Ali Ali Oxen Free

Photo courtesy of Ibu

Mother, designer, yoga enthusiast, animal rights activist, model, author, and actress Ali MacGraw grew up on the East Coast and attended the best schools.  Before all those careers and that cause and her devotion to yoga – and after attending Rosemary Hall and Wellesley – she was Diana Vreeland’s assistant at Harper’s Bazaar, then a stylist and all-around Girl Friday for photographer Melvin Sokolsky.  “He stole me away from Vreeland by offering me $80 a week instead of the $60 a week she was paying me,” said MacGraw over lunch one day with me in Santa Fe where she lives on the outskirts of town. In 1969, MacGraw (and that flirtatious flare of her nostrils and the dark eyebrows that added a bit of danger to her beauty) starred opposite Richard Benjamin in Goodbye, Columbus, Paramount Pictures’ adaptation of the Philip Roth novella, but she became a part of the cultural conversation in the way that the biggest of movie stars do when she broke the country’s heart after it, like Ryan O’Neal, longed for her in Love Story  Audiences longed for her for a bit longer before they broke her own heart in some way by not longing for her anymore.  She mended.  She thrived in new ways.  We talked about some of them over lunch.

Many actresses are much more interesting onscreen than they are in real life and then there are the rare few whose offscreen persona – so vital, so keenly intelligent, so instinctively and timelessly stylish – just doesn’t quite translate.  There is a stilted quality to them in the movies that once removed from the overly observant movie lens is part of the stillness they cultivate as part of their real-life allure. Celluloid sells some short even as it enlarges the qualities of others that remain unnoticed when the Panaflex is not panning across the planes of their faces. Maybe it’s why some of them are so much better in front of a camera that itself captures such stillness, such allure.  They are exemplars of real-life grace – yes, models of it.  Theirs is a self-possession where narcissism is unneeded. Artifice falls away.  Some actresses have a face for truths.  Others just face them.

Ali MacGraw has had three husbands: Robert Hoen, Robert Evans, and Steve McQueen

She has one son: Josh Evans

One grandson:  Jackson

She turned 78 in April.

She’s been sober for 31 years. 

Here is some of our conversation.

Timeless style. Now …

KEVIN SESSUMS: Well, the first question I have for you is how do you deal with the dust here in Santa Fe?

ALI MACGRAW:  The dust doesn’t bother me so much.  It’s the heat that gets to me.  And the dry.  The dry drives me nuts. 

KS:  But you’ve been here for 24 years.

AM:  Yes.  It’s funny.  When I first came here I thought I had been sentenced to the southwest.  I grew up on the east coast and then had all those decades in LA – with my son’s father and then with Steve and then alone.  But my house burned down and I couldn’t find something near the beach I could afford.  I had this little cottage here and I thought, my God, it’s not in Venice or Paris but in the southwest.  This man once said to me one day, “Why are you crying every morning walking around the Palisades with your dogs?”  I told him it was because I couldn’t find a place to live I could afford.  I had been staying with Bob [Evans] which was very generous of him.  My two cats and my dog and I were lucky enough to have survived the fire and been taken in by Bob.  The man asked me if I had paid for this place here in Santa Fe when I told him about it.  It was for sale then but, yeah, I had paid for it.  And this man said, “Well, what’s the problem?  Why aren’t you living there?”  I told him I didn’t see my life being lived here.  And he said, “Well, if you don’t like it, don’t stay.” I discovered once I got here, however, that Santa Fe served me beautifully.  I got chopped off that LA axis.  There is nothing less unfeeling than being an ex-movie star.  The comments have to do with “You look great,” or “You don’t look so great,” or “What are you doing?”  The fake answer to that last question is to mention fake projects.  And I am much more interested in so much more than that.  I am grateful that I had that experience but here I discovered that everybody seemed to be starting a new life.  That seemed really smart to me.  It was miraculous really.  Now when I go back I feel like a whole person, whereas before I was this not-very-good-at-what-I-did-but-got-famous-for-whatever woman.  I know who I am now.

