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
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."
A year later, she was further exposed to cigars, in a very different environment. "I was in England, and after dinner everybody smoked cigars, including the women, and I thought that was pretty racy," Powers says. "And once again there were these lovely little cigars. In this particular instance, the cigars were made for this family, and the women had these very delicate, long thin cigars and they were sensational."
Smoking cigars at that age was emblematic of a deeper rebellion; in this same period, Powers left high school and set out on her own. "I was working when I was 15," she recalls. "My life didn't start until I was 15. Until then, all I could think about was freedom. All I could remember was longing to get an automobile, to be free; longing to get a horse, to be free. My life, up to then, was rather undistinguished."
Dancing professionally, she hoped, would pave the way to the freedom she craved. But it didn't work out quite that way. "I auditioned for the movie version of West Side Story," she says. "We rehearsed for about three months, at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio. I was a dancer, one of The Jets. I guess I was the only minor, so they let me go."
Powers had not studied acting or drama in school, and she had never even considered going into acting. But at the Goldwyn Studio, while still a teenager, she caught the eye of actor-director Tom Laughlin, who asked her to read for a part in a movie he was developing. Powers landed the role, and though the film, Among the Thorns, reached only a few theaters when it was released in 1960, she committed herself from then on to acting. She went to acting classes at 20th Century Fox, MGM and Columbia, hoping to land a contract with a major studio. Her first break came unexpectedly, in an episode cut straight from the cloth of Hollywood folklore.
"I was late for class at Columbia Studios one day and I was running through the halls wearing these unusual sunglasses," she recalls. The sunglasses were a gift from American race car driver Lance Reventlow, who had brought them back to Powers from a race in Monte Carlo. "In those days, anything that was fashionable on the Riviera would eventually take two years to get to the West Coast. So I was wearing these goggles, these funny little sunglasses, and I ran smack into this man who was wearing the same sunglasses. I mean I literally smashed him and he said, 'Where'd you get those glasses?' And I said, 'Well, my friend Lance Reventlow brought them to me from Monte Carlo. Where'd you get yours?' [He said,] 'I was in Monte Carlo. So what do you do?' 'I'm an actress and I'm late for class.' 'Are you any good?'
"I was 16 years old and I was as cocky as anything, so I said, 'Sure! And what do you do?' 'I'm a director. Why don't you come see me? I'm doing a movie here. My name is Blake Edwards.'" Powers did go to see the celebrated director and Edwards ended up casting her as Lee Remick's younger sister in Experiment in Terror. The movie did not do very well, but it helped Powers land a contract at Columbia, while she was still a cocky teenager.
Over the next half-dozen years, Powers appeared in 15 films, among them The Interns and McLintock!, starring John Wayne. Working at Columbia in the closing years of the star system enabled Powers to learn the craft and work and play alongside such giants as Remick, Wayne, Glenn Ford, David Niven, Maureen O'Hara and Lana Turner. She co-starred with the great Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die! My Darling!, with Bing Crosby in the 1966 remake of Stagecoach, and in 1974 with Helen Hayes in Herbie Rides Again. Powers also polished her skills in the theater, with roles in Under The Yum Yum Tree, Oliver!, My Fair Lady and Annie Get Your Gun. In this period of youthful apprenticeship, Powers fell in love with actor Gary Lockwood; their marriage lasted seven years.
It was television that turned Powers into a major star. In 1966, she left Columbia to star in the lead role as April Dancer in "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.," which ran for a year on NBC. After a 10-year hiatus from television came a five-month run, in 1977, with "The Feather and Father Gang," on ABC. These performances paved the way for what would become her signature role, as Jennifer Hart, Robert Wagner's wife and fellow sleuth, in "Hart to Hart." The series began in 1979 and ran for five years, becoming a huge hit in America and abroad. She and Wagner became devoted friends along the way, and after the series they reprised their roles in a number of made-for-TV movies. They also teamed for several successful tours in the play Love Letters.
"It's been fabulous," Powers says now, contentedly puffing on one of her favorite cigars, a Pleiades Venus. "It's also been horrifying. Because an actor's life is highs and lows. The minute we finish a picture we're depressed--all of us. Take Henry Fonda. My ex-husband was doing a movie with him, and we were all sitting on the set--they had just finished shooting for the day. We were all talking about what we were all going to do next, because the picture was winding down. And someone said, 'What are you going to do, Henry?'
"'I don't know,' he said. 'I'll probably never work again.' And everybody was paralyzed. I mean, here was this great actor, convinced that he would never work again. But it's the truth; we all think that. It's the most insecure existence in the world."
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."
