‘Dammit, this is what 80 looks like’: Welcome to Ali World

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 (1970) 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. Ali had barely acted before (she had one film credit), but due to its low budget, Love Story still ranks as among the most profitable movies ever made, and it received seven Oscar nominations.

Styling by Sophie Warburton. Hair by Sebastien Richard. Make-up by Kay Montano. Manicure by Hanae Goumri. Ali MacGraw wears clothes by Chanel. Credit:Arnaud Pyvka/Telegraph Media Group Ltd.

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), and there was proper chemistry between Ali’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-hippie 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 1972’s The Getaway, Sam Peckinpah’s brilliantly wayward thriller. Ali 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 and it wasn’t long before she left Evans to marry 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’d signed meant she was left with nothing.

After that, there were just 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? New Mexico’s Santa Fe, that’s what: 25 years in a little house with yoga and Pilates and community work and therapy and a lot of rescue animals. And she looks great.

That’s the short version. The real story – as always – is rather more complicated and profound.

MacGraw with her son Josh in California in 1978.Credit:Getty Images

Now here she is in a suite at Paris’s Shangri-La Hotel, which gives new meaning to the world “opulent”. Ali 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,” she says. “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! 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 Ali has become one of Chanel’s ambassadors, because, she says, “Chanel No. 5 really was responsible for me being in the movies.”

In 1961, Ali 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 husband, 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].

I had no money but I had to come up with a photograph, and someone suggested a fashion photographer named Melvin Sokolsky.”

Ali 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 Velázquez – 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.’ ”

Ali MacGraw in 1967.Credit:Getty Images

Which, Ali 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 1991 autobiography Moving Pictures, Ali recalls going to a cocktail party where guests included Salvador Dalí and his wife, Gala.

Dalí wanted to sketch Ali 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?’ Don’t forget, those were the days when I was making $54 a week.

“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 Ali modelled for that shoot, and the picture was displayed in upmarket pharmacies and noticed by a theatrical 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. What does being an ambassador involve?

“I’ve no idea,” she says vaguely.

“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; he was this lovely man, and he had to keep stopping at every red light …”

At home, Ali 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 in 1994, to a little cottage she’d bought not long before, which she visited to read and walk and pick up rocks, after her house in Malibu burned down in 1993. “So that was 25 years ago. One day at a time.”

“One day at a time” is Alcoholics Anonymous talk, a philosophy that Ali lives by. She entered the Betty Ford Clinic in 1986 after realising she had a problem with alcohol and other substances. She has adhered to that philosophy ever since. For 32 years she has not had a drink.

Ali MacGraw with her Love Story co-star Ryan O’Neal.Credit:Getty Images

“Thirty-two years!” she says. “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 hard. “I was afraid every breathing minute of my film career,” she says.

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 that she’d had no training, of any sort. Does she regret that now?

“There was no time for acting school. I’m in awe of film actors who have trained but I also think that 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 Ali to star in, and Evans who got 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’d been 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”.

A shirtless Steve McQueen sitting next to Ali MacGraw on the set of the film ‘The Getaway’, 1972.Credit:Getty Images

That was the least of his transgressions. In her autobiography, 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 his wife to come and make him breakfast. “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.” It might be a somewhat niche insult, but Ali 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 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 subsequently diagnosed with lung cancer and died in 1980.

Why, I ask now, did she 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 bullshit. If there’s something you’d really like to change you have to have the courage to say, ‘Can we try to change it?’ ”

I felt like the real me was standing like a ghost next to the person who always said the right thing and dressed the right way.

I don’t think McQueen would have fared very well in the #MeToo 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, though. “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 very healthy that way.”

This is the thing about Ali. Someone or something, somewhere along the line, has taught her that harbouring negative and uncharitable thoughts is deleterious to the psyche, the soul and the complexion. As a result, 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,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of – excuse the expression – work. But it’s paid off.

“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.”Credit:Arnaud Pyvka/Telegraph Media Group Ltd.

“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 any more, pretending that everything is wonderful because I want people to like me, but seething underneath. But that takes work, and concentration 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, I’m going to be 80. The rest of the trip is so short compared to the one behind me.’ 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 complete 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 – a big, fat, red cat and a Scottie dog – “but sometimes six”). 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 the legendary conservationist George Adamson.

Adamson’s assistant, Tony Fitzjohn, was working there with leopard cubs at the time. “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 – to the horror of the film crew – 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 US. 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 Ali of Fitzjohn. “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 species of 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 they 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 in Vietnam. 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.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in the Telegraph Magazine (UK).

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale August 11.

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