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MacGraw this past winter, near her home outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
I‘m an incredible romantic—it runs me,” says Ali MacGraw as we sip tea in the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge. The enduring icon of the brief, shining era named for that worldview (“The Return to Romance” was Time’s cover in January 1971, with a painting of MacGraw wearing a ribboned choker at her throat) lives far away from Hollywood now, devoting herself to community service in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But both the restaurant (“Hello!” the maître d’ exclaims as she strides in, barefaced, long-legged, stunning in jeans and a white kurta) and the hotel “are loaded with my days gone by,” she says. “Sitting here is like my This Is Your Life.”
It was here, in March 1969, that the unreconstructed East Coast girl woke up in “a suite larger than any apartment I’d ever lived in,” startled at her instant transformation from photographer’s stylist to co-star of Goodbye, Columbus. It was in this lobby, a few months later, that she waited to discuss another project with Paramount’s head of production, Robert Evans. Her agent had sent her a script that she’d wept over twice, and she hoped Paramount would buy it for her to star in. Evans—the brash, handsome women’s-clothing executive and actor turned Young Turk producer who had been handpicked to save the sinking studio—was dubious. “The William Morris Agency had been everywhere with that script, and no studio, no independent, would buy it,” recalls Arthur Hiller, who eventually directed the film. People thought it “mawkish,” says Evans, but he was besotted with MacGraw. He agreed to buy the script “because I fell in love with her.” He also seduced her into turning her weekend trip into a life with him in his eucalyptus-draped, rosebush-ringed dream house, right around the corner from the hotel. The movie she’d talked him into was Love Story.
Finally, this hotel is a stone’s throw from the cottage she moved to with Steve McQueen when—early in her marriage to Evans—they fell helplessly in love while making The Getaway. She was the biggest female star of the year; he was the biggest movie star in the world. She was a Wellesley-educated aesthete who fantasized about living in Paris and who, as a girl, had checked Nijinsky’s biography out of the Pound Ridge, New York, library 16 times. He was a motorcycle-racing reform-school kid who had worked as a towel boy in a brothel, had spent 41 days in the brig as a Marine, and generally had the kind of street cred Jack Kerouac would have killed for. Theirs was one of the great love affairs of the past century. “It was very, very passionate, and dramatic, and hurtful, and ecstatic,” says MacGraw. “It was pretty much a wipeout for both of us. But I think it’s safe to say it would have been impossible not to fall in love with Steve.” As for McQueen, the actor’s closest friend in his last years, martial-arts master Pat Johnson, says, “I have to be careful, because I still know Barbara [Minty McQueen, the last of Steve’s three wives], and he did love Barbara, but … ” He pauses, then out it pours: “Steve loved Ali MacGraw more than he loved anyone else in his entire life. Until the day he died”—in November 1980, of lung cancer, three years after he and MacGraw divorced—“he was madly in love with her.”
At the peak of her fame, MacGraw gave up her career for McQueen. But after four years of turbulent marriage, she didn’t get a dime’s worth of settlement. MacGraw’s romanticism has sometimes been “her undoing,” says Candice Bergen. The actress is rapturous about her friend—“You fall in love with her; she’s always been more alive than most others, so artistic and enchanted, with that refined, intellectual, bohemian glamour and a little bit of the Bedouin”—but she, like many other friends, worries that MacGraw always asks for less than what she gives, and accepts that skewed equation far too gracefully.
“Ali was a saint, Steve was a prick” is agent Sue Mengers’s typically blunt way of putting it. MacGraw’s generosity is constant, her friends say. “She takes a necklace off and says, ‘You’ll look great in this,’” says Ruth Ansel, a former art director of Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar. Film producer Katy Haber adds, “When I’ve been through hard times and a check would arrive from her, I’d say, ‘Ali! You’re just as hard up as I am!’” Yet MacGraw insists, “Every life experience makes us who we are. I don’t regret anything.” That valuing of passion, integrity, and wisdom over security is so out of favor in today’s pragmatic world that we’ve almost forgotten its power.
In both Goodbye, Columbus and Love Story, MacGraw played an elite-college student. With what Candice Bergen calls her “sassy class,” MacGraw was the glossed-up face of Seven Sisterhood. Her striking beauty, intensified by its imperfections—the too-thick eyebrows over coal-dark eyes, the sensual lips opening to a crooked front tooth, the flawless nose with just slightly wide nostrils—was perfect for the movies. Her stiff, untutored acting was additionally intriguing. At a time when no one was plucked from a Schwab’s drugstore stool for fame any longer, she went straight from anonymous working girl to big-screen sweetheart. And though she embodied youthful breeziness, at 30 she was actually old to be starting out. She’d earned every penny to her name, and she had the emotional scars and discipline, as well as the cultural sophistication, that came from growing up in a family of artists. Despite those cocky-princess roles, her depth resonated. “The camera looks into your soul, and it looked into Ali’s,” says her Goodbye, Columbus co-star, Richard Benjamin. “Men loved her. Women loved her. She was a real movie star.”
