The Local

Ali MacGraw

SO, IN FRONT OF ME SITS ALI MACGRAW, telling me that she has just spent an hour and a half trying to get service for her phone, wrestling with a forest of automated responses and indecipherable agents that ultimately explain to her that she doesn’t live in Tesuque (she does) and all of a sudden you see that she is just like the rest of us.

Incidentally, she still has that thing, that presence of a movie star. (Although, I think she would still have it even if she hadn’t been one.) She somehow understands this, and is still surprised and amused by it. She can be wickedly funny about things and people she doesn’t care for, and fiercely honest and protective of the one’s she loves.

She has a distinctive brand of wisdom, authenticity, and self-deprecation. You see her everywhere around town, big events and small — as an ambassador for the arts, raising money for the Humane Society, and in line next to you at Whole Foods.

Some people have told me they like that the magazine doesn’t run pieces on celebrities. But Ali is different: in her complicated and funny and unique way, she is dedicated to doing everything she can do to make our town better. And after nearly 40 years here, she is a bonafide local.

You seem like a straight shooter.

Many of us are doing the best that we can, but we don’t have the courage to be authentic. And so we do a self-corrected version of ourselves, hoping we’ll be liked. And then fatigue wears us down. And we think, How come you can’t read my mind? And of course, the answer is, Just speak English to me!

But now it’s crystal clear to me that our best version is the realest one. And probably the whole world won’t think we’re wonderful. So what? But God, maybe that’s because I was a teenager in the 50s and that was a very repressed time, especially in the part of the world that I come from, where Mr. and Mrs. White person with a boy, a girl, a cat and a dog were all lined up walking down a picket fence-lined street. The miracle was that the 60s came along and blew everything to hell.

You seem very positive.

I deliberately choose to look for what could be good and positive. For instance, this is so hilarious: I love my son. He’s just fabulous. He’s so much smarter than I am. He’s very interested in the political situation, which I find so horrific that I’m not even open for one sentence on the subject. However, yesterday I said to him, You know, you better start thinking about something, which is that I’m 84 and the clock’s ticking. You are the most important person in my life and we need to be in touch more often. He said, Mom, you’re not 84. You’re 83. I said, No, I’m not. He said, Do the math. And at the end of the phone call, I said, Damn, I just bought a whole other year because of my brilliant kid who can do math better than I can. So, the point is, I choose to look for what could be good. It’s my survival mechanism.

There’s a kind of a bias in our culture that if you look great, you get breaks.

You get luckier, for sure.

At the same time, there’s almost a skepticism that a beautiful woman can get to where she did on merit.

But I never had any idea what I looked like. I knew I was intelligent, not brilliant, but intelligent. I worked very hard in school on scholarship, got killer great grades. And I don’t remember one thing I learned. Then it was just about being perfect, you know? I went to an all-girls school and I was a good student.

I had this fantastic job, my favorite job of my life, my second job out of school, not counting waitress. The job was behind the camera with a great photographer who’s now dead. His name was Melvin Sokolsky. I had six years with him at the top of his career when he was photographing back in the days of the great art directors. I worked for Harper’s Bazaar, an incredible magazine time. I was behind his camera, dressing, fluffing, getting strawberry ice cream cones for the most beautiful women in the world, the fashion models. I’m great behind the camera. It was creative and I loved it.

First you worked for Diana Vreeland at Harper’s Bazaar.

That was fabulous. And scary. She paid $54 a week. I didn’t even know who she was. I was sent up there out of college because I had to get a job immediately. And somebody said, If you’re interested in fashion, there’s an opening with Diana Vreeland. Bazaar was the only magazine I bought because when Henry Wolf was the art director and Diana Vreeland was the editor, it was extraordinary.

So I arrived at the magazine in one of my few pieces of clothing, just this Wellesley graduate. And she says, Girl, bring me a pencil, girl. I walked a lot.

What was so remarkable about her?

