06/08/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
What becomes a 77-year-old Broadway legend the most? Certainly not telling the world you haven't had sex in 41 years. But that is what Carol Channing, the megawattage Kewpie doll world-famous for Hello, Dolly!, alleges in divorce papers filed in L.A. on May 19 against her manager and third husband, Charles Lowe, 86. Channing—who claims she and Lowe made love no more than twice in 1956, the first year of their marriage, and never since because of his impotence—also charges him with squandering her earnings (including a reported $5 million she made during a three-year farewell tour of Dolly!) and with emotional abuse. "I have never taken a strong stand in my life," says Channing of her late-in-life divorce. "But I'm taking it."
If she didn't realize in all those years how miserable she was, says the actress, it's because she was busy making audiences happy. "I haven't got time to notice anything other than focusing my thoughts on the next show," says the star, who has performed Dolly! almost 5,000 times since 1964 and is currently on a lecture tour. But when an accountant told her that Lowe, who managed Channing's career and money for the duration of their marriage, had spent $500,000 in 1997 alone, she felt shocked and used. Was their union "for love," asks Channing, who left Lowe in December and now wants their assets frozen, "or the salary check?"
Channing's only child, an editorial cartoonist for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, applauds her move. "She has made a decision to find meaning in her life," says Chan Lowe, 45. (The product of the actress's second marriage, he was adopted by Charles Lowe.)
Now recovering from a stroke he suffered shortly before Channing split, the elder Lowe has denied his wife's charges. "My God, in no way is any of it true," he told USA Today from Los Angeles. "I devoted myself to Carol." But the curtain appears to have come down for good. "There were no tears," said Channing's friend Maxine Mesinger, a columnist for the Houston Chronicle, after speaking with her last week. "And no regrets."