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Bob and Joan Parker Find That Good Walls Make a Good Marriage

updated 09/26/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1988 01:00AM

Just because she lives upstairs and he lives downstairs in the same house doesn't mean that Mr. and Mrs. Robert B. Parker aren't crazy about each other. Or does it? After 26 years of conventional marriage and a four-year separation, the celebrated detective writer (whose novels inspired the ABC series Spenser: for Hire) and his wife, Joan, found that they could neither live together nor apart. And it had nothing to do with Joan's fondness for eating lima beans or Jell-O in bed.

In 1986 the Parkers invested in a wobbly three-story Victorian wreck in Cambridge, Mass. The house offered just the architectural feature they needed: two entrances leading to different levels. They then gutted walls, rerouted plumbing, installed his and her kitchens and furnished the house like Noah's ark—everything in sets of two.

"It's not as neat a trick if you don't have a lot of money," says Parker, 56, whose 15th Spenser novel, Crimson Joy, was a national best-seller this summer. Nor is it as neat a trick if you are not two grown-ups equally committed to salvaging a relationship that is as deeply rooted as a spreading oak.

"Bob is my friend and my lover," says Joan, 55, a former administrator for the Massachusetts State Department of Education. "He is wise and constant. I always know he will be there responding to all the slings and arrows that life is going to throw at us." Bob is even more effusive. "I love Joan's indomitability and intelligence," he says. "She's very courageous. And she's a hell of a kisser."

The Parkers hardly sound like candidates for Divorce Court, but that was one option after Joan moved out in 1982. "It took a very long time for me to realize that I cannot live with anybody," she says. "One problem was that I could not assert myself. I had a need to accommodate to the point of sacrificing what I wanted for the wishes of others." (She asks her husband for a cup of hot water. "The word's out on you, Joan," says Bob. "You can't live with anyone, and you drink hot water.")

Joan pretends to ignore him and continues, "I was delightful to live with because I would say, 'Well, what would you like for dinner?' and then fix it. 'What would you like to do tonight? A movie? Great. Which movie would you like to see? Fine.' " And just as it's beginning to sound as though Bob had a pretty good deal, she adds, "Then, without warning, I would turn into this raging, angry woman, and no one would have a clue as to what brought it on." Bob's possessiveness was another problem. "Throughout our marriage," she says, "he very much wanted to hold and keep me." (Suddenly, he grabs her from behind in a python squeeze and growls, "We'll put a stop to that!")

These are the Parkers at home, or, more precisely, in his half of their house. She expresses herself in paragraphs, and he hides behind punch lines. She is comfortable with sharing her emotions; he is more tightly coiled. Their humor is sharp, self-deprecating and ever present.

"It's a game they play," says a longtime friend. "One will cleverly put the other down. The other will come back, and there will be a three-or four-line repartee, but they communicate very well. Of course, they have known each other forever."

Well, practically forever. The couple met as toddlers in 1935 at a birthday party when not-so-demure Joanie Hall flung a generous scoop of ice cream into her future husband's face, "sort of setting the tone of our relationship," she says. Though Hall and Parker were born in Massachusetts and both their fathers were executives with New England Tel and Tel, Joan did not encounter Bob again until her freshman year at Maine's Colby College in 1950.

Joan Hall was raised in an era when women admired Betty Crocker, not Betty Friedan. "When my mother sent me to college," says Joan, "it was clear that one of my major goals was to find a husband." What she did find at her first freshman dance was a gum-smacking wise guy with greased-back hair and a cigarette behind his ear. "He was so bad," she recalls, "that I looked at his name tag thinking I would never, never have anything to do with him." Joan discovered that her dance partner was little Bobby Parker, ice cream victim. Yet out of that unfortunate reintroduction, a friendship grew. Joan and "Ace" Parker, who remembers himself as a cross between "poet and thug," became inseparable. "I wanted to marry her and live with her for the rest of my life," he says. They were pinned in their senior year and engaged before graduation, at which point she went home and he went to Korea.

In August 1956, Joan found herself "walking down the aisle thinking, 'What am I doing? My God, I'm getting married! Something is wrong.' In the beginning I didn't think marriage would be so disastrous because I had the Dick-and-Jane perception of life. If I just did what I was supposed to do, things would be okay, but our early marriage was like a bad soap opera."