… and then.

KS:  And that is who?

AM:  I daresay I am coming close to being real which, you know, is a terrifying place to land after all the attention I got sort of overnight.

KS:  So when you came here to Santa Fe were you fleeing or were you coming toward something?

AM:  I definitely wasn’t fleeing.  I was just grateful to have a place.  When I first came here I knew one person.  But I love stillness.  I love nature.  And I loved the got-to-get-away-from-it tranquility.  I am not someone who has thrived in the full-time life option.  I am too much of a loner.  I’d go to the flea market a lot when I first got here.  Those flea-market people became my friends – the dealers there who probably had these wild stoned hippie lives in the 1960s in Asia but decided, hey,  I should bring back these Tibetan chests to a place like Santa Fe and settle down.  My routine here would have bored the shit out of a lot of people but I loved it.  On the way from the airport when I first began to settle here – you could fly cheaply on Southwest – I’d get food and videos and books.  On Saturday mornings I’d go down to the funky market and eat blue corn pancakes.  Eventually I met some people I actual wanted to have dinner with. 

I am not really a two-house person.  I am the kind of person who is always missing that left ballet slipper or looking for that book I was reading.  So, yes, I was going to sell this place here but right then my whole street in Malibu burned down.  When that man found me crying yet another morning and he told me that if I didn’t like living here full-time that I didn’t have to stay, I thought: I could do that.  And here I am 24 years later. 

And yet I still feel there is another place for me at some point.  You know what it is?  In my dreams?  Venice, Italy – what I call the real Venice. 

KS:  Do you see yourself living in Europe still at some point?

AM: I would love it.  But I adore my family – my son and his wife and their six-year-old.  And I don’t have the kind of finances to tell them to come over to see me four times a years nor could I return to see them four times a year.  I cherish them.  It is unlikely that they would say, “What a bright idea.  We’re going to move to Venice too.”   You lived in Paris, though, Kevin –  for how long?

KS:  A year.  A year and half.  On Rue du Bac.

AM:  I love it there.  Did you love it?

KS:  I love it more in hindsight than I loved it when I was there.  There were days I spoke to no one since I never spoke the language well enough.  It felt monkish – as if I’d taken a vow of silence.  And being a monk in the Marais is an odd feeling.

AM:  Yes, that can be very lonely.

KS:  And I love to eavesdrop on the conversations of others.  I love listening to narratives. I was unable to do that there.  And then September 11th happened while I was there.  I was jogging in the Tuileries when it happened.  I got home and was having a sandwich and watching Ready, Set, Cook on the BBC when I got a phone call from a friend in New York, Peter Staley, telling me to turn on CNN International.  I had such separation anxiety.  Instead of September 11th sending me away from New York, as it did some, it called me home.  But let’s get back to you.  Let’s go back to the beginning.

AM: Sure, whatever you want.

MacGraw has been married three times – to a college kid, a mogul, and a movie star.

KS:  So you grew up in Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York.  Both your parents had artistic leanings?

AM:  My father was an artist; he had an artistic leaning as you put it.  My mother was amazing.  She could do everything, and she did.  She supported us because Daddy’s stuff didn’t sell.  He was the first brilliant man I ever met.  But he never told us about his own family’s tragedy.  Even though he was an alcoholic, he was abstinent with all that pain and rage still inside.  And yet I was very blessed on a lot of levels.  Both my parents were very, very educated.  What was in the house was … provocative.  We never had a television or any treats really.  If we were bored we’d go outside and find something to do.  How many kids do that these days?

KS:  When you use the term “provocative” what do you mean by that?

AM:  The myriad books in our house were unbelievably interesting and there was all this painting equipment. My brother and I had a fantastic education just living in that home – not in a preachy, proselytizing way.   Daddy was just so curious.  I mean, he never even finished high school because he had gone away to sea at such a young age.  But he taught himself all these languages and was interested in physicist and futurist and engineer Nikola Tesla – very interested in Tesla – and in ancient history and Tibet.   So I felt very privileged.

