05.10.11

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver: Behind Their Separation

After 25 years of marriage, California’s power couple has announced their separation. Lloyd Grove on their groundbreaking relationship, the recent signs of strain, and what’s next for both.

It was a shock to the outside world Monday night when Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver announced their separation after 34 years together, 25 of them as husband and wife.

Marriages are, by definition, fraught with tensions and complications—and theirs was no different. Never mind that they were California’s golden couple: he an Austrian body builder turned American movie star, she a glamorous member of the Kennedy clan. They had been through a lot together—the untimely deaths of various Kennedy cousins in terrible accidents and a drug overdose, his open-heart surgery to replace a defective aortic valve, the death of his mother, the death of her mother, the constant intrusion of the tabloids and paparazzi, and the natural friction of two high-powered careers.

In 2003, when Arnold decided to run for governor of California as a Republican and was beset by lurid headlines about his penchant for groping women, it was Maria who threw herself in front of the oncoming scandal, standing by her man, warts and all, and assuring his victory in the recall election that toppled incumbent Democrat Gray Davis. On election night they shared a loving kiss, and his gratitude was effusive.

But now—just days after marking their silver wedding anniversary with their four children aged 21 to 13—Arnold and Maria have split, possibly for good.

“This has been a time of great personal and professional transition for each of us,” they said in a joint statement late Monday, prompted by questions from the Los Angeles Times about the state of their union. “After a great deal of thought, reflection, discussion, and prayer, we came to this decision together. At this time, we are living apart, while we work on the future of our relationship.”

Maria was still living at the marital home, a lush estate in the hills of Brentwood, when I phoned her early last month about her husband, with whom I’d just spent a few days in England and France for a Newsweek story about his next act. She didn’t let on that there was trouble in the marriage, though I had sensed distance between them, months earlier, when I’d attended a book party for their eldest daughter, Katherine, and the proud parents arrived and departed separately, with hardly a word for each other.

Gallery: Celebrities Who Divorced After Decades

When I called Maria was understandably blue about the recent death of her larger-than-life father, Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Usually forceful and focused—she’d reluctantly given up her career as a successful network television anchor to become one of the more influential first ladies in the state’s history—Maria seemed at loose ends. She was spending her days reading and responding to hundreds of condolence letters for her father. Her husband’s post-Sacramento career plans seemed beside the point; she didn’t even know what her own future held.

"It is so stressful to not know what you're doing next," she had mused in a March 28 YouTube video in which, as the L.A. Times noted, she appeared without her wedding ring. “I’d like to hear from other people in transition," she said. "How did you get through it? What were three things that enabled you to get through your transition?"

But, on the phone with me, she managed to find something supportive to say about her husband: "No matter what Arnold decides to do, I'm sure he'll have fun doing it, and it will have impact."

Photos: Arnold & Maria Through the Years

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Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver have separated. Credit: AP Photo

By most accounts, they fell for each other at first sight. They were inseparable after NBC anchor Tom Brokaw played matchmaker at a charity tennis tournament in 1977. They were married nine years later at a star-studded Kennedy wedding in Hyannisport. Maria, by all accounts, was instrumental in helping Arnold succeed in Hollywood—offering savvy career advice and vetting his scripts. Later on, she was equally indispensable as a strange political bedfellow; the fact that she was a liberal Democrat and he was a moderate Republican played well in the blue state of California.

"No matter what Arnold decides to do,” Maria told me, “I'm sure he'll have fun doing it, and it will have impact."

For the Newsweek piece, former assembly speaker Willie Brown told me Shriver had contributed mightily to whatever success her husband can claim: "Maria has been much more of a benefit to Arnold than Arnold has been to Maria."

Late last year, as his second term as governor was coming to an end, Schwarzenegger acknowledged as much when he self-published a lavish coffee table book about his adventure in politics as a keepsake for friends and supporters. The 407-page volume contained an admiring, 50-page tribute to “California’s First Lady, Maria Shriver, An Architect of Change.”

An accompanying essay noted that “Maria challenged the role of First Lady, assuming it as a job with real purpose and a platform to make a difference. She used her journalist’s eye to spot the needs of real people and combined that skill with a deeply ingrained passion for activism and service.”

And yet, he ran for public office against her wishes. When he announced his candidacy for governor on The Tonight Show—without telling her what he was going to do—he knew that Shriver and their four children didn't want him to run, largely because of the Kennedy family's tragic experience in politics. On March 31 over lunch in London, I asked Arnold if Maria was annoyed that he’d declared without letting her know in advance. “What else is new?” he answered with a chuckle.

But there were other reasons, too. "For Maria, it was just very painful what she went through—never being asked when Sarge became the vice-presidential candidate in 1972, never asked when he ran again [for president] in 1976—this was a humiliating moment, the way she described it," Schwarzenegger told me last month. "My life is not the cleanest in town, so there were places where people could attack. She was concerned about that, and she was concerned that it could fail and be humiliating to her and to our kids."

The very public failure of their marriage, of course, could have a similar consequence.

“We are continuing to parent our four children together. They are the light and the center of both of our lives,” they said in their statement. “We consider this a private matter, and neither we nor any of our friends or family will have further comment. We ask for compassion and respect from the media and the public.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.