Thursday, May 9, 2013

No Holds Barred: That's Show Business

Ali MacGraw and me in NYC!
By Blair Sabol

I really do believe there is an art to knowing when to "hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em." Dying "with your boots on" and continuing to do what you have always done is no longer praiseworthy. It means you are "stuck." Retirement or "moving on" (and knowing how) is never easy ... for celebrities in particular. But it happens! Look at The Rolling Stones going out on tour ... yet again! Jagger and Watts as "Street Fighting Men" at 70? And I guess fans are flocking. At $600 a stadium seat! And all to watch a giant TV screen.

Fans are still flocking for Mick.
Debbie Reynolds's fans crave her.
Not to mention an aging (though still dancing and fully botoxed) Mick Jagger looking now more than ever like Don Knotts. But it says more about the audience than the performers. The stars don't need the money — just the adulation. Addicted to the spotlight.

Meanwhile the fans need the memories. This is why Debbie Reynolds is still so successful on the road. A perfect match of performer and the older fan base. They crave each other.

However I hear Elaine Stritch’s documentary "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" is sensational. And that may be the best way to say adios, if you are, in fact, really leaving! But again I ask ... when does nostalgia work and when does it all become Sunset Boulevard? When does "vintage" and “iconic" turn into egomaniacal sadness or overhype?

This is even true in fashion. For instance, I am a bit confused as to what is valid "history" and what is merely a long ago "speed bump" blown out of proportion. Take the current Metropolitan Museum's show Punk: Chaos to Culture. Is this really worth an entire exhibit? Why not a room? Or a wall? Didn't skin piercings and torn leather pants begin and end with Johnny Rotten and Patti Smith?

If The Met thinks this period had influence, why not present a show on the hippie movement (it was longer) with the tie dye, bell bottoms, headbands, LSD and Jimi Hendrix? Now that was an era! But maybe punk is more "now" whatwith the body tattoo craze and the original smokey eye makeup and Rooney Mara.
From the Metropolitan Museum's "Punk: Chaos to Culture" show.
Why not present a show on the hippie movement??
But back to maintaining actual personal "star power" when the klieg lights have blown out: Two weeks ago Bette Midler opened as Sue Mengers in "I'll Eat You Last" on Broadway. It brought a lot of "twinkies" (Mengers' names for Hollywood heavyweights) to town to see Bette and support the show. Which was a real memorial service to Sue.

Whether Bette succeeded or not was NOT the point. It was an opportunity to see Bette. I went away loving her "working" that blond wig and those great long acrylic nails. I hope HBO picks it up for worldwide broadcast. That is a perfect venue for this show.

And Bette deserves her nightly "standing O's" for doing something so new for herself. She is already an adored "entertainer," and an incredibly philanthropic New York City citizen. She can do no wrong!
A drawing from Sue Mengers to Boatie Boatright saying, "You made me what I am today."
The show deals in nostalgia and a time when "star" agents really ruled Show Business. Though Sue was forced out of her role because "times changed" — and to a degree, she accepted it (giving her at-home parties and salons instead). Sue "moved on. In Sue Mengers’ time the business was creative and brilliant, and now it no longer is. Or, it is "different." Much of the entire world is like that now.

Ali MacGraw has been a pal of mine for over 25 years. We both live in the Southwest now, and decided to meet up and celebrate the "Mengers Moment" in New York.

Sue Mengers's loyal friends to the end: Boatie Boatright and Ali MacGraw.
Remarkably , Ali still holds that "Love Story" patina.
Ali MacGraw, Los Angeles, 1962, by Melvin Sokolsky.
Sue Mengers and Ali MacGraw in the early '70s (Photograph provided by estate of Sue Mengers.)
Ali was invited to the opening night by the show’s writer John Logan. She was one of Mengers closest friends, and was at Sue's bedside in her final days. Mengers' other loyalist Boatie Boatwright ended up taking Sue's ashes to Paris — at Sue's request and arrangement — for distribution.

Ali really knew Sue, and the most moving moment in "I'll Eat You Last" is when Sue talks about Ali's career decision to stay with her then husband Steve McQueen and not to listen to Mengers. It stopped the show. (Interesting, considering the show is supposed to be about the day Barbra Streisand dumped Mengers). But little is said on all that. Oddly, though Streisand was actually in town and was an "all-is-forgiven" pal of Mengers, she did not to attend the opening performance.

For me the most interesting aspect to Ali MacGraw is how indeed she is one of the few traditional "movie stars" who took a giant hike and never looked back. (Others might have been Doris Day, Bardot, Garbo?) Not easy to do. And nowadays with everyone wanting to be a 15-minute reality/porn star, it seems extraordinary.

She moved to Santa Fe more than twenty years ago, and immediately got involved in charitable organizations (animal rescue, women and children ... the full gamut of social issues). Most of all she supports the work of local artists and shop owners.

Nowadays she is all about giving back since she told me long ago that so much was given to her and so fast. That is her core — along with her famous style. Whenever I visit her it’s like being with "the mayor" of Santa Fe. None of the other celebrity locals, like Gene Hackman, Julia Roberts or Shirley MacLaine hold a candle. Ali is incredibly accessible and popular in that town.

Yet what is remarkable is she still holds that "Love Story" patina. She looks the same at 74 and no tell-tale deforming "pullbacks.” She refused to continue that "identity" and has passionately "moved on." Then again she didn't start as a film star but as an artist, and then became a successful stylist (to fashion photographer Melvin Sokolsky and others). She had also worked as an assistant to Diana Vreeland, before she landed in Hollywood.

