From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
IT COULD HAVE BEEN A SKIT OIN SEINFELD. Real-life Jerry Seinfeld, comedian, TV star and life observer, was strolling through Central Park one day in May 1993 when he spotted a stranger he now calls "the most wonderful girl in the world." Seinfeld, then 38, sallied over, made small talk and went away with the telephone number of Shoshanna Lonstein—then 17 and a senior at the private Nightingale-Bamford School in Manhattan.

Seinfeld says it was a simple case of acquaintance-making, with "the age issue," as he calls it, immediately "forgotten." Other people, however, didn't forget it. Howard Stern homed in on the May-August aspect of the relationship when the radio host interviewed his old friend last spring. "So," Stern said, feigning moral indignation, "you sit in Central Park and have a candy bar on a string and pull it when the girls come?"

Amazingly, Seinfeld, master of his comedy domain, was flustered. "She's not 17, definitely not," he initially insisted. Then, returning to the Stern show a month later for another attempt at spin control, he still seemed a bit defensive. "I didn't realize she was so young," he said. "This is the only girl I ever went out with who was that young. I wasn't dating her. We just went to a restaurant, and that was it."

Except that, as time passed, the relationship changed. For months now, Seinfeld and Lonstein have quietly gone about the business of getting to know one another. At George Washington University in Washington, where Lonstein, now 18, enrolled in September, the couple walk arm in arm across campus when Seinfeld pops in for an occasional visit. On weekend trips to Los Angeles, where he tapes his show", they have eggs and cheesecake with his friends and cast members at Jem's Famous Deli in Studio City before heading off to spend an afternoon shooting hoops in the park. "I think it's serious between them," says Seinfeld's close friend, comedian George Wallace. "She's beautiful and mature. She's good for him." Adds Seinfeld's manager of 14 years, George Shapiro: "I've never seen him happier."

Historians agree that Seinfeld has been cautious about long-term relationships in the past. Consider, for example, the hotel manager he met in 1984, became engaged to a month later in a moment of panic that hit him when he turned 30 and then broke up with a few months after that. "I realized I don't want to start a family," he said at the time. "I want to be out on the road." Before that there was comedian Carol Leifer, 37, now a writer on his show, whom he dated in the late '70s and who is the inspiration for the Seinfeld character Elaine, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Later on came his dentist's daughter, L.A.-based publicist Stacey Effron, 30, whom he dated off and on from 1986 until 1991. Dribbled throughout, like raisins in life's bran, were brief romances with a string of models, actresses and waitresses. "I can't seem to find time for a relationship," he told PEOPLE in 1991. "You can call a guy and say, 'Want to hang out from 11:15 p.m. to 11:45 p.m.?' and he'll go, 'Sure.' But call a woman and say that, and she hangs up on you."

Not Lonstein, though. What distance there is between them on life's time line, it seems, they more than make up for with a similar temperament. "I am not an idiot," says the comic. "Shoshanna is a person, not an age. She is extremely bright. She's funny, sharp, very alert. We just get along. You can hear the click." Within weeks after their first date, friends and neighbors grew accustomed to the sight of the Seinfeld limousine idling outside the Upper East Side luxury apartment building where Lonstein lives with her 15-year-old brother, David, and her parents, Zachary, a wealthy computer-store owner, and Betty, a home-maker. The Lonsteins have always approved of the romance. "Shoshanna is very mature," says a source close to the family. "Jerry is thoughtful, a good person. The family have nothing but positive feelings about the both of them. Everyone respects their relationship.

Their relationship sure sounds like fun. Seinfeld flew Lonstein to Delray Beach. Fla., to watch him do a black-tie New Year's Eve show (and to meet his mother, Betty, a 78-year-old widow who, he says, is "thrilled" with Shoshanna). He also takes Shoshanna on shopping forays to Giorgio Armani in L.A. and Ralph Lauren in Manhattan. Mostly, though, Seinfeld and Lonstein do what the characters on his sitcom do: nothing. "Jerry's biggest pleasure," says his longtime pal, comic Larry Miller, "is staying home, watching a ball game and eating a pizza."

But while that seems to suit Shoshanna just fine—she's a sports fan who played varsity basketball and soccer in high school—dating a celebrity does have its drawbacks. At George Washington, where she studies chemistry, Spanish and other liberal arts courses, classmates who come into regular contact with her describe her as down-to-earth, friendly and hardworking. "She's really nice," says a peer. "She's just trying to keep up with her work and gel it together here." Still, she is subject to such scrutiny that her choice of living quarters and clothing, or even a decision to wear sunglasses on a cloudy day, inevitably gives rise to talk that she is putting on airs or, as one student put it recently, "trying to let everyone know that she's dating somebody famous."

Lonstein maintains she is trying to do anything but. "I would like my life to be normal and just go about being a student," she said. "But these daily obstacles don't lake away from our relationship."

As for Seinfeld, he seems serene, a man whose conscience is as clean as his Nikes. "When I wasn't involved with Shoshanna and was seeing several women, then it was awkward," he says. "You go out with one girl and the other sees you with her in the paper. That was uncomfortable. Now I'm not doing anything I'm uncomfortable with. My interest in her is very proper."

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