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.