February 08, 1988 12:00 PM

In 1974, at 19, Margaux Hemingway, a spirited six-footer and granddaughter of Ernest, arrived in New York from her home in Ketchum, Idaho. Her name was her calling card, but it was her face that became her fortune. “She had all the component parts to become a modern young superstar: openness, infectiousness, beauty and the ambition to follow through,” raved Halston, her party-mate in the heyday of Studio 54. Unaffected and exuberant, she charmed the jaded New York crowd. With a boost from fashion photographers such as Francesco Scavullo, she became an international supermodel within a year, landing a $1 million contract as the image for Fabergé’s Babe perfume. In 1976 she made her film debut with sister Mariel, then 14, in Lipstick, a huge box office flop. The flip side of fame had caught up with her. Her confidence shattered, she grew apart from Mariel and later began drinking more and more to mask her insecurity. Each of her marriages ended unhappily. The first, to Errol Wetson, a dealmaker 14 years her senior, lasted 2½ years; the second, in 1979 to French filmmaker Bernard Foucher, 40, ended in 1986. Bloated and battered by alcohol, Hemingway, 32, checked into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Dec. 4. Newly released, Hemingway has moved back to New York to start afresh. For the past year she has lived with Stuart Sundlun, 34, a businessman she met on a blind date. “For a time, I was living the life of Ernest Hemingway,” she says. “I think alcohol drove my grandfather to suicide, but I’m still alive because I did something about it.” Margaux shared the dramatic story of her rise and fall—and rise again—with Senior Writer Kristin McMurran.

It all began in 1974. I had been doing some public relations work in Idaho for Evel Knievel, and when one of my co-workers went to Manhattan on business to meet fight promoter Bob Arum, I went along for the adventure. We were flown into the city by helicopter, and when the pilot said “There’s the big backyard of New York City, Central Park!” I was thinking, “This is going to be the best.” We stayed at the Plaza Hotel, and that’s where I met Errol. He knocked on the door of my suite with a rose and a bottle of champagne, and I fell in love. He was good-looking, and he seemed like a man of the world. I was basically a little shit in cowboy boots going “Yippie skippie” and “Yahoo” with a big grin. When I left New York, I kept calling him. Four months later I moved to Manhattan because I wanted a new adventure. Errol met me at the airport, and I became his houseguest. He started thinking of himself as my Svengali. He told me what colors to wear and to cover my legs because they were too heavy. We would go to black-tie parties on the bus, then Errol would fix it so we came home in somebody’s limousine. He kept my name in the press and introduced me to the people who arranged my million-dollar contract with Fabergé.

For me, becoming a celebrity was like being in the eye of a hurricane. Suddenly I was an international cover girl. Everybody was lapping up my Hemingwayness. They wanted to rub elbows with me or brush up against me. As a child I had seen Lauren Hut-ton on a magazine cover, and I thought that the fast lane was as exhilarating as racing down a mountain on skis. I was meeting famous people and constantly traveling all over the world. I remember being really poor until I got my first $250,000 check from Fabergé That was pretty nice; I put it in the bank and from that moment on there seemed to be a lot of champagne and limousines in my life. Being on the cover of TIME was another high for me. I lost my passport in Spain, and that cover got me through customs.

It sounds glamorous, and it was. I was having a lot of fun. But I was also very naive when I came on the scene. I genuinely thought that people liked me for myself—for my humor and good qualities. I never expected to meet so many professional leeches.

I loved to dance and went to Studio 54 at least twice a week. But I always felt nervous around the people there. I was in awe of that whole Halston-Liza Minnelli crowd. To me, they were the real celebrities, and I was just a girl from Idaho. So I drank to loosen up. I never thought then that alcohol would become a problem. In my grandfather’s time it was a virtue to be able to drink a lot and never show it. And like him I wanted to live my life to the fullest, with gusto. I always thought alcohol would give me the strength and courage to do whatever I wanted to do. In fact it made me less able to think clearly.

