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Midlife Rewrite

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NAOMI BAKA RAS A MESSAGE FOR SHARON STONE, No, not drop dead, you heartless tramp. That was a thought from a year or so ago, when Stone’s highly publicized affair with Baka’s husband, producer Bill MacDonald, broke up their 10-year relationship.

Today, her life with MacDonald seeming like ancient history, Baka has only one word for the blond star of Basic Instinct: Thanks. “You spend years thinking you’re happy,” says Baka. “And then you meet someone and you realize: I didn’t even know what happiness was.”

For Baka, 35, happiness is a big, hairy Rolling Stone reporter turned millionaire screenwriter named joe Eszterhas, 49. She calls him King because, she says, “he’s a master at having people come to him.” He thinks of her as the love of his life because “she’s intelligent, beautiful, loves rock and roll and on occasion rolls a great joint.” The two share a rented Santa Fe-style Malibu home where Eszterhas, whose credits include Basic Instinct, Sliver and Flashdance. bangs out scripts that bring as much as $3 million each. They have a 3-month-old son, Joseph Jeremiah—and plans for a romantic wedding in Maui next month. But if this sounds like the perfect life, consider: Eszterhas says it did not come without “a huge body count. The pain that went into this,” he adds, “was gigantic across the board.”

The first body to be counted would be that of Eszterhas’s wife of 24 years, Gerri, 52, whom Eszterhas left to be with Baka. The mother of the writer’s two other children, Steve, 19, and Susie, 17, signed her divorce papers last week and is spending the summer quietly with her kids in Marin County. The second body could be that of Bill MacDonald, 38. Stone, 36, dumped him in March, when she took up with a 27-year-old directorial assistant on the set of The Quick and the Dead. The jilted producer has since been lying low. “I often wondered how he feels,” says Eszterhas. But his foremost thoughts are with Gerri. Says Eszterhas: “I wish she could see this in terms of life’s complexities and understand that nobody meant anyone any harm. There was nothing malicious, no conspiracy. [Naomi and I] fell in love.”

The twisted tale of love began in February 1993 when MacDonald, married just five months to Baka, fell for Stone on the Los Angeles set of Eszterhas’s thriller Sliver. Within five days, says Eszterhas, MacDonald told him he thought he and Stone had been lovers in a past life. Eszterhas, a friend of both Bill and Naomi, was aghast. “You can’t f—king do this,” he says he told MacDonald. “Don’t blow your marriage over this.”

Days later, however, MacDonald announced to Naomi that he wanted out; by March he was engaged to Stone; and by April his distraught wife, who late last year had her marriage annulled and returned to her maiden name, was tagging along as an invited guest on the Eszterhases’ family vacation. Under the hot Hawaiian sun, Naomi and Joe, along with his family and other friends, played backgammon, swam, talked and relaxed. It wasn’t until one night when the two, in the company of Gerri, took a slow spin on the dance floor of a local club that Eszterhas felt clear-cut romantic rumblings—and fell compelled to act on them. “I had had difficulty not touching Naomi,” he says. “I didn’t want to do it dishonestly.”

The following morning he spoke to his wife and then to his children. “I’ve fallen in love with Naomi,” he said.

He left them, stunned and barely able to speak, and walked into Naomi’s adjoining room in the Four Seasons hotel. “I love you,” he announced. “We’re leaving.”

Naomi says she was dumbstruck. “Part of me said, ‘Maybe this isn’t right.’ Another part of me said, ‘I can’t allow the best thing that ever happened to me to get away.’ ”

Joe gave her little time to sort out her thoughts. “How long will it take you to pack?” he asked her.

“Five minutes,” she said. “I knew. I knew. I was in love with him.”

The two moved to the Ritz Carlton hotel across the island. But the exhilaration of the moment quickly gave way to a more complex reality. “Everybody was in shock,” Eszterhas says. “It was like a car wreck. As a father, I protected my children from all kinds of literal pain,” he adds. “The notion that I was causing them the greatest pain in their lives was very difficult to make peace with.”

To their surprise, both lovers found support from their conservative Catholic families back in their shared home state of Ohio. Naomi’s widowed father, Bernard, a retired 72-year-old carpenter from Mansfield, offered his blessings. And Joe’s father, Istvan, an 87-year-old Hungarian novelist (and also a widower), living in Cleveland Heights, responded with some earthy, old-world wisdom. “Hold on to each other,” he said, “and s—t on the world.”

The younger Eszterhas doesn’t need much encouragement in that direction. He enjoys taking on Hollywood heavyweights and talking about it afterward. Five years ago he defied what he characterizes as goonish “threats” by Mike Ovitz, the head of the CAA talent agency, when he defected to the rival ICM agency. Every time he drives by the CAA building—in his chauffeured stretch limousine—he gives it the finger, he says, “and when my children are in town they do it too.”

A strange sign of solidarity, perhaps, but as Joe and Naomi see it, any sign will do. “It’s very difficult to feel good when you know that your happiness is the cause of misery for other people,” admits Baka, who says she has heard from her ex only once since his breakup with Stone. “He wrote saying he was very, very sorry for the pain he had caused and wished us the best.” After a year working through anger and heartache, Eszterhas, meanwhile, is relieved to say that his relationship with his children goes well beyond cordiality: “We are as close as we were when this all began.”

The emotional ups and downs may have contributed to what Eszterhas calls his creative rampage. Since taking up with Naomi he has completed three screenplays and is also preparing a tell-all about the Sliver-era marriage-go-round that he has sold to Vanity Fair for $50,000. “I’m going through a period of great joy and great pain at the same time,” he says. “Saul Bellow says to seize the day because life is short, and I really believe in that. I desperately want to seize the moment.”

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER

TOM CUNNEFF in Malibu