KS:  What jobs did he have other than making his art?

AM:  He had been a window decorator and a fabric designer.  But he wasn’t lucky.  Any artist – writer, musician – any artist has got to have a huge chunk of luck. 

KS:  You referred to him as an alcoholic who abstained.  So how did you know he was an alcoholic if he did not drink around you?

AM:  Because my mother told me he was.  He abstained for 21 years.  And then he had a drink.  And one goes back exactly where one was 21 years before – as our fellowship tells us can happen if we pick up that one drink.  He was a very fine disciplined man of character but, boy, in retrospect did I get a lesson about drinking by observing him.  Speaking for myself, I am allergic to it.  When I think about him, my heart breaks for him because he was so talented and so hurt.

KS:  He was still alive when you got married to Steve.

AM:  Yes.  They liked each other a lot.

KS: They seemed to have been a lot alike.  They were both merchant marines.  They both had anger issues.  They were both artists each in his own way. 

AM:  Yeah, in some ways they were.  They really did like each other.  It was odd. 

KS:  Were your jealous of their closeness?

AM:  No, no, no.  I do remember overhearing one of their conversations and I kept hearing the word “her” and I realized that it was me they were talking about right in front of me but saying “She does this” and “She does that.”  My father was really interesting.  Really, truly interesting.  I wish somebody had appreciated him.  And I wish he had told us his secrets because then we could have loved him out of his anger.  I guess that is the only way to put it. 

McQueen and MacGraw. Photo by Linda McCartney. Jamaica, 1973
Photo by Genevieve Russell

KS:  Your mother was a commercial artist?

AM:  She made money that way.  But she made jewelry too.  She was a weaver.  She painted fantastic watercolors. 

KS:  It sounds like you lived in a flea market growing up which might explain your love of them now. 

AM:  No.  It wasn’t.  I wouldn’t describe it that way.  It was a house filled with books.  And I don’t mean New York Times bestsellers or celebrity volumes.  They were filled with information.  And history.  I think it was one of the reasons that when I went to work for Diana Vreeland, who was all about what she had seen and what she had read, that we responded to each other.  One is very lucky to grow up in a village in New England and get such a subliminal education by growing up in such a house.  My mother made our clothes.  She made the upholstery on our furniture.  And she still went to New York for her commercial work.  She helped us with our homework and our own art projects.  I mean, she never had, it seemed, one second for herself.  When I was very young, I remember her laying out four one-dollar bills.  We had no money.  So I asked her what she was doing.  She said this is for the Fresh Air Fund, this is for tuberculosis, this is for blindness, this is for cancer.  When I asked her why, she said it was important to give back.  There was never any sit-down with me to tell me about being a good person.  She just showed me what a good person is.  She was an extraordinary woman. After Daddy died and I was still making movies, I saw her and I remember having this one thought: it’s time somebody celebrated her.  She held us all together.  Both my parents died in their late seventies.  She died two years after he died.  And Daddy was six years younger than she.   She got a college degree; all of her nine siblings did. She helped to raise her own family before she raised us.  She saved money up.  I don’t know how and got herself to Europe.  She had gotten her science degree but decided, no, she wanted to be an artist.  So she got herself to the Sorbonne and then all by herself she traveled to Casablanca and the Fertile Crescent where she taught English to Arab kids.  She was a little later than the Victorian crowd who did that – Freya Stark and that lot.  She was was born in 1901.

KS:  Where did your parents meet?

AM:  I’m sure they met in Greenwich Village doing their art.  I like to think of them meeting on a Village rooftop because I’ve got that picture of them.  Isn’t that great? 

KS:  You’re the only one left from your immediate family.  Your brother died rather young.

AM:  He was sixty.  It was from lung stuff which runs in my family.   My grandmother died of that too. 