She was also a fashion icon. Every girl in America in the early 70s wanted to look like Ali MacGraw. “She exemplified this great American style,” recalls Calvin Klein. “In the beginning, there was that rich-hippie period. But it went beyond that, and her style put her among the greats: Katharine Hepburn, Jackie Onassis, C. Z. Guest, Babe Paley.”
“Every girl in America wanted to be Ali,” says Robert Evans, who, the public shattering of their marriage notwithstanding, has been her dear friend for four decades. Evans continues: “The 10 top box-office names of 1971 were nine men and one woman, and that woman was Ali.” Sue Mengers says, “I can’t think of another movie star who became as big as she became overnight.”
Love Story was a phenomenon. Aside from its seven Academy Award nominations, its implantation of the kitschy motto “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” into America’s brainpan, and the fact that, thanks to its low budget, it’s still among the most profitable studio movies ever made, it snapped the twig of popular culture. Instantly gone was the hard-rock-fueled sexual revolution; in its place were soaring strings, tragic love, and sweetness. The New York Times’s Vincent Canby noted that MacGraw’s Jenny Cavilleri and Ryan O’Neal’s Oliver Barrett IV “fall in love in the snow.… They court in front of libraries, and they make love … while doing homework.” The film was such a game changer that executives in related fields modeled their dreams on it. Record producer Lou Adler, for instance, bet that Carole King’s Tapestry “would be the Love Story of popular music.”
Watching the movie today, we see new things: Upper-crust Oliver’s disownment by his father for marrying working-class Jenny seems a stand-in for the era’s grittier generational rebellions. Jenny’s relentless sarcasm, perhaps cloying to today’s ears, reminds us that sarcasm was the only weapon a girl had during those sexually wide-open last five minutes before feminism. But one thing is still jolting, and it contradicts the movie’s sentimentality: Jenny’s fierce lack of self-pity. In this film, which ushered in the 1970s Era of Feelings, Jenny’s disciplined élan—her insistence on facing adversity with wit and stoicism—seems out of place, a feminine quality from an earlier century. Where did it come from?
The Dreamers’ Daughter
Elizabeth Alice MacGraw’s mother, Frances, was practically born in the previous century, in Boston in 1901. Because of her own mother’s illness, Frances cared for her eight siblings. Her last name was Klein, but she always professed ignorance of her ethnicity—“I think Daddy was bigoted,” says Ali. (When Ali auditioned for the role of Brenda Patimkin, Goodbye, Columbus director Larry Peerce was concerned; she seemed so un-Jewish. But when she was in Europe in 1981, filming the Holocaust mini-series The Winds of War, Ali found herself discussing her heritage with a consultant from a local Yiddish theater. “Moishe Klein?” the consultant said. “From Budapest, 1880? And you have to ask?”)
Frances was “a pioneer, an artist,” who taught school in Paris and settled in Greenwich Village. She was almost 40 when she married Richard MacGraw, “my gorgeous father: a combination of Tyrone Power and a mystery, a brilliant artist and a brain beyond brains.” Born in New Jersey, Richard had survived a miserable childhood in an orphanage, run away to sea at 16, and enrolled in art school in Munich. “Daddy was frightened and really, really angry. He never forgave his real parents for giving him up.” His adult life was spent “suppressing the rage that covered all his hurt.”
The couple, soon with Ali and her younger brother, Richard junior, in tow, wanted to live in the country but had no money, so they shared a house on a Pound Ridge wilderness preserve with an older couple. Ali recalls, “There were no doors; we shared the kitchen and bathroom with them. It was utter lack of privacy. It was horrible.” Frances supported the family with commercial-art assignments. She deemed her husband “the real artist,” but Richard’s paintings never sold, and he felt emasculated and frustrated. “On good days he was great, but on bad days he was horrendous,” Ali recalls. “Daddy would beat my brother up, badly. I was witness to it, and it was terrible.” Frances did not intervene, and when Ali tried, “it was hopeless.” She took it upon herself to be “the controller,” hoping her ultra-good behavior might protect her brother. “I put all my energy into trying to correct the chaos in our life. I was the Perfect Girl—capital P, capital G.”
A scholarship day student at the prep school Rosemary Hall, Ali entered Wellesley on a scholarship in 1956. Nora Ephron, two years her junior there, remembers her “as a divine person who, in addition to being brilliant and beautiful, drew charming cartoons that were always on the bulletin board.” A Harvard English major named Erich Segal, who appeared in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well with Ali, recalled her as “absolutely breathtaking.” The Harvard “catch”—Robin Hoen, the handsome, super-smart son of a prominent neurosurgeon—fell for Ali, and they got engaged.
