LAURA HUNT well remembers the times soon after she divorced Ward Hunt, a scion of the Texas Hunt dynasty. "Friends would call and say: 'I feel so sorry for Ward. We had him over for dinner the other night, and he was so sad.' "
"Meanwhile," she said, eyes rolling, "I was sitting home."
Divorce these days may be as regular as rain, but in the social world ex-wives are still about as welcome as Hurricane Edouard in the Hamptons.
Soon, though, ex-wives everywhere will for the first time have a movie that may change their image, and will certainly give them courage, judging from reviews by Ms. Hunt and four other divorcees who watched special screenings (no men allowed) of "The First Wives Club."
"Women are going to love it," said Susan Tisch, the first wife of Andrew H. Tisch, chairman of the management committee at the Loews Corporation.
The slights. The lack of money. The other, younger, women (called "preschoolers" in the movie). The quest for revenge. Memories of all those indignities and more came rushing back as these ex-wives watched, hooted in laughter and snorted in recognition. Then they nodded in approval as the ex-wives in the movie emerged stronger, more in control and better dressed, with no bitterness -- their own situations precisely, they said. "This will empower women," said Angela Rich, who was until five years ago married to Lee Rich, a Hollywood producer.
"The First Wives Club" -- starring Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton -- does not even open until Friday, but many women have already heard all about it. The first wife of one very wealthy financier, now on his third marriage, declined to attend the screenings, which were arranged by The New York Times for this article. But she admitted that she would see it and had read the 1992 book by Olivia Goldsmith on which it is based. And? "I wish I'd written it," she said. "If you could let me be anonymous . . . " she offered. (Many of the three dozen well-known ex-wives asked to comment about the screening, including Anne Bass, the first wife of the billionaire Sid Bass, and Patricia Kluge, an ex of the billionaire John Kluge, proposed the same terms. Another first wife, who thought about the invitation overnight before saying no, added, "My children are very disappointed in me" for declining. "We're all afraid of looking bitter," Ms. Tisch said.)
"The First Wives Club" is a gleeful, piquant comedy about three rich middle-aged husbands who leave the wives who helped make them for younger, thinner, flashier women. Annie, a classic doormat in denial, is played by Ms. Keaton. Elise, a faded movie star who often resorts to drink and is so given to plastic surgery that she is "a quilt," is played by Ms. Hawn. Brenda, a voluble wiseacre who can't pay her co-op maintenance but encounters her ex buying expensive clothes for his bulimic girlfriend, is played by Ms. Midler.
The husbands -- Aaron, Bill and Morty (Stephen Collins, Victor Garber and Dan Hedaya, respectively) -- are about to feel the heat of "Operation Hell's Fury." (Sample scorn: "Bill is so wrong," his teen-age girlfriend tells his ex, Elise. "You are not Satan.")
Soon, though, the deserted wives want more than revenge. "We've become exactly what the world thinks we are: the three witches," Annie says. They show that if women help one another, they all can triumph. They can even do a credible rendition of "You Don't Own Me," the classic rock hit.
Like "Fatal Attraction" and "Waiting to Exhale," "The First Wives Club" seems destined to spark plenty of animated bedroom chat and dinner-party repartee. "Anybody who has ever been dumped and come home and buried herself in a pint of Haagen-Dazs will love this," said Tracey Gordon, who is 34 and has never been married. She expects to see the film soon after it is released by Paramount Pictures.
Men who believe it is a woman's movie they can avoid may find out differently. "Men are going to go because we're going to bring them," said Ms. Hunt. Ms. Rich agreed. "Men will tolerate it because they'll be embarrassed not to," she said. "But men don't like to see themselves this way. Men like to think they really have fallen in love; they don't like to see that they're really just fools."
But Susan Wexler is more jaundiced. "I didn't find the men in the movie that bad," she said. "They were not as manipulative as some can be." For more than 18 months, Ms. Wexler has fought for lifetime compensation. She has been awarded monthly payments of $13,500 plus child support plus half the marital assets from Allen Finkelson, her second husband.
