Voice From the Past

updated 11/13/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

For two hours there were yellow balloons and purple slides and silly games and giggling kids—and even Paul McCartney and his soon-to-be-ex, Heather, managed smiles. But if you knew what was going on—and who doesn't?—"you could see there was something wrong," says one onlooker at the Oct. 28 birthday party for the couple's daughter Beatrice, held at a children's play center two hours from London. "It was frosty. When Paul twirled Bea around, Heather scowled at him."

There is no escape from England's most toxic divorce, which now has even poisoned one of its favorite fairy tales: the memory of Paul's 29-year marriage to his first wife, Linda. On the very weekend Paul, 64, and Heather, 38, called a truce to throw Bea's 3rd birthday party—and just a week after a bombshell document leaked to the press alleged Paul physically abused Heather—came news of potentially explosive audiotapes made by Linda about a decade before she died of breast cancer in 1998. The tapes, recorded by Peter Cox, her coauthor on a vegetarian cookbook, allegedly feature Linda's complaints about her domineering husband. "There were moments when Linda would feel deeply unhappy and depressed about her marriage," Cox, 51, now a literary agent, told Britain's Mail on Sunday. Cox said Linda told him that Paul had "a darker side and could be very controlling ... he bossed her around. Occasionally I'd find Linda in tears ... [Paul kept her on a] tight leash, like a caged animal."

What's clear is that McCartney's first marriage, long thought to be idyllic, is now fair game in his sordid divorce. Just last week, after British tabloids reported that Heather tape-recorded Paul's rants at her during drunken rages, a source close to Heather told PEOPLE that during one argument Paul admitted, "Everyone knows I hit Linda." (Though McCartney's lawyers declined to respond to the allegations, his friends called them ludicrous.) The newly revealed tapes, which Cox has yet to make public, do not suggest Paul physically abused Linda, according to the Mail. McCartney declined to comment on the tapes or on reports that he is trying to buy them; Cox's legal adviser says he is in touch with McCartney's camp. "It's so easy to spot stories that are planted by [Heather's] friends," says a source close to McCartney. Yet Heather "had no idea" about the tapes, insists a source who knows her well. "But it kind of validated her position. The Linda stuff just [made] Heather feel like she wasn't alone out there."

The idea that Linda was unhappy enough to consider leaving Paul, as Cox claims, would certainly change the common perception of their marriage. Wed in 1969, they had an easygoing life in the rambling countryside of East Sussex, riding horses and raising their four children; Paul liked to say every love song he wrote was for her. "If she was unhappy she would have told me," says Linda's very close friend Carla Lane. "I spent hours with her and Paul and never saw anything but good."

For the beleaguered McCartneys, Bea's party provided a brief respite from all the turmoil. Wearing a pink dress, her hair scooped in a ponytail, little Bea enjoyed tea with about 15 friends. And her mom and dad, who arrived and left separately, were at least "civil to each other," says the source close to Heather. Too bad birthday parties, like some fairy tales, can't last forever.

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