A Marriage Filled With Abuse

Madonna's relationship with Sean Penn was hardly storybook, to say the least. Last of three excerpts from "Madonna Unauthorized," by Christopher Andersen. ----------------------------------------------------------- Looking very much like an updated version of the 1950s screen star Jean Seberg, Madonna appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone's June 5, 1986, issue - all blond hair and pale white shoulders, daintily touching a large flower tucked in her cleavage. The cover line screamed, "The New Madonna," and the woman portrayed inside was indeed not the pop tart of old. The piece portrayed Madonna as cool, collected, and in control of both private and personal lives.

Not for long. On June 6, 1986, Sean Penn and Madonna got into a heated public argument at a Manhattan nightclub called The Pyramid. There, a fight erupted into violence as an obviously inebriated Penn shoved his wife up against a wall, then carried their shouting match out into the street.

The main bones of contention between them were Penn's violence, and what he perceived to be Madonna's infidelity. She did not stop seeing her old friends and lovers. One night a jealous and intoxicated Penn stalked Madonna's old boyfriend Bobby Martinez with a gun.

In the beginning Madonna had been willing not only to overlook Penn's violent streak but to tacitly endorse it, so long as his fury was directed at strangers, such as the press, whom Penn seemed to attack as a matter of routine.

Now that he was assaulting friends such as songwriter David Wolinski, whom Penn had beaten up outside a club called Helene's because Madonna had embraced him, and abusing her in public as he had done at the Pyramid Club, she was becoming concerned for her own safety.

After watching in horror as he fired at the helicopters that intruded on their wedding day, she had convinced the firearms-loving Penn to lock his guns away in a strongbox. "She told him she'd leave him if he didn't," a friend said, "and he knew she meant it."

That lasted only a short while, however, and Madonna did not protest when Penn, having assembled a small arsenal that included rifles as well as handguns, built a target range in the soundproofed basement of their Malibu villa.

Depending on the focus of his anger, according to one acquaintance, he occasionally tacked up photographs over the targets. At various times, Penn riddled with bullets from a .357 magnum pictures of Prince; Jellybean Benitez, another of Madonna's old boyfriends; Madonna's singer friend Nick Kamen, John F. Kennedy Jr. and other perceived lovers and would-be lovers of his wife. It would not be long before Penn started using a poster of his wife for target practice.

The guns that were once packed away were now scattered about the house - in dresser drawers, desk drawers, the nightstand next to their king-size four-poster bed. While Madonna exercised in their home gym, Penn spent hours sitting on his office windowsill, swigging beer and randomly firing off shots into their backyard pool.

Fueled by prodigious quantities of alcohol, Penn's obsession with Madonna's extramarital affairs careened out of control. Their daily rows grew more violent. He threw a chair through a closed window and smashed a full tureen of soup on the floor; she hurled a vase at his head and pummeled him with her fists. He stuck her head in their gas oven.

None of these tactics of marital warfare frightened Madonna as much as Penn's predilection for venting his frustrations on the local fauna. After an argument, he would typically take one of the weapons from his arsenal and go out onto his property to hunt gophers, birds, rabbits - in the words of one former employee, "anything that moves." --

Madonna told friend Erica Bell that one night she dreamed that she and the comedienne Sandra Bernhard had survived some catastrophe together and were the last two people on Earth.

Not long after telling Bell about her strange dream, Madonna was sitting in the audience at Bernhard's hit one-woman Off-Broadway show, "Without You I'm Nothing," when Bernhard described a favorite fantasy in which she and Madonna survive World War III "but Sean doesn't."

"Madonna was floored when Sandra told that story," Bell said. "She had dreamt that same scenario, and she took it as an omen that this was a special person." After the show, Madonna raced backstage to introduce herself.

The pair hit it off instantly. "It was no surprise that they would become friends," said Madonna's former personal assistant Melinda Cooper. "Sandra is as wild as Madonna - in some ways, wilder. They are just two crazy girls out to raise some eyebrows and have some fun."

