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Fiction into fact

By
KARIN DAVIES

LONDON -- Writer Jilly Cooper's life reads likes a scene from one of her best-selling novels -- a sexy wife, her cheating husband and his beautiful mistress trapped in a web of passion and betrayal, jealousy and revenge.

The truth became publicly known when Jilly told all to a Sunday Express columnist about her husband Leo's affair with a glamorous woman in London. He revealed only that there had been a 'marital hiccup.'

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Another one-time Fleet Street gossip columnist was not so discreet. Inspired by the hiccup, he invited Jilly to lunch. Her confession appeared on two pages of the scandal sheet Today as 'the 'dalliance' that tore Jilly Cooper apart after 29 years of loving Leo.'

The novelist admitted her 'dark suspicion' had turned her into a combination of the KGB and Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. 'Suspicion took over. I would check his credit card receipts.'

'Suddenly, I started to feel like a character out of my own books,' Jilly said. 'I was so jealous at the time. I wanted to be loved the best.'

The scandal has attracted much media attention in the past month.

Jilly is a prolific and well-known writer in Britain -- her novels include such tantalizing titles as 'Rivals,' 'Love,' 'Riders,' and 'Octavia.' She specializes in stories of the type that her life has come to mirror.

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In what she now considers a prophetic moment, Jilly once wrote, 'One of the greatest shocks of Julia Nicholson's life was discovering that being married did not stop you from falling in love with other people.'

The Coopers' marriage was one of England's most famous -- largely because Jilly wrote dozens of columns about it in The Sunday Times in the 1960s.

'I suppose I tended to celebrate my perfect marriage too much,' she more lately has said.

But friends, too, have spoken warmly of their love for each other and of the fun of being in their company of the visually mismatched couple -- Leo, a balding military publisher with a bit of a paunch, and Jilly, vivaciously youthful at 53 and given to wearing seductively tight dresses.

Jilly has succeeded in casting herself as the scorned wife fighting to save her marriage, which has galled Leo's ex-mistress, Sarah Johnson.

Finally, she scratched back.

'I am the 'dalliance' referred to in Today's story on Leo and Jilly Cooper's marriage ... (though I don't see how the word can cover an eight-year relationship),' Sarah wrote in The Guardian.

Sarah, a straggly blonde with dark roots, said she met Leo through her publisher boss. She resisted his entreaties to have an affair with him for two year before succumbing.

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She confessed to the humiliation of going to Leo and Jilly's country home, 'honestly believing that if we all sat down and discussed it, something could be worked out.' She spent the night -- apparently sleeping alone -- and was spent packing the next day.

'I feel, in all honesty, that my suffering has been and will be the greatest, but that it's of little importance to anyone. I do object, though, to Mrs. Cooper continuing to rub salt in the wound by her everlasting undressing in public.'

Leo dismissed her article as 'a load of old cobblers' and Jilly has chosen to ignore it.

Still wedded, Leo and Jilly have gone on vacation together, leaving the last chapter to the gossips.

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