The Christie Brinkley divorce is a lesson in how not to cure a broken heart.
you fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
"You Fit Into Me" —Margaret Atwood
Has anyone ever won their celebrity divorce, if not in a courtroom, then at least in the court of public opinion? Not Charlie Sheen or Denise Richards (porn, violence, hookers, drugs). Their toddlers are in therapy. Not Heather Mills or Paul McCartney (drugs, alcohol, violence, gold-digging). She got crushed in a spectacularly public divorce. He's paying her $47.5 million, lost custody of their toddler, and will go down in history as the Doormat Beatle. Not Gary Coleman (tantrums, isolation, and "oops" pregnancies). Not Bill Murray (drug abuse, serial adultery, spousal abuse, child neglect). Not anybody, as best as I can tell.
So what is the impulse that drove Christie Brinkley to demand that the courtroom be open to the media today, on the first day of what looks to be the ugliest divorce of the year? Brinkley, 54, filed for divorce from her husband, Peter Cook, 47, after he cheated on her with an 18-year-old employee of his architecture firm. Testimony included accounts of sex in his office and wads of cash in the girl's fists. (There is no such thing as an original midlife crisis.) Brinkley is evidently so set on humiliating the cheating louse for humiliating her that she opposed efforts by both Cook and her children's attorney to close the trial to the media. So starting this morning, Sailor, age 10 today, and Jack, age 13, whom Cook adopted, can tune in with the rest of us to testimony from their daddy's 21-year-old ex-mistress as well as the "fitness model" with whom he took up after ditching their mommy, as well as 42 other helpful witnesses. They will painstakingly explore all the ways in which he's a philandering, porn-consuming, nudist bastard. It also emerged from today's testimony that Jack had stumbled upon his dad's Internet porn cache. That's the kind of Web savvy that should help him Google the trial details tonight.
What is it about the prospect of nasty public trials that is so attractive to scorned women? Let's stipulate that Cook is a cheating slime rat. He's already admitted it. For purposes of this divorce, with most issues resolved by a prenuptial agreement, there is really not much point in trotting out the busty young things. Cook's adultery isn't really relevant to the custody hearing or to the fight over some assets. Both Cook and an attorney for the children urged the judge to close the court to the media, but Brinkley insisted otherwise. Citing federal and state laws that show a preference for open trials over closed ones, the trial judge agreed to fling open the doors.
Acting Supreme Court Justice Mark D. Cohen found that the assertion by Theresa Mari, the children's attorney, that an open trial would harm the children was "unsupported speculation," and he cited case law finding that the public trial "may provide a basis for societal education." Today's valuable societal lesson? How to spend $3,000 a month on Internet porn.
Thanks to Cohen's optimism, crowds of reporters were on hand today to hear the trashing of Brinkley that followed the trashing of Cook. It was, of course, "The porn-hound versus the shrew." How original. Reporters caught every word uttered by Brinkley's lawyer, Robert S. Cohen, describing her children's father as a "self-obsessed sex addict who spent thousands of dollars on Internet porn years before he began wooing a 17-year-old girl." They soaked up every minute of the opening statement of Cook's attorney, Norman Sheresky, which painted his client as "being denied what is rightfully his by a compulsively needy wife blinkered by her disgust, filth, and rage." He added: "For goodness sake: She's on her fourth husband. … Your honor, we're here because of the self-indulgent wrath of a woman scorned."
Catch that, Sailor? Jack? Your daddy spent your college fund on porn, and your mommy is a rageful shrew who fobbed off her child care responsibilities on the help.
Brinkley's lawyer has promoted, time and again, the misguided notion that courtrooms are magical centrifuges that spin away all the garbage to extract some distillate called "the unfiltered truth." He insists that "the only way to get at the truth is through an open courtroom." And that if Cook is embarrassed by these revelations, "it's his own fault." But of course there is more than one unfiltered truth here, and Brinkley is already at the receiving end of some that are not pleasant.
You may hear faint echoes here of last month's mudslinging in the breakup of the Nevada governor's 22-year marriage. In that case, Gov. Jim Gibbons' scorned wife filed a bizarre 31-page motion demanding a public trial and the opening of all their divorce records. Calling his client the "castaway wife" and writing in the manner of a Harlequin romance novelist, Dawn Gibbons' lawyer, Cal Dunlap, detailed her husband's infidelity after he "succumbed to the wiles" of another woman. "Despite his disingenuous, shallow, and transparent protestation that his relationship with another man's wife is a mere friendship, his infatuation and involvement with the other woman is the real, concealed, and undisclosed reason for his voluntary departure from the marriage and from the Mansion where he occasionally resided." Despite the fact that Nevada is a no-fault state, and nobody needed to allege any cheating of any sort, Dunlap concluded (although probably not as a legal matter) that "lust is the villain here." (Disclosure: My former boss represents Gov. Gibbons in this divorce.) There is something about divorce proceedings that turns grown men into horny teenagers as well as grown women into tattletales.
I can understand the impulse that would lead a woman who has been publicly spurned and spectacularly humiliated to demand a public trial—to run every breast-enhanced, puffy-lipped teen waitress and fitness instructor around the ring a few times. Especially in these cases in which it's the spouse's bad behavior that triggered all the publicity, the urge to turn that publicity machine against him must be irresistible. Dunlap captured this when he wrote that "by not candidly admitting his fawning involvement with his frequent bar, lunch, dinner, and even grocery store companion, he (the governor) has brought the spotlight down upon himself and upon the reason for the divorce."
Alexa Ray Joel—Brinkley's grown daughter from her second marriage, to Billy Joel—defends Brinkley as "feeling empowered and encouraged," as if she has somehow seized control of the embarrassment by trying to stage-manage it. But there's a reason the Brinkley-Cook divorce is covered in entertainment news and the British tabloids and not in the A section of the Wall Street Journal. And offering up "unfiltered truth" has very little to do with it. This is not about the law; it's about theater.
The court of public opinion doesn't put much stock in the rules of evidence or witness credibility or the formula for calculating child support. Its relentless focus is on what the parties are wearing (crisp white blouse, beige skirt, snakeskin black belt) and the awkwardness that broke out when Christie passed Peter on the way to the ladies' room. Just like in fifth period Spanish. If "winners" in a celebrity divorce are chosen based on which party is prettier, nicer, and kinder to the environment, Brinkley won this one years ago. So what's the point in hauling out the hookers and the porn and the private detectives? That's just red meat for the tabloids.
Brinkley is about to become another victim of the fiction that you can use the tabloids more efficiently than they can use you. Won't happen. Brinkley, Cook, and their two kids will get spit out the other end of this trial, and the only real winners will be the chesty adulteresses—each of whom will have her own reality show/recording contract/clothing label by the end of the summer. I have watched enough nasty custody battles to know that if you really want your children to know the unfiltered truth, you sit down with them (when they are 18 or 21) and tell it to them. You don't run it through the double noise machine of a four-week custody trial and the 24-hour tabloid press. Whatever it is about divorce that sets the parties to behaving like children (Gov. Gibbons apparently used his state-issued cell phone to text-message his alleged girlfriend 860 times in a single month), it would be good of them to get out of the way of the real children—whose best interests are meant to be the polestar of any custody fight. If raising children in the media spotlight isn't its own form of child abuse, subjecting them to four weeks of Daddy's dirty laundry surely is. If you can name me one celebrity who won her celebrity divorce, I'll name you a kid who lost one.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of Christie Brinkley by Will Ragozzino/Getty Images.