Thanks, in large measure, to Powers. After Holden died in a fall at his home, Powers established the William Holden Wildlife Foundation. Run from Powers' home office, the nonprofit foundation has turned The Mount Kenya Game Ranch into a sanctuary for game and wildlife and an educational center for young people from Africa and abroad. About 10,000 youths a year come to the educational facility, while many others work at five rural libraries in the bush. In the process they learn about the animal and bird life and the ecology of the area. They get hands-on training in the latest conservation and irrigation techniques. They study alternative energy methods, crop management and environmental protection. The foundation is now Powers' main mission in life and she is constantly shuttling back and forth to Africa. To help raise money for the foundation, every other year she puts on a huge polo party, with many of her Hollywood pals saddling up.
All of Powers' globe-trotting and her work for the Holden Foundation raise a delicate question: What about her new husband? How much time does she spend with him? In 1993, Powers married Patrick de la Chesnais, who comes from a well-established aristocratic family in Burgundy. They met through international polo and golf circles, she says. De la Chesnais lives and works in Burgundy, where he runs a laboratory that does research in agricultural biology. In addition to her husband's home in France, and her own various homes, the couple keeps a house in England. "We see each other whenever we can," Powers says. "It's not easy. Sometimes everybody suffers. We don't see each other very much; it's difficult."
It is much easier to talk about cigars. And to look back at how long she has enjoyed the taste and sophisticated ritual of smoking a fine cigar. After "Uncle Reader" introduced her to cigars when she was 14, and she saw all those women lighting up in England, she would often turn to a fine cigar for a little rest and relaxation. She was often reluctant to do so in public, however, especially in America before the cigar revolution. England, though, was another matter.
"At that time, very few people on the West Coast, unless it was your tailor, smoked a cigar," she says. "England was the only place I felt comfortable smoking cigars, and never out in public. Generally I smoked in people's homes on the weekend at some party, and men and women would dig in and I thought, 'Oh, this is great! Absolutely fabulous!' I still thinks it's not too terribly graceful to see a woman smoking a large cigar in public, so I have some small, rather refined cigars I smoke in public.
"I'm not an everyday smoker," Powers goes on. "But I enjoy it a great deal and I find it relaxes me. I have a humidor with all sorts of cigars. Now there's such a variety of smokes that it's a wonderful adventure. Everyone's constantly coming up with new, very flavorful, smooth but mild cigars, and that's what I like: very smooth and something that doesn't bite too much. I love the Partagas Lusitania. But that's a real commitment because it's a large, large cigar. I also like the Fonseca, especially after dinner."
Her husband, she says, while not an avid smoker, does enjoy the occasional cigar. And in California these days she has no trouble finding fellow aficionados. "One of my great chums, Howard Velasco, is a security fellow and he's a great cigar buddy. We're always passing cigar things back and forth and we go to some of those cigar nights and clubs. We go to the cigar nights at Schatzi's in Santa Monica and The Grand Havana [Room]. It's kind of fun."
But not as much fun, of course, as running a game preserve in Africa or hauling art treasures out of the jungle in Papua New Guinea. Some people with these kinds of rich experiences and memories might desire to preserve them in a memoir or an autobiography. Not Powers. She says she has no interest whatsoever in writing a memoir or even in focusing too much on herself; what she likes is action, adventure, doing--not reflecting. "I once tried to write a biography," she says, of an American woman who had lived in China for decades. She was one of the expatriates who had lived the longest in China and she was married to a Chinese intellectual who was purged as a 'capitalist roader' during the Cultural Revolution. "I was fascinated by her circumstances and her story, but I found I just can't sit still long enough to write a book."
Perhaps, too, Powers feels no need to preserve Holden's memory; he is still such a living presence in her life. Her cozy little home office is filled with mementos of Holden and the work of the foundation. Among the objects is a watercolor of a leopard, a rendering of a giraffe and a poster of Holden in Africa. Among her books is a copy of William Holden's Journey Through Africa. In one corner hangs a framed cover from People magazine, in 1982, with Powers on the cover, a leopard in her arms. The headline sums it all up nicely: "Stefanie Powers: For love of Bill Holden she takes a break from 'Hart to Hart' to save his African dream."
In 1988, Powers produced and starred in a TV miniseries that kept her close to her African experiences: a biography of Beryl Markham, the headstrong British-born adventurer who grew up on a ranch in Kenya, became a bush pilot and became the first to fly across the Atlantic east to west. Markham recounted her story in one of the most acclaimed memoirs of this century, West With the Night. For Powers, bringing this story to the screen was a labor of love. Sadly, it flopped. Though Powers was pleased with the finished product and its reception in England, she feels CBS did not properly promote the series or be-lieve in it. "It's my favorite project," she says. "But CBS just buried it."
In recent years, Powers has done an exercise video and designed her own line of clothes for Sears and the Home Shopping Network. And she has by no means closed the book on her acting career. She just finished a 10-week tour with the play, The Musical Applause, she has her own production company and she's developing ideas and stories for feature films. One idea dear to her heart right now, she says, sounds like a natural: it's about an adventurous, high-spirited woman who has dedicated her life to wildlife conservation.
Paul Chutkow, a freelance writer based in northern California, is the author of Depardieu, a biography of French actor Gerard Depardieu.
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