Powers That Be
In a life marked by one great love and a staggering loss, Stefanie Powers emerges as a woman of uncommon strength.
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97
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In 1972, with a dozen movies and her first TV series under her belt, Powers met William Holden. He was 26 years her senior and a Hollywood icon, but Powers said they felt an instant kinship. "The age difference was there but it didn't occur to me," she says. They moved in similar circles, they had matching tastes and matching interests; even their careers had eerie parallels. "I was under contract to Columbia; he had been under contract to Columbia. I had worked with Paramount; he had been under contract to Paramount. There was territory we never had to explain to one another. So what some people might have called a generation gap didn't exist, because we were in the same world."
Their romance took hold and developed in the most exotic and exciting venues, first and foremost in China. Holden had already fallen under the charm of Asia in making The World of Suzie Wong and Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, Powers says. Then, soon after they first met, she was scheduled to take a trip to Hong Kong when Holden made her an enticing offer. "We were seeing each other at the time. It was the beginnings of infatuation," Powers recalls. "He said, 'Why don't you go a little bit in advance and I'll show you my Hong Kong.' "
She accepted, of course, and the defining adventure of her life began. "I think absolutely I tumbled head-over-heels in love with him coming home one night in Hong Kong," Powers recalls, her emotion now evident. "We had gone across the bay and we were coming back on the ferry. At one o'clock in the morning, there was nobody on the ferry. It was a beautiful, balmy evening. We stood in the bow of the boat, and as the breeze sort of flapped our hair about, he put his hand over mine. I just absolutely melted."
From Hong Kong, Holden went to Kenya, where he and a partner had bought land five years earlier and were developing a 1,256-acre sanctuary they called The Mount Kenya Game Ranch. Powers stayed in Hong Kong awhile and then received a cable to go immediately to Toronto, to begin shooting a movie. Holden visited her in Toronto and, Powers says, the two soon became inseparable. With her privileged upbringing and her tomboy spirit, Powers had already explored Europe, Mexico and South America, but these would pale next to what Holden would show her.
"Bill had a long relationship with Hong Kong and he collected Chinese art," Powers says. "I had already fallen in love with the man and it was very easy to fall in love with the place." In the ensuing years, she and Holden went to Hong Kong often, and in search of art treasures they were admitted to mainland China just as the communist government was, ever so tentatively, opening to the outside world. Soon, Powers was hooked.
"I really had my wits sharpened when I was going to China on a regular basis; I was really having my sensitivities sharpened," she says. But try as she did to penetrate this mysterious culture, the essence of China kept eluding her. "Every time I thought that I would make some sort of quantum leap in understanding, it seemed to me that China was like a woman with many, many veils. You knew that you'd never, ever, see her face, but you'd get to lift the veil every once in a while. And that was so exciting. What the Chinese believe became like a mantra to me: it's the process of life, not the achievement. The search is more important than the discovery."
Then there was the South Pacific. "Because Bill had a lot of experience in newly emerging countries such as Kenya, Michael Sumari, who was then president of Papua New Guinea, was very interested in Bill," Powers recalls. In response to an official invitation, Holden went to the South Pacific with a distinguished group that included author James Michener and the French explorer and ecologist Jean-Michel Cousteau. Part of their mission was to evaluate a government plan to turn Woovalu Island into a preserve for flora and fauna. Also, Sumari was worried about native carvers leaving their villages for more modern jobs in urban areas. "He was watching the local cultural heritage slide into oblivion and he was most concerned with trying to find some way of preventing this erosion and preserving local cottage industries," Powers says.
After that expedition, Holden took Powers on several trips to Papua New Guinea and they became fascinated by Oceanic art. At one stage, while Holden was shooting Network, he and Powers received a letter from the Papua New Guinea government asking them to promote Oceanic art in America and the entire world. A friend of Powers' suggested going to Bloomingdale's with the idea. Bloomingdale's agreed to organize a major show at its New York store, displaying some 300 pieces of Oceanic art, and that left Powers and Holden with a small problem, she says. "We had to go out to Papua New Guinea and collect all this art. We brought 486 pieces out of the jungle. We hacked and whacked--what an adventure, collecting those pieces!"
Then, too, there was Africa. "I've had these love affairs all my life with places and histories," Powers says. "In 1973 we went to Africa for the first time. Kenya. And that was the easiest love affair I ever entered into. It seemed as if I had always been there. It didn't seem like an unusual place to me at all. It seemed like home."
Already enchanted by Africa, Holden had established The Mount Kenya Game Ranch. His partner in the ranch was Don Hunt, a game catcher with a rather unusual background. According to Powers, Hunt had been "Bwana Don," the star of a kiddie show in Detroit. The show focused on Africa and the wild animals there. But for Hunt, that wasn't enough. "He went out to Kenya to actually live the real thing and learn how to be an animal trapper," Powers says. "At that point, Don and Bill met and became lifelong friends and partners in creating this amazing game ranch, which still flourishes today."
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