By Tom Gliatto
November 22, 1999 12:00 PM

Last Saturday night, secluded in a favorite booth in Balthazar, a fashionable, amber-lit bistro in downtown Manhattan, Jerry Seinfeld split a celebratory bottle of champagne with Jessica Sklar, the young woman who moments earlier had agreed to become his bride. Too excited even to eat their meals, they spent the remainder of the evening laughing, kissing, talking about their lives, grinning ecstatically and—as they used to say on Seinfeld—yada yada yada.

“It’s pretty amazing,” understated a Sklar friend, reflecting on the development. “It’s about time,” said a pleased Michael Zoulis, a co-owner of Tom’s Restaurant, the Upper West Side eatery that served as the model for Monk’s on Seinfeld. The engagement ends the 45-year-old Seinfeld’s career as a single guy and relaunches him as fiancé to Sklar, a 28-year-old publicist for fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger who last year bolted from a newly minted marriage to the scion of a powerful Broadway theater family.

Still, it has never been easy to imagine wedding bells for the charming but not terribly romantic Seinfeld. He certainly didn’t show a sentimental side in his nine seasons as one of a quartet of self-centered, nitpicky New Yorkers on Seinfeld. In his years since becoming famous, he has had only one other major girlfriend—Shoshanna Lonstein, whom he began dating in 1993, when she was just 17. Among earlier relationships one would find a Long Island woman to whom he was briefly engaged in 1984 (“It was a nutty thing,” he later recalled). Then there was comedian and actress Carol Leifer, a writer for Seinfeld who was also the inspiration for the show’s endearingly difficult Elaine Benes, and Los Angeles public relations consultant Stacy Effron. “In a lot of our conversations about marriage and kids,” recalls Effron of their intermittent dates from 1987 to 1992, “he’d say, ‘Ugh, that’s for normal people, and I’m not normal.’ ”

Or maybe he’s just abnormally cautious about commitment. “I think that Jerry has to be very, very sure before he goes into anything,” says Estelle Harris, who played the bitterly married mother of George Costanza (Jason Alexander). “He just wouldn’t settle. Jerry is not a settler.”

But now he has decisively settled on Sklar, who had left a marriage that was just months old when she became involved with the star in the fall of 1998, causing a brief media ruckus as the runaway bride in his usually tidy universe. “Jerry and Jessica are perfect together,” says Carolyn Liebling, 47, Seinfeld’s sister and manager. Rain Kramer, 28, a Sklar friend since high school, agrees: “When you see them together, you see how happy they are. They’re not hiding how they feel. They let it show.”

The odd thing is that Sklar seemed to have all but disappeared from Seinfeld’s life since late summer, only to pop up now when he popped the question. According to one friend of Sklar’s, she had cooled things while she focused on her job with Hilfiger, which began in August. As recently as last month, in fact, she was dating NBC Today producer David Friedman. “I was very surprised when I heard about [the engagement],” says former Seinfeld producer Peter Mehlman, who adds that the star said nothing when they talked last week. “I had known that they broke up, and you kind of expect to hear at least that they got back together before hearing ‘engagement’—but that’s Jerry. He likes to skip a step.”

When she phoned friends the day after the proposal, Sklar “sounded over-the-moon ecstatic,” says Jan Murray, vice president of corporate communications for Marvel Entertainment, where Sklar worked until June. On Monday morning, Nov. 8, she emerged beaming with her new fiance from the $4.3 million Central Park West duplex he has made home since ending the phenomenal run of his show.

Seinfeld had already registered his joy in his own quirky way. “He’s usually not smiling, just sits in the corner, eats and leaves,” says a waitress at a regular Seinfeld haunt, Isabella’s, where he lunched with comedian Mario Joyner hours before the engagement. “He’s usually nondescript. I noticed this time he was in a good mood. You could hear him laughing. He asked the hostess, ‘How are you doing today?’ and slipped her a 20.”

No wedding date has been set, say those who know the couple, but it will be a small ceremony before the end of the year, and her boss Hilfiger will design her gown. Until then, Manhattan, as always, is Seinfeld’s—and the couple’s—oyster. That includes Tiffany’s, where they picked out a ring Nov. 8—and got stuck in an elevator with curious shoppers. “They truly enjoy New York life,” a mend says of Sklar. “They go to dinner, shopping on Madison Avenue, Mets games. They do the New York thing.”

Now that would have been a shock—if Seinfeld, who grew up in Long Island’s Massapequa with his sister and parents, Kal, the owner of a sign-painting business who died in 1985, and Betty, who now lives in Boynton Beach, Fla., had linked up with someone who would prefer to commute. Sklar, who has her own apartment in Manhattan, also grew up on Long Island, in the tony town of Oyster Bay. The daughter of Karl Sklar, a computer software designer, and his wife, Ellen, she’s the middle sister to Rebecca Shalam, 32, and Elsbeth Sklar, 26. While she was in high school, the family relocated to Burlington, Vt. There, she attended the University of Vermont, studying political science. She graduated in 1993.

