JOE ESZTERHAS: FULL DISCLOSURE
I’m a writer.
I’ve written eighteen films. They’ve made over a billion dollars at the box office. You know some of my films: Basic Instinct and Jagged Edge and Flashdance and Showgirls and Jade and Music Box and twelve others.
I’ve written six books. You know some of them too. American Rhapsody and Hollywood Animal were New York Times best sellers. Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse was one of four finalists for the National Book Award. And Crossbearer, A Journey of Faith, the story of my Christian conversion, was on several Christian top-ten lists.
I was born in a village called Csakanydoroszlo, Hungary on the 23rd of November in 1944. I spent my first six years in American and British refugee camps in Austria. I came to the United States in 1950 with my mother and father and grew up on the West Side of Cleveland. I got into a lot of juvenile trouble before I started reading and staying out of the back alleys and the pool halls and the cars that my friends and I had stolen and taken for joyrides.
Much later in my life
when I was the most successful screenwriter in Hollywood, when I was
selling my scripts for three and four million dollars, Time Magazine
wrote: “If Shakespeare were alive today, would his name be Joe
And I laughed and said, “I’m just a shit-ass refugee from the West Side of Cleveland trying to make something of himself in the world.”
I grew up dirt poor with my mom and dad in a flat above a beer joint called Papp’s Bar, where gypsy music and polkas played on the jukebox all day. I spoke Hungarian and went to a bi-lingual Catholic grade school. My parents tried their best to isolate me within their Hungarian immigrant world, but I quickly fell in love with baseball and rock and roll, with the Cleveland Indians and Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry and Elvis and Ricky Nelson. And with a ravishing blonde with great curves named Justine Corelli on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand...and with a song called “Quarter to Three” by Gary U.S. Bonds, which drove all the Hungarians on the street crazy.
I loved my mom,
who was a paranoid schizophrenic, broken by the brutalities she had
suffered in the refugee camps.
And I loved my dad, who was a Hungarian-language novelist and journalist,
a cerebral man, an intellectual who loved his son, Jozsi, his only child
— but had the greatest difficulty showing his love for his
So I grew up in the streets and back alleys of the West Side of Cleveland, got into more and more trouble, almost went to jail, and finally...almost too late...I listened to my father’s advice and started to read. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on: Tennessee Williams and Jules Verne and Hemmingway and Dostoyevsky.
I became an editor of my high school newspaper, where I did a front-page interview with one of my new American heroes, rock and roller Ricky Nelson. I was fired by the priests and brothers of my Catholic high school newspaper for writing a laudatory review of a Tennessee Williams play about a whiskey priest.
I went to Ohio University and became the editor of my college newspaper, The Ohio University Post. I was picked by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation as “The Outstanding College Journalist in America” and went to the White House where I was given a gold medal by Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
I took my first airplane flight on my way to the White House. I wore the first suit I ever owned. I rode in a limousine for the first time. I stayed in the Presidential Suite of the Mayflower Hotel.
I went to work as a feature
writer in Dayton, Ohio for the Journal Herald. The waste baskets in Dayton
were emblazoned with the words: “Dayton — The Cleanest City in America.”
These were the Vietnam war years, and I bought the severed ear of a Viet Cong guerrilla from a Vietnam vet for three dollars.
(When we arrived in New York from the refugee camps, my dad had bought me a bright red apple for five dollars — I had never eaten an apple before).
I worked as a police reporter and feature writer and columnist for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. I was a star at the paper, a disciple of Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe and Dick Schaap of The New York Herald Tribune. I was writing stories that were a part of what was being called “The New Journalism.”
My picture was on the side of the Plain Dealer’s circulation trucks. I won a bunch of local and statewide journalism awards. I was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
I interviewed Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown and Jim Morrison and Jimmy Hendrix and Janice Joplin and Otis Redding.
Strangely, many of those I interviewed died shortly after the interview.
I found the guy who had taken the photographs of the My Lai massacre. I covered the protests that led up to the shootings at Kent State and wrote my first book, (with a Plain Dealer colleague) Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State.
I covered race riots in Detroit and Newark and in the Glenville and Hough areas of Cleveland. I saw a cop, a Hungarian friend of mine named Elmer Joseph, bleed to death a few feet in front of me in Glenville. He was shot to death by a black nationalist (also a friend of mine) named Ahmed Evans, an articulate man in a dashiki who used to drink warm Budweiser beer with me at four in the morning in my office at Central Police Station on Payne Avenue in Cleveland. Ahmed let me try on his dashiki once. He took a long look at me and laughed and laughed and laughed.