Her eye. She was enormously culturally educated. Those were the days. The big advertiser gets the cover no matter what it is. It was fashion. That’s the only part of it that Diana Vreeland was involved in. And she had a huge internal fantasy life. She could look at a sleeveless Dacron dress and suddenly say, I think we should shoot that in Africa and make sure there are elephants.

Sometimes I had to walk her home and I always tried to get her to talk about herself. She had a great walk. She walked with her hips forward, and she always wore the same clothes, which was extraordinary when you consider the effort that contemporary fashion, self-involved icons go through. She had perfect shoes made for her. She had incredible, long red lacquered nails, a certain kind of makeup, blue tint to her hair.

I was only there for six months because I was going be married to my first husband. His family wanted a photograph of us to look like a Burt Bacharach thing in The New York Times. We couldn’t afford that. First of all, who cares? So at Bazaar, I said to the Emily Blunt character, the brilliant, sharp-witted secretary, Oh my God, I have to have a photograph taken. And she said, There’s this new guy called Melvin Sokolsky. He’s really sweet. I bet you he’d take your picture for free.

I met Sokolsky and he said, Why don’t you work for me? I’ll give you $80. I left Vreeland and I never regretted it.

Working with him was thrilling. I did it for six years. We had an extraordinary relationship because I had a certain kind of education, which was helpful. For instance, I got to go out and buy books. You know, remember those great bookstores that used to be in New York? Oh my God!

I lived in New York until I was 30. Then I married Bob Evans and he lived in LA, but I would’ve stayed in New York for the rest of my life.

I learned how to see from my father, my mother, Diana Vreeland, and Melvin Sokolsky. I was so blessed that way. There were lots of difficulties in childhood, but learning to see was the gift.

Next you become not just a little famous, but one of the most famous women in the world.

I was working for Melvin when the account executive for Chanel came in and asked, Melvin, what is your assistant doing this weekend? Chanel No. 5 has just become a bath oil and I think she’s perfect to sit on a waterfall. Could she come with us to Puerto Rico this weekend for $200? So that picture of me, by freak happenstance, turned up in all the high-end drugstores in Manhattan.

Then an agent saw it and found me and said, Do you want to be in the movies? I said, No, I love my job and I have no skills, nothing to offer.

Then I had to read for Goodbye, Columbus. (I’m very sure I was a pop star as opposed to an actress. And that’s the truth.) I’m smart. I know what’s great work and I know when something else is working. For the movie, I had the miracle of an actor director named Larry Pierce. Dick Benjamin, Jack Klugman and Nan Martin, these generous, skillful artist actors who carried me through that thing.

And it worked. And it was a surprise to everybody. Then Love Story was sent to me with triple or five times the price of the last thing. I read it and I said, I don’t know why I’m moved by it. I read it twice. I’m still crying.

They got a big television star, Ryan O’Neill. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m a great film watcher, I know when something is great and it wasn’t me. I had no fucking idea what I was doing.

But everybody was nice and helpful. Funny, I always remember the most important thing, which is after Love Story, the next year’s blockbuster movie was Willard The Rat.

The thing I’m the proudest of is that I survived it, and didn’t drink the Kool-Aid. That’s the truth. I never became a stuck-on-myself asshole. And it’s so easy. The accolades for fame in this country are just beyond belief. It is a machine that keeps going. And I had extraordinary opportunities, but really, it’s a killer to wake up overnight and suddenly have everybody falling all over you. And also, I never behaved like a diva ever, ever, ever. I really didn’t know what I was doing and I was just doing the best I could. And I’m so glad I’m not doing it anymore.

So all of a sudden, I was in the fast lane, and I was hired to be the fucking co-star of a movie with the biggest movie star in the world. That would be Steve. That would be The Getaway.

The final movie that I did was Just Tell Me What You Want, with Sidney Lumet, who was an actor’s director. We had incredible actors and it was okay because I survived. Look, I have certain things that I’m good at. I just had no idea how to act.

At the time, I was living in a rented house in Malibu for years because I like the air over there better. But then my house burned in a fire, a big fire that took the whole street down. So I thought, What am I supposed to be learning from this? This is pretty major. And I heard this, I swear to you, It’s time for you to get out of Los Angeles. And I thought, Bingo.