MacGraw moved to New York after graduating, in 1960. A friend of the Hoens’ got her to Harper’s Bazaar’s bravura fashion editor, Diana Vreeland, who, along with art director Henry Wolf and photographer Richard Avedon, was fabulously upending America’s dowdy visuals. Vreeland hired the art major as a “flunkie,” says MacGraw. “It was ‘Girl! Get me a pencil!’”
Flunkie, Muse, Schlepper
The -a-week assistant’s job was euphoria-inducing. Many mornings MacGraw would wait in the foyer of Vreeland’s apartment to be handed a heavy portfolio by a servant. On lucky days she got to walk the five blocks to the office with her unvaryingly black-Mainbocher-clad employer: “I would wind her up about stuff that thrilled me—Diaghilev, Isak Dinesen.” Ever theatrical, Vreeland would return from a lunch date with aplomb, “clutching to her chest freesias just given to her by Cecil Beaton.”
MacGraw watched the great models of the era, Suzy Parker and Veruschka, glide through her boss’s chambers. “Then, five minutes later, the British Invasion happened. Jean Shrimpton! She was the biggest, but she had a dear sweetness.”
One day, six months in, the fashion photographer Melvin Sokolsky stopped by Bazaar and saw that “Diana Vreeland had this beautiful girl for her secretary, who had legs that didn’t stop and a way-ahead intelligence and presence.” Sokolsky hired MacGraw away, bettering her salary. “I don’t know where she got this work ethic, but Ali would come in at eight a.m., and many times I’d come back at one in the morning and she would still be doing things for the next day.” She stayed six years. Ruth Ansel recalls her as Sokolsky’s “muse and schlepper.”
MacGraw insists, “I was absolutely thrilled to be a stylist.” Her eyes light up as she recounts those days of “running up and down the street 24-7,” searching for an out-of-season flower or a rare antique, “playing ‘Baby, Baby, Where Did Our Love Go?’ 700 times in a row” to keep model Dorothy McGowan awake during her four a.m. session with a Balenciaga. When Sokolsky decided to stage a train wreck for a shoot and “the bid came in at ,000,” he recalls, Ali, in her “incredibly short purple miniskirt,” went to a New Jersey train yard and charmed the bosses into wrecking one of their own trains for ,000.
By now divorced from Robin Hoen after a year together (for her and many like her, it was simply too exciting a time for early marriage), MacGraw romanced a series of men, including Henry Wolf and Sokolsky’s rep, Jordan Kalfus. At one “surreal cocktail party, the two most extraordinary people were Richard Nixon—so uncomfortable that his small talk was heartbreaking—and Salvador Dalí,” she says. When MacGraw complimented Dalí on his “incredible cloisonné walking stick,” he invited her to the King Cole Bar, in the St. Regis hotel, where he held lecherous court over a coterie of ingénues. MacGraw beat a hasty exit, but Dalí later sent her a gift-boxed, imitation-pearl-encrusted live iguana.
Despite this tony social life, MacGraw knew her place: “When Natalie Wood or Mia Farrow came in to be photographed, there was no confusion that we were a tribe. I was a stylist.” After paging through Glamour one night, she ran upstairs to her boss’s apartment, “beat on the door, and said, ‘Melvin, get your ass out of bed! I’ve just seen the most beautiful girl.’” When the college freshman in question, the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s daughter, came to the studio several weeks later, she recalls, she was met by “this fantastic-looking stylist, and I thought, Why are they photographing these other women?”
MacGraw belonged to a kind of loose sorority of self-made young women at the center of New York’s media world, starting with Ruth Ansel, a Bronx girl who had just become half of Harper’s Bazaar’s first female art-directing team. Downstairs from Ansel, in a brownstone on West 56th Street, was another Bronx girl, Barbara Nessim, a rising illustrator at Clay Felker’s start-up New York magazine. (She became a renowned painter and one of America’s first digital artists.) Nessim’s roommate was a stunning, Smith-educated writer from Toledo, Ohio. Her name was Gloria Steinem. Nessim and MacGraw both dated Henry Wolf. Steinem and MacGraw double-dated: Ali with Wolf, Gloria with Robert Benton, the Esquire art director who later co-wrote the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde.
When Nessim and Steinem moved to a larger apartment, MacGraw, whenever she was between boyfriends, became their third roommate. “Every man with a brain in his head was in love with Gloria,” MacGraw recalls. “She was a remarkable creature.” Steinem says, “Ali seemed unaware of being beautiful, though I remember thinking it was like living with the most magnificent and graceful cat. It was proof of her warmth and kindness that in those pre-feminist days, when we were all supposed to be in competition with each other, I don’t remember a female human being who resented her.”