I never got heavily into drugs. I didn’t like smoking pot. I tried coke, but I never got caught up with it. I was never interested in any other drug. It’s never come out in the press before, but I have epilepsy and deep down I had a feeling that certain drugs were not good for me because they could trigger seizures. I learned later that alcohol was just as dangerous. But at the time I told myself that a little bit wouldn’t hurt.

I was making an awful lot of money while we were married, and Errol was spending it. We fought a lot because he never seemed able to hold a job other than advising me on important issues such as my wardrobe. I think he was always a jerk, but I didn’t know it. He loved my spirit, but I don’t think he ever loved me. He introduced me to some business people who gave me bad advice on investments. I was naive, pure and simple. At the lowest point of my marriage, I thought about suicide and wondered if life was worth living.

In 1976, while I was still married, producer Dino De Laurentiis offered me a role in Lipstick. I remember this little Italian guy sitting behind this enormous desk saying, “I’ma gonna maka you a star.” I burst out laughing, because I thought they only said that in movies. When the producers needed someone to play my little sister, I suggested Mariel. She ended up stealing the movie and deserved the acclaim. But I was upset because I had worked so hard and didn’t feel I had gotten a fair shake. It was as if people were tired of me and gave her all the attention. I was terribly hurt by my reviews. I hadn’t had any experience, so being panned seemed like a slap in the face. But I just held my head up high and never let any feelings out. That became my pattern. I buried my feelings because I was taught it was Hemingwayesque to take your blows and walk stoically through.

Mariel’s career really began to take off with Manhattan in 1979. It was a little difficult for me because for a while she was behaving like a Hollywood starlet, and we didn’t get along that well. She was trying to create her own identity rather than living in my shadow. I felt like I had paved her way, but I don’t think she wanted to be around me. That hurt my feelings.

At the end of my marriage to Errol, I had fallen in love with Bernard. He was older, cultivated, very intelligent and a charming man. He thrived on adventure. He could go into the middle of the jungle and survive. Errol would never have gotten along in the jungle without his bathrobe. When I married Bernard we moved to Paris for 18 months. He would get fantastic ideas but never follow through. We were buying things we couldn’t afford. I had no sense of finances and was deeply in debt.

It was Bernard who suggested in 1981 that we make a documentary about my grandfather. I was to go to all his old haunts in Cuba, Idaho and Europe and interview people who knew him. It was going to be a great adventure, but the filming did not go well. Bernard, who was directing, did not have a clear vision and was incapable of handling a project of this scope. I became very depressed. No one was interested in what I had to say, and everything seemed out of control. That’s when I really started drinking heavily.

Then Bernard began bad-mouthing Grandpapa, saying he was nothing but an alcoholic. He became very hostile toward me, and I realized he was just in the project for the bucks. I lost all respect for him. A turning point for me came while we were filming in Pamplona in 1985. We saw a horrible bullfight in which the matador made a bad kill. Blood was coming from the bull’s nose, he stumbled to his knees and died slowly. I was so upset because it seemed like what was happening in my life. I didn’t want Bernard working on the film anymore, so the producer and I fired him. The next day I left him.

I grew very depressed over the failure of this marriage. I drank more and more and was slowly killing myself with alcohol. My thoughts were erratic, and I had trouble with my memory. I thought about suicide periodically, especially when I was drinking heavily. But I was never a fall-down drunk, and admitting that I was an alcoholic at that time would have been as shameful as saying I was a murderer.

Then in Florida in 1986 I had a bad scare. I was filming a piece on Hemingway’s Key West for ABC. At the Miami airport I went into the bathroom to wash my face. All I remember is waking up on the cold tile floor with a paramedic looming over me. I told myself it was from overwork. I was not ready to admit that alcohol had probably caused an epileptic seizure.