Were you always that clear-headed?

I’m really glad that it turned out that I was an alcoholic, which I had no idea about, even though my father and grandfather were. That gave me shame, which is a quality I cannot survive, and I did something about it, and lived healthier, wiser, and happier ever after. I’m really grateful. It’s been the most incredible gift, because it taught me to take responsibility for my own actions. I dared to be as real as I can be, instead of making up a character. It’s a happier way to live.

Why did you come to Santa Fe?

I wanted to live in this city, which is this incredible collection of completely disparate backgrounds, educations, skin colors, and music. I came here knowing just one person.

What did you think you were going to do?

I still don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out what I’m gonna do, because I think, Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t be totally happy unless I’m participating in creating something.

You are intensely involved in the community.

Very. On purpose.

When I got here, I knew nobody. So what was I gonna do? I’m not going to sit around a restaurant and hope for the best. So I volunteered for stuff, nothing big. That’s important.

I remember my amazing mother was paying bills one night when I was very young. I looked over and she had five single dollar bills. And she was putting one 1n each envelope. I asked her what she was doing and she said, I believe you have a responsibility to give back to the community to which you belong. I remember that. She wasn’t prissy about it. It was just a fact of life.

I believe that every little thing we do in community changes the energy of it. And I’m a big believer even in the part that’s little tiny. In Santa Fe, incredible music goes on, the museums are in great shape, the animal shelter is thriving, the public schools are getting something (not enough). So who’s gonna realize that what we think Santa Fe stands for doesn’t maintain unless we all do a little something?

You use your well-known face to help people.

I hope so, because that’s what I like doing, and that’s also what I think we all should be doing.

You know, I was trying to think of where else, what other small-ish city in the country could I go to if I can’t stand living in this new heat anymore? But where the hell is there?

Not that we don’t have our problems. What bothers me is that no one here really cares about the massive amounts of new architecture. I understand that there are tremendous financial considerations. But it puzzles me that there wasn’t some sort of thought of how to make it feel like a cousin of the energy that we all came here to feel. It also bothers me that people that work here can’t afford to live here. And I’m gonna get a lot of hate mail for this one, but I wonder how many developers here would actually live in what they’re building?

Earlier, you had said you didn’t like going back to L.A., that there were ghosts.

Ghosts, yes. They’re very big for me. I remember hearing my parents say, when you get to be our age, you lose really important people in your life. They get ill and die. I happen to have lost probably the most important people in my life who live in LA, three major ones. And I can’t be there without feeling the absence of them, because I don’t want to go to Christian Dior. I could give a shit about that. I want to see my friends, and I haven’t been there, except two years ago I went for two memorial services. I haven’t been in Manhattan for probably four or five years, and I’m terrified to go there because it makes me sick.

I have an intense, detailed, emotionally perfect memory of those places, with a cast of characters, many of whom are no longer alive. But there are places that I could imagine reinventing life, as I reinvented it here. I just hope that enough people cherish what Santa Fe has been to keep it going right. When I finished watching the Oppenheimer movie, I thought, I wonder how many people in the country know what it’s like to sit 40 minutes away from freshened up atom bombs? It’s hard to say, Wow, what a great movie! Because we’re right in it, aren’t we?

Vanity Fair recently did a piece on you; did they interview you first?

No. I was so stunned. I said, What the hell could they be writing about? The fact that I have my seventh Scotty and a red cat? Because right now, I haven’t really got any news to share.

But that’s nothing. Wait until AI kicks in. Wait until they bring me back from the dead to have a fake death scene and then jump up and go play the US Open or whatever. I mean, how dare you say Fred Astaire is going to be starring in a rap dance movie now. There’s no control! There’s no control for me, or for Meryl Streep. We can’t even talk about this because it puts me in a towering fury, how dangerous this is all going to be. The possibility to warp truth and have it passed out is scaring the absolute shit out of me.


Photo SFM