One Friday afternoon in the late 1960s, MacGraw recalls, Kitty D’Alessio, an account executive for Chanel bath products, asked Sokolsky, “‘Is Ali working this weekend? If not, we’re doing this island shoot, and we could use her as a model.’ I thought, Wonderful! I could make 0. Now, if Melvin had said, ‘Get me another piece of pale-gray silk’ or ‘Finish ironing that dress,’ the story would be over.” But he didn’t. “So I went to Puerto Rico and sat under a waterfall, and that picture was in every upscale drugstore in New York.” A young agent, Marty Davidson, saw it and called her.
MacGraw hadn’t thought of being an actress, though she had taken a few classes with the model Marisa Berenson. Davidson nonetheless sent her out on casting calls and gave her the adaptation of Philip Roth’s National Book Award–winning novella, Goodbye, Columbus. “I said, ‘I read this in school. You need a real actress. This is not a good idea.’ Marty said, ‘Just go see them.’”
“Larry Peerce and I were auditioning girls at the Stanhope Hotel, on Fifth Avenue and 80th Street,” recalls Richard Benjamin, who had been signed to star as Roth’s protagonist, Neil Klugman. “One after another of them I did scenes with—they were fine. But no one was saying, ‘We found the one!’ Larry and I broke for lunch and went across the street to Central Park. We were sitting on a bench, and I could see, a block away, a girl get off the 79th Street crosstown bus and start to walk up Fifth Avenue. I said, ‘Larry, see that girl? Have you ever seen anybody so gorgeous, so fabulous?’ And Larry said, ‘That’s your next audition.’”
MacGraw loves to talk of her panicked mess-ups while making that movie—the 30 takes it required her to get eight words out of her mouth, her failure at crash-learning tennis (“Would you stop saying ‘Shit’?” came the voice through the bullhorn after she had missed every ball lobbed at her). But in fact she aced her portrayal. Vincent Canby, misidentifying her as a “former fashion model,” said she had “exactly the right mixture of innocence and guile.” Viewing the film today, you see an idealized version of a bemused, snarky Westchester princess. (To Neil, when he first calls: “What do you look like?” “I’m dark,” he says. “Are you a Ne-gro?”) MacGraw’s cultured air makes Brenda Patimkin a crisply nascent hipster, not a whining arriviste. Her two decades of being solicitous and observant among those richer, more pampered, and less conscious than she had given her this home run. “I sense Goodbye, Columbus rushing on towards me like the signs on the New York Thruway, and when I think about it I am terrified,” she wrote in April 1969 in “Making It in the Movies: Diary of a New Star,” illustrated by her own sketches, with a photograph by ex-beau Wolf, for New York magazine. She remembered browsing through “the land of the 15-cent artichoke and the embroidered Romanian blouse” on the Lower East Side, as if knowing that this treasured life of hers would vanish.
Instant “It Girl”
‘That Erich Segal? The one I knew from Harvard?” was MacGraw’s reaction when she read the script of Love Story. He had become a classics professor, but he escaped the “frequently stultifying” academic world, as he told me in an e-mail shortly before his death, in January, “by writing scripts on vacation.” MacGraw says, “I thought, There must be a full moon, because this simple script is knocking me out.” In signing the unskilled unknown for Goodbye, Columbus, Paramount had figured, she says, “We might as well get her cheap” and locked her into a three-picture deal. Now that she was hot, scripts were being thrown at her, and here was one she loved. Its champion was agent turned producer Howard Minsky, who had quit his William Morris job to push Love Story past a slew of turndowns. “Do you think Bob Evans would buy this for me?,” MacGraw asked Minsky through Marty Davidson.
MacGraw and Evans had met years earlier, on a blind date, when he and his brother, Charles, owned the clothing company Evan-Picone. She had felt superior when he said he never traveled south of 42nd Street; he had thought her affected, calling her “Miss Snot-Nose.” “Bob and I look like first cousins,” MacGraw says today to indicate how natural it’s been to be “family” all these decades. “She’s as close a friend as I have in the world,” says Evans. That same known-quantity-ness (she felt “safe” with him, she has said) may have sparked their instant meshing when she flew to L.A. supposedly to approve Arthur Hiller for Love Story.
“I was so naïve! They didn’t need me to approve Arthur as director.” It was a ruse. “Bob, being the sophisticated ladies’ man of all time,” wooed her with his romantic house and raffish confidence. MacGraw got drunk on champagne, jumped in his pool, clothed, and missed her return flight. Evans ordered her up a wardrobe from the hip Sunset Strip boutique Holly Harp, and she made ambivalent peace with a domicile with two servants, where Evans talked to Charlie Bluhdorn, chairman of Gulf & Western, which owned Paramount, around the clock on one of his innumerable telephones. Evans and MacGraw were married in October 1969.
