Photo by Jeff Lipsky
En español | The blinding headache came first. Seventy-two hours later, unable to bear the pain, Sharon Stone was rushed to a San Francisco ER. For the next nine days, she drifted in and out of a coma before doctors discovered that her vertebral artery, which runs through the neck into the base of the skull, had ruptured. "By then I had bled into my spinal column, my brain, and my facial cavity at a steady pace," she says, remembering those frightening days in the fall of 2001. "My brain was pushed forward into my face. I'd lost 18 percent of my body mass." Stone underwent a seven-hour procedure as surgeons stabilized the torn artery with 22 platinum coils and stopped the bleeding. "They saved my life," she says.
See also: 2012 Movies for Grownups Awards
For a woman blessed with such extraordinary beauty and talent — she received an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe award for her performance in Casino in 1995 — Sharon Stone has endured almost unfathomable losses, which she discussed candidly for the first time with AARP The Magazine. Over the past dozen years she has suffered two miscarriages; undergone a bitter divorce from her second husband, San Francisco newspaper editor Phil Bronstein; lost a custody battle with Bronstein over their adopted son, Roan, now 11; witnessed her beloved father, Joseph Stone, succumb to esophageal cancer; and endured critical and commercial flops that slowed her once-soaring film career.
Now a single parent to two more sons she adopted in infancy — Laird, 6, and Quinn, 5 — Stone says the hardships have strengthened her. "My friend says this prayer: 'Thank you, God, for everything you gave me, and thank you more for everything you took.' I believe that." Today, at 53, she's a woman transformed. "People call and want me to play parts that I used to play. I'm like, 'You have no idea what I have been through!' "
Yet this independent, uncommonly smart woman remains very much a country girl, a sturdy Pennsylvanian taught by working-class parents to believe in herself and to give back to others. Those blue-collar roots are the source of her resilience. "I thought I'd never be okay again," says Stone, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award in February at AARP The Magazine's Movies for Grownups® Awards gala. "But you can get okay — though you have to have fortitude."
In tiny Meadville, Pennsylvania, kids drove tractors to school, and families drained freshly hunted deer carcasses by hanging them from swing sets. Stone was the second oldest of four children, and her father, who worked double and triple shifts in the local tool-and-die factory, was an unlikely feminist. "My dad was outspoken before Gloria Steinem," Stone says. "He would pull me off the playground, saying, 'You're letting those boys beat you. You could be winning that game. Why aren't you?' " When he and Stone's mother, Dorothy, a secretary, saved enough money to start their own small tool-and-die business, Joseph hired a woman die sinker as his sole employee.
Because Stone was, she says, "a peculiar child," her parents had her IQ tested at age 5 and learned she was gifted. She was immediately promoted to second grade, but school administrators decided she wasn't fitting in and moved her back to first. "They put me and my stuff in my desk and pushed me down the hallway," she says. "I can still hear the sound of that desk scraping against the floor." At age 15, while still in high school, she started courses at nearby Edinboro University, where she studied creative writing on a scholarship. (She left just short of graduating to become a Ford model in New York City, but in 2007 was awarded an honorary doctorate of philosophy in public service.) "She's got about a 190 million IQ," says good friend James Woods, who appeared with her in Casino. "You spend the afternoon with her and you'd think you're at Yale. She is interested in the world. There's no conversation you can't have with her."
Stone initially didn't like being smart. "It was like being a freak," she says. But her freethinking Methodist parents encouraged her to explore her many interests, among them religion. Describing herself as a Buddhist today, Stone nonetheless claims an abiding belief in a traditional God. And long before she revealed an interest in acting — "I kept a lid on it in Meadville because it would have been like saying, 'I want to be an astronaut' " — Stone dreamed of being a mother with a house full of kids. "I always thought I would adopt," she says. "Even when I was young, I used to look up how to adopt."
