Ali MacGraw Talks from the Heart about Her Life in Santa Fe - July 14, 2008

Okay, so she has a last name. The headline above just gave it away, but for legions of admirers in Santa Fe she needs a last name about as much as Madonna and Cher need theirs. She is quite simply, and remarkably, Ali. Her glitterati life in New York and Hollywood had all the requisite ups (cover girl model, Academy Award nominee as the doomed young bride of Erich Segal's Love Story) and downs (failed marriages, alcohol dependence). And today she has settled into a blissfully composed and relatively quiet life in her chosen home community of Santa Fe, with time out for occasional acting forays including a Broadway debut last year. But never confuse Ali's contentment with resignation. Her Santa Fe days are filled with firebrand activity as she dispenses her celebrity capital with a flourish wherever she thinks it will do the most good. There is no time left for klieg lights (well maybe, more on that later) and trivialities. Her current passion is the Santa Fe Rape Crisis and Trauma Treatment Center and she talks about it with the intelligence and knowledge of the truly committed. Everybody knows that any project you lend your name to gets a huge bump up in attention. How do you choose what to support?

Ali: I don't support as much as I wish I could, for financial and time reasons. And I really only get involved in things I care a lot about, with huge respect to so many other causes that I just don't have the time to give to.

SF: So why the Santa Fe Rape Crisis and Trauma Treatment Center, (which by the way has such a long name that from here on it is just the Center)?

A: My involvement began about a decade ago when I met its powerhouse, magical leader, Barbara Goldman. Once you meet her, you want to follow her to the end of the world.

SF: I understand what rape crisis refers to, but what about trauma treatment? That sounds like the ER at St. Vincent's.

A: Rape is both a physical act and psychological trauma, but there is the additional reality of trauma born of other forms of violence. The Center has qualified therapists on staff who are perfectly positioned to deal with others kinds of social trauma, specifically right now in the area of post war trauma for women returning from war zones.

SF: How is the Center dealing with that?

A: Barbara already has approval for a new building dedicated to trauma victims, with particular attention to the needs of more than 20,000 New Mexico women who have served in the military since the beginning of the Iraq war, many in combat areas of Iraq and Afghanistan. Who would even imagine that there could be 20,000 women in this state who have served in the military just since the Iraq War? Many of them have physically and mentally experienced everything that goes against the very definition of being a woman as nurturing, caring and compassionate. They are returning to husbands and kids and are somehow expected to lead normal lives. Every one of these people deserves full time therapy to make this transition. Getting this new trauma treatment building is a huge step in that direction.

SF: Is the problem of rape and physical violence in New Mexico disproportionate to the problem in other states?

A: This is a state full of enormous violence, which is in part attributable to the vast difference here between those having too much and those having absolutely nothing. The rage and fear which that disparity perpetuates gets acted out in the most violent crime of rage, which is rape. But the flip side of this is that the Center is so highly regarded as a model for the rest of the country that a lot of people here dare to report these crimes and avail themselves of the good services it offers.

SF: So the awareness of help available makes New Mexico's numbers higher?

A: There are plenty of places where rape or violence is a shame-drenched incident that must not be talked about, so who knows what is really going on? We do know what's going on here. And one of the things that is so extraordinary about the Center is that they have fabulous cooperation with the police and the medical community. There is a representative from every service at the Center when the initial interrogation with a victim is done. Victims tell their story once and then the help begins.

SF: Your enthusiasm for the important work of the Center throws a big spotlight on what is happening there. What can others with great respect for this work do?

A: People can volunteer time and services in a million different ways and of course can make donations because this Center exists and flourishes through the donations of us in the community, along with foundation support. But we do need money.

SF: I'm sure you didn't come here looking to be such a local activist. What was your first introduction to Santa Fe?

A: It was in the late 70s while I was making a god-awful movie called Convoy, and we had one day in Santa Fe as opposed to a month of sitting with a lot of trucks out on I-25. I came into town desperate to see a Gustave Baumann woodblock print, but that's not what I saw. I saw lower Cerrillos near Zafarano Road where the film company put us up in one of those generic hotels.

SF: Not a very auspicious welcome to the City Different. What brought you back?

A: About 15 years later a friend in Los Angeles asked me to come and help her choose some things for a new house she had just bought in Tesuque. While we were working on her house, she told me about a small place down the street from hers which I should buy, and I did. That's when I really fell in love with the area. I came back frequently on vacation and as a weekend get away from Los Angeles, knowing nobody and using the house as a mountain retreat. It was fabulous.

SF: What prompted you to eventually get yourself back up here to stay?

