Who Is Ali MacGraw? The Actress Reflects On Her Colourful Life At 80
Ali MacGraw was the biggest female star in Hollywood and married the world’s sexiest man — then turned her back on it all. Jessamy Calkin discovers the secrets of her survival
Who is Ali MacGraw? In 1972 she was voted the top female box-office star in the world, but she is chiefly famous for one film. The legendary critic Pauline Kael called her “a truly terrible actress”, but that was unfair — she really wasn’t bad at all. Just insouciant.
She quipped her way through Love Story with nonchalant expertise, winning an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Jenny Cavilleri, the sarcastic-but-vulnerable student who falls in love and then gets terminal cancer.
It was no mean feat. MacGraw had barely acted before (she had one film credit) but due to its low budget, Love Story still ranks as among the most profitable studio movies ever made, and it received seven Academy Award nominations.
It also had a soundtrack that just would not go away, and coined the execrable phrase “love means never having to say you’re sorry” — which went on to hound its stars for the next few decades. But it had a peculiar charm (as well as some gaping holes, if you were to watch it now), and there was proper chemistry between MacGraw’s brainy, impoverished Cavilleri and Ryan O’Neal’s rich, preppy Oliver Barrett IV.
After that, Ali MacGraw was everywhere for a while. She was an influencer. “She exemplified this great American style,” Calvin Klein later told Vanity Fair. “In the beginning, there was that rich-hippy period. But it went beyond that and her style put her among the greats: Katharine Hepburn, Jackie Onassis . . . ”
She had married Robert Evans (then head of production at Paramount Pictures), and in 1971 their son, Josh, was born. Her husband was keen for her not to be typecast and her next film was The Getaway, Sam Peckinpah’s brilliantly wayward thriller adapted from the Jim Thompson novel. MacGraw played Carol McCoy, wife of ex-convict and violent bank robber Doc — played by Steve McQueen.
Her affair with McQueen began on the first day of filming. She left Evans and married him. But McQueen was a jealous man who made her give up her career, and when they divorced five years later, the prenuptial agreement she had signed meant she was left with nothing. After that her acting career floundered: there were a few films — including Players (1979) and Sidney Lumet’s Just Tell Me What You Want (1980) — and a bit of TV — The Winds of War and Dynasty.
And then what? Santa Fe, that’s what. Twenty-five years in a little house — with yoga and Pilates and community work and therapy and a lot of rescue animals. And she looks great on it.
That’s the short version. The real story — as always — is rather more complicated and profound.
Now here she is in a suite at Paris’ Shangri-La Hotel, which gives new meaning to the world “opulent”. She is representing Chanel, as an ambassador for its J12 watch, alongside Vanessa Paradis, Naomi Campbell, Lily-Rose Depp, Keira Knightley, Claudia Schiffer, Liu Wen, Carole Bouquet and Anna Mouglalis.
She sits on the sofa, radiating health, wearing white jeans and a black Chanel top, her long grey hair in a neat chignon and a vast ceramic watch on her slim wrist. Eighty years old but still very recognisably Ali MacGraw.
She’s just been to the Chanel Cruise show, at the Grand Palais, and is humming with enthusiasm about the new artistic director, Virginie Viard. “I hope she has a standing ovation at some point. There wasn’t one this morning, and I thought, ‘where are your manners?’ I’ve never been to a show like that in my life. It was fabulous! What a way to do that white jacket, and how about that red cardigan? What about those big flouncy dresses? The only thing that bothered me is that the models didn’t seem to be having any fun and they should have been thrilled.”
It is fitting that MacGraw has become one of Chanel’s ambassadors, because, she says, “Chanel No. 5 really was responsible for me being in the movies”.
In 1961 MacGraw was working for the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, as an assistant. “It was, ‘Girl! Bring me a pencil!’ — it was The Devil Wears Prada, but the person I was working for was, in my opinion, the great genius of that century.”
But six months in, “I was getting married to a wonderful man [her first marriage, to Robin Hoen, whom she met while she was at Wellesley College and he was at Harvard] whose family wanted me in the Social Register [an American version of Who’s Who], and I had no money but I had to come up with a photograph, and someone suggested a fashion photographer named Melvin Sokolsky.”
MacGraw was an admirer of Sokolsky’s work. “So I went to his studio with my Seventh Avenue $60 dress, which looked kind of like a Velazquez — and it just happened that we had the same sort of vision.” Sokolsky offered her a job as his stylist — at $80 a week instead of the $54 she was getting.
“But when I told Mrs Vreeland, she said, ‘You don’t know enough’.” Which, MacGraw concedes now, was true. Still, she was a creative, conscientious stylist, and it led to what she describes as six of the greatest years of her life.
She got to meet Coco Chanel, “and I came here — to Paris — to arrange the spring collections for Harper’s Bazaar. We shot models flying over the city with Peter Pan harnesses on — and I loved every minute of it.”