Many of Hollywood’s young leading men—Jon Voight, Michael Douglas, Peter Fonda, Michael York, and Jeff and Beau Bridges—turned down the role of Oliver Barrett IV. Others—Christopher Walken, Ken Howard, David Birney—tested with MacGraw. (“I had to kiss all of them,” she says, smiling.) Arthur Hiller wasn’t sure about Ryan O’Neal until he watched dailies of his other work and instantly realized, as MacGraw had, that he was perfect.
Evans dealt smartly with every problem. He kept the cost down: Hiller accepted a quarter of his usual fee and recalls being made to “raise my right hand and swear I wouldn’t go over two million” on budget. When Segal made a deal to turn the script into a novel for Harper & Row, “they were only going to print 6,000 copies,” Evans says. “I paid the publisher ,000 to print another 25,000.” Thus, the novel Love Story became The New York Times’s No. 1 best-seller the spring before the film’s release. Knowing that the musical score would be crucial, Evans rejected a finished soundtrack by Jimmy Webb and the offer of another by Hal David and Burt Bacharach and flew to Paris to persuade Francis Lai, who had scored the ultra-romantic A Man and a Woman, to compose the movie’s unforgettable theme music. When at one point Gulf & Western executives threatened to shut down Paramount, he flew to New York and talked them out of it.
Hiller, too, was consummately skillful. “I was busting my ass to keep it from being a soap opera. I wanted you to care, but not to be crying from the beginning,” he says. After shooting wrapped, he flew his stars back East, in a blizzard, for tender scenes of O’Neal tackling MacGraw in the snow and of MacGraw licking snow off O’Neal’s face. He got Paramount to approve the cost by reminding them, “I brought the fucking picture in ,000 under budget.” With MacGraw, he says, “who was such a caring person, my job was getting her to believe she was talented.” MacGraw, highly conscious of the dues she never paid—and of the uneven reviews of her subsequent performances—insists today, “I was a pop star, a freak.” But she was powerfully affecting as the sexy, plucky piano prodigy who makes a callow Brahman a better person and dies unselfishly.
Released for Christmas 1970, the film broke box-office records and won MacGraw and O’Neal Oscar nominations. In her slinky Halstons and forehead-hugging scarves and cloches, MacGraw also landed on the International Best-Dressed List. Love Story rescued Paramount. As Evans started work on The Godfather, and MacGraw, in January 1971, gave birth to their son, Joshua, they seemed in a class by themselves as a golden couple.
MacGraw did not want to do The Getaway, which would star Steve McQueen and be directed by Sam Peckinpah. McQueen would play Doc McCoy, a bank robber who is sprung from prison because his wife, Carol, seduces a powerful official. MacGraw recalls, “Of course he said, ‘I want the girl from Love Story.’” Evans urged her to do the film, because it would stretch her beyond preppy roles, but MacGraw didn’t want to be separated from her baby. Moreover, she was apprehensive. She remembered that “one winter day in 1968 it was raining and freezing and I had time to kill” before one of Sokolsky’s shoots, “so I darted into Radio City Music Hall to see Bullitt.” McQueen was at the height of his fame with that movie, with its genre-creating extended car chase, most of which he performed himself. MacGraw says, “That was the only time in my life I went, ‘Oh. My. God.’”
When McQueen started developing The Getaway, he was the highest-paid actor in America, and though he was known for what he called “Peter Perfect” hero roles, in his private life he had been the ultimate bad boy—gang member, freight-train jumper, and bookie’s assistant, according to Marshall Terrill’s Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel. Mainly, though, Terrence Steven McQueen was a midwesterner who had never known his father and whose alcoholic mother, a restless beauty named Julian, had left him with relatives, later sent for him, then left him again. When the teenage Steve fought with Julian’s third husband, she sent him to the Boys Republic, a reform school in Chino, California, where he stayed for 14 months. After his release, Steve took a cross-country bus to join his mother in Manhattan, but she immediately informed him that she had a new boyfriend and that he wasn’t welcome in the apartment. The Village became his base. After a period of creative conning, motorcycling, and shipping out to sea, he took the acting lessons that harnessed his roiling emotions.
A decade and a half later, on a spring day in 1971, he was paying a visit to the Evanses to discuss The Getaway. “It sounds so corny,” MacGraw says, “but I remember sitting in the projection room and seeing Steve on the other side of the swimming pool, and you could see those eyes—the most extraordinary blue. I was just electrified. That’s scary. It’s very visceral. The brain isn’t involved in that moment.” After McQueen left, she telephoned her old boss. Sokolsky recalls, “She said, ‘Mister Melvin, I’m in trouble.’”
