Divorce was the magazine that had everything going for it. Great writers and great themes: Mark McCormack on the terrible truth about matrimonial lawyers; Letitia Baldridge on the etiquette of divorce; Dr. Ruth Westheimer on divorce and sex.

Classy backers: A Manhattan law firm with partners who had bankrolled New York magazine and the Village Voice, teaming up with the heir to an international banking fortune.

Spinoffs: A radio call-in talk show, a speakers' bureau, and "a newly created nonprofit organization," the American Association for Divorced Persons.

A huge market: 31 million Americans have been divorced; 3,200 marriages break up each day.

But Divorce, The Magazine for People Starting Over, broke up before it ever came together. One year, two editors and $250,000 later, the magazine launched last summer at a splashy press conference at New York's Four Seasons restaurant has been reduced to a pile of unpaid bills, angry creditors and feuding founders.

"Divorce has turned out to be a sting," says Nantucket writer Suzanne Kennedy Flynn, the magazine's second editor and one of many former contributors owed money by the founders. "The whole thing was totally wacko. It was never meant to be."

The bimonthly glossy magazine was the brainchild of twice-divorced Manhattan lawyer Daniel Hirsch, who had tried to launch the same project in 1981, with no success. As part of a glossy press handout prepared for the Four Seasons debut, Hirsch described the private epiphany that led to the resurrection of Divorce:

"Divorce magazine was born in the waiting room of a doctor's office. My wife and I were waiting to see a marriage counselor. ... As it became clear that the marriage was doomed, what I wanted most was information. ... Later, reflecting on the experience, it occurred to me that there must be millions of people in this country who need good solid information about how to survive divorce and its after-effects. Thus, the idea for Divorce magazine."

For Divorce's second launch, Hirsch found a deep-pocketed backer in once-divorced Gabriel Safdie, 33, son of a prominent South American financier and second cousin of renowned Cambridge architect Moshe Safdie, who holds a chair at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. A Brazilian citizen who divides his time between Paris and New York, Safdie is alternately described in company documents as Divorce's "treasurer" or "honorary chairman."

Last spring, Safdie and Hirsch hired twice-divorced John Van Doorn, a former executive editor of New York magazine, to put together a dummy issue to show to advertisers. Van Doorn and his team commissioned a pile of articles and produced mock covers of future issues, featuring such divorce veterans as Ronald Reagan, Brigitte Nielsen and Johnny Carson.

In mid-summer, however, Van Doorn left Divorce to become editor of Business Month, formerly Dun's Business Month, now owned by Boston magazine mogul Bernard Goldhirsch. Hirsch and Safdie were reportedly upset by Van Doorn's defection. "Gabriel and {Hirsch} were incensed about John's leaving," says Martin Pedersen, the magazine's art director.

Van Doorn says he fulfilled his two-month commitment to Divorce and left to pursue a better opportunity. He denies a persistent rumor that he left because advertisers responded coolly to his prototype, although he admits the reception wasn't overwhelmingly positive: "I heard that advertisers said the name was too shocking."

Through a headhunter, the founders recruited once-divorced Suzanne Flynn to take over the magazine.

Safdie and Flynn steered the magazine away from Van Doorn's businesslike approach to divorce, toward a lighter, more personal tone. "John took a more matter-of-fact editorial direction because this was a serious subject and he didn't want it to be treated lightly," Pedersen says. "Safdie wanted a totally different look with lots of colors, very European. Suzanne wanted it to look like the surfer magazines."

In an appeal to advertisers, the new management highlighted the marketing opportunities among Divorce's female readers carving out their "new life": "She must dress for it ... she must buy clothes ... she may color her hair ... the newly divorced woman is the advertising community's target consumer."

Divorced men shop, too. "In the quest to create a new self image men will ... join a health club ... consider hair transplants ... become interested in safe sex," the ad pitch explains.

But media experts say Divorce was simply a flawed idea for a magazine. "Most life style magazines have a purchase cycle they can identify," explains Joshua Ostroff, an associate media director at Hill, Holliday Connors Cosmopulos. "But hopefully divorce is a one-shot deal. No one wants to stay in the category. They weren't going to make a lot of money off long-term subscriptions."

In November of last year, Divorce began to fall apart. Flynn noticed that the private bank account Safdie had opened for the magazine had dipped down to $2,000, and Safdie was becoming hard to find. "He was always jetting off to Paris every three seconds," complains Susan Israelson, a writer who says Divorce owes her $2,750.

Late in the year Flynn and Pedersen bailed out. Creditors learned that Safdie had apparently broken with Hirsch, and no longer occupied an office in Hirsch's firm.

Looking back, Flynn thinks the founders never intended to run a magazine, but merely wanted to publish an issue or two and then sell the publication to a large publisher like Conde Nast.

Safdie, reached by phone in Paris, says: "If there were a buyer, of course we'd sell it. It happens every day."

Whatever their intentions, the founders are now fending off former staffers with the same energy they devoted to recruiting just a year ago. When art director Pedersen phoned Hirsch to recover his $18,000, Hirsch suggested he sue, according to Pedersen. "Then he said, 'I doubt you'll be able to afford to do that.' "

Safdie now says that "the people who deserve to be paid will be paid. Everyone is trying to make claims against us, but a lot of them don't deserve to be paid."