KS:  Because you grew up in the environs where you did, were you aware of being “the other” since your family didn’t have money and were artistic and bohemian?  Not exactly what one expects when one hears of a Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York, upbringing.

AM:  I think we were respected.  But, yes, we were “the other.”  Bedford was a very wealthy town.  My brother and I went to public school and then I got a full scholarship to Wellesley.

KS: Did it make you feel special to get a scholarship to a Seven Sisters college or did it make you feel in some way – not exactly less than – but 

AM:  Lucky.   First of all, I had gone to Rosemary Hall already which was the most extraordinary learning experience of my life.  That was when I was 13 to 17.  I was a day student.  That was great because you get that phenomenal education without the loneliness of most of the other kids who were boarding there and were the children of parents who were trying to figure out if they were going to stay married.  Some people love the idea of boarding school but I think it is insane for children.

KS:  So you never sent your son Josh to a boarding school?

AM:  Oh, God, no.  No.  I would ask him and if had ever said yes I would of course have done it.  But my already having gone to Rosemary Hall was a miracle which occurred because of somebody’s seeing my mother and me in a grocery store and starting to ask my mother about this interesting little girl she had with her and wondering where she was going to school.   The answer was the local high school which was Black Board Jungle. That’s really what it was.  So she asked us if we would be interested in seeing this other school because her husband commuted from Greenwich with their two girls.  It was the most miraculous present from this woman.   I loved it.  I worked really, really, really, really hard there. 

KS:  That’s your drag name: Rosemary Hall.

AM: (Laughing) Oh, God, that’s so funny.  Exactly.  Now it is part of Choate.

KS:  What were your years at Wellesley like?

AM: I was an art history student with one great, great teacher and got credit for my studio classes.   I would say it was more of a social experience.  I didn’t really study the sciences.  I  did Italian and Russian and art.  The literature courses, I liked.  I know that the dean must have looked at me at the end of my time there and thought, “Now, there’s a dilettante.”  But I don’t regret it at all because I think when you get that kind of education it makes you appreciate your life more.

KS:  You knew Erich Segal, the author of Love Story, in college long before that book and the film based on it changed your lives.  You were in a production of All’s Well that Ends Well together.

AM: Yes.  Isn’t that hilarious?  And then x-years later there he is again in my life and way smarter than I had any idea that he was while we were in college because he became a serious classicist.  That book was just a little thing he threw out there.  Isn’t it fascinating how life keeps wrapping its narrative around you?

KS:  I call it Heightened Coincidences.  It’s where I often find grace – or even God.  It helps to be aware of one’s life as a narrative.

AM:  Exactly.  And you have to be present – especially as one gets older.

With her “Love Story” costar Ryan O’Neal

KS:  So you graduated Wellesley …

AM:  Oh – wait – the honest truth is  … and I don’t believe in regrets, what a waste of time …but I truly wish I had spent my junior year abroad.  Because that’s the time that’s never quite the same for any of us.  Oh, to have been 19 years old and waiting on tables in Paris.  But in my time you had to study something in the language of the country where you were studying abroad – or maybe study the language itself – and I didn’t want to do that.  I longed to go to Italy and look at a lot of paintings and work in a pizza store and fall in love with an Italian.

KS:  Did you discover men in college?  Is that when you lost your virginity?

AM:  No, not in college but I was sure being asked out more than I had been.

KS:  Did you lose it before college or after?  Is this too personal?

AM:  No.  After.  Five minutes after.

KS:  (Laughing) You couldn’t wait to get that diploma.  Your first husband was from Harvard.

AM:  Wonderful guy.  He just died this year.  No man in his right mind should have married me when I was 21.  It was ridiculous. 

KS:  You are now the age that your parents were when they died.  Are you aware of that right now?  Are you aware of your own mortality more these days?

