Good thing that Palmer now has a permanent parking space at Welch's six-bedroom Beverly Hills mansion. After going steady for almost two years, the ever-incendiary star married her Bronx-born beau July 17 in a relaxed ceremony on the back porch of her Mediterranean-style home before 140 guests seated on white folding chairs on the lawn. For Welch, whose three prior weddings—all of which ended in divorce—were bare-bones affairs, No. 4 was awash in tradition. "I'm kind of old-fashioned," she says. "And Richie's old-fashioned too."
With that in mind, the bride, who rose to fame wearing a fur bikini in 1966's One Million Years B.C., donned a demure tulle veil and a white Ristarose silk-crepe bridal gown that managed to reveal her iconic cleavage. The rites were performed by a Presbyterian minister, the groom resisted moving in until the wedding day, and when bandleader Don Vincent introduced the newlyweds at the reception as "Raquel and Richie," Welch discreetly corrected him: "We're Mr. and Mrs. Palmer now."
Welch had resolved to be Ms. Independent when she first met Palmer—the divorced father of 10-year-old Richie Jr.—at a party in August 1996. "Since the time I was 15, I'd had one relationship right after the other," says the Chicago-born Welch. "I thought maybe I was defining myself by the man in my life." Her first marriage, to La Jolla (Calif.) High School sweetheart James Welch in 1959, produced two children—actress Tahnee, 37 (Cocoon), and computer consultant-actor Damon, 39—but lasted just six years. A second, to Patrick Curtis in 1967, expired after four. Since her decade-long union with photographer Andre Weinfeld ended in 1990, she had had few prospects. "I was starting to think, 'Don't start looking for love. Better to live your life,' " she says.
Palmer, the son of a federal mediator and his homemaker wife, didn't recognize his future spouse at first but was indelibly impressed. "She just struck me," he recalls. Still, he waited six months to make his move, sending her an enormous bouquet of orchids on Valentine's Day 1997. "I was so floored," says Welch, who nevertheless responded with only a polite thank-you call before heading east to replace Julie Andrews in Broadway's Victor/Victoria. When she returned six months later, Palmer sent another bouquet—and a dinner invitation. This time she didn't even bother to respond.
Then, a few weeks later, Welch's manager happened to take her to lunch at the Mulberry Street Pizzeria in Beverly Hills, one of the three New York City-style pizza parlors Palmer owns with his former girlfriend, Raging Bull actress Cathy Moriarty, 38. When the cashier pointed out her boss, Welch was stunned. "I said, 'That's Richie?' " she recalls. " 'Holy s—t! This guy is cute. How did I miss this?' "
After their first date, at Robert De Niro's restaurant Ago, "I knew I was crazy about her," says Palmer. But Welch, who declined even a good-night kiss ("I have to be careful about guys wanting a trophy," she says), trod lightly until that night eight weeks later on Mulholland Drive. After dodging L.A.'s Finest, "Richie drove down to my house, and we-just sat in the driveway and looked at each other for, like, 20 minutes," she recalls. "I knew then that this was for real." A month later, the couple picked out a ring (four diamonds totaling seven carats on four separate bands) and in January 1998, Palmer got down on bended knee to formally pop the question in Welch's living room.
Despite the lead time, the bride-to-be still hadn't chosen a dress 12 days before the big day, having nixed fabric samples sent by a specially commissioned designer. Instead, she burned through the boutiques of Beverly Hills, thinking, "The jig's up, I'm going to look like dog meat," before buying off-the-rack at the bridal store Cupid's Garden.
Not that anyone would have ever guessed at her fluster. "I couldn't speak, she looked so beautiful," Palmer says of his bride's walk down the aisle on the arm of her son Damon, who read from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet during the 20-minute ceremony. After exchanging vows, the couple lit candles, and at 4:55 p.m. the Rev. Jim Morrison pronounced them man and wife.
Adjourning to the house, the guests savored champagne and margaritas, smoked salmon quesadillas, tuna tacos and a seemingly perfect union. "We were very suspicious," Welch's brother Castillo Tejada says of meeting Palmer at Thanksgiving dinner in 1997. "But this is the man Raquel was waiting for." At 6:30 p.m. the bride kicked off her shoes for a buffet dinner of southwestern cuisine on the lawn, followed by champagne toasts. The happy couple cut a four-tiered cake filled with raspberries and Bavarian cream. By 8:15, the crowd had thinned, and Welch was curled up, eyes closed, on her husband's lap.
Which was just as well: Filming commitments for an upcoming movie, Bats, will force Welch to postpone a honeymoon until early next year. But her happiness is well under way. "This is it for me," she says simply. "This is really it."
Meg Grant in Los Angeles