Calling from her home outside Santa Fe, Ali MacGraw has a preemptive apology. “They just paved the dirt road I live on,” she says, “and they did something to the phone lines.” Despite that disclaimer, her voice rings out loud and clear — the same deep, patrician voice that uttered the immortal saw “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” in Love Story.
What you might not know is that before she was Jenny Cavalleri, MacGraw was in fashion, working for Diana Vreeland at Harper’s Bazaar. She wasn’t anything so vaunted as an “executive assistant,” though. In those days, she says bluntly, “They called [the position] ‘girl’ — not to be confused with a skilled secretary.” It was most often used at the beginning of a sentence: “Girl, get me a pencil, get me a coffee.” She made $54 a week. One day, Vreeland tossed her Mainbocher coat on the chair, Miranda Priestly style. (Yes, she wonders if that detail made it into The Devil Wears Prada — “They couldn’t have made that up.”) MacGraw promptly tossed it right back.
Still, there were pockets of deep glamour. “Jackie O would call and the door would close,” she says, remembering “a deliberate basso voice and a laugh that shook the room. Even a closed door couldn’t prevent you from hearing that.” And for every “necessary Seventh Avenue payback lunch,” Vreeland would dine with people like Truman Capote and Isak Dinesen — both of whom wrote for the magazine. Pencil-fetching aside, MacGraw calls the experience “the richest possible education into the fashion world.” She left Bazaar to become a stylist for the photographer Melvin Sokolsky. (Vreeland told her, “You don’t know enough to leave.”) “I was a really good stylist,” she says. “I loved racing up the street to Bloomingdale’s to get double-faced satin ribbon. It was never the same two days in a row, and it was better than quaking in fear every single freaking day! I saw that everywhere at those magazines. Either you were the darling or you were too stupid to live.” One of her first modeling jobs was for Sokolsky. She posed on a crate, holding a dog and wearing a Capezio leotard and a corduroy miniskirt. “And that was my first magazine cover,” she laughs, “for Dog World.”
When she left the fashion world for acting, MacGraw continued to do her own thing. In Love Story, she channeled much of her own style into Jenny’s look, and the results still influence practically every article you’ve seen about “fall fashion essentials.” “I remember I was wearing short skirts then, and the director said, ‘You can’t, you’re in the wrong decade,” she says, “and I didn’t care.” When she began doing the talk-show circuit, she stuck to secondhand finds and pieces she’d picked up on her travels: “I remember Johnny Carson looking at me in a Syrian wedding dress with massive amounts of Moroccan jewelry. He looked at me as if I came from another planet.”
Now, MacGraw has channeled her love of eclectic global fashion into a new project. She’s collaborating with Ibu, a Charleston-based outfit that pulls together artisan clothing from 71 countries. She befriended founder Susan Hull Walker at, where else, the Santa Fe Folk Art Festival. And the pieces, like long embroidered jackets made in Morocco and a circle skirt made from a Kenyan kanga, are very much in the line of her Southwestern-globetrotter style. “It’s not, ‘Oh my god, Ali MacGraw is a designer,’” she says with characteristic self-deprecation. “I’ve just been given an amazing palette to play with. It’s one of the happiest jobs, in quotation marks, I’ve ever had.”
MacGraw still loves fashion, but, she says, “I find it mystifying right now. Who can afford the highest part of it? Who can afford to stroll into the bulk of the Madison Avenue or Rodeo Drive stores? Prices are stupefying, and the worksmanship isn’t good enough.” When she’s enmeshed in her morning ritual of “standing with my latte and whipping through magazines” and sees a couture dress, she thinks, “That’s not my life. It would be bigger than my living room.” When I mention “It” girls, she scoffs. “Please spare me ‘it’ and ‘cool’ and ‘try too hard.’ Being cool is like a rope around your neck.” MacGraw says she’s happy that women her age – 78 – “get to say, ‘No thank you’” to the vicissitudes of fashion. “I’m empowered,” she tells me, “by knowing that fashion icon or no fashion icon, I’m lucky to be alive and kicking.”
There is at least one designer label that meets with her approval, though. “I love the Row. I have such respect for them. It’s not being led by what’s ‘hot’ this minute. What is better in this world than the perfect immaculate white shirt?”