A: My house in Malibu burned to the ground in one of those devastating canyon fires and after a futile year of searching for another place in the beach area of Los Angeles, I realized that there was not going to be an affordable house. Then it dawned on me that I already owned a house here, so I came back for awhile. That was 15 years ago and here I am.

SF: You were quoted during the last Santa Fe Film Festival as not being averse to making movies again. What reason would be important to you now in making a film?

A: There are two reasons. One is that it would be fabulous to get today's salary for the money I could give away. It would be so extraordinary to say to somebody, "Here I just worked three months and I got $20 million so I think I can really help with that school". I would love it. I became a movie star in an era when people didn't make that kind of money. They made very good money, but nothing like what today's money could solve in our battered society.

The other reason is that I would be thrilled to do something I could be proud to be a part of, knowing that it was touching and that it evoked some real emotional response. I don't like to go to the movies and just observe, I like to be completely swept out of my chair.

SF: What was the last movie that swept you out of your chair?

A: Oh my god, The Lives of Others. It's the best movie I've seen in decades. I just thought anybody, even the person ironing the clothes for this film, knew they were working on a masterpiece. Those are few and far between.

SF: Okay, here's the Love Story question I have wanted to ask you for years. Did you ever figure out what in the Sam Hill Erich Segal was talking about when he wrote "love means never having to say you're sorry"?

A: I think it is just breathtakingly pathetic that as a so-called actor I never asked that question before they said, "okay, you're next scene is this". Any great actor would have said "wait, this doesn't make any sense". So it was just an homage to how little I knew about acting

SF: Did you always dream of being a movie star?

A: Never. I had other much more impractical fantasies, like wanting it to be 1913 and I was in love with a Russian prince as we watched Pavlova dance. My reading was all about other times. Sometimes it was wanting to live in Paris and making the best stew for Stravinsky or all those painters. It was nuts.

SF: Do you paint at all?

A: I do all that stuff for myself, for my own joy.

SF: When you hit the big screen, was it anything like you expected?

A: Don't forget. I didn't fall into the film business until I was in my late twenties. I had been working at very real jobs since I was 14. I have been a waitress and a maid and blah blah blah, for which I am so grateful. It is such a freaky thing when you get to be a star, not when you get to be an accomplished great artist or actress or musician, but when there is that sort of tabloid sign over your name. It's almost like a pop figure that has nothing to do with you or what you are capable of being. You are the crush of the moment-and I was. You had better have some grounding when that time comes along because it is so insane. People kiss your ass and it is just shocking. If you don't have any clue how the world really is, it can wreck your life.

SF: Don't we see that now in the lives of a lot of these young stars?

A: They'll be lucky to live. It's heartbreaking because in an era where celebrity is worshipped above everything, is the "the" drug of the twenty first century, way above the chemicals. Look at the mentality of a reality show where people tell shameful, dark, awful secrets just because they are on television. I learned from my parents that celebrity had no meaning unless it came in a package that included tremendous skill.

SF: That's refreshingly honest. Now, this is not just blowing smoke at you, but after the often tumultuous track of your very public Hollywood life, you seem extremely composed and well grounded for someone who has been on the roller coaster ride your life has taken. What is it in your experience or background that gave you the life view you have now?

A: The older I get the more clearly I understand the value of the way my parents brought me up. They were artists, bohemians, hard hard hard working people who made very little money. Life was tough but they had great intellectual curiosity and integrity. Their whole beings were wrapped up in art whether it was weaving or painting or pasting leaves in a book so that we would not be bored. We never had a television. That's not to say something bad about television, because I see extraordinary stuff on television, but there is a moment in your childhood when your imagination has to go crazy. If my brother or I ever said we were bored, our parents would tell us to go outside and draw a picture of the chickens or something. I had a very sound upbringing.

SF: What turns you on most about Santa Fe?

A: Two things: The consciousness of the community and the beauty of the country.

SF: What turns you off most about Santa Fe?

A: The random, very short-term thinking of the architectural sprawl. I think that the city is developing without any reverence for its beauty and heritage with a kind of generic city sprawl. That depresses me.

SF: Where is that taking place?

A: Oh my god, have you seen the building taking place at the corner of Pacheco and St. Michaels? What's the excuse for that in a place that celebrates social and historical ties to hundreds of years of other civilizations and reverence for the soil? I think there is a lot of hideousness going on.

SF: If the gods frowned on you and said you couldn't live here, where would you go?

A: In my dreams I would go to Italy, probably Venice. I'd have to force a lot of people who matter to me to come along with me.

SF: Ah, but if the gods smiled and granted you any one wish for Santa Fe, what would that be?

A: That Santa Fe would be more respectful of its historical and multi-cultural heritage.

SF: Well, that'll probably never get you an award from Santa Fe's real estate developers.

A: And that's not my campaign.