When Elmer Joseph died in front of me, I was crouched behind the tire of a car as gunfire played all around me. I was so frightened that I pissed myself.
Thanks to Hunter S. Thompson, who would become my good pal, I went to work at Rolling Stone in San Francisco, where I, the rube from Cleveland, started doing drugs. I did weed and belladonna, something Hunter called Ibogaine, and a whole lot of cocaine.
I loved Rolling Stone. It was the most fun the refugee kid had ever had in his sometimes grim life. Rolling Stone was so stimulating in so many ways. The editor, Jann Wenner, who would appear in the office with a Sherlock Holmes cap, was the most dynamic and charismatic editor I’d ever worked for.
And...this too...many of the women there, young and beautiful, were forced to take their tops off on very hot days. Our office had no air conditioning. And there were so many beautiful and stimulating hot days!
My marriage, of course, was in trouble. I had married a fellow reporter at the Plain Dealer, Gerri Javor, older than I was, whose favorite singer was the forties crooner Dick Haymes. Rolling Stone magazine wasn’t a Dick Haymes kind of place. And I had become a totally and militantly un-Dick Haymes kind of person. You couldn’t really smoke any weed or snort any coke with Dick Haymes warbling away in the background.
When my book Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse, was nominated for the National Book Award, I got a phone call from a lady named Marsha Nasatir, vice president of the United Artists film studio in Los Angeles. She had read my book, thought it cinematic, and asked if I had any interest in writing screenplays.
Writing screenplays?! Hell yes! Oh, hell yes, I did! Gerri and I had two little kids — Steve and Suzi. I was a bartender on the side while I worked for Rolling Stone. (full disclosure: cocaine wasn’t cheap). So I went down to see Marsha at United Artists. She paid for the trip, of course.
I ended up writing a script called F.I.S.T. about the union actions against company corporate goons in the thirties.
The movie starred Sylvester Stallone. Sly and I had a big fight over the script and at the premiere, Gerri wound up punching him in the stomach. The film — my first film! — bombed both commercially and critically.
And I said to Marsha, “What’s going to happen to my career now?” And Marsha said, “Honey, everybody loved the script that you wrote. You’ll get a lot of offers for many more scripts. Sly will become a gigantic star. And Norman Jewison (the director) will have many more big hits.”
I laughed. I said to Marsha, “You mean there’s no responsibility?” And Marsha said, “Honey, this is Hollywood. There is no responsibility in Hollywood.”
She was soon proven right. I would write more films in relatively quick succession: Flashdance and Jagged Edge and Basic Instinct and Sliver and Jade and Showgirls and a bunch of others. Many of them were big box office hits.
The refugee kid from the West Side of Cleveland became the hottest and the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood history. I was selling scripts for record amounts of money: Three million dollars for Basic Instinct; $3.7 million for Gangland (never made); $4 million for One Night Stand (I wound up taking my name off of it); $3.7 million for Showgirls.
After the Basic Instinct sale Variety headlined: “The Dawn of a New Era in Hollywood”. And the CBS Evening News led one night with my record sales. Its helicopter swooped onto the beach to do the interview at the Longboat Key Club in Florida where we were vacationing.
Life had become wretched excess.
I lived with Gerri and Steve and Suzi in Marin County in Northern California. We had a big house in Tiburon overlooking the bay and another classic, historic beach house in Stinson Beach. We took long vacations at the Kahala Hilton in Oahu and at the Kapalua on the Big Island and the Ritz Carlton in Kaui and The Four Seasons on Maui. We spent time at the Dorchester in London and the Ritz in Paris and the Dolder Grand in Zurich.
I had become a public figure. I did the Today Show eight times. I did most every other talk show out there — Charlie Rose and Chris Matthews and Geraldo and Larry King and Judd Rose and 20/20 and on and on.
Women kept coming on to me.
“Are you the guy who wrote Basic Instinct?” a stripper asked me.
I grinned and said yes.
“Can you walk the walk or do you just talk the talk?” she asked.
“I walk the walk,” I said.
“Prove it,” she said.
And so I did.
