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Powers That Be

In a life marked by one great love and a staggering loss, Stefanie Powers emerges as a woman of uncommon strength.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

Stefanie Powers is sitting in her cozy little home office in Beverly Hills, looking through one of her photo albums from Africa.

"Here's me with an 18-foot snake," she says. "And here I am with Bill..."

For the past two hours, Powers has been talking about her taste for fine cigars and telling stories about growing up as a tomboy in Southern California, about the zany way she broke into Hollywood, and about the role that made her one of America's most popular actresses: starring alongside Robert Wagner in the hit TV series "Hart to Hart." Powers is a bright, articulate and very worldly woman, and while many of her stories are marvelous, few shed much light into the interior corridors of the real Stefanie Powers. Only one subject betrays her, only one subject penetrates her carefully constructed facade: "Bill."

"Bill" is William Holden, the charismatic, iconoclastic leading man who left a deep and lasting imprint on Hollywood and American culture via his riveting performances in such legendary films as Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Sabrina and Network. Holden also left a deep and lasting imprint on Stefanie Powers. When they met in 1972, Holden became more than her lover; he became the center of her existence. They were together nine years, intertwined in a romantic adventure that took them from Hollywood to the South Pacific, China and the game ranches of Holden's beloved Africa. Holden died 16 years ago in a tragic accident at his home in Santa Monica. Four years ago, Powers married a Frenchman who lives and works in Burgundy. But some wounds never fully heal. When Powers talks now of her years with Holden, you can still sense the depth of her loss.

"He was certainly the most significant human being in my life," Powers says. "Our relationship was based on a lot of mutual respect and affection. There was tremendous harmony in the way we did things. We were ready at the time. We got our gear together in the same way. We relished in a headline of some interesting activity going on and then we'd rush to purchase tickets. Our focus was on the same thing. We were soul mates."

Powers today comes across as a woman who, stunned by life's cruelest truth, has managed both to survive and come away with a rock-hard understanding of her own priorities, of what's important and what's not. Her house suggests that. Located on a quiet street in a part of Beverly Hills known as Benedict Canyon, her house is cheery and tasteful, with a ranch feel and no hint of anything garish or designer- fashioned. When she's not at her house in Kenya, or seeing her husband in France, she lives here with her mother, her two Jack Russell terriers and a pet parrot. Powers has owned the house for many years; sometimes she's rented it out, now it's definitely home. The den has comfy leather sofas and a set of handsome, long-legged barstools that Powers personally designed; you get the feeling that Holden would have loved them. The bathroom off Powers' home office is cluttered with bridles and muddy riding gear; horses have been one of Powers' lifelong passions.

In her dress and manner, Powers is also without frills or pretense. Today she wears no makeup. She's dressed in simple black flats, faded jeans and a plain black sweater that accentuates the red in her reddish-blonde mane. In this lamentable era of trashy tabloids and trendy magazines that feed on celebrities and love to dish the dirt, most Hollywood stars tend to view all reporters as a single species, a group of low-lifes akin to the cockroach--with scruples to match. Powers is no exception. For instance, as soon as she greets her interviewer she wants to get right down to business, with no prefatory chitchat or even a moment's politesse, as if to say, "In my line of work, publicity is a necessary evil; let's get this noxious invasion of my privacy over with as quickly as possible."

The subject of cigars, though, helps break the ice. She was introduced to them when she was 14. Born Nov. 2, 1942, Powers is of Polish ancestry--her given name is Stefania Zofia Federkiewicz--and she grew up in Southern California. (Insisting on a degree of privacy, Powers refuses to specify where; only later does she allude to childhood homes in Bel Air and Malibu. Nor will she specify where she went to school, even though published reports have said she went to Hollywood High, with such classmates as Tuesday Weld and Yvette Mimieux.) Powers says she was introduced to cigars by a man she will identify only as "Uncle Reader." By way of further identification, she would say only that "Uncle Reader" for a long time worked for Fred Astaire, and that he and his wife were close friends of her parents.

"Everyone has favorite friends of your parents, and they were my favorite friends of my parents," Powers says. "So on occasion I would spend weekends with them or a week during the summer. She clipped poodles as a hobby and I learned to clip poodles. Uncle Reader lived life in a very stylish way and from him I learned how to play backgammon, drink brandy and smoke cigars. Very good cigars. Because in those days you could still get Cuban cigars. He also had these Montecristo No. 5s, which he would use as a short smoke. I didn't know very much, but I thought what I was doing was really rather sensational."

At that time in America, smoking cigars was a luxury reserved for men, and that gave it a special cachet for Powers; at heart she was a tomboy. She loved ballet, and worked hard at her dancing, but the rest of her interests were anything but typically girlish. "I always hung out with the boys," she says with a laugh. "I was always keen on what the boys were doing: riding, racing, roping, doing all that stuff. It was always more fun than what the girls were doing. The girls were doing things that weren't terribly interesting to me. I like adventure. Which became my life."

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