For Love of Bill
It is a crisp morning in Kenya, and Hart to Hart‘s Stefanie Powers, bucking along in a Landcruiser, is hotly pursuing a loping giraffe. Seventeen-thousand-foot Mount Kenya looms to the northeast; nearby, eland and Cape buffalo graze peacefully. Before her, the giraffe is broken-field running at 20 mph across a plain dotted with thorn trees. Finally Powers tries to lasso him with a loop at the end of a 14-foot bamboo pole—and misses. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” she admits, “but Bill was a master at this.”
Bill, of course, is the late actor William Holden, Powers’ lover from 1973 until his death last November, at 63, of head injuries sustained in a fall in his Santa Monica apartment. During their nine years together, they traveled regularly to such exotic destinations as Bangkok, New Guinea and China, but their favorite retreat was his 1,256-acre Mount Kenya Game Ranch, 125 miles from Nairobi. “The ranch is Bill’s memorial,” says Powers, 39, who has come back to Africa to fulfill Holden’s dream of establishing a wildlife foundation in the land he had almost come to regard as his home.
“For the last 15 years, Africa was the most important thing in Bill’s life,” says Don Hunt, 50, a game catcher who was Holden’s close friend and one of the ranch’s co-owners. “Bill would reluctantly go back to Hollywood—he really couldn’t give that up—but Africa was more important to him than acting.” Hunt vividly remembers Holden’s unconcealed delight in the rambling main house with its burnished cedar walls; in Hunt’s raised-from-a-cub pet cheetah, Batian (see cover); in the sheltered breeding compound populated with bongos (a type of antelope), monkeys and a baby elephant; and in the thrill of lassoing Cape buffalo, giraffes and zebras from a Jeep lurching along at high speed. “Bill sat in the catching car for five years just learning how to rope, and after that we never got the lasso away from him,” recalls Hunt. “And he was tough. We’d be on really rugged terrain going 75 miles an hour, and when we caught up with the animal we’d still be going 30 or 40.” (Once snared, the animals are shipped to zoos or relocated to nearby reserves.)
Holden first came to Africa on safari in 1958. Enchanted, he and two friends bought a run-down hotel and converted it into the Mount Kenya Safari Club, which later became a watering hole for the likes of Bing Crosby and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. When business fell off in the ’70s, Holden and his partners sold the club to Saudi millionaire Adnan Khashoggi. But they kept the surrounding property, which Holden had bought with Hunt and others in 1967. “Bill did a great deal for the people here that nobody knows about,” says Powers. “He would bring in planeloads of medicines. It wasn’t done for publicity reasons. Nobody talked about it.”
She is also reluctant to talk about Holden’s death or his drinking, except to say, sadly, “I only had him for nine years.” On this trip, which began just five months after his death, she avoids the Safari Club bungalow where they used to stay, bunking instead in a ranch cottage overlooking the Liki River, where the animals come to drink. She spends her days game watching, baby-sitting a tiny vervet monkey, and reminiscing with Hunt and his assistant, Iris Breidenbend, during the nightly cocktail hour timed to coincide with the 6 p.m. BBC radio newscast. “I have things to sort out,” she explains of her four-week retreat, and some must be worked out in solitude.
One that must not is the foundation she is planning, with Don and Iris, to work for causes of which Holden approved. Powers hopes to fund it with her own money and with contributions from Holden’s friends and the public. “There are plenty of foundations involved with wildlife at this point,” she says. “We want to work in areas where not too much has been done, where help may not have reached.” She cites, in particular, plans to provide insurance for Kenyan game wardens killed or injured in the line of duty, and a wildlife education center for the children of the Kikuyu and other tribes in the bush. “By the time I’m finished with this trip,” she says, “we’ll have laid out a sort of declaration of objectives and established between us the way the foundation will operate.”
Holden and Powers, both divorced (he from actress Brenda Marshall, she from actor Gary Lockwood), met at a California tennis tournament in 1972 and later discovered a mutual passion for adventure and travel. Animals, too, were a shared interest. Holden kept a boa constrictor and, at one point, two African crested cranes, whose wings he often neglected to clip. “They kept flying away and landing on the lawns of some of the older Palm Springs gentry,” recalls Powers. “They’d call the fire department, and the firemen kept bringing the birds back to Bill.” Powers, whose own love of animals developed during childhood visits from her Hollywood home to her uncle’s Ventura County ranch, currently shares her Benedict Canyon house with mother Julie and two dogs, a cat, a parrot and a small monkey.
Stefanie’s post-African plans include trips to Tuscany, Hong Kong and the remote regions of western China. “Hong Kong used to be my sanctum sanctorum,” says Powers, who, thanks to Hart to Hart, is now recognized on the street even there. Still, Stefanie looks forward to returning to the set June 28. She and co-star Robert Wagner, who also suffered a tragic loss when his wife, Natalie Wood, drowned in a boating accident two weeks after Holden’s death, have been sources of comfort in each other’s grief. “When double tragedy struck we were bonded together,” Powers has said. “Robert and I were a great help to each other. It would have been very hard to get through otherwise.”
Perhaps in response to rumors of a romance with Wagner, Stefanie makes it clear that there is no man in her life at the moment. Preserving Holden’s memory is her top priority, and she recently helped fashion an American Sportsman segment on Holden’s Africa to be presented next season on ABC. Inevitably, it reminded her of moments that cannot be relived. “Those were rare and precious days,” she says. “I especially remember a time in Kenya’s northern frontier district. There was an outpost up there, and we set up camp by a river. It was beautiful, with the thorn trees and the desert land just slightly green. Sundown was so peaceful, yet it went by so quickly. We’d be sitting around a campfire, trying to will it to last longer. You just wanted to enjoy it as long as possible, always knowing it would have to end.”