By Nicholas Kralev
The Financial Times Magazine
April 29, 2000
SAN FRANCISCO — Just after 3 pm on an unseasonably hot spring day, an elegant black sports car pulls up in front of a posh downtown hotel in San Francisco, and out steps Sharon Stone. Sporting a stylish red scarf, she takes off her sunglasses and walks toward a virile-looking man in a dark suit and cowboy boots. This is Phil Bronstein, her husband of two years and executive editor of the San Francisco Examiner.
Stone and Bronstein then sit down for their first interview together since their wedding on Valentine’s Day, 1998. At the time, gossip columnists were quick to give their marriage no more than a year. They were wrong, but the couple acknowledge the difficulties of a marriage involving two of the most fickle of all professions.
“You work really, really hard at it, because that’s what’s required for a successful relationship,” Stone says, once the waiters in the hotel’s restaurant finally retire, having assured her of the pleasure of her presence. “We’re old enough to realise that you get what you pay for. If you live in an ethical, loving relationship with your partner and they do the same, you’ll probably be fine.”
Stone and Bronstein have both been married before — twice, in his case. But Stone’s fame has a highly combustible quality Bronstein is unlikely to have encountered before. One of a handful of Hollywood stars able to draw audiences on the strength of their name alone, she is known for playing strong women who often spark controversy and challenge norms. Her overnight success in the 1992 film “Basic Instinct” where she played a cold-blooded, bisexual serial killer, has concentrated scrutiny on everything she’s done since.
She is used to the media frenzy: a helicopter took to flying so low across the backyard of her Beverly Hills home that it made waves in the fishpond. “In a business environment,” she says, “there is an agreement about what we are doing, so I play ball and the media play ball. But when I’m in my private life, it’s up to me to decide whether or not I want to participate.”
It is wrong, she continues, to put a relationship under a microscope. “You have to understand that your partner will make mistakes, intentionally or unintentionally. But you have to take a bigger look and see if that person makes a genuine effort to be the best partner they can be.”
For 49-year-old Bronstein, the unusual public display of his private life has been a disturbing novelty. Nothing had prepared him for it. Born in Atlanta, bitten by the journalism bug in his late teens, he had worked for several local papers around San Francisco before joining the Examiner in 1980. He spent most of the next decade abroad, as the paper’s first, and last, foreign correspondent. He chronicled revolutions in the Philippines and El Salvador, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1986 for his coverage of the fall of the Marcos government.
He’s serious about journalism — sometimes, before he met Stone, he used to sleep in his office — and holds strong views about the subsequent decline of foreign coverage in the US media. “The end of the cold war meant the end of the sense [Americans] had that they were directly involved in foreign conflicts. There’s a perception that their tax dollars are not involved. Conflict has become much more tribal — much more political, but less global.
“When I went to Central America, there was a lot of confusion about which side we [the US] were supposed to be on, which guerrilla group we supported. Now it’s even more confusing — not because people aren’t intelligent enough, but because life is getting more complex. Things like technology have more impact on our lives, and what’s happening in Burma or Kosovo is of less interest.”
Behind the stories Bronstein filed from the Philippines was the poorly kept secret of Imelda Marcos’s fondness for him. In a 1990 article in the Examiner’s magazine, entitled “Dinner with Imelda”, Bronstein described an encounter with the former First Lady — their chairs “inches apart, knees almost touching”. He visited her during her exile in Hawaii, and she shared with him her “hopeless dreams of sneaking back to the Philippines and running for Congress”. They even agreed on a code she would use to call him and let him know when she was going.
But he says the rumours that they were having an affair were completely untrue. “Imelda had a way of dealing with American journalists, particularly men. It was a fascinating and occasionally effective method. It was just her way — it had nothing to do with me personally.”
Back in San Francisco, “more humane but also more detached, more cynical but stubbornly naïve”, he began climbing the editorial ladder of the Examiner. In July 1991, he was named the paper’s managing editor. Five months later, he got the top job in the newsroom, when he was made executive editor.
Although he had been one of San Francisco’s most colourful characters before marrying Stone, he says that he now understands much better what invasion of privacy means. “On the world stage, I’m Mr Sharon Stone,” Bronstein wrote in a magazine article last year. “When you’re both in the news and of the news, you realise pretty fast that celebrity-griping is not just the passive-aggressive whining of notables… There really is a scorching white heat of the celebrity-media spotlight, that bizarre world where Franz Kafka and Lewis Carroll meet, where nothing is recognisable and everything is out of proportion, and it’s all public and inescapable.”
