Arnold and Maria: Requiem for a Marriage

05/10/2011 06:24 pm ET | Updated Jul 10, 2011

In August 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his run for governor of California from that high altar of American politics, The Tonight Show. Shortly beforehand, the former number one star in the world met with David Pecker, the CEO of American Media, whose company owned the National Enquirer and Star, the bratty tabloids that regularly chronicled the actor's sexual misconduct. The editors in Florida had more stories about Arnold ready to be contemplated in supermarket checkout lines across America, but Pecker had a problem. He had just purchased America's leading bodybuilding and fitness magazines, and he needed the most celebrated bodybuilder in the world to become a central figure in the publications.

From the day Pecker left Arnold's office that day, the tabloids never wrote another word about Arnold's sex life, and American Media paid off at least one woman for her silence. As for Arnold, he could now campaign as a loving devoted husband, without this merciless biting at his heels. Beyond that, Arnold had a deal that promised him a minimum of a million dollars a year for five years, and one percent equity in the magazines.

Political reporters are more interested in having sex than writing about it, and "serious" reporters stayed studiously away from tainting their careers writing about such matters. Thus, the Los Angeles Times took considerable flack when the paper, no fan of Arnold's, began an investigation into his supposed sexual misconduct. The editors justified themselves as being above their tabloid brethren by saying they were not looking into supposed extramarital dalliances but behavior that could have led to civil or even criminal charges. While the reporters scrambled around the bowels of LA, the editors missed the overwhelmingly important story that stood right before them, not Arnold's personal conduct but the fact that he had cut a lucrative alliance with American Media so they would never cover his behavior again.

The Los Angeles Times story about Arnold's groping on movie sets and his misogynistic rambling with his buddies came only a few days before the election. The philosophical Arnold admitted that "where there's smoke there's fire" and he had sometimes acted badly on those "rowdy movie sets."

If the women of Californian displayed their disdain for his behavior at the ballot box, the revelations could have set Arnold's campaign rolling down to defeat. Arnold could not stop that boulder cascading downward but Maria could. She had not wanted her husband to run and she was not unfamiliar with the tabloid's chronicling of her husband's dalliance. She nonetheless came forward at a campaign rally to introduce her husband. She reached out to Californians and said in her persuasive way, if I can forgive my husband, why can't you? "I have known this man for twenty-six years," she said. "I've been married to him for seventeen. He's an extraordinary father and a remarkable husband and a terrific human being. He has the character to govern. He has the temperament to govern and his is a leader for all of you."

And now it's over. What's amazing is not that their marriage is finished but that it lasted so long and served them both so well. When they met in August 1977 at a charity tennis event in New York City, Arnold was a thirty-year-old bodybuilder whose days at the top were ending, a man with minimal abilities as an actor except in life itself. Maria was a 21-year-old ingénue who had never met anyone like Arnold. But of course there was no one like Arnold. Theirs was an immediate sexual attraction, something that traditionally was a no-no for Kennedy women, whose husbands sought their pleasures elsewhere. It was a decade before Arnold finally asked Maria to marry him, and to begin their extraordinary Hollywood life.

They gave each other what the other was missing. Maria had class. She had the shrewd political social skills that were part of her Kennedy/Shriver inheritance. She had a belief that people of privilege had an obligation to reach out to the world and help.

Arnold had a powerful zest for life. He had the hungers of a man who had come from nowhere, a tiny Austrian village, and thought he could go anywhere. He was a man who enjoyed the moment, and lived with passionate pleasure. He was fearless and had none of an inheritor's inhibitions or sense of entitlement.

Arnold and Maria were great together. They raised a family and they sought to help their children become the best of both of them. It is almost impossible to stay authentic in the world in which they lived. As governor and first lady, wherever they went they were treated with undue deference, even from their closest friends. Arnold thought he could do anything even become president after a quick tinkering with the Constitution so that a foreign-born citizen could enter the White House. Short of that, he thought he could change the state. But his muscles turned to flab in Sacramento, and he left office a discredited politician.

I don't know why they are separating, but I feel that if Arnold had not run for office, they would still be married. Initially, Maria did not want him to run but she got caught up on the glamor and deference as first lady of America's greatest state. I think it could have been different. I was living in LA then writing my biography of Arnold, Fantastic, and following him closely. When Arnold ran for office, he did so not like a politician but a mega celebrity, keeping the adoring masses behind cordoned lines, treating the state's people not like his neighbors and friends but just another audience. I often wondered why he didn't just jump into his car and start driving through the state talking to people, listening to their worries and hopes. He never did that, and he never truly listened.

And when he won, I thought that if he was truly to become a new kind of governor in a difficult new age, he should have moved with his family to Sacramento. His kids could have gone to school with what you and I call normal kids. He and Maria could have experienced the true life of Californians. Instead, Arnold kept a hotel suite in the capital and jetted back and forth from his Beverly Hills movie-star life. He and Maria moved further and further away from the lives of most Americans, and perhaps they moved further and further away from each other.