By BOB VICKREY
(Editor’s note: this story appeared in LA Monthly and is printed with permission by its author. Vickrey wrote: “The recent death of Ali MacGraw’s ‘Love Story’ co-star Ryan O’Neal left us all with a nostalgic appreciation of the heartthrobs whose heartbreak ending sent the country out of theaters in tears to start the 1970s.”)
Once while sitting in the back corner of a small café in our village, a tall shapely woman approached my table with a smile that I recognized immediately.
She said, “Kris told me I’d find you here.”
She wore a pair of faded jeans and a loose-fitting blue sweater. She placed her cappuccino on the table and took a seat in the chair directly in front of me, and then sheepishly asked, “May I?”
We had recently been introduced by our mutual friend who had told her about my breakfast hangout. “Kris told me that you were in the book publishing business, and she mentioned several of the famous books your company had published.
“Did she happen to mention a book called “Goodbye Columbus?” I asked.
As if on cue, a woman who had been sitting nearby approached our table and leaned awkwardly toward my guest and asked, “I’m curious; did anyone ever tell you that you look like Ali MacGraw?”
Without hesitation, my tablemate nodded and said ‘Yes, I’ve heard that just about my entire life.’”
The woman smiled and seemed pleased by her keen sense of observation, as she quietly made her way out the front door. As I looked up, I noticed other diners chuckling who had overheard the conversation.
As we chatted about the books we had been reading, I was taken by Ali’s confident style and her air of playfulness. Her speech was precise as she clipped her words while employing perfect diction, which reflected her Wellesley College education and formal acting training. I could see parallels with her famous preppie character Brenda Patimkin in the “Columbus” movie that I had seen back in the late 1960s.
Like just about every young man my age back then, I was struck by her sassy style and, of course, by that sheer beauty of hers. Posters of her image covered the walls of men’s college dormitory rooms across America shortly after Love Story was released. And in 1972, she was voted the top female box office star in the world.
At the time I met her, Ali had reached middle-age and was still remarkably physically fit and attractive. Her Hatha Yoga classes had become video best-sellers and she had maintained a healthy lifestyle that kept her in the public eye. (I always suspected that good genes might have also been part of her secret.)
When we stood up to leave the café, I realized she was much taller than I had expected. I glimpsed down and noticed she was wearing flats, and yet we still stood eye-to-eye. I was also well aware that we were standing much more closely than strangers normally do when they first meet. Even though I was reveling in the moment, my knees seemed in jeopardy of buckling. But as we left the restaurant, I quickly began regaining my composure. In future meetings at the cafe, I became more comfortable in her presence.
Most of our conversations centered around books. She told me that she had always been an avid reader and often managed to have two books going at the same time.
Occasionally, I brought her a new book our company had just released, and she never failed to let me know what she thought of it later. On one occasion, she proudly presented me with a copy of her own book, a 1991 memoir entitled, “Moving Pictures.”
The following year after our initial meeting, Ali unexpectedly stopped coming to the café. I was told by the proprietor that her house had burned to the ground in a recent Malibu fire that had charred the beachside hills all the way to the Pacific Coast Highway.
A few months after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, she appeared one morning at my table and announced that she was moving to Santa Fe. She said, “Last year my house burned down and this year the earthquake shook my house so hard that a large armoire near my bed barely missed falling on top of me.” She smiled and said “I do believe that someone from “above” is speaking to me and telling me that it’s time to leave L.A.”
She said that she had always loved Santa Fe with its prominent artist’s community and that she had already found a nice home in the Tesuque Pueblo, just a few miles north of town. After I told her that my business travels often took me to Santa Fe, she gave me her new contact information.
She said she had already found her morning coffee spot there in the small village. She had discovered an old-fashioned general store where the old men sat around telling stories and exchanging gossip. She said, “You should pop-in and surprise me there some morning.”
A few days after her announcement about moving, Ali honked at me as I crossed an intersection in the village. In the middle of traffic on Sunset Boulevard, she leaned out of her car window and began serenading me with “Happy Birthday.” (It must have been Kris again that tipped her off.) Several drivers in other lanes must have recognized her and joined in the chorus. As the car horns began honking behind them, the concert was abruptly cut short.
And then, just as quickly as she had entered my world, she vanished, and I never saw her again. It had been a nice short friendship that I’m sure she’s already forgotten. But I certainly have not.
And you can rest assured that I’ll have fond memories of her each year when my birthday rolls around.
BOB VICKREY is a writer whose columns have appeared in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald and was cited by the California Newspaper Publishing Association for column writing awards in 2016 and 2017