Mr. Finkelson, a well-known mergers lawyer at the white-shoe New York law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, has fought his ex-wife in court, where he has so far lost despite help from his partners. But he has appealed the judgment. "You had a group of $550-an-hour lawyers trying to destroy a 51-year-old woman's life," contended Ms. Rich, a friend. The case, though less notorious than, say, Ronald O. Perelman's recent split from Patricia Duff, has been the talk of New York's social scene.
For Ms. Wexler, the movie hit home. "It's all about me: the doormat, the quilt," she said. Her first husband married a woman 10 years younger than he, she said, and Mr. Finkelson is now seeing someone much younger, too. "My reaction was, What can I do to make myself look younger again?" she said, hardly looking her age in a short black sheath dress, her blue eyes wide under the brim of a smart black hat.
Although the five women said they were better off now than in bad marriages, they -- like many other women -- were unprepared for the breakups, whose effects ranged from the wacky to the weighty. Ms. Rich said reality sank in for the first time when, heading for Palm Beach, Fla., she arrived at the airport and waited for the "meet and assist" crew that was part and parcel of her marriage to Mr. Rich. It never came. "I missed my flight," she said.
Of course, that was nothing compared with real-world problems, especially the need for money. Just as in the movie, men usually cut off the credit cards and freeze the bank accounts. "I couldn't pay my housekeeper," said Ms. Wexler, who had stopped working to be a full-time wife and care for two stepchildren and two children. "I sold jewelry."
Lynne White, an anchor for "Good Day New York" on WNYW-TV, said she worked throughout her marriage but "hadn't saved, because I was being taken care of." When her husband, Gil Griffin, a lawyer and executive recruiter, pushed her to use mediation as a way of eliminating lawyers' fees, she agreed, but came out with what she said was a bad deal. "I couldn't afford to pay a lawyer, and I jumped at a pretty low offer just to make ends meet," she said.
Indeed, if "The First Wives Club" leaves out some villains, it is the lawyers. "A lot of women can't get representation," Ms. Rich said. Ms. Wexler said she "went to many lawyers who would not talk to me when I mentioned my name." Ms. Tisch said she had to switch lawyers to get one who would watch out for her. "It's an old brotherhood, a fraternity," she said. And Ms. Rich said she had a similar problem: She interviewed 38 lawyers before finding one who would take a case against her husband.
The movie takes place in the gilded precincts of New York, not touching on many other problems of divorce. Suddenly, as Ms. Tisch put it, "our friends were his friends."
"At one time," she said, "I was very hurt by this, but then I woke up and said, 'If you want to be a friend because you'll get a better invitation from him, well, it's O.K.' "
Each of the wives talked about feeling alone, like the characters in the movie. "Their fear is what touched me," Ms. Tisch said. "I can remember that fear, those feelings. It's fear that motivates their actions."
Recalling many of the movie's scenes -- Annie's mother warns her against leaving Aaron, for example -- Ms. Hunt noted that "a lot of women do not have anyone to fall back on."
But in the end, the first wives find aid in each other. "In a divorce, what you're missing is trust," Ms. White said. "If it weren't for my girlfriends, I wouldn't have survived."
Ms. Tisch took it a step further: "I would talk to any woman at any time of day, any hour, and tell her exactly what is about to befall her. It's scary. It's frightening."
Ms. Wexler, too, is up for counseling. "I have three to four phone calls a week from women asking for advice," she said. "The most important thing that got me through this, aside from the mothering instinct, was my friends."
They all could borrow a line from the movie. When, thanks to the women's maneuvers, Aaron complains that he will have to start all over again from scratch, Annie replies, "I know just how you feel."
Photos: Diane Keaton (Annie), Goldie Hawn (Elise) and Bette Midler (Brenda) in "The First Wives Club." (Paramount Pictures) (pg. C1); Susan Wexler: The men in the movie "were not as manipulative as some can be." Lynne White: "If it weren't for my girlfriends, I wouldn't have survived." Angela Rich, left, and Susan Tisch discuss their reactions to "The First Wives Club." (Photographs by Barbara Alper for The New York Times) (pg. C6)