The bride-to-be and her groom had already celebrated the birth of their first child 10 weeks earlier. Then, on Aug. 1, 1986, with 500 spectators outside and 50 guests inside the stone church in tony Oyster Bay, N.Y., onetime child star Tatum O’Neal, 22, and tennis superstar John McEnroe, 27, finally exchanged vows in a brief Roman Catholic ceremony. The bride’s father, the hotheaded Irish-American actor Ryan O’Neal, and his girlfriend, former Charlie’s Angel Farrah Fawcett, were not in attendance. Rumor had O’Neal being barred for having called his hotheaded Irish-American son-in-law-to-be ”a jerk.”
To many, it looked like a match of kindred spirits. The vitriolic tennis ace had called Tatum ”the female John McEnroe.” Media darlings early on — at 10, Tatum was the youngest-ever Oscar winner for her supporting role in Paper Moon, while McEnroe reached the Wimbledon semifinals at 18 — the tempestuous twosome had individually been nicknamed Tantrum and McBrat by the press. Considered by many the greatest player of his generation, McEnroe, who won seven Grand Slam singles titles and was ranked No. 1 from 1981 to ‘84, was equally known for his courtside tirades. ”I have a temper — I’m Irish, for heaven’s sake,” he explained. They chose to marry postpartum, O’Neal said, because she didn’t want to walk down the aisle ”looking like an elephant.” And they seemed inseparable: Wherever John was playing, there was Tatum in the bleachers cheering him on.
So it came as a surprise when, after six years of marriage, five homes, three children (Kevin, now 9, Sean, 7, and Emily, 4), and one small film role for O’Neal (Little Noises), they separated, setting off another volley of headlines. The reported reason was that she wanted to work and he wanted her home with the kids. ”I missed being a significant aspect of society, because I guess I felt insignificant in my role as a tennis wife,” O’Neal said after the breakup. In a 1994 divorce settlement, she reportedly was awarded $4.5 million.
Today, McEnroe, a TV commentator, owns a Manhattan art gallery and is dating rocker Patty Smyth. O’Neal has just finished a movie about the late enfant-terrible painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, and opens Off Broadway next month playing the lead in Ecstasy.
”I’ve had a lot of experience with men who are bullies,” O’Neal said. ”Taking on John McEnroe was the biggest struggle of my life.” Likening the split to his most grueling games against Ivan Lendl and Bjorn Borg, McEnroe, who still plays an occasional pro match, recently declared, ”My divorce was pretty hard to take, but it didn’t happen in a single day.”
Aug. 1, 1986
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