But her heart hasn't been in that town for a loooong time. On leaving, she quickly got a new and more relevant existence for herself. Even though Bobbi Brown, Michael Kors and Aerin Lauder all look to her style constantly, and have said publicly that she is one of their foremost muses. (It is odd that none of them have ever really tapped her for promotion.)

She stays far above that material; no QVC rehash of her "Love Story" skullcap or silver jewelry. She is to be admired as a real legend who courageously left by "the front door" taking her own high road (this is what drove Sue Mengers crazy, about her), and survived.

She never married again into wealth, or won the lottery. She prefers to live her own fiercely independent way and let the "others" sell out. This is really commendable when you look at someone like Santa Fe neighbor/contemporary Jane Fonda who still has "the body" and the acting chops but never had the style.

What I find fascinating is whenever I am with Ali I get to observe how the public interacts with her. What I see in the action is "nostalgia." Some instantly and feverishly recognize her; others do not. But when they connect with her it becomes all about them ... not Ali.
Ali MacGraw. saying hello to fans in New York.
After all "Love Story" is over 40 years old. The fans no longer really "see" Ali now. They see and feel themselves as they were (indeed — The Way We Were) 40 years ago.

Ali is well aware of this, and handles the awkward transference graciously. She is used to it.

She carries the public's love affair with "Love Story" honorably and respectfully. That is the power and the curse of having been a part of a movie that culturally affected so many people in a pivotal period in their young lives — they never forget you. So you are frozen in that time slot ... forever!
One of El Anatsui's tapestries made of metal bottle caps from the Brooklyn Museum that Ali wanted make as a cape!
But moving on into the present; Ali and I decided to spend a good old fashion 1974 day in NYC ... Shopping. Or in her case "treasure hunting" — not just acquiring. After all who better than a notorious stylist who knows her haunts (Remember Ali was/is a true "stylist" while Rachel Zoe is a "shopper").

Ali being a museum fanatic, we started at the El Anatsui show of his terrific "crumple crush" creations at The Brooklyn Museum. These were jaw dropping "tapestries" made from bottle caps and other castaway metals. Ali immediately admitted to dreaming of having a cape of one of his designs. And believe me ... SHE could carry it off.

From there we hit 40 West 25th Street, which is the heart of the vintage antique dealers and flea market vendors. Sheri Weiss' Vintage Collection of jewelry was a major pit stop.
Ali selecting vintage jewelry at Sheri Weiss.
Vintage dealer Sheri Weiss showing Ali the latest baubles. Inset: The pin that Ali picked out for me.
Ali trying on a vintage necklace at Sheri Weiss Vintage Collection.
I watched Ali plow through Tupperware tubs of crystal "paste" accessories for over an hour. She found the perfect brooch for me and a particular crystal bangle for herself. Her eye is so fast and trained to "the best."

Later we hit Mood Indigo to score some of her favorite Bakelite Scottie dog pins (She owns mostly Scotties and at the moment her dear Jemima was waiting for her at home).
Michael of Mood Indigo selling Ali a Bakelite Scottie for Ali's collection. Ali giving her info to Michael of Mood Indigo ... and his Bakelite collection.
The last dealer was Vintage Lingerie with owner Illisa, who was an acquaintance of Ali's. Illisa majors in kimonos and 1940 peignoirs. Not to mention legit glittered mules, garters and girdles. This is the "real deal" when it comes to underwear.

Illisa outfits many costumes for productions like "Cabaret" and "Boardwalk Empire" and Kate Moss's personal wardrobe. She had major "underpinnings" stories to tell, and like the rest of the antique salespeople, she loved talking to Ali. They compared notes on all the types of authentic hem rolls, satin colored fabrics, and traditional necklines, and had such reverence and deep appreciation for the true craftsmanship of "those days."
Ali and her favorite Vintage Lingerie boutique with owner Illisa.
Illisa listens to Ali's needs ....
... And starts pulling.
Ali trying on her favorite kimono at Illisa's Vintage Lingerie. Authentic nightgown and jacket from 1940 for $1750 ... ready for Atlantic City Boardwalk show.
Illisa's authentic boudoir slippers.
Shopping on Ali's level is not "sport.” It is transporting and educational. The finale of the day came with Ali's close pal Ronaldo Maia at his 1143 Park Avenue shop/studio. He gave Ali a royal reception by throwing a ton of real rose petals at her when she came through his door.

Nothing is better than Ronaldo's notorious flower arrangements, baskets of sachet, and candles. Nothing! He is still an aura unto himself. His shop is a magical gallery. No question he was THE FIRST to make flower arranging the art it is today. That also was 40 years ago.

It was exciting to watch Ali and Ronaldo reflect each other's artistry. They hardly reminisced but talked of present and future plans. They did not even mention their physical ills or who recently died. It was all very of the moment, positive and a colorful aromatic love fest ... like a parade!!!
Ali and dear pal and master floral designer Ronaldo Maia.
Opening door of petals which Ronaldo showered on Ali when she entered his shop. Ronaldo's famous wall of baskets and incredible bucket of famous sachet.
Ronaldo Maia and his famous dried vetiver.
When I left Ali she was running to her hotel room to do her own hair and makeup for an interview (about Sue Mengers) and to pack her single carry on bag to go home to Santa Fe. She is the only person I know who travels everywhere in a simple tote — she's an expert packer (learned from all those styling and Hollywood set days?) so simple, compact and perfect. (Unlike me who is of the "Liz Taylor" school of ten suitcases for a weekend).

Before she got into the car someone recognized her and said "Did anyone ever tell you look like Ali MacGraw?" She humbly replied, "yes."

The woman went on to ask "whatever happened to her?" Ali responded with a smile, "beats me."
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