MacGraw and McQueen began their affair soon after they arrived in Huntsville, Texas, for the three-month shoot. “It was very evident that they were falling in love,” says Katy Haber, who was then Peckinpah’s assistant. MacGraw looks wildly beautiful in the film, especially when, after Carol gets conned out of the suitcase of cash from their bank heist, Doc slaps her. (“And Steve really did, and Ali didn’t see it coming,” says Haber.) Throughout the film Doc is obsessed with Carol’s brief act of adultery with the powerful official, which she had submitted to for his sake. The situation mirrored the year McQueen had just thrashed through. His ex-wife, Neile Adams, who had supported him when she was a successful Broadway dancer and he was scuffling (“Neile, who is just terrific, put in 16 years of hard patrol” is how MacGraw puts it), had repaid his endless cheating with one night’s indiscretion with an Academy Award–winning actor, Maximilian Schell. When Neile confessed the affair, Steve held a cocked pistol to her temple until she revealed Schell’s name. He spent the next year brooding, often violently, over her betrayal.
That same hyper-macho man was now “so vulnerable,” recalls Haber, when The Getaway wrapped and MacGraw went back to Evans to make a stab at reviving their marriage. “He was desperately in love with Ali.” Just to have some connection to her, he invited Haber to stay in his Palm Springs house, calling her “the first woman friend I’ve ever had,” because of his compulsion to pour out his heart to her. “He said, ‘Katy, you don’t understand. This is the first time in my life that I have no desire or even thought of sleeping around. This is the person I want to be with for the rest of my life.’ He used a wonderful phrase: ‘I’m like a deer with a swollen neck,’” referring to the aroused male.
MacGraw, meanwhile, was struggling. “She was in extreme conflict; her loyalty to Bob was strong—she went through hell and back,” Haber remembers. Ultimately, there was no defense for her feelings for McQueen. “Steve and I swapped cars,” Haber says. “I took his Porsche Targa and he took my stupid little rented blue Pinto” so that he wouldn’t be detected as he drove into town for trysts with MacGraw. MacGraw had a mutual friend call Candice Bergen, who she knew was vacating her house. After a short stay there, MacGraw rented a Coldwater guesthouse and McQueen rented one on Mulholland Drive. The cottages were separated by an empty field. When they fought, as they frequently did (from the start, “it was either great days or horrendous days, and nothing in between,” says MacGraw), they would separate, then immediately miss each other and set out across the field to be together again.
MacGraw and Evans divorced, and she and McQueen—with young Josh and McQueen’s son, Chad—moved to a beachfront home in Trancas, north of Malibu. She was his “old lady”; McQueen, through his Hell’s Angels buddies, had original, not countercultural, purchase on the term. They lived the simple life that McQueen stubbornly cleaved to and that MacGraw felt was right for Josh. She put Steve’s meat and potatoes in front of him every night at six. He didn’t want her to work, so she didn’t. “I was really angry at her,” says Sue Mengers. “The audiences loved her! It made me crazy!” McQueen’s attitude to her star client, says Mengers, “was ‘Baby, get me a beer.’ He was always very rude when I called, because it was a sign that I might have a job for her.”
MacGraw’s parents had liked Evans, and they also liked McQueen. Richard MacGraw and his daughter’s new man would get drunk on beer and bond over the unspoken similarities of their rage-filled childhoods. Ali recalls that the two men would “talk about me—‘her’—as if I weren’t 10 feet away from them!”
On July 11, 1973, McQueen and MacGraw took off with their children to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and checked into a room at a Holiday Inn. MacGraw recalls, “Steve and Chad slept in one bed, Terry [Steve’s daughter] and I in the other, Josh in a crib in the middle.” The next day—with Ali and Terry in identical plaid skirts, carrying matching bouquets—Steve and Ali were married in a public park. Then MacGraw did something that at the time she considered a noble proof of love for her distrustful husband but that she has come to regret deeply, especially for its impact on Josh: at McQueen’s insistence, she signed a document affirming that, in case of divorce, she would waive any right to his money.
She says today that McQueen was “very damaged, and I don’t mean that at all in a nasty way—he was a combination of incredible darkness and anger and mystery and almost child-like vulnerability. His mood swings were incredible.” But she doesn’t let herself off the hook. “I am 1,000 percent not a victim.” They were equally at fault, in her view. “I did the sullen holdback. I was tight. Judgmental. Simmering. We both had work to do.” She went into therapy. But “I know now that you don’t go into therapy to save your marriage; you do it to understand who you are.”
