Living Legends: Ali MacGraw

The stylish brunette with the brows became famous for her turn in Love Story (1970). But, Ali MacGraw’s real-life existence has been even more intense—and, on occasion, even more watchable—than that her character Jennifer Cavilleri’s.

Elizabeth Alice MacGraw was born on April 1, 1939, to Frances and Richard MacGraw—who were artists. (Frances was Hungarian and from Massachusetts; Richard was Scottish and from New Jersey.) Ali and her brother, Richard, were raised in a wilderness reserve in Pound Ridge, New York, where the MacGraws shared a small house with an old couple. Ali has remembered, in an interview with People (February 1983): “My parents made no money whatsoever, but they really knew how to see, as artists. So, a big adventure might be, on a hot, dreadful day with no place to go, to go out and draw our chickens with pastels. My parents gave me a sense of wonder.” But, there were other moments, too. Ali has also remembered, in an interview with Vanity Fair (March 2010): “Daddy would beat my brother up, badly. I was witness to it, and it was terrible […] I put all my energy into trying to correct the chaos in our life. I was the Perfect Girl—capital P, capital G.”

Ali MacGraw, 1970s

The actress was ambitious and curious, even in her teens. Our “Perfect Girl” was educated at Rosemary Hall in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Wellesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts—where she studied art history. She shared, in an interview with Harvard University’s Arts Department (January 2016): “I thought I would do something in the art world—and I don’t mean the brainy one in the museum. I just wanted to be around it. I had a very unspecific fantasy about what it would be like. Here’s the truth: I thought, well, maybe it could be 1913 again in Paris, and all those amazing people all starving to death, I would feed them. It was pretty much about living in my fantasy life . . . I wanted all the heavyweights coming in for a coffee: Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau, all of them. Of course, I was eliminating the fact that they were freezing to death at night, couldn’t get anything to eat, couldn’t sell their paintings.”
It was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that the actress was introduced to her first husband, Robin Hoen (who was a handsome student at Harvard). The two were married in 1961—but were divorced in 1962. In 1960, she had relocated to New York City, where she became an assistant to Harper’s Bazaar’s Diana Vreeland. The chic brunette was soon embraced in the same scene as the era’s elite—a social swirl that included Salvador Dalí and Gloria Steinem.

In 1966, MacGraw was cast in an advertisement for Chanel’s cosmetics. And, with that, she was discovered. She debuted as an actress in Goodbye, Columbus (1969). The feature, which was based on Philip Roth’s contribution to The Paris Review, was a romance about a Radcliffe student (MacGraw) and a Rutgers graduate (Richard Benjamin). MacGraw was awarded the “New Star of the Year—Actress” Golden Globe. (She was also nominated for a BAFTA.)

The actress was serious about the search for her second film, because she knew that it would define her career. She was heartened when she read what would become Love Story (1970): a tragic tale about star-crossed (or, social class–crossed) love. MacGraw has emoted, in an interview with Town & Country (August 2016): “When I first read the script, I was deeply affected by it. I thought, ‘Why am I crying?’ It’s so simplistic, and my film tastes are, well, intense, let’s put it that way. So, I read it again, and was equally affected.”

MacGraw flew to Los Angeles to discuss the idea with Robert Evans, Paramount Pictures’ studio executive whose films include Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Godfather (1972). Evans, who was enamored with MacGraw, said, “Yes.” (The two would both say, “Yes”—or, rather, “I do”—when they married in 1971.)

Ali MacGraw and Robert Evans, 1971

Arthur Hiller was recruited to be the director. But, who would be cast as Oliver Barrett IV—the rich Harvard student who would fall for MacGraw’s poor Radcliffe student (Jennifer Cavilleri)? The era’s leading actors—like Michael Douglas, Jon Voight, and Christopher Walken—auditioned for the role. But, it was Ryan O’Neal who won the role of the blonde Boston Brahmin.

Love Story (1970) contributed to the 1970s zeitgeist and it was a financial smash in theaters—but, the cast wasn’t as rewarded as it could’ve (or should’ve) been. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards but won one: “Best Music (Original Score).” To her credit, MacGraw received a “Best Performance By An Actress In A Motion Picture—Drama” Golden Globe. She also debuted on the famous “International Best-Dressed List,”an envious achievement all its own.

Ali MacGraw as Jennifer Cavalleri in Love Story

Evans and MacGraw welcomed their first child, Joshua, in 1971. But the union would soon be challenged when MacGraw filmed The Getaway (1972)—where she was introduced to Steve McQueen, the infamous icon who had starred in films like The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).

The connection between the two icons was so intense that it was flammable. So, MacGraw ended her relationship with Evans and entered into one with McQueen: the stars were married from 1973 to 1978. MacGraw reveals, in an interview with Vanity Fair (March 2010), that she “. . . was 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!’” The two creative talents were also insecure, which would manifest in MacGraw as “shrinking” (she wanted to be his “Perfect Girl”)—and in McQueen as “cheating.”

Ali MacGraw in The Getaway

In 1986, she entered the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, California, where she announced: “My name is Ali, and I am an alcoholic/male-dependent.” She admitted, in an interview with Vanity Fair (March 2010): “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.”

Now, MacGraw is a resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico. (She relocated in 1993, when her house in Malibu, California, was ruined in a fire.) She authored Moving Pictures: An Autobiography (1991) and has found fulfillment in endeavors like her collaboration with Ibu, an artisan brand, with whom she created a fashion collection.

Ultimately, it may not have been a Love Story—but it’s a self-love one. And that is one that means never having to say you’re sorry.