tabloids were set to break the story. At that point he alerted another colleague of Quaid's, who then called the actor to give him the heads-up. "He was devastated," says the source. "He almost started crying."

Publicists from both camps deny the friendship between Ryan and Crowe is a romance. Says Quaid's publicist Lisa Kasteler: "There is no third party involved." On the other hand, Ryan clearly seems to have become close to Crowe. A high school dropout who has hit big-time fame with Gladiator, the motorcycle-loving Crowe is known alternately as a demanding actor with attitude to spare, a ladies' man and a first-rate bar brawler. During a recent fight at a pub near his 560-acre farm about 340 miles north of Sydney, he was "biting like a wild man," says a bartender. But on the Proof set, says one source, Crowe—who plays a hostage negotiator who falls in love with Ryan while trying to free her husband—was "cordial and courteous. He couldn't have been nicer." Certainly not to Ryan. When the two were shooting in early June in Quito, Ecuador, employees at the J.W. Marriott Hotel noticed her and Crowe getting cozy over vodka tonics at the hotel bar. "He would touch her hair and stroke her face," says waiter Julio Zuniga, 32. Later, between shots on location at the Swissotel, says employee Alexis Torres, 28, the pair were in a public room adjacent to the lobby "cuddling, hugging, kissing. Everybody was surprised."

The surprises continued after they arrived in London on June 19 to finish shooting. On June 23 Crowe and Ryan took a 1 a.m. stroll from his apartment in the exclusive Athenaeum hotel to the Dorchester, where she was staying. A few days later they enjoyed a late-night dinner—along with Jack—at the Mirabelle restaurant. The day before announcing her split from Quaid, she sat on the stairs at an intimate David Bowie concert at BBC studios, leaning back into Crowe's lap. A few days earlier he was equally carefree when he showed up after hours at the Walkabout Inn in London's Covent Garden. A well-liked regular at the Australian-themed tavern, Crowe was welcomed in—with Ryan following behind. Though she "kind of hung back and didn't say much," says one bartender, Crowe bought drinks for the staff, posed with Ryan for a bar snapshot, then led her to the empty dance floor for an impromptu waltz. "They were dancing close, holding tight," says the bartender. "They weren't all over each other, but personally, I thought there was something there."

Whatever the cause of the split, there is no denying the damage done. "Dennis is very, very sad," says Quaid's ex-wife, actress RJ. Soles, 49, who has remained good friends with Quaid since their five-year marriage ended in 1983. She spoke with him the day after his breakup with Ryan was announced. "I've never heard him sound so sad. I got the feeling he hasn't slept recently. He's devastated just by the thought of any separation—mostly because they have a son," she adds. "He's very concerned about the effects on his son."

As, no doubt, is Ryan. Like the Texas-born Quaid, whose parents split up when he was 12, she is a child of divorce—one that rocked her world forever. Though her parents, Harry and Susan Hyra, split amicably in 1976, Ryan never forgot the sight of her mother driving away in her old Ford Pinto, a housewife leaving suburbia in search of a career 50 miles away in Manhattan. "Susan never left the family, just the house," Hyra, now 62, a high school math teacher in Cape Cod, told PEOPLE in 1993. "Still, Meg got the idea that her mother abandoned her." Though Ryan's three siblings stayed close to their mother, she grew more distant—especially in the mid-'80s, after Susan married journalist Pat Jordan and Ryan began seeing Quaid. Susan Jordan, now 60, a retired schoolteacher living in Fort Lauderdale, has said the final falling out with her daughter was sparked by a 1990 confrontation over Quaid's drug use. Ryan has said the rift is more complex—"32 years of stuff with this woman," as she told Vanity Fair.

Her own family strife made Ryan determined to give Jack a stability she had never known, and Quaid, for his part, also took to nesting. "We have no live-in help. I am the cook," he told Cosmopolitan in 1994. "I cook every night. Handling babies is routine now." Early on, Ryan seemed to understand s the challenge was not only to be good parents but also good partners. "The danger we get into is that we both go off and have these very adventurous, really incredible lives," she told Harper's Bazaar in 1998. "So we're figuring out ways to be adventurous together again." By all accounts they succeeded. With an agreement that only one could be on location at a time, they provided for Jack what Ryan has called a childhood marked by "normalcy": in L.A., carpools to school, piano lessons, karate classes and practical jokes (their favorite target: Buddy). On their 100-acre ranch in Montana they spent carefree days riding go-carts, dousing each other in Super Soaker games, fly-fishing and hooting and hollering at the annual Fourth of July parade in nearby Livingston. "Sometimes people come out and just stand around looking bored, but not them," says Larkin Vonalt, a longtime resident and journalist for the Park County Weekly, of the family's presence. "Jack was on his father's shoulders, and they were all waving at the floats and smiling."