AM:  Yes.  You’d have to be stupid not to be aware of that.  The only thing I can come up with about my life right now  – because it is so thought-provoking to be this age quite honestly – is that it is so easy to live in a rewrite of the past or make up what you think is going to happen or what you sure isn’t going to be okay but is going to happen anyway.  But the discipline I am finally beginning to understand in living right now takes the boogeyman out of all that. 

KS:  Does being sober help in that?

AM:  Oh, God, yes.  And yoga.  But being present and listening is so important.  But who did that for the first fifty years?  I have friends who go into paroxysms on every birthday.  I don’t find that productive.  It’s not a judgment on somebody else.  But I have to figure out what is going to work for me and for me that is trying to be present.  I am a bit of a multi-tasker so I do fear sometimes falling at this age.  If you are walking along a funky road it’s about being present in the walk and not rewriting some phone call you had.  That’s so easy when you’re much younger but it gets harder when you get older. 

KS:  Your energy and your presence seems so much younger than 78 but …

AM:  This is what 78 is.

KS:  I am 61.  That’s as old as I’ve ever been.  But I don’t think I quite present that old even though I own every year of it.

AM:  This is what I think the big secret is.  It is a cliche but I think it is brilliant.  We have really very little to say about what is going to happen but we have everything to say about our reaction to it.  I am less doomsday now and put all my efforts in trying to be helpful.  Even my work with Ibu is about doing something positive.  I work with women in 35 different countries in my collection.  Ibu  itself works with around 70. 

KS:  Part of my prayer each morning is that no matter what happens to me – whether it is the best thing or the worst – that I deal with it in the same manner which is with grace and humility and dignity.  I am not saying that prayer is always answered but it is the prayer I pray.

AM:  And who taught us that when we were kids?  Nobody … I am glad we are having this conversation because we both have played in all these shiny sandboxes and have told the tales and met the best.  I was brought up to be perfect and achieve.  That’s good.  Make a B+ get told to make an A-.  And I did.  I have a great work ethic.  I work my ass off at anything I do.  But finally, instead of being the poster person on the cover of magazine with a French twist, I have found that I love being the proverbial worker among workers.  I just find that this “specialness” bestowed upon some is a separator.   Of course, if one ever was a movie star, strangers make astonishing assumptions about what one’s insides are.  Sometimes people might even want to take you out and you can even see the little wheels turning about that kind of thing. 

KS:  Are you still dating?

AM:  No.  No.  (Laughing)  I can’t think of anything more unpleasant.   I’d rather get another dog.

KS:  Do you like being an old lady?  Steve McQueen used to call you his “old lady.”

AM:  I didn’t like that at all.

KS:  But now you really are one.

AM:  This, I like a lot. 

KS:  There were people who contacted me when I said I was coming here to interview you to tell me to thank you for your gray hair ..

AM:  Well,, it’s actually white.

KS: … to thank you for owning it whether it is gray or it’s white.  Your eyebrows are not gray though.  They are sort of your trademark, those dark full eyebrows.

AM:  Yeah, they are.

KS:  Do you dye them?

AM:  I put pencil on them.  But you know there is that incredible scene in Visconti’s Death in Venice when Dirk Bogard is sitting out in the sun.  It’s such a hot day and he’s got that beautiful linen suit on and suddenly the mascara and dye or whatever start running down his face.  I don’t want to look like that.  You know, for women now there is this sickening media message that we better look thirty-five no matter what age we are.  Do whatever it takes.  You have to pretend from the neck up that you are not your real age.   I’ll be goddamn if I am going to chuck out the last 40 years of my life.  I think we have to be aware of what it is really going on in the world and in our own lives.  And I have.  I really have.  To have survived from where I was to now is the biggest accomplishment of my life.  I am not saying I didn’t have some really great times but when you are the flavor du jour – which I was – and then you’re not and you’re getting older and not looking like you used to …

KS:  You have said that luck plays a role in life. You are one of the lucky ones in that you are a beautiful older woman.  Not all women are beautiful as they age.  But you are.

