August 5, 2008
© Photographer: Raycan | Agency: Dreamstime.com
"How a daughter given up at birth learned her father was Joe Eszterhas"
Sunday, August 03, 2008
Plain Dealer Reporter
Joe Eszterhas sits on a big leather couch next to his grown daughter.
It is a quiet moment at the Geauga County home of a writer renowned and reviled for "Basic Instinct" and his other sexually charged movies.
But for him and for her -- father and daughter -- this gentle suburban idyll is far more dramatic than anything he's written.
This is the first time either has spoken publicly about their relationship.
Until 1996, these two were unknown to each other.
Suzanne Perryman, as she is known today, was adopted at birth by others 40 years ago. She moved to Arizona, where she still lives.
After the death of her adopted father in 1986 and the collapse of her first marriage, Perryman was ready to look into the eyes of a blood relative.
She did not know that she was looking for the man viewed as Attila the Screenwriter.
She did not know her biological parents, did not know their names, where they were, what they did or whether they even wanted to see her.
"I grew up very comfortable with the idea that I was adopted," Perryman said. But she wanted to know her own story.
Eszterhas knew he had this daughter and started thinking about finding her in the late '80s. But a lawyer here, a close friend with an adopted son, advised him not to. "If she wants to, she will find you," the attorney said.
Eszterhas was a Plain Dealer reporter in 1967 when his girlfriend became pregnant. They thought it best to put the child up for adoption. They never married and went separate ways after that. The Cleveland Catholic Diocese handled the arrangements.
Perryman already knew of her birth here and the role of the diocese. She contacted Betsie Norris, a former nurse who founded Adoption Network Cleveland 20 years ago after her own successful search for her birth family.
From the diocese, they got what is called "non-identifying information," which included general data about Perryman's birth weight, height and health and vague details about her biological family.
There were no names, but it gave ages, places of birth, ethnicity, religion, education and what her birth relatives did for a living.
One fact leapt off the page: The document described Perryman's father as a writer who had "journalistic abilities," who was blunt and aggressive and driven.
Perryman was beginning to see her own reflection across the years. She described herself then as the successful publisher and editor of trade publications. She is tough and driven, too.
leads to a name
With the profiles, she and Norris checked the records of who gave birth the day Perryman was born. They were able to eliminate women whose characteristics were different from the description.
They were down to two names and needed a few more details to identify her birth mother. Norris went to the Cuyahoga County Courthouse. She would phone Perryman later to tell her the street was blocked off and the courthouse closed. "I think they were filming a movie," she told Perryman.
They were. It was "Telling Lies in America" - Eszterhas' autobiographical movie released in 1997. He wasn't there for the filming that day, but the trail that led to him was in that courthouse.
First it led Perryman to her birth mother, a successful set designer in New York who tried to prepare her daughter for the next leg of her quest. She told Perryman: "It's not going to be easy. He has a public persona. He's Joe Eszterhas."
"I said, 'Who's that ?' " Perryman recalled. She went to a public library, where she found at least a hundred references to Eszterhas in major magazines.
She opened a People magazine first. There was a picture of Eszterhas in top primal form, wearing a wife-beater undershirt and a Viking raider's wild mane.
She gasped and slammed the magazine shut. She thought he was a Hell's Angel.
He was no biker, but he was close - a rough-hewn Falstaff infamous for his temper and tenacity, battling the hegemons of Hollywood, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking rake in the midst of an ugly divorce.
That, at least, was the public persona her mother warned her about - but not the man she met.
Perryman found a reserved man who readily called her "daughter." "He was warm, he was gentle," she said of their first face-to-face meeting.
That was in 1996 at his mansion high on a Malibu hill, across from Bob Dylan's estate. First glimpse left Eszterhas with no doubt about Perryman's identity.
"She didn't resemble my mother -she looked exactly like her," he writes in his new book about rediscovering his faith, "Crossbearer," which goes on sale Sept. 2.
"Without his influence in her life, she was more like him than his other biological children," said Joe's current wife, Naomi.
He and Perryman felt an instant connection, but both held back - she was awed by his renown and did not want him to think she wanted anything; he because of his own insecurities.
Father and daughter stayed in touch for a while, then lost contact. By 2001 they had not talked for four years. Perryman had given birth to her first daughter, and Joe and Naomi had moved back to Ohio from California, to raise their sons.
Around then, Perryman saw Eszterhas on TV talking about his battle with throat cancer the year before, and she called him.
Today, he describes their relationship as "still a work in progress."
But progress it has, from a four-year hiatus to talking at least once a week. "He's always there, and we talk a lot," she said in his Bainbridge Township home last week. "There's a connection there that I didn't have with my adopted father," whom she said she loved very much.
They became even closer after Perryman's two daughters were diagnosed with mitochondrial disease, a degenerative condition that weakens the body's cells and attacks major organs.
She said doctors in Arizona missed the diagnosis, but Eszterhas got his granddaughters to the Cleveland Clinic, where the disease was identified. It has no cure, but there are treatments, and now they come to the Clinic two or three times a year.
"I felt protected by his presence and calmed by his presence," Perryman says of her father and his role in the diagnosis. "That experience definitely cemented the bond that had been formed."
Next spring they will talk about that bond.
Adoption Network Cleveland asked Eszterhas to be keynote speaker next April when the American Adoption Congress convenes its annual conference here.
The coalition wants legislation to open records for adult adoptees so other Suzanne Perrymans will have an easier time finding their birth parents. States with open records, unlike Ohio, have higher adoption rates, research indicates.
Eszterhas wants Perryman at his side then, so both can tell their stories.
Here's the movie trailer:
Said Perryman: "He started out just being my friend. His attitude, it changed along the way, and I concluded that I really love this guy."
Said Eszterhas: "She is absolutely in my heart, and when your kids are inside your heart, they are never far from you."
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