Her big sin, she says, “was to be inauthentic at the beginning. I didn’t state my case: ‘You know, even though I told you I’d rather be on a motorcycle opening a can of beer, the truth is I’d rather go to Paris.’ If you don’t say who you are up front, then you don’t get to wake up two years later and say, ‘Oh, man, am I sick of doing this!’” Insecurity made her “trim and cover” who she really was “to make myself desirable, because he was the most desirable man on the planet, and I would think, I can’t possibly be desirable enough for this creature—every woman in the restaurant is looking at him!” Meanwhile, McQueen felt cowed by the world she represented. He resisted going to the formal party for his film Papillon because “intellectual heavyweights like Jonas Salk” would be there. “But there isn’t one person in the room who can’t wait to meet you!” she implored him, forcing him into his tuxedo.
Both of them were intimidated by Sue Mengers’s parties. MacGraw says, “Most of the women, even Candice, were scared witless to go to them, because not one person there wasn’t a star—Julie Christie and Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson and every top director and studio head.” McQueen’s anxiety was even deeper. Before Mengers’s party for Princess Margaret, MacGraw says, “he got high on coke. He knew it was bad for him. He got these catastrophic depressions, I mean the scariest. I said, ‘Why in the world do you do this? The level of misery you set yourself up for!’ He said, ‘I can’t move. I’m so upset.’ He had to be with his pack or he was terrified. It was heartbreaking.”
There were “sweet, wonderful” times, she says, “Easter and the Fourth of July, having potluck dinner with the neighbors. We had a peaceful, incredible, real life.” She recalls a dinner for his film The Towering Inferno, “where our chemistry was extraordinary, unbelievable. A trip during my birthday. I came back to my room in the motel, and there were daisies and white roses everywhere. He loved daisies; there were hundreds and hundreds of them.” Once she even got him to the ballet. “Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland—I said, ‘You can’t not go!’ It blew his mind. Mary Tyler Moore was sitting in front of us. She said, ‘How amazing to see you here!’ I wanted to smack her—what a comment! I think she was being flirtatious.”
Ultimately, McQueen’s paranoid possessiveness was unconquerable. He had already been having numerous affairs, according to MacGraw. “He had a suite in the Beverly Wilshire hotel, where he would go when we fought. It was a place I never went, which was stupid. I should have gone in, opened the door, and kicked the shit out of whoever was in bed with him.” She adds, “He would have enjoyed it!” In fact, the only infidelities that mattered to him were the ones he imagined her having. When she was at her lowest ebb, she was invited to be photographed by Francesco Scavullo for his book Scavullo on Beauty. She flew to New York, eager to feel what she hadn’t felt in a very long time: glamorous. There was a knock on the door of the apartment she had borrowed, and it was McQueen. Convinced she was having an affair, he’d taken the next flight to check up on her. He sprawled on the one small bed, she says, “and I sat on the bathroom floor all night, reading Freud to try to bore myself to sleep, but it didn’t work.” The next morning, the famous makeup artist Way Bandy had to Pan-Cake her dark circles for the photo shoot.
After she made Convoy, which, despite the pleasure of starring with Kris Kristofferson and being directed again by Peckinpah, she loathed (she had no money of her own, so she let Sue Mengers talk her into it), she and McQueen drove to Montana. “I fell in love with him all over again.” She wanted them to cancel dinner with a friend of his, “and I wonder,” she muses, “if things would be different if we had just ordered in hamburgers.” But they kept the date, and while McQueen “boringly talked camshafts and God only knows what,” MacGraw conversed with his friend’s companion in her rusty Italian. “You were flirting with him in a foreign language!,” McQueen accused her during the drive back to Malibu. “He kept at it and kept at it and kept at it. It was terrible and frightening and catastrophic.” Realizing that even she couldn’t fix that much distrust, she moved out.
McQueen called his friend Pat Johnson and said, “I’ve got to see you.” Johnson was McQueen’s karate teacher, but he was also his mentor in life. “Steve came to my house,” he says. “He started to cry, and I put my arm around him. He said, ‘Poor Josh. His world is being torn up again.’ He put his head on my shoulder and wept. It broke my heart. I knew it was Steve McQueen he was talking about.”
Authenticity and Gratitude
To paraphrase the first sentence of Love Story: What can you say about a woman going on 40 who decided that being a movie star was not the most important part of life?
MacGraw threw her post-fame, post-Steve years into being a devoted mother to Josh, a help to her many friends (“My only complaint about Ali,” says her boyfriend during the late 1970s, Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson’s harmonica player, “is that she was too much of a caregiver to others”), the honorary mayor of Malibu for a term, a decorator of friends’ houses, a serious student of yoga (who produced the DVD Ali MacGraw: Yoga Mind & Body), a brave advocate (in 1985 she appeared on the cover of People defending legal abortion), a designer of beaded evening bags made in India, a narrator of public-service films, and, for a while and by her own admission, man-dependent.