Her life was pretty wild in the 1960s. In her autobiography Moving Pictures (1991), MacGraw recalls going to a cocktail party where guests included Salvador Dali and his wife Gala. Dali wanted to sketch MacGraw and later that week she visited a hotel where he was holding court, and went up to his room, where he asked her to take off her clothes. She obliged and sat in a chair, envisioning her portrait hung in the Louvre, and figuring that she could knock him out if necessary.
Until he began to crawl under the table between them and she felt him start to suck her toes.
So how did that go?
“It was nauseating. First of all I don’t really like his work, but I thought, if he wants to do a drawing of me, maybe I could sell it. ?I wasn’t afraid — I honestly thought I could beat the shit out of him but I didn’t have to.”
When he advanced on her toes she quickly got dressed and left. (He later sent her flowers and a fully grown live iguana with its tail strung with imitation pearls as compensation.)
While she was working for Sokolsky, he was approached by an account executive representing Chanel, who wanted to shoot an ad for Chanel No. 5 bath oil in a waterfall in Puerto Rico (“That’s what it was like back then”) and asked to borrow his stylist. So MacGraw modelled for that shoot, and the picture was displayed in upmarket drugstores and noticed by an agent, who tracked her down and sent her to a lot of fruitless auditions. Finally she was cast in an uncredited role in A Lovely Way to Die (1968), and then her first real part in Goodbye, Columbus (1969).
That was the beginning, and now here we are, back with Chanel again. What does being an ambassador involve?
“I’ve no idea,” she says vaguely. ‘This, I guess . . . This?” She fiddles with the large watch on her wrist. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but today I have to figure out how to get this watch on and off. Because it’s very beautiful but I need some help. Is it this clip? This morning I was trying to put it on and had to ask the driver to help.”
At home, MacGraw doesn’t wear a watch. Santa Fe doesn’t really require it. What is the Santa Fe style? “Pretty much what I’m wearing now. Jeans or skinny pants, a simple top, quite a lot of tribal or Mexican or Afghan jewellery — stuff like that — ballet slippers and scarfs and shawls.”
She moved there after her house in Malibu burned down in 1993, to a little cottage she had bought not long before, which she visited to read, to walk and pick up rocks. “So that was 25 years ago. One day at a time.”
One day at a time is Alcoholics Anonymous talk, a philosophy that MacGraw lives by. She entered the Betty Ford clinic in 1986, and realised she had a problem with alcohol and other substances. She has adhered to it ever since.
For 32 years she has not had a drink.
“Thirty-two years. I feel so much better. But the most incredible thing about it is learning a very simple lifestyle manual which is really just common sense. I think it’s the most extraordinary spiritual movement of our century.”
She sets great store by it. Fame hit Ali MacGraw hard. “I was afraid every breathing minute of my film career.” On the third day of shooting Goodbye, Columbus, she did a scene that involved running up a flight of stairs and saying one line: “Come on, I’ll show you to your room . . . ” She froze, and the scene had to be shot 31 times, until she assumed she would be fired. The problem was she had not had any training, of any sort. Does she regret that now?
“There was no time for acting school. I’m in awe of film actors who’ve trained but I also think you have to live your life, so you’ve got something to draw on.”
Nonetheless, she got good reviews for Goodbye, Columbus and it led to Love Story, released in 1970, by which time she was married to Evans (they are still on very good terms). It was Evans who had persuaded the studio to buy the Love Story script for MacGraw to star in, and Evans who had her cast in The Getaway.
Steve McQueen was the biggest movie star in the world at the time, known as The King of Cool. But he’d had a tough life; he was abandoned by his father and had gone to reform school. Before he became an actor, he’d been a Marine and worked in a brothel, and he, too, was an alcoholic. He was, she says, “somewhat stoned every day of our almost six-year relationship”.
That was the least of his transgressions. In the book she recounts how one night they went to a party and “he began carrying on with two local beauties”. When she went to bed that night she could hear them in the room next door. In the morning he asked MacGraw to come and make him breakfast. “And the amazing thing is, I went in and cooked it.”
On another occasion, he said to her, “You’ve got a great ass, but you better start working out now, because I don’t want to wake up one day with a woman who’s got an ass like a 70-year-old Japanese soldier” — a somewhat niche insult, but she has exercised every day since. She was obsessed with him. They were married in Wyoming in 1973, and McQueen insisted she sign a prenuptial agreement which — blinded by love — she did, even though he then did not want her to work. It was a major love affair for both of them but they were soon divorced — McQueen went off to Idaho with Barbara Minty, who became his third wife. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in 1980.
Why, I ask now, did MacGraw stay with McQueen for so long? “Well I was totally in love with him, obviously,” she almost reprimands me. “But I’ve also learnt something very important in retrospect: it’s not about bad boy/perfect girl — that’s bulls**t. If there’s something you’d really like to change you have to have the courage to say, ‘Can we try and change it?’”
