Meg On Her Own

06/29/2001 at 05:41 PM EDT

Talk about right time, right place: Bob Mitchell was in for one very happy surprise when he hobbled up to Onieal's bar and restaurant on April 19. A regular at the hip Manhattan hangout, the 41-year-old Off-Broadway producer -- on crutches because of a broken leg -- had just stepped inside when, from out of the din, a beautiful blonde in a skin-tight shirt ran up and wrapped him in a warm embrace. Seconds later, realizing that Mitchell was not, in fact, the old friend she'd mistaken him for, she apologized and quickly backed off. In a fit of giggles she returned to her gang of girlfriends (including singers Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang), her margaritas (poured straight up in a martini glass) and a night of dancing. Mitchell, meanwhile, made his way to the bar, sat down on a stool and coolly informed the bartender, "Meg Ryan just gave me a big kiss."

Mitchell may be telling that story for years. But for Ryan, 39, the kiss was likely less memorable -- unlike the ones she was doling out this time last year, when the British press reported that the girl-next-door star of When Harry Met Sally . . ., Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail was cheating on her husband of nine years, Dennis Quaid, 47, with her Proof of Life costar Russell Crowe, 37. Within weeks of announcing their separation on June 28, 2000, she and Quaid -- whom Ryan had helped see through cocaine and alcohol trouble -- filed for divorce. And amid the media frenzy that followed, Ryan's world turned upside down. She moved out of the $2.9 million Brentwood, Calif., home she had shared with Quaid and their 9-year-old son Jack and into an $8.9 million Bel Air home a few miles away. She closed her production company. She saw Proof of Life bomb at the box office. And she stood by bewildered while the world stood in judgment of her. Within months she had gone from America's Sweetheart to Scarlet Woman and finally -- after reports that Crowe had dumped her -- to Woman Scorned. Little wonder Ryan found the attention bizarre. "I haven't thought of myself as a famous person," she told W magazine last November, "until this recent episode in my life."

But as one close friend notes, Ryan was more than famous -- she was a national icon of wholesomeness. "Meg was expected to adhere to this standard that others aren't," the pal says. "Her marriage wasn't supposed to fail. So when it did, it was almost as if she failed everybody." In fact, insists the friend, Ryan hadn't left Quaid for Crowe. That scenario, she maintains, "just has nothing to do with reality. Their marriage had had lots of problems for a long time. A big part of that was that they didn't see each other for long periods of time because of work."

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