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08.19.10

Eat, Pray, Dumped

So your wife leaves you and turns the story of your marriage into a national pastime. Danielle Friedman on the man who had the toughest week in show business, Elizabeth Gilbert's ex-husband.

The higher Elizabeth Gilbert climbs up the fame-o-meter, the more gut-wrenching the question becomes: What’s it like to be the guy whose heartbreak launched a multi-million-dollar feel-good franchise?

This was an especially standout week for Gilbert. The film adaptation of her mega-bestselling Eat, Pray, Love opened to massive hype and box office sales. Women across the country shed happy tears over the true story— her true story—of divorce, followed by self-discovery and empowerment.

Yet in keeping with the tale’s theme of cosmic balance, as we watch Gilbert (embodied by Julia Roberts) reach a realm of happiness in which she’s “smiling in her liver,” we watch her husband-turned-ex (played by Billy Crudup) come undone on screen. And this was before she became a gazillionaire.

It sounds like the nightmare of every jilted lover: Your ex not only soars to wealth and fame but on the back of your own failed marriage. And, um, very publicly. But people who know Michael Cooper, Gilbert’s ex, say he seems to be doing just fine.

A decade after Gilbert divorced him, Cooper is now married to a Canadian diplomat named Béatrice Maillé. They have two young boys, Charlie and Sammy. According to his LinkedIn profile, he’s currently a public interest law scholar at the Georgetown University Law Center, and he was previously a director for Mercy Corps and Human Rights Watch.

While Cooper was kind enough to return The Daily Beast’s call, he declined to comment for this piece. No, the prominent human-rights activist didn’t launch into a tirade about the throngs that were (likely at that very moment) cheering for the woman who temporarily destroyed his life, as reenacted by America’s sweetheart.

This reticence, or perhaps classiness, has come to define Cooper in the past year—at least in the public sphere. Until last summer, he’d remained nearly fully out of view. Then came news of a book deal, which appeared to be a sort of rebuttal to Eat, Pray, Love. Would he tell all?

Announced in July 2009, the project initially bore the title Displaced. In Publishers Marketplace, it was described as a “memoir of one man's journey to reconnect with his values and reconstruct his life in the wake of an unexpected and devastating divorce…offering an intimate look at the end of his relationship with [Gilbert], and his own search for purpose as he journeys through Kosovo, Mongolia, Iran, Iraq, and other developing countries, working with people displaced by natural disaster and armed conflict.” Hyperion acquired the book, for publication timed to the movie’s release.

Somewhere along the way, the house changed the book’s title to The Husband: One Man's Story of Moving In, Moving Out, and Moving On (never mind that Cooper was already somebody else’s husband).

And about six months ago, the book was quietly canceled, according to Marie Coolman, Hyperion’s executive director of publicity. “It’s just a moot point,” she says of the project.

The reason the deal fell through? According to what seems to be Cooper’s only public remarks on the subject: At the last minute, Hyperion asked him to make it racier, he told the New York Post’s Page Six. "I set out to write about how, in the wake of a devastating and unexpected divorce, I slowly rebuilt my life by redoubling my already decades-long commitment to humanitarian relief and human rights work,” he said. “In the end, it seemed to me that Hyperion hoped to push the book in a more controversial direction—something I was unwilling to do.”

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Michael Cooper, ex-husband of Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert. (Photo: Rick Guidotti)

While it’s possible that Cooper got cold feet when it came time to rebut, a source familiar with the book suggests that this may never have been his intention—noting that a Hyperion executive had “misgivings about the project from the beginning,” but that the editorial team thought they could create a promising finished product.

“Unfortunately, that didn't work out because Cooper didn't want to dish about EG (he really wanted to move past this episode, and he also thought that adding a ‘he said’ account of what happened between them was sort of tasteless),” the source said in an e-mail.

A few minutes of archived audio footage reveal a telling glimpse into Cooper and Gilbert’s relationship. In 1998, before the divorce and the book, the pair recorded a segment for PRI’s “This American Life,” for an episode dedicated to financial windfalls.

Early on, they tell host Ira Glass how they met. (Gilbert was a bartender in Manhattan’s Village, and Cooper was a patron one evening. When he ran out of cash, she lent him ten bucks.) But the meat of the segment focuses on their wedding.

After acquiring $10,000, Gilbert wanted to save the money—Cooper wanted to spend it on their nuptials. They fought over it and cried over it, and they eventually decided to go for the fancier affair. “In many ways, Michael is always just what I needed,” Gilbert says, “as far as showing you what’s more important than having $10,000 in the bank.”

As Cooper told Page Six, he’s now “exploring other options with other publishers.” Perhaps his book will be out in time for the DVD? Or perhaps he won’t care.

One other relic of the couple’s marriage seems fitting, in light of recent events. Gilbert’s dedication in her first novel, Stern Men, reads:

“To Michael Cooper—for playing it cool.”

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Danielle Friedman has worked as a nonfiction book editor for Hudson Street Press and Plume, two imprints of Penguin Group. Her writing has been published in the Miami Herald, and on Slate's DoubleX and CNN.com. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.