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She's the perfect spokeswoman for MacMurray Ranch — having grown up there

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She is the daughter of Fred MacMurray, one of Hollywood's great actors whose career spanned the apex of black-and-white cinema to the Golden Age of color television.

Her mother was the blonde beauty June Haver, whom 20th Century Fox reportedly was grooming as the next Betty Grable before she gave up her career to raise twin daughters.

But for Kate MacMurray, being the child of two accomplished performers doesn't mean that speaking before a crowd comes easily.

So when she was first offered the job as ambassador for Gallo of Sonoma's MacMurray Ranch wines, she had one surprising reservation. "Will I have to get up and talk in front of a lot of people? . . . It scares me to death getting up in front of people," she confesses.

After eight years on the job, the gracious hostess who seems to speak so effortlessly about winemaking, the terroir of the Russian River Valley, her famous and not-so-famous kin and the land where she spent so much of her girlhood, manages to conceal her performance anxiety as she eases into what she believes is the role of her lifetime.

That may be because this endearing woman in worn cowboy boots, with unruly orange curls spilling out from beneath her cap and the kind of soft low voice that would calm a crying baby to sleep, simply plays herself.

As hostess and spokeswoman for the breathtaking MacMurray Ranch, which her family sold to Gallo in 1996 with the promise it would be preserved in agriculture, she draws on the wisdom of her elders. She channels the solid Midwest roots and work ethic of both her parents, the faith passed down from her mother -- who spent time in a convent as a young woman -- and the appreciation of land and agriculture she learned from her dad.

"I was a week old when I was brought to the ranch house and I fell hard. . . . And if you fall hard with Sonoma, it's a love affair that never dies," she says in a voice with deep resonance.

Some people might sound practiced uttering such sentimentalities. But MacMurray, 52, a complete softy when it comes to family and history, has no affectation.

"I love her honesty and her realness," says her close friend Guy Smith, who used to come over to the ranch as a boy with his father George back in the 1960s to pick up newborn calves bred and raised by Fred. He remembers admiring the little redhead from afar, but being too shy to approach her.

Daughter of Sonoma

This daughter of Hollywood is also a daughter of Sonoma, splitting her younger years between both worlds. And for some six years while working at the San Francisco Tennis Club and studying English and humanities at the University of San Francisco in the mid-1980s, MacMurray spent many happy weekends at the Twin Valley ranch her father bought in 1941.

And yet, during several decades bouncing around among various schools and careers, she never imagined she would one day live there full-time.

"If I had written a letter to God and said, 'This is what I want,' I could never have dreamed this up in a million years," she says with a laugh about her job, which includes entertaining winery guests at the ranch and traveling around the country leading tastings of MacMurray Ranch pinots and talking about the wonders of Sonoma and the Russian River Valley. A devout Catholic and member of Healdsburg's St. John's Parish, MacMurray does not believe in coincidences.

"I believe things are meant to be. Of course, as a Catholic, I certainly believe if you keep your eyes and ears open, God is showing you the way if you pay attention," she says.

MacMurray is convinced she was led back to her old family home, a historic farmhouse and barn surrounded by 1,700 acres of vineyard and forested hillsides. Through the front windows of the redwood paneled dining room -- once her parents' bedroom -- she looks out on a softly misted landscape of greenery that her father always said reminded him of Ireland. With Kate's input, the home and ranch have been restored to look much as they did when her father was there raising prized black Angus cattle bred from a bull he brought from Scotland.

But it certainly was a long, circuitous journey back to Healdsburg for MacMurray.

She grew up in Brentwood, a leafy enclave near the UCLA campus. And yet, beyond the famous neighbors such as Henry Fonda and growing up with other famous offspring such as Jimmy Stewart's girls and Jamie Lee Curtis, she remembers it as a pretty normal upbringing.

"All the kids played in the streets and batted balls. We walked to school and walked home . . . pretty boring," she says with a laugh.

