‘Splain It, Ali!

The morning show Living It Up! with Ali and Jack , which debuted last Sept. 15, hadn’t been on CBS for two weeks before the critics were bitching away.

“Alexandra-scuse us, ‘Ali’-Wentworth must be stopped!” one review began. Some were kind, but numerous others pointed out the lack of chemistry between Ms. Wentworth, 39, and co-host Jack Ford, 53 (“They’re no Regis and Kelly”), and noted the “nonexistent” ratings. In early December, the Daily News reported “rumblings” that if Martha Stewart beats her insider-trading case, CBS will return her show to the Ali and Jack time slot.

I began trading e-mails with the show’s publicist in hopes of meeting Ms. Wentworth, an actress, author of The WASP Cookbook and wife of the former Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos, host of the Sunday-morning political talk show This Week on ABC.

Last summer, there had been rumors in the New York Post about the couple. Their marriage was in trouble. George resented Ali’s success. Ms. Wentworth decided to take action and told The Washington Post , “Come on, do you know of many strained marriages that make love twice a day?”

I received word from the publicist, Kelli Raftery, that I could interview Ms. Wentworth, but that “Ali will only talk about her career and Living It Up! with Ali and Jack .” Ms. Raftery made it clear several times that any questionsabouttheWentworth-Stephanopoulos marriage were strictly off-limits.

In mid-December, I met Ms. Wentworth at a taping of the show. It was 8:50 a.m. in the CBS studios on West 57th Street; after a comedian warmed up the crowd, the Living It Up! theme song blared and Ms. Wentworth walked out wearing a white, Luke Skywalker–like outfit.

“I’m on so much medication, I don’t know what’s going to happen today,” she said after someone asked about her cold.

“Oh, you’re very chic,” she said to a woman in the audience. “Is this real? O.K., it’s rabbit. I have a pet rabbit but … good luck. No, it’s nice. Where are you from? You have an accent. Lithuania? I got nothing. I got nothing on Lithuania.”

It was someone’s 25th marriage anniversary.

“Congratulations!” Ms. Wentworth said. “What’s the secret to a good marriage? Good luck? Oh. I’m scared now …. A birthday? Happy birthday! You don’t look a day over 29. Happy birthday to you, too? Seventy and still works full-time! Good for you! All right, we’re getting ready to do the show-thanks for being here!”

Minutes later, she was back onstage with Mr. Ford. Before they brought on the guests, who would include the food and wine expert from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy , the two hosts discussed fruitcakes. Then Mr. Ford mentioned “a compelling story in the news, the revelation that the late Senator Strom Thurmond had-

“An illegitimate daughter!” Ms. Wentworth said.

“And apparently-apparently he had a daughter back when he was 22,” Mr. Ford continued.

“And her mother was 16!”

“And her mother was African-American,” he said.

“And he was a big segregationist!”

Mr. Ford nodded. “But you know what’s interesting about this story, if you look at it-it has sort of all the elements rolled in of a Shakespearean drama. You start-“

“I was going to say All My Children !” Ms. Wentworth piped in.

“Yeah. Obviously you have to start with the hypocrisy. Here’s a man claiming that the races belong separately when he’s fathered this child and-“

“Right! Well, to say Shakespeare …. In the end, he pretends too much, huh?”

Eventually Mr. Ford made all his points. A former news and legal correspondent for ABC and NBC, respectively, he’s the grounded, steadying force on the show and a bit of a sensitive goober. It’s Ms. Wentworth’s job to perk things up, be a goofball, dance with Tony Danza and, when in doubt, bring up sex.

She started one show off explaining why she was feeling so comfortable that morning: She wasn’t wearing a thong! Another time, she faked an orgasm to show what happens to women after they get a new pair of shoes. Ms. Wentworth has a persona known as “Dark Ali” that gets her producers worried. She might come close to flashing her boobs or saying the word “vagina.”

“I have a late-night mentality,” she told me. “So I exorcise my demons when we rehearse in the morning, so that stuff won’t come out. I just substitute stuff for dirtier stuff. I do it for the camera guys who are half-asleep. I’m not like stripping; it’s like I’m like another guy. My humor is very sexist.”

After the show, I found myself in a backstage conference room with Ms. Raftery, the publicist. She began taking notes on a yellow pad as soon as Ms. Wentworth sat down on the opposite couch and rattled off her ills. Muscle aches. Sweaty palms. Fever.

“Any other job, I’d be in bed,” she said. “Being sick, everything is much harder. I mean, I love doing the show-it’s the funnest thing I’ve ever done, and I love the staff.”

She said she was planning to go to the Bahamas soon.