AM:  Thank you.  That’s sweet of you.  I don’t think about that a lot though.  There is a bunch of us geezers now.  Listen, I was in yoga class once here in Santa Fe when I was still dying my hair and looked around and saw all these extraordinarily beautiful women with gray hair and thought, hey, try this out in Beverly Hills.  This can only happen here in Santa Fe.  So I just let it slowly start growing out.  I tell all my younger women friends not to be scared about getting older.  The important thing is not dying your hair or having work done on your face.  The important thing is how to get old and stay healthy.  I look at these goddamn magazines and these 21-year-old anorexic Eastern European “beauties” and think if this is what the modern woman aspires to look like, then it is over.  I don’t look like that anymore.  But I’m a firm believer that anything that makes you feel better, have at it.

KS:  You had your eyes done a few years ago.

AM: Not a few years.  Thirty.  Sue Mengers was wearing a big pair of dark glasses – she was my agent – in a darkened restaurant in New York once.  I said to her, “Holy shit, Sue, this restaurant is pitch black why are you wearing those glasses?”  She took them off and said, “Look what I just did,” and showed me that she had had her eyes done.  She said, “You should do it.  In fact, you should do it right away.”  I was doing Dynasty at the time and on the set with all those perfect-looking people.  She told me my eyes were getting a little saggy so I did what she said.  She told me I could stay at her house and recover by staying in her guest bedroom.  I don’t have much to say about any of that except that, if you’re going to do it, then go to an expert  – go to an artistic doctor –  because there are people taking huge checks to destroy faces.  I think what we’re talking about is reality versus the invented person. 

KS:  You came of age working in that fashion magazine world – not as a model but for Diana Vreeland as her assistant.  Was Vreeland your first mentor?

AM:   Yes.  She was.  Professionally.  She certainly didn’t have anything to do with me personally.  But, yes, I certainly absorbed what she was about.

KS:  Your life’s path has crossed with lots of interesting types.  Donald Trump even tried to pick you up once, right?   He once made a pass at you and gave you the eye. 

AM:  He didn’t give me the eye.  He did something even more bizarre.  I didn’t know him.  I don’t remember what I was doing at the time.  Maybe my yoga video PR.  I was in New York and wound up on 58th Street at the side entrance of The Plaza Hotel.  This paparazzo showed up and asked if he could take my picture.  I learned a long time ago that it is easier to do one photo for them and then they go away.  I told him that I couldn’t stand doing it in front of people though so I asked if we could duck around the corner to do it and he said yes.  And there across the street was Donald Trump with somebody and they levitated as if they were in a Chagall painting and Trump was suddenly there right next to me. 

KS:  So he was trying to pick you up in that Chagall-like moment?   You made him levitate.

AM:  (Laughing)  Nooooo.  I’m not a 10. 

KS: Once a Hollywood mogul asked me why I didn’t like 10s and wanted to know why I only liked 6s and 7s and I told him it was how they made up those extra 3 to 4 points that made them sexy to me.  Movie moguls always like 10s.  You married a movie mogul – Bob Evans – when he was the head of Paramount.  You’re a 10, Ali.  If nothing else, that proves it.

AM:  (Laughing)  Yeah, I’ve always really felt like a 10.  Sure. 

KS:  Wait.  You’ve never felt like a 10?

AM:  No.  I felt like I was intelligent.

KS:  You can be a 10 and intelligent. 

AM:  (Laughing) I didn’t know that.

KS:  (Laughing)  Then you weren’t that intelligent.  What I am curious about is how you went from Bob Evans to Steve McQueen.  They are such different types of men.  So what exactly is your type?

AM:  I don’t have a type.  Here’s the thing.  They were both at the height of their power. 

KS:  So power turns you on?

AM:  No.  No.  Not generic power.   They are both extraordinarily interesting men.  I mean, I’m not the only original choice of either of them.  They have quite a list between the two of them – many overlapping.