They settled in Lynnfield, Mass., where son David was born in 1959 and Daniel in 1963. "Our neighborhood was like a dorm," says Joan. "We were all young, with little tykes in various stages of the chicken pox. We were all poor, with husbands who didn't like their jobs, and we were all miserable." ("Freeze, dirt-bag!" shouts Bob, terminating a housefly with a blast of bug spray.) "Today," she continues, "you can choose to be a housewife. In those days you didn't choose it and you couldn't get out of it."

While Joan brooded about her incarceration, Bob pursued a series of jobs, none of them more stimulating than editing the Prudential Insurance Company of America house magazine. "He'd say, 'Some day I'm going to chuck all this and write the great American novel,' " Joan remembers, "and I'd say, 'Sure you are,' knowing it was a fairy tale." After earning a Ph.D. in English, Parker began teaching at Northeastern University. In 1972 he started tapping out his first Spenser caper on weekends. "I'd like to say that I was standing there saying, 'You can do it, honey,' " observes Joan, "but in truth I was saying, 'You disappear into the back room, and I'm out here mowing the goddam lawn. Enough already.' " Nine months later he showed her The Godwulf Manuscript, and Joan was "astonished." The novel was accepted three weeks after he submitted it to a publisher.

Eventually Parker was writing full-time and playing house husband, while Joan earned a master's degree in early childhood development and began teaching college freshmen. "Going to graduate school was a way of saving my sanity," she says. "Great guy that I was, I stayed home, took care of the boys and cooked the meals," says Bob. "I welcomed the role reversal."

Yet Joan was still troubled by feelings of inadequacy. "Bob was always so sure of the rightness of what he was doing, and meanwhile I was never sure that anything I was doing was right." At the same time, his need to control began to chafe at her blossoming need to be free.

In 1977 Joan discovered a lump in her left breast, and less than two weeks later, she underwent a mastectomy. The following year they published Three Weeks in Spring, an intimate co-authored account of the frightening ordeal, which they peddled on a multicity promotional tour. "In the beginning I was proud that I had recovered and integrated the experience," says Joan. "But I found I wasn't strong enough to hold that thought. All I lost was two, possibly three ounces of flesh, and again and again people would ask, 'How does it feel to be so disfigured?' The tone was always, 'What a great guy this big guy is. He stuck by you and now he's kinda stuck with you.' "

In the end Joan's fragile ego could not withstand the insecurities that had been simmering for years. In 1982 she announced that she was leaving. "I was 49 years old," she says, "and I had to figure out who the hell I was. The only way for me to rebuild was to get away."

Bob was stunned. "I thought I was splendid and doing an ideal job of being husband, father and provider," he says. "My love had been unconditional, and I expected everybody to be rather grateful." They sold their home and moved 10 miles apart but continued to see one another, as well as others. "It was terrible in the beginning," says Bob. "I missed her, but it was the first time I had ever lived alone. I had a chance to relive some of my adolescence."

Bob led the way into psychotherapy—"the best thing I've ever done," he says. "Over the years I had been too rigid. I needed too badly to be right." Joan followed, and after many months of mining their psyches, Bob says, "We each emerged from the process able to stand alone, which gave us the basis for standing together." Shortly before their divorce papers were drawn up, the Parkers resolved to remain together and monogamous. "The Bob that I married would never have been able to allow me my own autonomy," says Joan. "I didn't trust the situation until I saw how content Bob was and that he enjoyed the separateness as much as I." The Parkers lived in separate condos in Cambridge for a little more than a year before buying the home they now share.

At least once a week Bob and Joan go on a date. A quiet dinner in the usual booth at their favorite local restaurant is followed by ice cream cones and a stroll around Harvard Square. Back home they kiss goodnight and head for their separate quarters. They may not see one another again until the weekend—they might join friends for dinner on Saturday; Sunday brunch is at Joan's place. Sometimes they spend the night together. (Bob: "She's always trying to get me up there and take off my clothes.") They have also gone into business together, starting an independent film company called Pearl Productions, for which Parker has written two screenplays. Joan is looking for investors. When they travel, they book adjoining suites.

Back home, there are no rules. When he goes out, she does not ask where. When she is out, he does not wait up. If she wants to play country and western music at full volume, he no longer cringes; if he is glued to TV sports, she no longer nags. Bob cooks for himself; Joan prefers to order in. He insists on dining at a table; she likes to picnic in bed, although her former yen for lima beans and Jell-O has yielded to fish and greens. He is allowed upstairs anytime. Bob's dog, Pearl, is not. Do they ever argue? Bob: "No." Joan: "Yes, we do." Bob: "No, we DON'T!"

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