“You never know,” she said. “I keep thinking because me and the baby are sick this week, we’ll be O.K. next week-then either George will get the flu or Saddam Hussein’s underlings will get caught, or Reagan will die-something’s going to happen. The idea that the three of us could actually go away for a week and get some rest is unfathomable.”

I asked her why sex was such a big topic on Living It Up!

“It’s a huge part of everyone’s life,” she said. “I mean, our target audience really is women who are at home, and they have sex. They also cook, they care about fashion, but everyone can relate to sex.”

Did she have any advice for spicing up one’s sex life?

“Don’t reserve the bed just for sex. Kitchen table, sofa, car-try to mix it up a little.”

What was the wildest thing Ms. Wentworth had done sexually so far this millennium?

“I had it! I can’t answer that without my husband slapping me silly.”

Mr. Stephanopoulos is another constant on Living It Up! He gets mentioned several times an episode. Usually it’s when Ali says something like, “George Stephanopoulos, are you watching this? Her boyfriend cooks!”

Recently, Ms. Wentworth greeted a guest, the comedian Eddie Griffin, with “How ya doin’, girl?”

“Uh, where is she?” he replied, looking around.

“Oh, I call everybody ‘girl,'” Ms. Wentworth said. “Even my husband.”

On the show, she has joked that her husband likes wearing her dresses and that he “hogs the covers” and keeps the air-conditioning on all night, which leaves her [a?] “shivering little possum left out in the woods.”

“I do mention George occasionally on the show, which I don’t like,” she said. “I’m uncomfortable with it, because I like that it’s separate. But I get some focus groups that say that women are very interested in the fact that I’m married to him.”

However, she said, he will never appear on Living It Up!

“Nor will I be on his show. I think George’s biggest nightmare in life would be the two of us doing a talk show. We joke about that.”

Even at dinner parties, he’s nervous.

“Whenever he sees I’m about to say something, he looks at me like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no!'” she said. “Just because, you know, I sort of stir it up at the Kuwaiti embassy. Washington is a very conservative town, but they love a breath of fresh air. I certainly get seated the best in Washington, because Mr. Old Senator Guy wants some spontaneity and a dirty joke. You know, George is very methodical when he says something, like he’s his own great spin doctor …. I don’t self-edit the way he does.”

In Manhattan, the couple goes out most nights, to private screenings, dinner parties, fancy events. They get back to their Park Avenue rental by midnight, and both are up by 6 a.m. Last fall, they sold their East Hampton house for $1.2 million and now spend weekends in their $2.27 million brownstone in Washington.

Ms. Wentworth thinks they complement each other well.

“He’s much more serious, and news is much more devastating to him, and I kind of lighten that up,” she said. “But vice versa: He has gotten me much more immersed in ‘Wow, this happens in Palestine?’ But it’s a good balance. I think if we were both, you know, ‘ Whoa -ho-ho-ho!’ about everything, we would be the most annoying couple.”

Mr. Stephanopoulos declined to be interviewed about his wife, but released a statement through Ms. Raftery: “Her talent is undeniable and completely unique. She is the most wonderful mother and wife, but what many people don’t know is-her Chicken Marbella is unbeatable!”

In her spare time, Ms. Wentworth does charity work. “I think that people have a tendency to say, ‘I wish I didn’t know about this,’ about something horrific,” she said. “But I sort of subscribe to Kurosawa-you never look away. I was very focused in college on the Holocaust and writing papers on that. Right now, global genocide is a big topic for me. Or infant rape in South Africa, which a lot of people just don’t want to know about. It’s like, ‘Oh, yecch! Oh, God-I don’t even want to talk about that!'”

She was slinking down in the couch opposite me and kind of looking up at me-a pouty baby-doll effect that was very distracting. The show’s lighting doesn’t do her justice. A viewer, disturbed by the bags under her eyes, e-mailed the show’s Web site asking, “Did a jellyfish bite her in the face or is she really tired?”

Ms. Wentworth, who doesn’t exercise or diet and smokes Camel Lights, said she’s done the show on two hour’s rest.

“You know what it is-I can get it up, so to speak, for an hour,” she said. “It’s really about digging deep into my soul and just trying to literally get it together. A lot of times, if I’m really tired after the show, I have no personality and no brain whatsoever, and I’m surprised I’m not hit by a bus.”

Ms. Wentworth said she’d like to have George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Mike Myers on. Nearby were framed pictures of previous guests. “Oh, Richard Simmons was hilarious,” she said. “Just because, I mean, I’m not necessarily a fan . I mean, I’m a fan , but it’s not-” Ms. Raftery jumped in and rattled off other past guests: Joe Torre, Daryl Hannah, Mary Tyler Moore, Carmen Electra, Dan Rather.