KS:  But they didn’t marry all of them.

AM:  No.  And I think that was the worst deal that either one of them could have made.

KS:  Not necessarily.  You signed that pre-nup with Steve that left you with nothing after you divorced.

AM:  I can only say now that I feel very, very lucky that I had both of them in my life.  Bob and I had this great, great, great kid.  Bob and I now have a long, long, long, long friendship.  I am grateful for it.  He’s been wonderful to me.   I mean, Steve and I were different.  That was a bloodbath.  Interestingly enough, it takes two to create that kind of thing.

KS:  When you read the accounts of your time with Steve it just seems so visceral and passionate and .. well .. animalistic.  Was there drug use and alcohol involved?  Were you sober yet?

AM:  I was abstinent.

KS:  But he wasn’t sober.

Baggage: MacGraw and McQueen

AM:  Never.  I will tell you what the truth is.   Nobody – neither of us – had done any work.  And there is no getting through this life unless you do the work on the bogeyman.  There just isn’t.  And there a lots of ways to don it. But he hadn’t done any and I wasn’t doing anything successfully.  So what hope is there when you both have stuff that’s got to be straightened out?  You have to be able to say to each other, “This I’ll do.  I’ll try doing this.  This, I can’t do.  Now: your turn.”  Plus we were these two monster, freaking movie stars.  At.  That.  Moment.

KS:  One of the features here on this online magazine is one called SOME JOY.  When I started the feature on Facebook one of the photos I posted was of you and Steve on a movie set full of laughter and love.  You were full of joy.  I think it was on the set of Papillon.  It might have been on The Getaway.  

AM:  We had those moments.  He was remarkable but difficult.  And I was difficult – not in the classic way – but I hope to Christ I’ve grown in the last 35 years.

KS:  Did you want to have a child with him?

AM:  Yeah – only that it was a vision that it would straighten out some of the drama. 

KS:  So it would be to serve as a governor on his motor which is not the best reason to have a child. 

AM:  I think we just had the sense that we had to get along better.  I’m glad we didn’t have a child together.  We weren’t mature enough.  He was the biggest movie star in the world even as he was doing I-don’t-want-to-do-this-movie-star-shit and I-want-to-go-live-in-Trancas-with-a-beard, which isn’t a criticism of him.  He was invested in that.  All that mattered to him.   But it mattered to him that he was also that huge movie star.  It bothered him if someone recognized me and not him.  It’s touching when you think about it because the person inside was really exceptional.

KS:  Were you a part of his life when he was really ill and dying of cancer?  That seems like something that would have really bothered him – being perceived as weak and being vulnerable.

AM:  That is why I never went to visit him.  He was married to someone else at that point in his life and I think they had a terrific connection.  His first wife is a wonderful woman.  And he had his kids.  I was always felt that no matter what I felt about him – which was something huge – that it would be completely unkind to invade the privacy of all that.  Also I knew he wasn’t looking the way he would have liked to be remembered.  He had people with him who adored him.  Thank God.  It was horrible.

KS:  There was that moment in The Getaway when …

AM: …. he slaps me. 

KS:  It looked as if he really did it.

AM:  He didn’t.  He was a consummate film actor.  He really didn’t connect.

KS:  Because it was all so passionate with Steve and you had grown up with a father whom you witnessed beating your brother, did the relationship scare you in that sense in that it could be so volatile that it could turn violent?  Did it ever?

AM:  No.  Not like that.  No, no, no.  We were just very different.  I just keep saying the same thing over and over again.  I think if we had gone into our own collective garbage cans and faced who we really were and talked about it.  There was just a lack of something and  I’m still now sure what it was.  But whatever it was, it was major and if only it could have matured … if that is even the right word …

KS:  If you had worked on yourselves at the same time, you might have had a chance in the marriage.  But if you had done the work before you met, do you think you would have been a couple?  So much of your passion as couple seems to have been caused by what was broken in you and how you were broken together.