At the Palmer House in Chicago, a waitress recognized me and said, “I hear you are the worst lay on the West Coast,” she smiled.
“That’s not true,” I grinned.
She laughed at me.
“I can prove it to you,” I said.
She said, “Okay,” with a shy little smile.
And so I did.
But it was all out of control.
I was smoking four packs of Salem Lights a day. I was drinking a bottle of Tanqueray and some Corona on the side. And I’d wake up in the morning sometimes in some fancy hotel suite unsure of who that was in the bed next to me.
In Vegas late one night at The Mirage, I was walking a hot raven-haired young woman to the elevators on the way to my suite. We were equally ripped.
Paul Verhoeven, who had directed Basic Instinct and was about to direct Showgirls, hurried after us from the bar, pulled me aside, and begged me not to take her upstairs.
“She’s crazy, completely crazy,” he whispered, “don’t do this.”
“I know she’s crazy,” I said to him, “but she’s really hot, too.”
So I took her upstairs anyway. I heard Paul say, “You’re crazy too,” before the elevator door closed. Paul was right. She was crazy. Stone fucking crazy, sure, but so...fucking...sexy. She was married to a cop who, she said, was crazy jealous...but I didn’t care. Maybe the fact that she was nuts made me want her more.
My marriage ended when I fell in love — head over heals, madly, completely with a woman named Naomi Baka. She was the girlfriend of a friend of mine. I broke up with my wife, Gerri, in Hawaii. After my friend had broken up with Naomi. After I had introduced him to Sharon Stone, who had starred in Basic and Sliver.
Gerri flew back to Tiburon with Steve and Suzi, who were teenagers now. Naomi and I stayed in Maui for awhile. We were perfectly matched, I quickly discovered. She had been an english and journalism major at Ohio State. She had written speeches at American Express. She was a very talented artist. She was as ethnic as I am — she was Italian and Polish and, not to be overlooked, not easy to overlook, she was gorgeous.
Gerri Eszterhas was devastated. Twenty years later I still deeply regret the pain I caused her and Steve and Suzi. Gerri and I were quickly divorced. She scheduled and underwent a hysterectomy on what would have been our twenty fourth wedding anniversary.
My divorce from Gerri was ruinous financially. All the money that I’d earned from my scripts was eaten up by alimony, child support, and lawyers’ fees.
I had to start all over again — literally. I was broke.
I didn’t care. I just wanted Naomi to be my wife.
Naomi and I had four children very quickly. All of them were boys. I saw it as God’s extended middle finger to those feminist critics who were always accusing me of chauvinism and misogyny.
Take that, you snarling bitches!
Now Naomi and I had created our own basketball team!
Naomi and I have been married for twenty one years.
The four boys have almost all grown up. Joe is 21, Nick is 20, John is 17, Luke is 14...and the shitass refugee kid from the West Side of Cleveland, the old guy in his Old Guys Rule ballcap...is.
We moved from Malibu back to Cleveland in 2001, to the only hometown I’ve ever had, eight years after Naomi and I met. I have a T-shirt that I often wear that says, “Cleveland — You Gotta Be Tough!”
Soon after we came back to Cleveland, I was diagnosed with stage three throat cancer. A man named Dr. Marshall Strome saved my life with a new surgery he had never done but which had been successfully performed in Switzerland.
I stopped smoking and drinking, walked incessantly, and on one hellaciously hot spring day, shortly after my surgery, I sat down on a curb. I was unable to speak. I was streaming with sweat. I was trembling. And I started to cry.
And I heard myself saying, “Please God, please help me.” And that’s how I found God and how God found me and how Jesus Christ became my Lord and Savior and the bedrock of my life.
I go to Mass at Holy Angels church in Bainbridge Township four times a week and I say the rosary every night before I fall asleep.
Imagine that! From Basic Instinct and Showgirls...to Holy Angels church, prayer, the rosary, and Mass.
I’m working on two films: Guadalupe, about the Blessed Virgin Mary. (The New Yorker, announcing it, headlined, “Eszterhas Takes on 450 Year Old Virgin.”)
The other film is Lust, an erotic thriller.
Well, what the hell! You can take the refugee kid out of Hollywood, but you’ll never take Hollywood out of the refugee kid!
Full disclosure: I don’t do drugs anymore and I’ve never cheated on Naomi. I love her as much today as I did the first time I kissed her.