It has always been clear to her circle of intimates that Sklar, who arrived in New York City the following year, was destined for big things—most surely in marriage. “She’s never had a shortage of boyfriends,” says one family friend. “She always dated the most popular guys in school, so it’s no surprise she wound up with a celebrity.” Another friend describes her as “very smart. She’s attractive and connected and knows how to get what she wants—and she wanted Jerry.” Still another pal calls her “a Rules girl,” referring to the 1995 bestselling guide to landing a guy. “She plays the game. She laid it on the line and she got what she wanted.”

Maybe so, but the relationship appears to have proceeded by fits and starts, like one of those Seinfeld romantic muddles. She and Seinfeld, who walked away from his classic sitcom last May despite NBC’s bid of $5 million an episode, met at Reebok Sports Club, a deluxe fitness center near Seinfeld’s apartment, shortly before her June 1998 wedding to Eric Nederlander, 34, a prince of the famed family that produces plays and owns Broadway theaters. By October the star and the newlywed were making no attempt to hide their blossoming romance from the public. They were spotted noshing at Zabar’s food emporium, watching the New York City Marathon and canoodling back at the gym. “They’d go their separate ways and do their own thing,” says one gym patron, “but they’d get together and hug and laugh and cuddle and kiss and rib each other.”

Though Sklar maintains her marriage was over before she and Jerry began their romance, her former husband was livid. “I was manipulated, misled and completely caught off guard by Jessica’s infidelity,” he told the New York Post on Nov. 9, 1998. “Jerry and Jessica have no respect for decent values. They deserve each other.” He promptly filed for divorce.

That didn’t deter the doting pair. In the ensuing months the couple vacationed together in Hawaii, skied in Aspen and, says one friend, “danced the night away” at her big sister Rebecca’s wedding last May. But after they returned from a trip to Sicily in August, the relationship cooled. In recent months, Seinfeld, whose most visible appearance postsitcom has been a Broadway stand-up gig taped for HBO in August 1998, seemed to be doing not much more than basking in the fact that he is no longer the overworked star of a major television series. “I hang out on the Upper West Side,” he told PEOPLE last January. “I go to coffee shops. I go to movies. I stroll through the park. I just go all around the city.”

Meanwhile, Sklar had begun dating Today producer Friedman in the past few months, but a relationship never developed. (“That wasn’t serious,” says a close friend of Jessica’s. “I would have met him otherwise.”) And she continued to talk to her first husband, says a friend of Eric Nederlander’s, “telling him she loved her single life—that being single was great.” They even dined together several weeks ago, says the pal.

And yet, according to another friend, Sklar was always hoping for marriage to Jerry. She apparently succeeded that Saturday night at Balthazar. “She calls Eric on Sunday,” says Nederlander’s friend, “to say she’s getting married. He said, ‘I wish you both the best of luck.’ He doesn’t care. He’s been dating. It’s long over.”

Sklar, on the other hand, should hope that life with Seinfeld stretches into the long haul. The comic is “a sweet, great, nice, normal, down-to-earth guy,” says a friend of Shoshanna Lonstein’s. Seinfeld, says Marc Hirschfeld, one of the show’s casting directors, “will be a great husband. He will be a very generous partner.”

And he has so much to be generous with. Worth an estimated $250 million, he can probably count on millions more from the syndication of his TV show. He also has a lucrative deal as a pitchman for American Express.

And, unlike Lonstein, now 23, Sklar will have the chance to know a Seinfeld who isn’t Seinfeld. The star introduced himself to the teenage Lonstein in Central Park in 1993, and soon she followed him out to Los Angeles and enrolled in UCLA. But Lonstein, who now has her own successful line of clothing, wound up lonely and neglected. “I wanted to run around and play,” she told Details this year, while Seinfeld was putting in round-the-clock work on the show.

Even though the star now has time on his hands, there will probably be some challenges for the first Mrs. Seinfeld. “Jerry is a total neat freak,” warns ex-girlfriend Stacy Effron. “Just the way his show depicted him—but even worse in real life. Everything has to be in the right place, right down to the television clicker and the soap next to his kitchen sink.”

Could he handle children? Effron weighs the idea. “He’s wealthy enough now to hire help—butlers, maids, nannies,” she says. “So maybe it’s feasible.”

Tom Gliatto

Diane Clehane, Jennifer Longley, Bob Meadows, Veronica Byrd, Sharon Cotliar and Ivory Clinton II in New York City and Lorenzo Benet, Tom Cunneff, Michelle Caruso and Paula Yoo in L.A.