Life with Violet

updated 05/29/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

How do you make a big lug like Ben Affleck go all warm and fuzzy? Ask him about the new woman in his life: his 6-month-old daughter Violet. On May 9 the Cambridge, Mass., native poked his head into Cataloni's, a Boston neighborhood bar, while scouting locations for his directorial debut, Gone, Baby, Gone. And fan Dawn Pirone couldn't resist asking him about his first child. "His face lit up like a Christmas tree," says Pirone. "He said, 'She's beautiful.'"

He's not the only one feeling the love. Pals say Affleck, 33, and wife Jennifer Garner, 34, are reveling in raising little Violet—especially now that the family is nesting in Cambridge for the summer while Affleck shoots Gone, a detective thriller based on the 1998 novel by Dennis Lehane. "Ben enjoys playing daddy," says a friend. "He's in love with his little girl." And while teething is "a little uncomfortable for her," Violet "is delightful," adds a friend of Garner's. "She is just the apple of their eye—beautiful and happy."

As for her proud dad, he's not missing his swinging Hollywood bachelorhood much. "That's all behind him," says Gone producer Alan Ladd Jr. "Now he's very serious-minded. He goes to bed early these days and gets up early." Pal Peter Berg, who is directing Garner's upcoming action thriller The Kingdom, says Affleck's newfound maturity enabled him to write the script for Gone and take the director's chair (the movie also stars his younger brother Casey). "There's a maturity about him now," says Berg. "His life is taking him in a new direction that's going to be really satisfying."

With her own work on Alias at an end, Garner is happily focused on long walks and afternoon naps with Violet, as well as five-times-a-week strength, cardio and Pilates workouts to train for The Kingdom. "Jennifer is in a wonderful place," says a friend. "She can relax a little bit right now and enjoy having this simple, normal life." Aside from a New York City trip to promote Alias's May 22 series finale, she'll stay in Boston until June, when she and Violet head to Arizona to begin shooting her new movie. Friends say Affleck plans on joining his girls there as soon as Gone wraps production. "They are so happy," says Affleck's pal of the new parents. "Violet means everything to them."

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