I don’t think McQueen would have fared very well in the Me Too era. “I don’t think he ever did what the Me Too people are carrying on about,” she says. “He was so staggeringly attractive that every woman wanted to jump into bed with him — that’s a very different thing from going into a room with a producer who greets you in a bathrobe and asks for a massage. That’s just disgusting. I met one of those guys once — I thought, why is he calling me back at 8pm for a walk-on part? I didn’t go into the room. I went home. In the rain.”
McQueen wasn’t much of a feminist however. ?“I don’t know,” she says defensively. “He had his own private reasons for being extremely suspicious of women — he had a difficult relationship with his mother . . . ”
But he wouldn’t let you work?
“Yeah, but who the hell wants to have their wife go off and kiss somebody for three months and then come back and say, ‘Have you made the bed?’
“But time goes by. Who wants to sit on those stories? I don’t. I love my life — and to sit around thinking about that stuff is such a bore. And I’m healthy that way.”
This is the thing about Ali MacGraw. Someone, something, somewhere along the line has taught her that harbouring negative and uncharitable thoughts is deleterious to the psyche, the soul and the complexion. She positively glows with optimism — there is no room in her life for recrimination or regret. She puts a positive slant on everything. She is, she says, more at peace with herself now than ever before.
“I felt like the real me was standing like a ghost next to the person who was charming and well mannered, always said the right thing and dressed the right way. I’ve done a lot of — excuse the expression — work. But it’s paid off.
“I would say that most of us start with a complicated childhood. Everybody doing their best and screwing up — I’m a mother, I’m sure I’ve done it. And I think one has to look at it, walk through the fire, cry the tears, rage the rage — those guys were 50 freaking years ago, I can’t have them in my heart now. I don’t want to sit in anger, pretending everything’s wonderful because I want people to like me, but seething underneath. But that takes work to change. I couldn’t have done it by myself.
“So the years go by. I am lucky, I am blessed and happy and doing the best I can.”
She did falter a little at the end of last year, at the prospect of turning 80. “In November I started to wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Oh my God — the rest of the trip is so short compared to the one behind me, I’m going to be 80’. I’d never felt like that before.”
Her therapist helped. “I called her up and said, ‘What am I going to do? I’m sad and I’m scared.’ Of course I’ve been sad before but this was something I couldn’t put my hands on — it was like doomsday fear. She said, ‘Let’s remember something that you seem to have forgotten that you know: we’re alive today and anything about the future is a fabrication in the head that keeps you awake — it’s all a script and pointless to think you can rewrite the past — you did the best you could.’
“I had three months of feeling what every other woman I know has felt — oh God, I’m 50, oh God, I’m 60, oh God, I’m 70 — I’ve never felt like that before.
“I love Gloria Steinem’s remark — she’s my age and a friend — when somebody said to her, ‘Wow, Gloria, you look great for 40’. She said, ‘This is what 40 looks like.’ And I thought, ‘dammit, this is what 80 looks like’.”
There’s plenty of this sort of stuff in Ali World, but she has a good heart. As well as community work, she does a lot with animals (she has two pets — “but sometimes six” — a big fat red cat and a Scottie dog). And she is honorary chair of the Fitzjohn/Adamson African Wildlife Preservation Trust, stemming from the time she went to Kenya to make a documentary about legendary conservationist George Adamson.
Adamson’s assistant, Tony Fitzjohn, was working there with leopard cubs. “I’d just done a several-hundred-mile round trip to get supplies,” he tells me, on the phone from Tanzania. “There was no beer anywhere. And the only thing I could find — from an Irish friend who was ministering to the spiritually lax — was half a dozen bottles of altar wine. I came back to camp late to find Ali there. So George, myself and Ali drank all this dreadful stuff and we had awful hangovers the next day. I took Ali in with the baby leopards and we just got on very well.”
A few years later he asked her to represent the trust in the States. By then she’d been through rehab. Fitzjohn hadn’t. “I was still behaving like a lunatic — but she never said a word; she is one of those people who leads by example.”
“We’ve remained very good friends,” says MacGraw. “I adore him. I love animals. I support a bunch of things, like Animals Asia, which is run by this amazing Englishwoman, Jill Robinson, who is trying to save an endangered Oriental bear called the moon bear and has these extraordinary sanctuaries. And I have a bear named Milagro . . . ”
You have a bear?
“Yes. I flew to Vietnam because they were going to close the sanctuary — so they asked me to help, and then said, ‘We want to give you a present — how about this bear?’”
You have a bear in your garden?
“No, no. I’d like to have him in my garden but he’s very happy over there. And I will sign anything and speak about every environmental thing you can think of. I’m not capable of giving a ton of money but I’m a voice and I use it when I’m asked. In Santa Fe we have a fantastically animal-conscious community, and I’m psycho about animals.”
Psycho is not a word that springs to mind when you meet Ali MacGraw. She is like the living embodiment of the Serenity Prayer: living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time.
And amen to that.
— Telegraph Group Ltd