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The unraveling of the Schwarzenegger-Shriver marriage

The partnership of Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger was a collision of two worlds, an unlikely but watchable match.

Twenty five years ago, when they married, Shriver was a child of American Democratic political royalty — pedigreed, pampered and with a professional ambition unusual for the women of her clan. Schwarzenegger was a fading strongman and minor movie actor with immigrant dreams as outlandishly big as his biceps.

Schwarzenegger, 63, would go on to world domination — of the cinematic sort, as a top international box office star — and then the California governor’s office. Shriver, 55, who became a top talent in NBC’s news division, dialed back her career to care for their four children, then relinquished her job altogether when her husband became governor in 2003. It was a bond that survived its share of tests.

Photos: A political marriage with star power

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Schwarzenegger and Shriver announced their separation Monday, a split that marks the foundering of one of America’s most famous marriages, and signals that each will face a future absent the partnership that had so defined them.

While many friends said they were surprised by the announcement, two distinctly different narratives were emerging Tuesday about the breakup.

Some close to Schwarzenegger spoke of a loving marriage that slowly broke apart over time. Friends of Shriver portrayed her as trapped for years in an unhappy relationship that reached a breaking point after the deaths of her parents and a difficult transition back to private life.

“Everyone who’s shocked by this is reacting to the fairy-tale picture that was promoted,” said a friend who has been a frequent visitor to the couple’s Brentwood mansion and did not want to be identified as breaching the couple’s confidence. The death in August 2009 of Shriver’s mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, said this friend, marked a turning point. Her father, Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps founder, died in January.

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“There was such a void,” said the friend, “and when she looked around, she realized her husband could never even think of filling it.”

When asked why Shriver stayed in the marriage for so long if she was so unhappy, the friend responded: “Part of it is family legacy, part of it is Catholicism. But the most important thing was their four kids.”

It is not clear when Shriver moved out, but a former Schwarzenegger administration official said he had heard about the couple’s split in January. He said that although the pair had a complicated relationship, they were affectionate and showed “a genuine, deep love.”

Family was Schwarzenegger’s top priority, said the former official. “When she called, everything would stop. If the kids called, everything would stop,” this person said. “They were very focused on raising the kids.”

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Several who worked for the governor said that during Schwarzenegger’s first term, he spent about three nights a week in Sacramento, but that once he was reelected in 2006, he spent less time in the capital. At his wife’s request, said one, Schwarzenegger would usually fly from Brentwood to Sacramento in the morning and be home by evening.

The oldest children, Katherine, 21, and Christina, 19, are at college. Patrick, 17, is a high school senior. Christopher is 13.

On Tuesday, Patrick tweeted about his family drama: “Appreciate all your messages. Small speed bump I’n life, luckily we own hummers, we will cruise right over it. All will be okay. #peace.”

Shriver has been living at a Beverly Hills hotel for the last several weeks. The couple’s joint statement said they were living apart “while we work on the future of our relationship.”

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Recently, the pair has been spotted around town together. In mid-February, during NBA All-Star weekend, they were together at a benefit party at the downtown Los Angeles restaurant Katsuya. On April 23, they visited an ice cream shop at Brentwood Country Mart. On Saturday, they attended the graduation of a nephew from Loyola Marymount University.

On Sunday, Mother’s Day, the family gathered at Santa Monica’s Ivy at the Shore. But Shriver and Schwarzenegger left in separate cars.

Like many famous couples, they have had an ambivalent attitude about media coverage of their marriage and family. While Schwarzenegger has generally tried to control it, Shriver was uncomfortable unless the subject was one of her causes, such as the annual Women’s Conference she organized as first lady. But the profound differences in their backgrounds, as well as the bipartisan dynamic of their relationship, ensured a continuing fascination by the public.

In a 2005 Vanity Fair profile of the couple, Shriver said she surprised her friends and family by falling in love with Schwarzenegger rather than some American blue blood.

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“You married the other side of the tracks,” was how she described her friends’ reaction. “They have trouble with the class thing,” she said.

Schwarzenegger, a Republican whose moderation alienated his party once he was in office, often made light of having married into the Kennedy clan.

But despite their divergent politics, she put aside partisan leanings to be at his side during both his gubernatorial campaigns. When Schwarzenegger made a well received speech at the Republican presidential convention in 2004, however, Shriver made a point of saying she attended only to support her spouse.

In 2008, while he campaigned for Republican John McCain for president, she made a much publicized last-minute decision to appear onstage at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion at a Barack Obama rally with Michelle Obama, Shriver’s cousin Caroline Kennedy and Oprah Winfrey, one of her best friends.

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There were always hints that life with Schwarzenegger was challenging — and not just in the normal domestic ways.

In the midst of his first political campaign in 2003, at least 15 women came forward to accuse Schwarzenegger of sexual misconduct over a three-decade period. He first denied the allegations, then apologized, conceding, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

Shriver took an active role in pushing back. “I know I would not be where I am today without his support,” she told a rally of supporters.

“You cross Arnold, and Maria will cut your head off,” her brother Bobby Shriver, now a Santa Monica city councilman, told a Times reporter in 2003.

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Despite the times, and his professions of support for women’s rights, Schwarzenegger expressed some old-fashioned notions about the sexes.

For instance, he told Playboy magazine in 1988 that he did not like women to wear pants. His father, he said, did not allow his mother to wear pants, and he did not allow Shriver to wear pants when they went out. “Maria would never wear pants,” he said at the time. “Believe me.”

Shriver, who has often been photographed wearing slacks, seemed to take her outlandish husband in stride.

“I would have had to have been deaf, blind and incredibly stupid not to see that he was more than a handful,” Shriver wrote in the introduction to her 2000 book, “10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Went Out Into the Real World.”

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In a recent interview with Newsweek, Schwarzenegger acknowledged that life in the public glare had taken a toll on his wife. “My life is not the cleanest in town, so there were places where people could attack,” he said.

Since leaving office early this year, Schwarzenegger has plunged ahead with typical brio, while Shriver seemed to be somewhat at sea.

Last month, he announced he would star in an animated children’s series, “The Governator,” about a superhero with an everyday family life. He told The Times he was ready to reclaim his former Hollywood glory and to make sequels of his greatest hits, including “Terminator,” “True Lies” and “Kindergarten Cop.”

Shriver, for her part, has seemed less certain of what awaited her.

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“It is so stressful to not know what you’re doing next,” Shriver said in a YouTube video she posted March 28. “I’d like to hear from other people in transition.... How did you get through it? What were three things that enabled you to get through your transition?”

This year, she has worked on her women’s empowerment website, guest edited an issue of O, Winfrey’s magazine, and promoted causes near to her heart, such as Alzheimer’s research. (Her father died after a long bout with the ailment.)

On April 14, she tweeted an upbeat message: “Loved lunching with my bro @lancearmstrong. He gave me lots of good advice. Says he will help guide me in my life. Stay tuned.”

Photos: A political marriage with star power

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com

mark.barabak@latimes.com

Times staff writers Maeve Reston and Seema Mehta contributed to this report.


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