November 11, 2002 12:00 PM

Go ahead, ask all you want, but she won’t take the bait. Heck, Donna Hanover refuses to even utter the R-word in public, much less take a swipe at you-know-who. “I came to the realization that when faced with vicious words and cruel behavior, the best recourse is dignified resistance,” says Hanover, 52, whose nasty split from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani made nationwide headlines. “You decide that you can take the pain and the damage that the powerful will inflict, and you get up and keep going.”

Hanover has clearly taken her own advice, even as her magnetic ex continues to grab all the press. Last month Giuliani, 58, riding high on his gilded post-9/11 reputation and the success of his bestseller Leadership, made more news by announcing plans to marry Judith Nathan, 47, the girlfriend he squired around town while still wed to Hanover. The high road may be Much smoother too now that Hanover has also found romance again. On Oct. 21 she stepped out in public for the first time with her old college flame, Ed Oster, 51, managing partner of a California law firm. “I’m very happy,” says Hanover. “Happy to be moving forward and creating a new life.”

Rekindling a romance with Oster, a divorced father of three, has helped erase the effects of her bitter split. Blind-sided by Giuliani’s decision in May 2000 to announce their separation, and called a career-obsessed, uninterested mother by his high-powered lawyer Raoul Felder, Hanover “was truly, deeply hurt by the way things were handled,” says her good friend Mary Mundinger. Hanover fought back with a court order banning Nathan from the mayor’s mansion and, this July, won a $6.8 million divorce settlement, plus unspecified child support for son Andrew, 16, and daughter Caroline, 13. Yet not once did she lash out at Giuliani or Nathan, whose relationship helped bring about the end of her 18-year marriage. “A lot of people would have washed their dirty laundry in public,” says Charlotte Ford, author of 21st-century Etiquette. “But she just really kept her head high.”

Hanover earned her reputation as a tough cookie early on. The oldest of four daughters born to Robert Kofnovec, 77, a naval aviator, and Gwen, 75, she grew up on military bases in California, Guam and Tennessee and “attended four third-grades and three fifth-grades,” she says. With a master’s in journalism from Columbia University, she got jobs as a news anchor at TV stations in Miami and New York City. In 1982, recently divorced from first husband Stanley Hanover, a lawyer, she went on a blind date with Giuliani, then an associate U.S. attorney. Six weeks later he proposed.

They married in 1984 and were, friends say, wildly in love. But the chill began in 1995, when reports linked Mayor Giuliani to his communications director, Cristyne Lategano-Nicholas. (Both have denied any involvement.) Then came Nathan. As part of her divorce settlement, Hanover got to keep the couple’s four-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where she now lives with the children (Giuliani sees them on alternate weekends and for midweek dinners).

In September she got a call from Ed Oster, reminding her about their 30-year Stanford University reunion. Sweethearts then, they somehow clicked again. “The wonderful thing is I knew what kind of man he was long before either of us had any success,” says Hanover, whose first date with Oster was a stroll through Central Park. “Somebody who you cared for very deeply before, you know a lot about them from the word go.”

Oster still lives in Newport Beach, Calif., but for now “we’re very comfortable with a bicoastal relationship,” says Hanover, who travels the country as host of the syndicated TV show Famous Homes & Hideaways, as well as for occasional acting gigs on shows like Law & Order. The hectic pace “agrees with her,” says actress Cathy Moriarty-Gentile, recently interviewed by Hanover. “She has never looked better.”

Perhaps it’s her exercise regimen (predawn treadmill) or maybe her wardrobe upgrade (Nicole Miller suits and Stuart Weitzman boots). But, after such a rough few years, might it be the look of love? Discreet as always, Hanover does confess to an extra bounce or two in her step. “I do think that I am feeling very cherished,” she says, “so I’m sure that has an impact.”

Alex Tresniowski

Sharon Cotliar in New York City

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