“To put it kind of cruelly and coldly,” she says, a few of the men would have been “better for a couple of weekends of great sex. Why did it have to turn into living together?” Two prominent exceptions are Raphael—“one of the most important human beings in my life”—and the actor Peter Weller, a “superior, interesting, fine, smart” man with whom she spent “a couple of years.” She and Weller met during the making of Just Tell Me What You Want, the Sidney Lumet comedy in which she co-starred with Alan King and won her best reviews since Goodbye, Columbus. Raphael was significantly younger than she, which does not make her self-conscious in the least.
In 1986, after a series of personal setbacks, including scathing reviews for The Winds of War (she alone of the large cast was singled out for criticism, and she was replaced in the sequel by Jane Seymour), some ill-chosen relationships, and, she says, more drinking than was healthy, she felt herself “at an emotional low point. I just bottomed out. I thought I was having a nervous breakdown.” Under an assumed name, she checked herself into the Betty Ford Center. She calls Mrs. Ford, whom she came to know, “one of the greatest women of the 20th century” for using her Republican First Lady respectability to de-stigmatize addiction. As part of her therapy, MacGraw wrote a letter to herself—a searing attack on the Perfect Girl she’d first become during her attempts to save her brother from her father. Her friends said she was much too hard on herself. She disagrees. “I don’t think I was fair to one single man I was close to. I still carted my childhood garbage around.” At Betty Ford, she says, “I got really, really clear that, in pretending to be Miss Perfect for too many decades, I’d contributed to my moodiness, my intolerance. That’s not romantic, that’s just brat.”
In 1993, MacGraw suffered a devastating loss: her Malibu house went up in flames during one of the area’s awful fires. Almost everything she owned was destroyed. Apart from the pain of losing precious family pictures, reams of her illustrated journals, and other irreplaceable mementos, she has come to view the loss with equanimity—“after all, nobody died”—even, in a sense, as liberating. “There’s a wonderful quote from Ernest Hemingway that makes me think of Ali,” says Ruth Ansel. “‘The world breaks everyone. And afterward many are strong in the broken places.’ Ali’s become stronger in ways that have nothing to do with visibility or wealth or even security. She’s a uniquely special woman who has lived, reflected, and grown deeper over her lifetime.”
MacGraw stayed in Bob Evans’s guesthouse for a year after the fire. She had recently purchased a small adobe house near Santa Fe (a friend who had invited her there to decorate a house told her, “Ali, you’re in your 50s and you’ve never owned a house—buy it!”), but she had resisted moving there full-time. Now she did so.
When I visit MacGraw in Santa Fe, she insists on picking me up at the airport (with her Scottie, Jemima, on her lap—she’s always had a dog and it’s always been a Scottie) and driving me to the hotel. “People here don’t relate to me as an ex–movie star,” she says. “People don’t say, ‘You look great—did you have your face done?’ or ‘So what are you working on now?’” Everyone here, she says, cares deeply about the many social-justice and arts causes for which she volunteers. “It’s a real community,” she says, striding around the downtown shops after her daily yoga class, cheerily chatting with market clerks and vegan retirees, storekeepers and symphony conductors. Everybody knows her. “I had such a crush on you 40 years ago,” confesses a customer at a New Age cosmetics store after MacGraw inquires about the blusher the woman is buying. “People still remember it,” MacGraw marvels, speaking of Love Story.
“I have the most terrific life,” she says when we are at her exquisitely appointed house outside town. She has made me lunch and refused to let me clear one plate off the table. “But I won’t do this forever. Sometimes I think I have a long stint in Europe coming up. But I’ll tell you what’s not possible: Beverly Hills or the new Malibu, which has no soul, just third-house owners who don’t give a shit about the community.”
When she turned 70, last April, almost every man from her past called her. “That’s another thing that getting older really cements: ex-lover, ex-husband, child, girlfriends, gay friends—that gaggle of human beings is a gift. Time is really precious now. I have too many books I haven’t read and too much music I haven’t listened to and too many long-distance phone calls with people I don’t get to see. So I get up very early, at 6:30. I am disciplined, in many ways. And—this will sound Pollyanna-ish—but gratitude is where I start.”
There it is—the old-fashioned stoic élan that Jenny Cavilleri conveyed, so startlingly out of context for a 1970 movie. It seems now to have come from a romantic, disciplined, then young woman who had far more character than talent for, or even interest in, acting. Maybe that scintillating disconnect vibrated through the celluloid and was one of the mysterious reasons that, 40 years ago, everyone loved that movie.
In the original version of this article, Ali MacGraw’s age last April was originally stated as 71. She turned 70 last April. We regret the error.