The curious friendship between Madonna and the openly bisexual Bernhard soon evolved into something else. At such popular spots as The Odeon, M.K., the Canal Bar, and The World, the pair were spotted hugging, cradling and kissing one another. They began visiting such lesbian bars as Lower Manhattan's Cubby Hole, and as Madonna later confessed, "there was a flirtation going on."

Penn failed to see the humor in his wife's latest antics. He not only disliked Bernhard (who returned the sentiment), but was appalled by the public debate over whether Madonna was bisexual. Worse, he now wondered if, given her longstanding links to the gay community, she might in fact be a lesbian. She brushed off the suggestion, assuring him that it was all a pose, that she and Bernhard were nothing more than buddies.

"Sean's fragile male ego was badly bruised," said a friend of the couple's. "She was more famous than he was, made tons more money, and now she was rubbing his nose in the whole lesbian-affair controversy. It's bad enough when a man thinks his wife is leaving him for another man - but for another woman? Sean just couldn't handle it."

Nor could he accept the news that his wife had campaigned for and clinched the role of Breathless Mahoney in Warren Beatty's long-planned epic "Dick Tracy."

Madonna went to Beatty behind Sean's back, violating her earlier vow to have a baby in 1989. She told him they would have to postpone their plans for a family another year.

The embattled couple spent Christmas Eve separately - she with Bernhard, Penn with a stripper. Bernhard, meantime, actively counseled her friend to dump her headstrong husband. She sat her down and demanded, "What the f--- are you doing to yourself?" Madonna confessed to being in pain, but, she told Bernhard, "I still love Sean."

Christmas dawned like D-Day at the Malibu house. After another shouting match, Penn moved in with his parents. From there, he allegedly made several abusive calls to Madonna. When she stopped answering the phone, he left obscenity-laced messages on her answering machine.

Three days later Penn, frustrated and drunk, staked out the Malibu house. Around 4 p.m., after Madonna had given her small household staff the rest of the day off, he scaled the fence encircling the estate, broke into the house and confronted a terrified Madonna. After slapping her around, he bound and gagged her, then strapped her to a chair with twine. He berated and beat her for two hours, then stormed out of the house.

Gagged, tied up and trembling with fear, Madonna waited for hours for help to arrive. Incredibly, Penn returned, swigging tequila, and began tormenting her all over again. This time, she managed to persuade him to untie her. Once free, she dashed out of the house, jumped into the coral-colored 1957 Thunderbird Penn had bought her for her 28th birthday, locked the doors and called the police on her car phone. She then sped off to the Malibu sheriff's station to swear out a complaint against her husband.

As Madonna sought refuge at the home of her manager, Freddy DeMann, sheriff's officers descended on the Malibu house. Heeding Madonna's warning that her husband might be armed, they circled the house. Guns drawn, they ordered Penn over a police bullhorn to surrender.

Handcuffed and carted unceremoniously off to the sheriff's station, Penn told police that Madonna had trumped up the charges to get even with him for dating a stripper. Not so, said friends in whom Madonna confided. They had seen plenty of other evidence of Penn's abusive behavior.

A week after the incident, Madonna filed for divorce on grounds of irreconcilable differences. The same day, she met with Deputy District Attorney Lauren Weiss and told her she had decided to withdraw her complaint against Penn.

Madonna's divorce petition once again asked that her full maiden name be reinstated, and she invoked the couple's prenuptial agreement concerning the division of property. Madonna, whose annual personal income had hovered around $30 million for each of the three years they were married, was believed by 1989 to be worth in the neighborhood of $70 million. Penn, with a per-picture salary of $1 million, could lay claim to a respectable net worth of $5 million. Under the terms of the prenuptial agreement, each got what they brought into the marriage and what money they had earned during it.

From the book "Madonna Unauthorized," by Christopher Andersen. Copyright, 1991, Christopher Andersen. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster, Inc. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.