'Cat Man' Peter Criss Ends Lydia's Marital Bliss with a Million-Dollar Kiss-Off

updated 10/01/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/01/1979 01:00AM

Sure, I was jealous of the groupies, but I put up with it. If someone digs my old man, well, it is sort of a compliment." So reasoned Lydia Criss, 31, during her marriage to Peter Criss, drummer for the prepubescent rock group Kiss. Her laissez-faire attitude worked for nine years. Then last October at a party thrown by Rod Stewart, Peter, 33, met 21-year-old Playboy centerfold and Coppertone model Debra Jensen. "He hasn't been the same since," says Lydia. "Communication between us just stopped. He denied her existence for four months, but deep down I knew it was another woman. Then someone close told me, 'It's too bad, you've worked all these years and she's going to step into your shoes.' "

Sure enough, Peter served Lydia with divorce papers last December and moved out of their Greenwich, Conn. mansion and into a Manhattan apartment with Debra. "I wouldn't face the fact," Lydia admits, but finally she sought the aid of ubiquitous Hollywood divorce lawyer Marvin Mitchelson. Last month, after much legal maneuvering, Lydia agreed to a $1 million-plus out-of-court settlement.

Lydia admittedly was not without her own extracurricular activity. "While Peter was deciding between her and me," she acknowledges, "he said to me, 'I want you to go out with other guys while you're young and still have your looks.' " Heeding his advice, she took up with a mutual friend. When she told Peter about it, he exploded with rage. "Peter talked me into it," she fumes, "and then ran to his lawyers after I did it!"

Unlike most rock couples, Peter Criscuola and Lydia Di Leonardo managed to stay together for 13 years. Both from large Italian families in Brooklyn (her dad is a mechanic, his works for the city parks department), they met at a local club where Peter was the $20-a-night drummer for a group called the Barracudas. After dating for three and a half years, they were married in 1970. "At first I totally supported him," says Lydia, who worked as an Avon lady, salesgirl, secretary and bookkeeper. "He hung out all night and slept all day. He always told me music came first—I came second."

When the Barracudas broke up, Peter put a "drummer-looking-for-work" ad in Rolling Stone. It led to a job with Chelsea, a band that later changed its name to Lips. (At the time, Lydia was laid off and they lived on her $65 weekly unemployment check.) Lips folded and in 1972 Peter placed another ad in Rolling Stone—"Drummer will do anything to make it—plays any type of music." This time it was answered by musicians Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, and soon Lydia and her seamstress mother were stitching together the first outrageous Kiss costumes. Once the group decided to wear makeup in performance, Criss chose to paint himself like a cat—inspired by Lydia's pet, Mateuse. "Peter thinks he has nine lives," says Lydia. "He pushes them—he's had two car accidents, one where he went through the windshield."

Kiss built slowly, and Lydia did not quit working until the group's fourth album went gold in 1975. By and large, she enjoyed the role of rock star's wife and claims to have kept her husband off drugs. "I was always the Number One Lady—always more respected than the roadies," she insists. But there were drawbacks: "Peter wasn't allowed to reveal he was married. They told me to say I was an employee of the management company. I hated it."

Today Lydia lives on the Connecticut estate—which she was awarded—and sleeps with a .38 next to her bed against intruders. She remains a rock insider and has begun photographing concerts with the intention of becoming a photo-journalist. Currently "tight" with Bobby Steffan, a guitarist in the L.A. based group Satyr, Lydia nonetheless doubts she will marry again. "I'm apprehensive. You give so much, and then suddenly it is over. Now with all the money, I'm worried men will take advantage of me." Yet, she concedes, "a year from now I might turn around and remarry Peter. He can still make me melt. I still love him."

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