If George Stevens Sr. were still around and making films, he might find inspiration for a love story in his son George Jr. and Elizabeth Guest. Handsome bachelor, raised amidst Hollywood glitter, moves to Washington, meets beautiful divorceé from an old political family with chums like Ethel Kennedy. They marry, and he winds up in a socially prestigious job (hobnobbing with movie stars and Henry Kissinger), while she avoids full-time hostessing by flinging herself into politics. Of course, they wouldn’t want their cynical pal Art Buchwald to write the screenplay. “George and Liz have a perfect relationship,” reports the syndicated humorist. “He watches football and she works for women’s lib.”
That doesn’t quite do them justice. Liz, 40, is, in fact, an activist raising funds for women political candidates, among other causes. George, 45, founded the American Film Institute in 1967 as a kind of Smithsonian for movies and is still its director.
George’s dad, whom he often worked with, was the director of such classics as Woman of the Year and A Place in the Sun. And the only interruption in the younger Stevens’ career, two years in the Air Force, was spent shooting training films. “You may remember such distinguished works as The Walk-Around Inspection of the F86D,” says the ex-first lieutenant. His cinematographer, he recalls, had been a New York cabbie. On the other hand, Liz comes from strictly old-government-issue stock. She is a distant descendant of President James K. Polk, and her father, Raymond Guest, a cousin of Winston Churchill, was a Virginia state senator and U.S. ambassador to Ireland from 1965 to 1968.
Both Stevenses dislike the stereotypes of their backgrounds. “We lived quite separately from the whole Hollywood business,” George says. “The Crosby kids lived down the block but there weren’t a lot of actors around the house, and my friends’ parents weren’t in the movies.” Liz’s early days followed a classic patrician pattern: childhood on a 1,000-acre farm near Front Royal, Va., finishing at the Foxcroft boarding school, then two years in Switzerland and reluctant debutante-hood. She was attracted more by the farm. “Animals were very important to me,” she says. “My brother and I each had a fat black pony. For some reason I wanted to keep a goat in the bathroom, but he ate a lot of newspapers and died, so we had to get another.”
George originally wanted to be a sportswriter, like his hero Red Smith. Then at 16 he read a Western novel and sold his pop on making a movie of it: Shane. George Jr. himself worked on Shane exteriors in the Tetons and later was an assistant to his father on Giant. Along the way he prepped at an L.A. military school, where he remembers upperclassman Bob Haldeman as “one of the less barbaric big kids. I was the only guy who went there from sixth through 12th grades and graduated as a private.” Next came the local Occidental College, and by 25 he was directing Peter Gunn segments and chillers for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. “I was good,” he says, “but I didn’t particularly want to devote my life to TV.”
When he and a friend offered in 1962 to make a film for the U.S. Information Agency, its chief, Edward R. Murrow, instead asked George to become full-time head of its motion picture division. George was then his father’s associate producer on The Greatest Story Ever Told. “It was a big project,” says George, “and Dad by that time really needed me—things had reversed themselves. But he pushed me to take the new job.” The highlight of his tenure was the affecting 1964 documentary John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums, which was one of the few USIA films allowed to be released commercially in this country. In 1967 he left to organize the American Film Institute for the National Council on the Arts.
In the summer of 1962 he met Liz, the recently divorced (from airline executive Edward Condon) mother of a 3-year-old daughter, Caroline, whom she calls “the only good thing to come out of the marriage.” “I was going out with one of Liz’s best friends,” says George noncommittally. Not to be outcooled, Liz adds, “I didn’t give him much thought at the time.” A year later Liz gave up ski-bumming in Switzerland to return to D.C. After the assassination of JFK, Liz worked with Jackie on the planning for the Kennedy Library.
The summer of ’64 the couple spent two weeks together at a Czech film festival. Then the following July they married—in London because they “didn’t want a big concoction, and it was on the way to the Moscow Film Festival.” Her father was too busy in Dublin to make the ceremony, so U.S. Ambassador to Britain David Bruce gave Liz away. Surprisingly, it was George who supplied the political clout when it was needed. Liz was enmeshed in the red tape needed for the marriage license, so White House aide Richard Goodwin engineered a dispensation via “hot line.”
George’s Kennedy connections are still close. He’s a tennis nut, and the possible high point of his life was winning the 1973 RFK Pro-Celebrity Tournament with pro Raul Ramirez. At the RFK Memorial Stadium, he follows the Redskins from the box of Ethel and her kids. George is also big on touch football with his boys, now 11 and 9. Besides riding, Liz works at improving her tennis on the court at their new residence, a 19th-century farmhouse squeezed into the heart of Georgetown. She has given up skiing, her original sport. (She once made the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED on the slopes but says it was because “I knew the photographer.”)
Their mutual entertaining tends to be sporadic and casual. He travels a lot for the film institute, and she alternates between domestic and political activities (her major regret is stopping her education at 17, but she says, “I’m too busy to start as a freshman”). She was media coordinator for George McGovern’s ’72 campaign and now is a member of the Committee of Americans for the Canal Treaties, led by elder statesman Averell Harriman and former Sen. Hugh Scott. “Liz organizes things very well,” says George. “Yes,” Liz says, “and George organizes himself out of the kitchen very well.”
More seriously, she adds, “George’s consciousness didn’t really have to be raised very much. He was not a serious problem, because he’s always worked with women and is very fair-minded.” Sharing the chores would have been necessary anyway in such a hectic household. “Life is a series of yellow pads,” says George. “It’s real therapy to cross things off and make a new list.”