Bronstein now says: “The great untold secret of our profession is: We don’t always get it right. But,” he adds, meaningfully, “people make stuff up.” One of those inventions is his nickname, “El Macho”, coined by a New York tabloid. Bronstein says that no one had ever called him that before, yet it became his common appellation. Even his wife started using it.
His favourite “story” that never happened is an Irish newspaper’s account of Stone’s purchase of a home in Ireland. The article described her five visits there, the hotels she stayed in and the bar where she finally made up her mind to buy it. All fiction.
The couple were less amused by tabloid stories of her pregnancy, which were based on nothing more than Stone’s publicist responding, to a reporter, that she didn’t know when Stone’s last period had been. “As an editor,” Bronstein wrote in the same piece, “I’d have to say that newsworthiness and accuracy would enter into my own decision to publish a story about someone being pregnant.”
Stone and Bronstein had first met in June 1997. They were “set up” by Stone’s producer on the San Francisco set of “Sphere”, in which she played opposite Dustin Hoffman. Stone was not happy at the contrivance. “I found it completely humiliating because it felt like a Macy’s give-away sale. I was really angry and irritated.”
“And irritating,” Bronstein joins in.
“I had very mixed feelings,” she continues. “I’d read his stories before — that’s why I agreed so reluctantly to the meeting. He was devastatingly handsome and I thought he was a wonderful writer, which was very intimidating. Plus, he had quite a reputation for being a bon vivant.”
But by February 14 the following year, romance became marriage. To the surprise of guests at their Valentine’s Day party, they not only announced their wedding, they actually got married, then flew off on honeymoon in a jet loaned by Warner Brothers.
Their marriage made headlines around the world, but in the groom’s own paper it was worth only a picture. Unsurprisingly, the Examiner was blasted by the San Francisco Chronicle, the city’s other paper and the largest daily in Northern California, for imposing a “news blackout” on the story, just because the paper’s editor was the story.
This was, ethically, a tricky time for both Bronstein and the Examiner’s managing editor, Sharon Rosenhause — the “real Sharon”, as she jokingly calls herself. Rosenhause, formerly an editor at the tabloid New York Daily News, now says: “There is a pretty fundamental conflict here, and I don’t want a personal relationship to get into paper coverage. No question, Sharon Stone has star power, but we have to walk a very fine line.” She adds that the paper has even used wire service reviews of Stone’s movies, “to take the pressure off our critic”.
Bronstein says that he and Rosenhause decided that she would rule on anything that had to do with coverage of the actress. “There was no discussion between us on if, and how, the wedding would be covered. What I did was facilitate the paper getting a picture before anyone else, because I was damned if someone else was going to get a picture of my wedding before my own newspaper.”
While Bronstein was balancing the private and public sides of his marriage, he was also caught up in what has been called the “San Francisco newspaper war”. The Hearst Corporation owns the Examiner, which became its flagship publication back in 1887, but has been trying to sell it for years. Bronstein, consequently, had to deal with a staff who lived in perpetual fear of losing their jobs. A further serious complication is that, for years, the future of the Examiner has been bound up with the fortunes of the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Chronicle, owned by the San Francisco Chronicle Company, and the Examiner have shared publishing facilities since 1965, but have always been bitter editorial rivals. In recent years, the Examiner’s circulation has dropped well below the Chronicle’s; current figures put the former’s at 120,000, compared with the latter’s 468,000. Last August, Hearst announced that it had decided to purchase the Chronicle for $660m (£418m) and sell the Examiner. Last month, it revealed a buyer for its title in the shape of a Chinese family called Fang, which owns 16 free local newspapers. Hearst also committed itself to giving the Fangs a $66m subsidy over three years to help with publishing costs.
The announcements provoked uproar among some of San Francisco’s politicians, who have often been critical of the Examiner’s coverage. Clint Reilly, a former candidate for mayor of San Francisco and an unsuccessful bidder for the Examiner, filed a lawsuit, claiming that Hearst’s agreement with the Fangs was a “sham” that would lead to the paper’s death and give Hearst a monopoly in one of the US’s most competitive markets. Both deals are currently on hold pending the outcome of the lawsuit, which is due to be heard in court on May 1.
(Bronstein had a well-publicised spat with Reilly in 1993. The two scuffled when Reilly went to the Examiner to complain about the paper’s mayoral coverage and departed with a broken left ankle requiring surgery and a metal plate in his leg.)
“There have been more twists and turns in this case than in the Pacific Coast Highway,” Bronstein says of the newspaper war. “It’s true we’ve been the underdog for some time in the market, but we are very competitive. People are used to it.”