Adopted in 1956

Katie, as she is also called, and her twin Laurie, who is married and still lives in the L.A. area, were adopted shortly after their birth on May 7, 1956. It was through her mother's old boyfriend, an obstetrician/gynecologist at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, that the MacMurrays came by the freckle-faced babies after getting a call from the doctor that a "beautiful little Irish girl here is about to give birth to twins."

The girls joined a family that included Fred's two children -- Susan, then 16 and Robert, then 12 -- from his first marriage to Lillian Lamont, who died of a heart ailment in 1953.

Although many adoptees have sought out their birth parents, Kate, sensitive to her birth mother's request for anonymity, never tried to find her. But then, she also had a deep and satisfying connection to both of her adoptive parents, who were fixed up at a party by mutual friend John Wayne. Both found each other amid grief. June had lost her childhood sweetheart and fiance John Duzik to a sudden illness, a trauma that sent her to a convent in Kansas in search of answers.

So much of Kate's conversation is interlaced with memories, stories and pearls of wisdom from her folks. (Fred died in 1991 of heart failure, and her mother passed away only three years ago.)

After graduating from Los Angeles' Marymount High School in the early 1970s, she enrolled at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, majoring in animal husbandry.

"It was exciting. I thought maybe I would manage the ranch or get involved in some sort of breeding program," she says.

But, overcome with homesickness, she left and returned to Los Angeles, where she would study theater and English at Loyola Marymount University while trying her hand at modeling and acting. She landed a few roles: she played a gossip columnist in a 1981 Blake Edwards film, "S.O.B." And she had a part in a big miniseries, "Backstairs at the White House."

Dropped out of school

Her parents weren't pleased when she dropped out of school to pursue acting, knowing what a gamble it can be trying to make it in Hollywood. They were right.

"I gave myself a certain period of time and if I wasn't getting a lot of parts, I needed to move on. I didn't want to be 101 and still waiting on tables," says MacMurray, whose many jobs over the years included working for catering companies, doing everything but cooking.

Giving up on working in front of the cameras, she went back to school at USF in the mid 1980s, double-majoring in English and nursing until she hit an academic wall with chemistry. She found herself in her 30s still trying to find her way by trying everything.

"With my parents' generation, you stuck to something until you got your gold watch," she reflects. "But with my generation the world was your oyster. You could study in Europe. You could be this. You could be that. You didn't have to stay in a job more than two minutes if you didn't want to. There was wonderful freedom to that, but also an incredible confusion."

It was a family friend on the faculty of the University of Southern California who keyed in on MacMurray's passion for movies and convinced her to enroll in USC's graduate film school.

"Finally, in my late 30s I received my master's degree in film studies. And I wrote screenplays. Unfortunately, I was not able to sell anything, although there was some interest in one particular script," she recalls.

She nonetheless worked in the film industry behind the scenes, in script development and as a production assistant on shows like "Life Goes On."

But with the offer from Gallo about eight years ago to become an ambassador for their MacMurray Ranch brand of pinot noirs, she feels she has finally found her true calling.

The job has her talking not just about wine, but about sharing family memories and marveling at what she sees as the magic of man at work with Mother Nature.

"One production manager I worked with said, 'You have to find your bliss, Katie. Once you find your bliss, you'll know you're home.' And I found it here. And it is my home."

She was married once, for a few years in her early 20s. But now it's just her and her dog, Frankie, living in a snug, 800-square-foot redwood fishing cabin on the ranch that her father helped build.

"It feels," she says, "like a beautiful embrace from the past." Here she "holes up with books," watches movies, knits, gardens and carefully observes with wonder the changing vineyard throughout the year. She frequently explores the upper reaches of the ranch on her paint horse, Cheyenne.

After many stops in life, MacMurray says, this is definitely the last.

"I told mom the next time I leave the county it will be in a pine box -- and it won't be that far," she says with a smile. "Just some little local cemetery with old trees."

Staff Writer Meg McConahey is at 521-5204 or meg.mcconahey

@pressdemocrat.com.

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