“He was great, Richard Simmons,” Ms. Wentworth continued. “I mean, he’s got a very dirty sense of humor, which I always appreciate.”

After the interview, I bumped into the show’s executive producer, Bruce McKay. “Smart, funny, quick,” he said of Ms. Wentworth. “She is so popular among the staff, it’s unbelievable-because she tries so hard. That is the most impressive thing about her: She’s completely down to earth, and she’s trying to do better at this job she’s never done before, and people on the staff would kill for her because of that.”

Days later, he was fired from the show, along with other staffers.

In early January, I went back for more. Ms. Raftery again sat next to me and took notes on her yellow pad. Ms. Wentworth looked gorgeous in a brown cashmere sweater with a purposeful hole in it, tweed skirt and brown suede boots. She was just back from the Bahamas.

“I am very rested,” she said. “We had a great time. It was the first time that George got a rest since I’ve known him. We had no computer, no phone, no nothing. So all hell could have broken loose and we would not have known.”

It was just as well. Over the holidays, Entertainment Weekly had listed both Ms. Wentworth and her husband’s shows as among the worst of 2003. The couple was blamed for “spoiling both weekday and Sunday-morning TV.” EW commented that Ms. Wentworth’s “madcap shenanigans” make her co-host Mr. Ford look “like a suicide-watch candidate.”

“You know, I was upset about that,” she said. “And George said, ‘C’mon, you have to understand how publicity works. This is like, we gave it to them on a silver platter. The guy was going to write that no matter what.’ At the beginning, I was all for the publicity-I was proud of my husband-but now I get why people shy away from it. Because you’re just too much a target. And if they think, ‘Oh, they had this great wedding and they had a baby ,’ then somebody comes in and takes a swipe at you.”

The Daily News also put Living It Up! with Ali and Jack on their worst-of-the-year list, and so did The New York Times , in a print conversation between the paper’s TV critics. Alessandra Stanley called Living It Up! “the worst daytime talk show in history” and said she’d never reviewed it because “very few watch it and it’s just too painful and sad.”

Her interlocutor, Virginia Heffernan, chimed in that Ms. Wentworth is the wife of George Stephanopoulos.

“Why didn’t that make her good at it?” said Ms. Heffernan. “Come on, what else do you need?”

After she read the exchange in The Times, Ms. Wentworth called up Ms. Stanley, who explained her comments by joking that she was a “mean writer.” Then they had a civilized chat.

“She was actually incredibly nice,” Ms. Wentworth said. “She was like, ‘Good luck with everything.'”

Ms. Wentworth told me that Ms. Heffernan had gone on a date with Mr. Stephanopoulos eight years ago.

“She was in love with him, and he never returned her calls,” Ms. Wentworth said.

“Hmmm,” Ms. Heffernan responded. “I did some secretarial work for George Stephanopoulos at Talk in 1998. Did he consider that a date?”

Ms. Wentworth said she grew up a “girl’s girl” in Washington, D.C. Her parents divorced when she was 1. Her Boston blueblood mother would become Nancy Reagan’s social secretary. Her father was a political reporter for The Washington Post , and her stepfather was the Washington correspondent for The Times of London. The talk around the house was current events.

“It bored me to tears,” she said. “The fact that I married George is just unbelievable. Every day, I just can’t believe it. I hated politics. I think as a kid it was too serious. There was a lot going on, it was Vietnam and Watergate-it made my parents very stressed out. So that’s what I saw, and I just thought: Ugh .”

She met people like Frank Sinatra, Richard Nixon and Carol Burnett at the White House. She once rode around a swimming pool on Henry Kissinger’s back. During one party, she borrowed Zsa Zsa Gabor’s orange feather boa and did one of her first impersonations.

Her nickname was Dabber, after the chatty duck in Dr. Doolittle .

At 9, she went to an all-girls boarding school outside Boston. One evening, she hitchhiked on the Massachusetts turnpike in her nightgown and brought back some Dunkin’ Donuts. “It wasn’t even an initiation, it was ‘Ali will do anything, let’s see if she’ll do this,'” she said.

She did her best to repress her WASP nature.

“My mother convinced me to be a debutante, which I thought the most barbaric, ludicrous thing,” she said, adding that one of her escorts was a “very gay” 16-year-old who wanted to design clothes. “I did not take it seriously. I did not believe I was a duckling turning into a swan, and I also didn’t understand the concept of being married to society.”

