By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
That groove that Terry McMillan got back on her tropical vacation, when she met the hot young Jamaican stud Jonathan Plummer, who rearranged all her atoms into a new transcendental orbit? Who inspired the bestseller "How Stella Got Her Groove Back"? Which became the box-office sensation with Angela Bassett and a torso-writhing Taye Diggs? With the shower scene and the beach scene, which some women have watched with yearning and hope, oh, 89 times?
Worse, gone down low .
In a pending California divorce that is getting uglier by the hour, McMillan, 53, claims that Plummer, 30, is gay and manipulated her into marriage to become a U.S. citizen. She contends he wants to bust their prenup and get at some of the millions she has earned as a best-selling author.
Plummer, in documents filed with Contra Costa County Superior Court, claims that McMillan is "homophobic" and bent on revenge. He didn't know he was gay when he met her in 1995 on a beach in Negril, he told the San Francisco Chronicle, which first reported about the breakup on Sunday.
"It was devastating to discover that a relationship I had publicized to the world as life-affirming and built on mutual love was actually based on deceit," McMillan wrote in her declaration to the court. "I was humiliated."
And frightened, said her attorney, Jill Hersh.
"It's very scary for her," Hersh said yesterday, "because he appears to have been living a dual life that has left her exposed to disease." Asked whether McMillan had been tested for HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, Hersh said, "I'm not going to discuss that."
McMillan is on vacation before a 10-city tour begins next month for her next book and unavailable for comment, said a spokeswoman for her publisher.
Plummer was occupied doing television interviews and also could not be reached for comment. His cousin, Mark Plummer, who said he was serving as "media liaison," said Jonathan "didn't know what he was when he met Terry. He didn't know a lot about a lot of things. About this time last summer, he tried to have this discussion with her. He had felt the rumblings in himself for a while and felt a shift in himself. . . . The physical aspect of their relationship had dissolved."
"Nonsense," says J.L. King, author of "On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of 'Straight' Black Men Who Sleep With Men."
"He knew he was gay," says King. "I feel so sorry for her. It's a devastating time."
Last night, McMillan seemed to acknowledge she has joined a new sisterhood: "She is very much aware that many women across the country are faced with situations such as this," read a statement sent by her personal publicist, "and just like those women she will not let this detract from the many blessings in her life."
This is more than another celebrity fairy tale fizzling, deeper than a dishy hot summertime story. This particular rupture in this particular marriage has cultural explosiveness because McMillan writes with such authenticity and intimacy about the lives of middle-class black women -- their rages, loves and hurts, their aspirations and defeats, their sisterhood and isolation in the wider world.
Her books create their own phenomenons. "Disappearing Acts," about a pedigreed music teacher trying to find love with a construction worker, ignited plenty of sharp talk about whether McMillan denigrated black men. And when an editor complained that her female character, Zora, was too "preppy," she shot back, "Look, she's not barefoot and pregnant, living in the projects and getting her ass kicked. I cannot apologize because some of us have been to college."
In "Waiting to Exhale," four professional women got together to drink white wine and bemoan that they would never find Mr. Right. McMillan sold 4 million copies and got a $2.6 million paperback advance. The movie grossed $67 million, and women all across America organized group outings to the theater and, later, home parties to watch it on video. When one of the characters torched her badly behaving man's car, they would jump to their feet and hoot their approval, like the punk kids who shout out the lines at midnight showings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
Her readers thought McMillan was writing about them. And Terry didn't have a man, either. Dogged at marketing herself, McMillan always was plenty eager to share her own life story and offer up frank quotes. She was a single mom. She'd had her struggles with cocaine. All that money, and the newfound success she worked hard to get, and the bright son with the good grades and the promising track career, and the big, beautiful house outside San Francisco, but no man.
Then her mama died from asthma and, totally depleted, McMillan dragged herself off to Jamaica to recuperate.
The golden-brown Plummer appeared. He was 20, working at the hotel where she was staying. He didn't care that she was not some young thing with taut skin, she said later, and he didn't know anything about who she was. She came home in a state of extended bliss and wrote "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" in a white heat. She told everybody all about this when the book came out, and dedicated it "To Jonathan P."
She did worry a little bit about the age difference, she said, but her friends told her to drag him on up to the States, saying they hadn't seen her look so satiated in years. Plummer moved into her $4 million home, and next thing he knew, he was escorting her to movie premieres with Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett and getting the full scrutiny at book signings for "Stella."
The whole tableau was so inspirational that thousands of itchy women started flocking to the Caribbean, scouring the beaches for their own special bronzed groovemakers.
That's all over now.
Plummer is out of her house and on the evening news. He's thinking about his own book, "How Stella Lost Her Groove," which Mark Plummer portrays as a tale of "recovering from life with Terry." In court documents, he has contended that he told her before Christmas that he was gay. In her response to his filings, McMillan says he leveled with her only after she confronted him about hours of phone calls to a male friend in Jamaica and his perusals of online gay chat sites.
Hersh, McMillan's attorney, says the estranged husband is "attempting in a very concerted way to shine a very distorted light in an effort to get something from her that he is not entitled to. He has victimized her in every conceivable way both emotionally and financially."
There are restraining orders on both sides. McMillan obtained one to keep Plummer from her house, according to documents, and claims she discovered he had embezzled at least $200,000 from her bank accounts. Plummer got his after he alleged she had harassed him for coming out of the closet, and had come to his dog-grooming business and thrown things. In a Jan. 14 letter filed with the court, McMillan wrote to Plummer, "The reason you're going to make a great fag is that most of you guys are just like dogs anyway. . . . You do whatever with whomever pleases you and don't seem to care about the consequences."
Plummer contends in documents that McMillan tried to prevent him from obtaining his share of royalties for "Stella." In her filed response, she says that is untrue, adding she gave him $150,000 in the first few months after he arrived in California, and later paid for him to go to community college and San Francisco State University. She has been ordered to pay him $2,000 a month in spousal support as well as some attorneys' fees.
Now all those tender moments McMillan recounted about their life look a little different: how she and the mister got into dyeing each other's hair once a month, "like being a little kid with paint." How she set him up in the dog-grooming business.
Even her flinty-eyed prediction of their future was off. She told Us magazine: "My husband is much younger than I am. I say to him: 'Hell, some day I'm going to be old and wrinkled and you might be on the Viagra but still, chances are we're going to outgrow each other before then,' and I'm not just talking about him getting with a younger woman. He might just bore me to death."
In 2001, she told The Washington Post, "husbands come and go." Unless the case is settled first, the divorce is headed for an October hearing, after which a judge presumably will rule which party gets custody of The Groove.