Tying the Not

updated 02/10/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/10/1997 01:00AM

"It's bloody impractical to love, honor and obey. If it weren't, you wouldn't have to sign a contract." —Katharine Hepburn

Hepburn, who kept company with married costar Spencer Tracy for 27 years, was decades ahead of her time. In old Hollywood—where Elizabeth Taylor began racking up seven husbands, Mickey Rooney pledged his troth to eight wives, and Lana Turner made seven trips to the altar—stars not only embraced marriage but changed spouses before the ink on their divorce papers had dried. The few who flouted tradition were mired in scandal: When Ingrid Bergman had a baby out of wedlock with Roberto Rossellini in 1950, she was denounced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Edward Johnson as "a powerful influence for evil."

Today, though, there's no universal moral standard to coerce celebs to the altar—and plenty of reasons to keep them away. "The social prerequisite has had no value to me," Kurt Russell, 45, told London's Times last September of his decision to stay unmarried to Goldie Hawn, 51, his mate of 14 years. "I don't believe we own anybody," agreed Hawn in January's Vanity Fair. Woody Harrelson, 35, in December's W, sang the praises of his six-year "free union" with companion Laura Louie, 32, which has produced two daughters. And Madonna, 39, does not "see marriage as a religious matter," she told Paris Match last year. "It's just an economic contract these days—more a question of money than anything else. I don't need a piece of paper and a church service to live with a man."

Neither, apparently, does Oprah Winfrey, 43, now in her fourth year of betrothal to Stedman Graham, 45. "I have the right to not get married," she told Redbook last year. "I'm sorry I ever was such a big-mouth frog about the engagement." Magician David Copperfield, 40, has apparently adopted the Oprah plan. He made a 5-carat ring appear on the finger of übermodel Claudia Schiffer, 26, back in 1993 but, according to reports, can't find time to plan the ceremony. Shoshanna Lonstein, 21, transferred in 1994 from George Washington University to UCLA to be nearer beau Jerry Seinfeld, 42, but wedding bells aren't yet ringing. And Brooke Shields, 31, says of her yearlong engagement to Andre Agassi, 26, "We're committed to the idea of planning."

Remaining single has its benefits. "Stars think it is sexier not to be married," Palo Alto, Calif., social psychologist Debbie Then believes. "You look at characters on the soap operas. As soon as they marry, forget it. It's ho-humville." Johnny Depp, 33, and Kate Moss, 23, significant others since 1994, keep the mystery alive by maintaining different homes and different calendars. "When their schedules coincide, they are together," says John Gnerre, Moss's agent, "but work takes them in different directions most of the time. When Kate's free, she's with him." Susan Sarandon, 50, who has lived for nine years and has two children with Tim Robbins, 38, doesn't want her relationship to lose its spark. "When you aren't married, I think it is not as easy to take each other for granted," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. "Because when you say 'till death do us part,' you don't have to reaffirm your love for each other as often."

Or to pay dearly should the union end. "A lot of couples don't want to spoil the romantic spell by asking their partner to sign a prenuptial agreement," says Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist. Prenup problems have been the rumored reason that a number of celebrity weddings have not taken place. "Did you have to sign a prenup?" unwed Madonna asked just-wed Lauren Holly on a recent Rosie O'Donnell show. A question that, for Holly, cuts two ways: After the breakup of her 2½-year first marriage, she ended up paying alimony to ex-husband Danny Quinn.

To avoid prenup pitfalls and seven-year itches, many couples prefer to have all the trappings of marriage without being trapped. Star watchers trace this trend back to Farrah Fawcett, 50, and Ryan O'Neal, 55, who share a Malibu beach house and a 12-year-old son, Redmond. "In the mid-'80s, when she had Redmond, most women wouldn't have children out of wedlock," says Jay Bernstein, Fawcett's former manager. "Once Farrah did it, it became all right." The latest unwed couple with a baby onboard are Pierce Brosnan, 44, and Keely Shaye-Smith, 33, who welcomed son Dylan Thomas last month but made it clear no wedding will follow. "Keely has her own independent life," Brosnan told Cosmopolitan in September. "She doesn't believe in marriage. But we love each other."

These days, though, a pregnancy is tantamount to a diamond. "When couples have children, the child is a sign of commitment," says L.A. psychologist Robert Butterworth. "When a couple share a child, they act as if they are married whether they are or not."

Hawn and Russell met in 1983 while filming Swing Shift and nested with Hawn's children by singer Bill Hudson, Kate, now 17, and Oliver, now 20; Russell's son by actress Season Hubley, Boston, now 16; and their own son, Wyatt, now 10. Both parents were left altar-shy by previous unions. "Goldie had a hard marriage and she's found something that's very special," says her friend, actress Lee Grant. "They certainly have a marriage in the best sense of the word." Still, it's difficult to forget the awkward Oscar moment in 1989 when Russell said to his copresenter for the Best Director Award, "There's only one thing we're not... married," and Hawn put him on the spot, asking, "Is that a proposal?" It wasn't.

Some relationships survive on hope. Jennifer Flavin, who gave birth to Sylvester Stallone's daughter Sophia last August and with him saw the infant through open-heart surgery three months later, admits that her twice-divorced beau "is quite burned by the subject of marriage," as she told Britain's Hello magazine. "It is up to him to ask me, when he wants to, to be his wife. For the time being, all I can do is wait." But she rather poignantly added that "out of respect for my daughter, I would like it for Sly and me to officially seal our relationship with either a religious or civil ceremony." Sarah Jessica Parker, who has shared a Greenwich Village apartment with Matthew Broderick for 1.5 years, also wouldn't mind a ring on her finger. "Marriage is a priority, period," she told Redbook last July. "And I hope it's Matthew; I hope it is."

Even in a stalled relationship, an attachment with another famous person has its appeal. Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley have certainly had their low points since they began dating in 1988, but, suggests Grant's unauthorized biographer Jody Tresidder, "Hugh and Elizabeth, for their own careers, have to keep being the public couple." Which, of course, doesn't mean that they aren't also a private couple. "I'm told we only sleep together because it's good for business," Grant said in the February U.K. edition of Premiere. "But what I always want to ask journalists who write that is why we were together for six years before either of us got famous?"

The answer may be that shocking four-letter word love. And so, as another year of not calling caterers, not shopping for wedding gowns, not fitting that tux passes, these couples seem to need a leap of faith to make the leap to the altar. They can find encouragement from other famous finally-marrieds who so far report no divorces and no regrets. "Having a family and being married and all that stuff grounds you," Eddie Murphy, 35, told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer of his marriage to former model Nicole Mitchell, 29, after five years and three children. Father of the Bride producers Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers saw fit to marry in 1995 after living together for 19 years and having two kids. Even Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, 70, and his great friend of 12 years, NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell, 50, have decided to marry in April. "It was rational exuberance," Mitchell said in The New York Times of her reaction to Greenspan's Christmas proposal. "I was completely surprised because we'd never really talked about it." And now? "We're very comfortable and very happy."

Sophfronia Scott Gregory, from bureau reports

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