January 25, 1999 12:00 PM

If Gwyneth Paltrow remembered her mid-1997 engagement meltdown with a certain blond hunk as the Pitts, she was determined to keep her next love affair as low-key as possible. At a press event in New York City last month, journalists were kept at bay while Paltrow enjoyed a kiss and cuddle in the hall with Good Will Hunting and Armageddon star Ben Affleck. But at the mention of his name a cold front swept into the room. “I asked her if she was now the happiest she had ever been,” recalls one reporter, “and she said, ‘Let’s not go overboard.’ ”

She said nothing about man overboard. Paltrow and Affleck, both 26, broke up just after the holidays—even as moviegoers were lining up to see them both in Shakespeare in Love, the critically acclaimed satire about the playwright’s own love life. Even many who knew the pair were caught off guard by the split. The two were together at the Dec. 3 New York premiere of Shakespeare. On New Year’s Eve, Affleck partied without Paltrow in Manhattan, but the pair spent that weekend at a romantic Savannah bed-and-breakfast, The Gastonian. “If they were mad at each other, it sure didn’t show,” says assistant manager Denise Harrison. The breakup is reportedly amicable—a good thing since the two share a circle of friends (Affleck’s Good Will buddy Matt Damon is dating Paltrow’s pal Winona Ryder) and may well bump into each other around the buffet table.

Both have been wounded before. Paltrow, who grew up in Manhattan and the L.A. area as the daughter of actress Blythe Danner and TV producer Bruce Paltrow, was once linked to rock singer Donovan Leitch and actor Robert Sean Leonard. But her love life turned positively stellar when she met Brad Pitt while filming Seven in 1994. Affleck, from a working-class family near Boston, dated high school sweetheart Cheyenne Rothman for many years until 1997. “Women want to take [a] guy and make him different,” he told USA Weekend last summer. “I can bend real far, but then it snaps back.” Maybe Affleck, who was spotted buying gym weights in Manhattan two weeks ago, plans to work out the kinks.

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