Last weekend, though, there was no sign of the family at their two-story wood-frame house, where a flying flag is not just a holiday gesture but a full-time ornament that made the family feel, Ryan said a few months ago, "like the first settlers." Down a lane the skeleton of a 6,000-sq.-ft. mansion in mid-construction is a reminder of a dream home now sadly out of date. Though friends are unable to say just how or when things began to unwind, there were indications of trouble as early as last year. According to sources on the Dallas set of Any Given Sunday, something with Quaid (who played a veteran quarterback) seemed amiss during the shoot in February 1999. Known in the industry as a flirt—"He's kind of like the cute popular guy in high school, smiling and winking at you," says one Sunday crew member—some say he went too far. According to one set source, a former employee of the north Texas film commission, several women hired as extras complained that he was "pawing" them: "They said he was very aggressive, touching them and grabbing their butts." Cara Kinder, 21, a broadcast-journalism major at the University of Northern Texas in Denton who played a cheerleader, says the pawing went further still. Though flattered by his compliments, she says she rebuffed several invitations to his room at the Four Seasons resort. But about two weeks into filming, Kinder says, she accepted a ride across the set on his golf cart "because I was tired." At a secluded spot by a public rest room, she says, "he pulled me out of the cart and into the rest room and started kissing me. I was freaking out, thinking, 'I can't believe he's doing this and he's married.' I said, 'We better get back,' and he agreed." Later she told her mother, who said, "Cara Ann Kinder, you better stay away from that man." She did. "Afterwards, every time I'd see him and Meg in a magazine, I felt bad. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I kissed your husband.'" The woman's account, says Quaid, "is completely untrue. I categorically deny it."

Some who know Quaid find such stories hard to believe. Says his ex-wife, Soles: "Yes, Dennis flirts, but during the Meg years he never took it beyond that. His flirtation is part of his charm." Agrees Buddy: "Compared to Meg Ryan, why would you want anybody else? He adores her." Indeed, when Buddy visited with the family in L.A. in March, he did not notice anything unusual. "Every relationship has ups and downs," he says. "But as far as I could tell, everything was normal."

Friends and family are trying to make sense of it all. "In the past I thought it would be Meg who would be disgusted if Dennis ever did that to her," says Buddy. But given reports of her overseas actions, he's no longer sure. "She's a very complex, smart, strong-willed woman. If she wants something, she's going to get it." For the moment, though, what she and Quaid want most is to get their son through the split intact. When Quaid spoke to Soles last week, he asked advice about a child psychologist. Until he finds one, she says, he can share his own best therapy: a morning of fly-fishing in Montana—and hope. "There's no talk of divorce yet," she says. "I know Dennis would be extremely happy if they resolved it." Like others, Buddy can only anticipate the very best for them. "My brother and Meg are a real couple. They've been together a long time in a business where there's so much temptation," he says. "There's a possibility for everything to work itself out. If Dennis and Meg are willing, it's not too late yet."

Karen S. Schneider
Michelle Caruso, Tom Cunneff, Mark Dagostino, Michael Fleeman, Vicki Sheff-Cahan and Paula Yoo in Los Angeles, Sue Miller and KC Baker in New York City, Vickie Bane in Livingston, Chris Coats in Dallas, Eileen Finan and Liz Corcoran in London and Jeanne DeQuine in Quito

  • Contributors:
  • Michelle Caruso,
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Mark Dagostino,
  • Michael Fleeman,
  • Vicki Sheff-Cahan,
  • Paula Yoo,
  • Sue Miller,
  • KC Baker,
  • Vickie Bane,
  • Chris Coats,
  • Eileen Finan,
  • Liz Corcoran,
  • Jeanne DeQuine.