AM:  He was irresistible. 

KS:  Just physically.

AM:  He was really interesting.  He had tremendous street smarts.  I don’t know about that.  The real person inside of that hull was extremely interesting.  It would have just been a different kind of life.  It’s hard to explain what a huge movie star he was in that moment. He had had three blockbuster movies back-to-back out of nowhere.  And I was the flavor-of-the-month then too.

KS:  Was he competitive with you?  Did you feel competitive with him?

AM:  No. I think he didn’t .. well, I didn’t think .. I know he didn’t want me to continue working. 

KS:  Yeah, a big part of your marriage to him was his wanting your putting his meat and potatoes in front of him each night at 6 o’clock.  He wanted you to be that “old lady” of his. 

AM:  Yes, but who wants to be in a relationship with someone who is going to head off to some location for three months with some other beautiful creature. 

KS:  Well, he did it.  Why did he get to demand you not do it?

AM:  Either way it’s a tough thing.  Some people are able to do it.  But look at the list.  Not many people are able to.  It’s somebody else’s dream – that kind of movie star life.  Oh,  you both go off and lead these glamorous lives and miss each other and then glamorously come back together.  Plus, I’m just not good – obviously – at full-time partnership.

KS:  Did you find ways to be alone within your relationship?  You’ve told me you like solitude.

AM: Of course.  But when you take parenting seriously that takes precedent over everything.  I had my kid and he had three kids. And they all had friends.  Steve was a great parent.  All of that was the best. That was wonderful.  But Steve was terrified – he went into real agony – when his partner wasn’t available.  That all traced back to his mother’s abandoning him as a child.  You have to respect that stuff.

KS:  Again, some armchair psychology.  Your father was an orphan and Steve had been abandoned early in life by his mother so he had the emotional makeup and mentality of an orphan. 

AM:   Yeah, Steve did.  But I don’t think that was the attraction.  That was a detail learned later.  The power of Steve McQueen was palpable.  There was not a man or woman or a kid didn’t feel drawn to him.

KS:  But you were imbued with  kind of cultural power in that moment too.  You were both giant stars.  So there is a third entity in the marriage – and that was the fame you had as couple not just separately.  So it had a life of its own.

AM: Every year there is one of those famous powerful couples in the movie business.  Every freaking year. Because when you’re having your moment you’re running into everybody carrying the same cards.

KS:  Was he ever comfortable being Steve McQueen?

AM:  With his buddies in the racing world or on a set.

Photo courtesy of Ibu

KS:  I think you’re finally comfortable being Ali McGraw.  It’s lovely to behold. I think part of that is that here in Santa Fe you are beloved, and rightly so.   But also if you were still in Los Angeles you would be a 78-year-old woman who had an amazing career but would be considered a bit of a has-been.  Here, however, you stand out as being a star and can still, in a way, live in your fame.  You are a star in Santa Fe in a way you would not be in Hollywood. 

AM:  Probably. Yes.  But it’s not the reason I am here.  I am not a fucking movie star here or the ex-wife of somebody.  It is so easy to say I’m somebody here and I’m nobody there.  You and I both know that at some point we have to have the idea that we are somebody no matter where we are. I have gone through more decades than I want to recall of comparing myself to others and even now I am not stupid enough to say that I don’t think it’s amazing if you wake up to find that you’re Cate Blanchett or Bette Midler.  I’m not a star in that sense at all.  But I don’t feel like a worm and there were many years I felt like a worm.  But, you know, this is really important for both of us.  Because you and I have moved around in the same scenes and we could both drop a list of who we’re friends with and what we did.  But if we don’t like ourselves a little bit by the time we’re my age, it’s sad.  I want all the help I can to drop that I’m-not-good-enough shit.    Finally the reason people like me here in Santa Fe is because I show up on a very ordinary level with a tremendous amount of respect for them.  I show up.  And I do service.



  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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