Ali Wentworth at Sarasota's Barnes & Noble.
For nearly an hour on Saturday, uproarious laughter erupted from the back of the Sarasota Barnes & Noble, where author and actress Ali Wentworth regaled an overflow audience with anecdotes from her new book, Ali in Wonderland.
In hilarious detail, Wentworth talked about growing up among the Washington elite, her experience in Hollywood while performing in such TV series as In Living Color and Seinfeld, and her marriage to ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos.
Wentworth and her husband, George Stephanopoulos
Wearing her blond hair pulled back and sporting an ivory top and blue slacks, the 47-year-old Wentworth combined the look of Grace Kelly with the wackiness of Lucille Ball as she entertained nearly 100 fans at the book signing. Some sat on the floor when the store ran out of chairs.
Normally, a Sarasota Barnes & Noble might not be on a celebrity author’s book tour (After all, Wentworth has chatted on air with Jay Leno, Charlie Rose, Bill Maher and the ladies of “The View” in recent weeks.) But it helped that Wentworth could also visit her mother, Longboat Key resident Muffie Brandon Cabot, who happens to be a major figure in Ali in Wonderland.
Cabot was Nancy Reagan’s social secretary, and Wentworth’s father and stepfather were both political journalists. So it was normal for people like Jackie Kennedy and Henry Kissinger to drop by when Wentworth was a child. Kissinger even towed her across the family’s swimming pool on occasion.
“He was probably bombing Cambodia at the time, but I liked him because he had a nice, wide back to hold on to,” Wentworth said.
During the Watergate era, the family became suspicious that its phones were being bugged. “My siblings were horrified, but I was delighted at the thought of having a built-in audience to perform for,” quipped Wentworth, who was already dreaming of a career in show business.
Despite her mother’s reservations, after graduating from Bard College, Wentworth fled Washington for Hollywood, where she performed for three years on In Living Color and later played Jerry Seinfeld’s girlfriend in the famous “Soup Nazi” episode. She has appeared in such films as Jerry McGuire and It’s Complicated, and was a frequent guest panelist on pop-culture segments of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
When a friend tried to set her up on a date with Stephanopoulos in 2001, she initially demurred, having little desire to meet a renowned symbol of the world of politics and journalism that she’d rebelled against.
“I said, ‘Well, first of all, isn’t he gay?’” Wentworth recalled. “And secondly, I didn’t care about politics, and figured he’d be the last person I’d be interested in. I was holding out for Hugh Grant or Matthew Perry. Besides, George had dated the entire island of Manhattan by then. But I thought it might be a nice party story to say I once went out with George Stephanopoulos.
“So I agreed to meet him for lunch. But I didn’t even shave my legs, and just wore some black pants and a white oxford shirt. Not very romantic.”
However, over some “mayonnaisey crab sandwiches,” she found herself enchanted. “I would have gone downtown to the courthouse and married him right then,” Wentworth said.
She didn’t have to wait too long. Two months after the lunch, Stephanopoulos proposed, and they married six months later. His father, a Greek orthodox priest, performed the ceremony.
“His father did the pre-marriage counseling, too, and it was kind of weird to have your father-in-law ask if you have renounced Satan, ” Wentworth said.
The couple lives in Manhattan with their two young daughters, though Stephanopoulos, the co-host of Good Morning, America, commutes to Washington on weekends to host the Sunday morning show “This Week.”
“I told him he might as well become a recurring character on (the ABC sit-com) Cougartown, too, Wentworth joked about her husband’s workaholic ways.
Though some might find them an unlikely pair, Wentworth said their marriage works because “on the base level, we agree on everything that’s most important. And we’re different enough that it doesn’t ever get dull. I learn a lot from him, I have such respect for him. And I make him laugh a lot. Our pillow talk doesn’t revolve around politics. It’s not like I’m sitting there saying, ‘Oh, tell me more about Mitt Romney!'”
Every article about Wentworth seems to describe her as wacky or quirky (OK, even I fell into that trap). “As an entertainer, I’m fine with that, but that’s not all I am,” she said, smiling. “I think I have some depth, too. And I think George gives me some credibility.”
Wentworth has described Ali in Wonderland as a kind of love letter to her mother, who was taking care of her daughters while she attended the book signing.
“She is somebody who never let anything stop her,” Wentworth said. “She’s been very successful in many different careers , and she instilled in her children the belief we could do whatever we wanted. She’s also an unbelievably generous and helpful friend, and I think I inherited that from her.
“I’m a better cook than she is, though. When I just left my children with her for lunch, I thought, ‘Oh, no.’”
Near the end of her appearance, someone asked Wentworth if she’d be attending her old friend Seinfeld’s sold-out performances at the Van Wezel on Saturday.
“No, we see him all the time in New York, and his kids go to school with our kids. I’m so over Seinfeld,” she joked. “I’m glad he sold out the Van Wezel, but I’ve sold out Barnes & Noble.”
For even more Sarasota arts and entertainment news, become a fan of Sarasota Magazine on Facebook or follow @SarasotaMagazin on Twitter.