The following Christmas I had a terrible skiing accident in Austria. I went over a small cliff in deep powder and smacked into a boulder. I cracked several vertebrae and my pelvic bone and burst my bladder. I was laid up for nine months in London, where I was staying with an investment banker I had been seeing. It was a perfect excuse to drink because I didn’t want to get addicted to pain pills. I only drank wine, maybe two bottles a day, and blamed the bad weather for my excessive drinking. The truth is that I was bored, unhappy and lonely. It was a way to suppress the bad feelings I had about myself because I was 35 lbs. overweight and not working.

Last year I decided to move back to New York alone and revive my career. I wanted to prove to myself that I could make it on my own. I had some money from making three films in Rome, but I was frightened because I hadn’t worked here for so long. I would drink to find the courage, and then that would stop me from doing anything. The more I drank the more bloated I looked, so I avoided all mirrors. Going to lunch and dinner became my main activity. I was on a merry-go-round of restaurants and wine lists, Bordeaux red and Bordeaux white. I would tell people that I was busy, but all I was doing was painting abstracts at home.

Then, last October, I had a really bad seizure and nearly bit off my tongue. Stuart was with me, and it scared the holy hell out of him. I decided that had been a message to get well or I would die. I called the Betty Ford Center.

I was very excited about getting in. After I made the call it was like lifting a 1,000-pound rucksack off my back. I remember flying to L.A., and I wouldn’t take off my sunglasses because I was so embarrassed about the way I looked. On the flight I drank a little less than half a bottle of Stolichnaya.

I checked in and spelled my name Margot, as it is on my birth certificate, not like the name of a bottle of Bordeaux. I wasn’t scared until I got there. Then I realized that it was just me alone with a bunch of strangers. But the truth is, we all had a common problem.

It was the most miraculous experience I’ve ever had. We were taught not to be so hard on ourselves, because alcoholism is an uncontrollable disease. It’s like saying, “God damn it, can’t you control your diabetes?” There’s a lot of love there. But it’s hard work. Everyone has tasks. The first week I was garbage girl. Then I had 5:30 a.m. wake-up duty. You have private meetings with counselors, psychologists and clergy. You go to two lectures a day and two group therapy sessions. They make you write your feelings in a journal. It was so hard for me to confess that I drank because I was scared and lonely.

During the second week I broke down when I had to admit that I had this terrible disease. I felt so ashamed that I had lied to Stuart, telling him that I was drinking medicine for my seizures crushed up in grapefruit juice without mentioning that the drink was heavily laced with vodka. It may sound unimportant, but I thought, “God, how could anybody ever trust me again?”

My parents paid for my treatment. They and my two sisters are my best friends. Since my stay at Betty Ford, Mariel and I have had long talks about our relationship. And we’re much closer now. I think she has more respect for me now.

I want to have kids, but as far as remarrying, I’m in a holding pattern. Stuart doesn’t drink or do drugs. He’s normal. He has a job. When he comes home from work, I might make a salmon or a sea bass in papillote, laced with lots of garlic and dill, and a big salad. Then I like to read or watch a movie or have wild and imaginative sex.

Now that I’m out, I’m basically starting a new life—taking baby steps. The old Margaux was a very lovable but vulnerable young girl walking in a minefield who was lucky she didn’t get blown up. Today I’ve changed my playmates. I feel strong and confident and ready to go to work. I’m learning how to work through my problems instead of running away from them. I was nervous about coming back to my New York apartment, where I had a pattern of bad habits, so I’m going to redecorate. There’s so much I’d like to do. I’m going to Paris to cut a rock-salsa record. I have a scholarship to study painting at the New York Academy of Art. I’m looking forward to getting some good character parts in films and pursuing my singing and my painting. In the past, I felt I had to live up to the family name. Now I’m living for myself.

Two months ago I felt like I was in a cage and could not climb out. I was literally helpless. Now I have the courage to do what I want. I wake up laughing and full of optimism. I feel like I’ve just been born. It is so wonderful to be able to smile and feel it deep inside, to be honest with yourself and to triumph.

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