So at the height of Stone's career, after she'd landed her breakout, sexually provocative acting role in Basic Instinct in 1992 and won acclaim for Casino, she moved to San Francisco in 1998 to settle in with second husband Bronstein (her first marriage, to producer Michael Greenburg, ended in 1987) and start a family. While the couple tried getting pregnant in the traditional way, they also met with attorneys to start the adoption process. Stone, who has a lupus-related rheumatoid factor that can cause problems in sustaining a pregnancy, had suffered a miscarriage some years earlier and, with Bronstein, endured two more, both at five months.
The sad memories bring tears to her eyes. "The last time I lost the baby," she says, "I went into 36 hours of labor. While we were at the hospital, our adoption attorney called."
Bronstein and Stone returned the call on their way home and learned that they'd been approved to adopt an infant. "I thought, 'This is such a godsend,' " Stone says. " 'This is so right.' " When Roan Joseph Bronstein was born on June 1, 2000, Sharon Stone finally became a mother.
Her brain hemorrhage — doctors were unable to determine the cause — occurred 15 months later. She spent the next eight months in bed. "I came out of the hospital with short- and long-term memory loss," says Stone. "My lower left leg was numb. I couldn't hear out of my right ear. The side of my face was falling down. I thought, 'I'll never be pretty again. Who's going to want to be around me?' "
Her arduous recovery period was complicated by problems in her marriage. Stone says she can't pinpoint when they began nor what caused them. "He just didn't see me, talk to me, look at me," she says of Bronstein. She now believes "his initial intention with me was probably corrupt. I was suckered. I'm embarrassed to say that."
Stone was invited to serve on the jury at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2002. "Going into an environment of film, which I knew and where I felt supported, really, really helped," she says.
But her most difficult struggle was yet to come. In 2003, Bronstein filed for divorce (he has since remarried and has two children with his new wife), and Stone moved back to Los Angeles, where on her own she adopted Laird in May of 2005, then Quinn in June of 2006. Bronstein and Stone initially shared custody of Roan, settling on a two-year rotation with each parent. But a San Francisco judge awarded Bronstein primary physical custody in 2008, ruling that it would be disruptive to move the boy from his Bay Area community back to Los Angeles to live with Stone. Offering an explanation for how she lost the battle for her son, Stone says, "I had had a brain hemorrhage and was an actress who had made sexy movies." She forces a laugh. But the ordeal brought her, literally, to her knees. "I would go to these [philanthropic] events where I had to get on stage. I would be in the wings, with people looking at me, my head on the floor, praying: 'God, please help me. I know I have to go out there and raise money. But I've lost my child, I've lost my health, I've lost everything.' I was just broken."
Photo courtesy Justin Arana
Healing came from helping others. Stone points to her father for inspiring her philanthropic instincts. "My dad always wanted to make sure people were cared for," Stone says. Before flying to Los Angeles for cancer treatments 10 years ago, he shoveled the snow off several of his neighbors' driveways. (Later he and Dorothy moved into Stone's guesthouse in the Hollywood Hills, where Joseph died two years ago, his daughter by his bedside.) "I was lucky to have my dad in my life," Stone says quietly. "As crazy as things got, I always had him to put his hand on my shoulder."
Personal experience also fueled Stone's passion for causes. In the mid-'80s, as a young actress, she traveled to Zimbabwe to appear in a pair of films, and witnessed utter poverty for the first time. "I'm certain that's why I have this understanding of what aid workers face," she says. "I understand what it's like to go to hospitals and there's no medicine, and the best thing you have to give the patients is compassion."
In 1993, after Stone's acting coach Roy London died of AIDS-related causes, her drive to make a difference became even more heartfelt, and she signed on as chair for amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, in 1995. She has used her fame and a knack for auctioning off ingenious items, including kisses from herself and George Clooney, to raise $300 million for the organization. "She's probably one of the greatest fund-raisers that ever was," says her Basic Instinct costar, Michael Douglas. "This lady can raise money. She's very dedicated, speaks very well on her feet, and, hey, God knows she can be seductive. I'm sure a few gazillionaires have coughed up more than they expected to a charity for the chance to cozy up to her."
Stone is critical of nonprofit leaders who "rotate in and out and blow their ego all over the place while you're really trying to get money allocated. I've stayed for a very long time because the mission was more important to me than the headaches."