After high school she wanted to pursue acting full-time, but her parents made her go to college. At Bard College, she studied theater, then discovered improv at New York University and put on a one-woman show, Deaf, Blind and P.M.S. She moved to Los Angeles and joined the improv troupe the Groundlings. In 1992, she got a role on Fox’s In Living Color , on which she impersonated people like Sharon Stone and Amy Fisher and created characters like Super Bimbo. People on the show would say, “Did you know her mother used to work at the White House?”

Playboy asked her to pose. She called her mother.

“There was a long pause on the phone,” Ms. Wentworth said. “She said, ‘You’re not going to do it are you?’ I said, ‘Well, the amount that they going to pay me-will you pay me not to do it?’ She just almost had a heart attack.”

Ms. Wentworth decided against it. “Frankly, it’s not that I had any issue with Playboy , it’s just I know what I look like naked and, believe me, it won’t sell magazines.”

She became a regular on the Tonight show, appearing in over 100 sketches. She did some movie work: Jeff Daniel’s spoiled, half-naked fiancée in the flop Trial and Error ; a remake of The Love Bug ; some screen time in Jerry Maguire . Seinfeld watchers will remember her as Jerry’s girlfriend “Schmoopie” on the “Soup Nazi” episode.

In 1998, she got engaged to a comedian named Adam. She wrote a long article about it for Cosmopolitan , mentioning her doubts about marriage and a Cuban carpenter she’d dated with a “masterful lovemaking technique.” The engagement didn’t take.

In 1999, she published The WASP Cookbook to good reviews. Recipes included “Binky’s Bourbon Nips for Derby Day.” Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres wrote blurbs.

In April 2001, she and Mr. Stephanopoulos were set up on a blind date. She knew who he was; he Googled her. They met for lunch at Barneys and hit it off. “She just leaned in and said something,” he later told Th e New York Times . “And we were suddenly in another place, another universe immediately. We went from strangers to friends to being in love in days.”

Three months later, they got engaged and appeared on Good Morning America with Diane Sawyer.

“He was dying,” said Ms. Wentworth. “I loved it. I loved it! I thought it was great. He was literally dying. ‘Cause he’s a very private guy, and I’ve always used whatever was going on in my life as material, where he has used everything in his life to make sure it doesn’t become material.”

Their November 2001 wedding was small. Her new father-in-law married them at a Greek Orthodox church in Manhattan. Marisa Tomei and Paulina Porizkova had been at the bridal shower. James Carville and Mike Nichols were at the wedding. At the candlelit reception, the new couple danced for the first time. On their honeymoon they conceived a daughter, Elliott Anastasia.

I noted what great shape she was in.

“Oh, you’re adorable. You’ve never seen me naked.” When we stood up to say goodbye, she pulled down the hole in her sweater and revealed a little cleavage, laughed, then pecked me on the cheek. She agreed to let me travel to D.C. to have lunch with her. But the next day, the publicist, Ms. Raftery, put an end to that idea. I was offered a phone interview instead.

Ms. Wentworth spoke to me from the couple’s Washington brownstone. Mr. Stephanopoulos was in New Hampshire, about to interview Howard Dean. Their baby was asleep upstairs in the nursery. Tanya the nanny was keeping watch.

Had I been allowed to visit her home, Ms. Wentworth said, I’d see a crackling fire and her collection of seashells.

“I am obsessed with seashells,” she said. “There’s shells all over our house. I literally can’t sleep the night before I’m going diving, I’m so excited. It’s almost like you get a prize. I think it’s like gold. I think it has something to do with attaining gold.”

She said we would’ve had lunch at Café Milano and maybe seen a Senator or Sally Quinn. I’d order a cocktail and she’d get a ginger ale.

“You’d proceed to get very drunk, and it would get very awkward,” she said. “And we would just laugh and regale each other with stories of our youth. And you would just be staring at me like, ‘How could I find a woman like this? Do they exist ?’ And I’ll say, ‘No, George, I come once a century.'”

Ms. Wentworth said she’d just met with her new executive producer, Maureen FitzPatrick, and everyone was really excited about the next phase of the show.

“I’m going to be much more myself,” she said. “Kind of straight hair, not blown out. Jeans. I think that that’s going to affect my performance. Take more chances.”

She finished telling me about our imaginary afternoon together.

“I’ve convinced you to have some coffee to sober up,” she said. “We’ve come home. Maybe we’ll take the dogs to the park with the baby. You’d sober up and then you’d come back and watch me make dinner. We’d have a little Mozart or something on in the background. And you’d start crying and say, ‘I want this wife. Why can’t Ihavethis wife?'”

‘Splain It, Ali!