Bronstein, who is expected to move to the Chronicle with most of his colleagues if the Fangs take over the Examiner, says he has no ambitions to be publisher or move to a paper in another city: “I’ve enjoyed being an editor immensely, and San Francisco is a spectacular place to live in.” But running a newspaper on the doorstep of Silicon Valley isn’t easy. The Examiner has already lost quality people to online publications, where the pay is much higher. “You are living in the past,” he acknowledges, “if you think you can rely on people’s love for their craft to keep them from taking jobs for twice the money and stock options.”
The job has also taken its toll on his health. Not long after he married Stone, he was rushed to hospital with a heart attack. Stone, who was then shooting “Beautiful Joe” in Canada, flew home as soon as she could. Bronstein was in intensive care for a couple of days; “I was there all the time,” she recalls. She brought him home, and was soon back at the airport on her way to the film’s Vancouver set. But, after days without sleep, she collapsed in the airport lounge, and her doctor ordered her home.
She confesses, in fact, to having taken a lot of time off in the past couple of years to be with her husband. She now feels a need to do more acting — her latest role, a lesbian trying to have a child with her partner, is in the TV film “If These Walls Could Talk 2”, which also stars Vanessa Redgrave. But good roles for women over 40 are harder to come by, she laments.
“Do you think anybody likes to be rejected when they feel they’ve reached the height of their understanding of what they are doing?” she demands, with some asperity. “When you are 40 as a woman, it’s like a world is revealed to you in a way that never happened before. That phrase, ‘Life begins at 40’, there’s a reason for it. There is fullness about your choices in life, and richness that’s different and wonderful. And I’m in a relationship where I feel I have a place. I’m not self-doubting and desperate.”
Stone has climbed a long way to reach this position. She’s the second of four children, born to a working-class family in the small town of Meadville, Pennsylvania, where she seemed “eccentric”, she says, compared with everybody else. “I didn’t fit in. I didn’t think like the other people, and there wasn’t a group that liked me.”
She says that her parents, however, have always been very supportive. “I don’t think it’s always easy for them, because they still live in that environment and still have to deal with the approval rating in their small town. Sometimes they have to fight for me.”
In fact, her first job was her mother’s idea. At 18, after dropping out of college, she became a Ford model in New York, earning $500 a day. After three years of making mostly TV commercials in New York, Paris and Milan while studying acting on the side, she set off for Los Angeles. Her first part was in the 1980 Woody Allen film, “Stardust Memories”.
In spite of the public’s idea of her “instant” success, it took her more than 10 years to make it in Hollywood. “I was only getting hired in those really crappy movies. I was in what is still considered the best acting class in LA, so I was doing all the great stuff there, but then I went out to work, doing incredibly stupid movies.”
The smashing success of “Basic Instinct” — it made about $500m — and especially the famous leg-crossing scene which Stone shot without any underwear, has made her name imperishable. But after a decade of bimbo roles in B-movies, no one, including herself, was quite sure how well she could act. “I didn’t have any technical skills when I did those movies, and, because I did them for so long, I didn’t know myself whether I had any talent. Even when ‘Basic Instinct’ came out, I wasn’t sure I had talent. I knew I’d learnt my craft, but I wanted to prove to myself that I had real talent.”
It took her three more years and seven films to do so. Her role as a call girl-turned-Las Vegas mom in “Casino”, the 1995 Martin Scorsese film in which she co-starred with Robert De Niro, brought her not only high critical acclaim but a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination.
She didn’t go to the Academy Awards this year. She watched the ceremony on television with Bronstein and seven friends in their new house in San Francisco. Stone, an Academy member, had voted for Hilary Swank, the star of “Boys Don’t Cry”, in a role about confused sexual identity, and was delighted to see her win.
“There is a point,” she enthuses, “when a performance goes beyond acting and reaches a state of beingness, in which actors set themselves aside to make space for the character they are becoming. That’s the most difficult accomplishment — to put yourself, your thoughts, judgments, your sense of integrity, of right and wrong, your impulses completely aside and allow yourself to be guided by another sensibility — it’s very scary, and for an actor that young to do it so wholly and completely is amazing.”
Swank is 25 and Stone is now 42. Given her earlier comments about middle-aged actresses, I wondered what she thought of the 46-year-old Kathleen Turner playing Mrs Robinson in the London production of “The Graduate”? She hadn’t heard of it. Well, Turner, I began, plays almost an entire scene nude on stage…
“Yeah!” Stone cheerfully interrupted. “There’s a new place for me! They are calling for me…”