Sometimes her activism has caused headaches, as when China banned her films after she suggested the 2008 Sichuan earthquake might have been "karma" for the government's policies against Tibet. Still, she soldiers on, working to bring clean drinking water to third world countries. For that charity, called Drop in the Bucket, she traveled to Uganda. "I went to refugee camps where there's no food, no water, nothing," she says. "I saw 4-year-olds with babies on their backs, and no parents. You take those kids home in your heart."
Lately Stone is focusing her charity work on the military, creating a Facebook page to support returning veterans. "She's always got her heart open," says Dr. Charles J. Sophy, medical director for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and a longtime friend. "She's been all over the world and seen close up what it means to be homeless, or dying of AIDS, or to need water. And she's just relentless. She'll call me up and say, 'I know this kid — can you try to get him into a [drug-] treatment center and I'll pay for it?' She's an amazing person."
"I've made humanitarian causes and my children much more my priority than the Hollywood scene, being liked and getting movie parts," says Stone, who's had more than 40 film roles. "Besides, I haven't always been good in my roles. And I don't think I had a well-directed career."
Because she was so inordinately good-looking (and at times reputed to be a diva), Stone risked being typecast early in her career. "Sharon doesn't suffer fools gladly," says Michael Douglas. "That's intimidating for some people. And it's not her fault that she's so beautiful."
Adds James Woods: "Some ladies in the business are icons, but there's lots of spackling that goes on. Sharon rolls onto a set at 5:30 a.m., beautiful with sleep stuff still in her eyes. It's wonderful that as gorgeous as she is, the industry finally recognized that she's a really good actress."
That happened with Casino. Says Martin Scorsese, her director on the film: "Working with Sharon was a great creative experience because she wanted to get out of her comfort zone. She knew that was where she was going to find her character — and did she ever find her! It was the kind of experience you look for with an actor: a journey into unexplored territory to illuminate a mystery."
Whether Stone will revisit such an acting journey remains to be seen — but she's fine with that. "If I'm not going to be a big movie star again, then guess what? That wasn't my destiny."
These days Stone credits her Buddhist philosophies with easing her suffering. "I don't blame anyone else for what happened to me," she says. "But once you've had your life burn down, it takes time to be a phoenix. You have to stand in stillness long enough that the balls stop moving, and love and forgive yourself. At a certain point you can say, 'I also made a lot of great choices in my life. And now, if I want to put the balls back in motion, how would I do that?' " She offers a satisfied sigh. "What was an endless, desperate plea has become an endless, peaceful walk. I am so free, so blessed. I have the most gorgeous children."
She no longer beats herself up over losing custody of her oldest son. "You have to get over those emotions and be a good mother," she says. Roan comes to Los Angeles for monthly weekend visits — "My main concern is that I support him, love him, and am steady," she says. For his 11th birthday, she gave him her father's old tools and had a workbench built for him in the garage. On a recent visit, he built wooden armor for Quinn's tricycle.
"I'm loving raising my kids," says Stone, showing off pictures on her phone. "Quinn is in junior kindergarten, and he's very exclamatory! Like a little FBI agent, he tells you everything that's happening, so I call him Agent Quinn. 'Mom! Toots pooped in the yard!' 'Thank you, Agent Quinn.' And Laird is like a rocket. He came home with his violin from school yesterday and played it all night. He's a big romancer: When you talk to him on the phone, he's like, 'I'm in love with you, Mommy.' "
Stone thinks she's too old to raise another infant but wouldn't rule out adopting an older child, or, say, meeting a guy with kids and "incorporating his family into mine." Yet she denies seeking a romantic relationship. "I'm not just going to be with a guy so there's a guy in my life," she says. Besides taking care of her kids, she's got a few movie roles in the pipeline, she's writing lyrics with musicians, and her plate is satisfyingly full. But if, someday, a man shows up at her door and says, "I want you to be everything you ever wanted to be," she'll let him in. Otherwise, she says, smiling, "I'm good with just me."
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