Legendary Marlo Thomas Talks About Christmas, Entertaining, Helping Others And Travel Joys

On-the-go Marlo Thomas happily has a lot on her plate these days — and that includes designing distinctive tableware for Williams Sonoma. How does her leap into an entertaining lifestyle brand fit with Thomas’s other stellar achievements? After all, she is a four-time Emmy Award-winning actor, author, entrepreneur, humanitarian, philanthropist, producer and social activist, whose accomplishments have earned her Golden Globe, Grammy and Peabody awards and induction into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame. In 2014, President Barack Obama bestowed her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. honor a civilian can receive. Her novel role as a tabletop designer came to Thomas in an unexpected yet perfectly poised trajectory, she explained to me during my interview with her, see below. It was built upon her decades-long commitment and powerfully impressive fund-raising for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, which focuses on pediatric cancers and other life-threatening childhood diseases, while uniquely providing free medical care, family housing and transportation to its young patients. Rallying resourceful retail relationships, as well as reaching out to movers and shakers in Hollywood and beyond for further contributions, Thomas’s unbridled and unrivaled support of St. Jude began with a philanthropy started by her father Danny Thomas, who was once one of America’s most popular comedians and actors. (Here is how you can get involved with St. Jude’s mission this holiday season.)

Thomas — whose role as one of television’s first independent career-driven women — on the seminal That Girl sitcom opened doors for other female-empowerment shows. She went on to dazzle in a range of television and Broadway theatrical performances. She is author of eight New York Times’ best-selling books, including Free to Be…You and Me, a ground-breaking illustrated children’s book and gold record album — which commemorates its 50th anniversary this year — plus Free to Be-related television specials. She stars in the new Hallmark television movie, A Magical Christmas Village, which premiered in November. Since 1980, she has been married to writer and film producer Phil Donahue, creator and host of The Phil Donahue Show — the first talk show that featured audience participation — which successfully ran on national television for 29 years.

Laura Manske: Your inaugural home product line for Williams Sonoma debuted in 2021. How did that come about?

Marlo Thomas: Years ago, I met with CEOs, CMOs and CFOs from many [retail] companies about creating a new fund-raising campaign for St. Jude called Thanks & Giving, in which their customers would be asked [during the holiday season] whether they would make donations to St. Jude. It is a big ask and not every company could say yes. But 60 partners did, including Williams Sonoma. [As an annual follow-up] around every March, I host a gratitude party in my home for my Thanks & Giving campaign partners. A few years ago, Williams Sonoma CEO Laura Alber attended my gratitude party. She was sitting near my cocktail table [which was topped with dishes and other serving items] and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, these are beautiful pieces. Where are they from? Where did you get them?’ I told her that I bought them during my travels to London at the flea and antique markets on Portobello Road, particularly wood, silver and porcelain barware, and in Ravello, Italy, I found the plates. She replied, ‘You have to do a collection for us.’ I had never thought of such a thing! But I loved the idea right away, because I love to entertain. That is how it started. Pieces that I found during my travels became inspiration for all-new Williams Sonoma tableware. They are not copies. The design team and I worked very hard [reimagining] items, for example: ‘Let’s use the style of handles from this old tray and the base of this bowl.’ We incorporated elements from pieces made in the 1900s. When I got the [initial] sample, I held my breath while opening the box. I was stunned. They were incredibly beautiful. I am so excited about them.

Manske: Are your blue-and-white appetizer plates reminiscent of your trip to Japan?

Thomas: In Kyoto, I went to a market, quite large, which had tables and tables of blue-and-white [dishes]. In all different shapes, not just round. I love different shapes — rectangular and square. Oval, too. I saw square hors d’oeuvres plates, which had Japanese scenes on them. I [bought them and] had been using them for years. They were on the table that night when Laura Alber attended the party. [So for Williams Sonoma] we did plates in floral and landscape patterns.

Manske: The connection between your travels and tabletop designs is enchanting.

Thomas: I like to shop for my home on trips. It is a great pleasure. Some people look for new clothes, for example, when they travel; I always have my eyes open for a pretty bud vase or glassware. In Venice, I bought a set of crystal wine and water glasses, with little purple grapes on the base and along the side. I had never seen anything like it. In Ravello, Italy, there is wonderful porcelain.

Manske: What do you savor most about travel?

Thomas: The cultural experiences — meeting new people, seeing how they live, what they eat, what music they listen to, what is their tempo. That whole feeling is different among every country [and even varies among areas of a country]. There is also a different light in different places — the way it dapples on and against buildings, bounces off glass windows. Sunlight on water, too. Light has a lot to do with how I enjoy a place.

Manske: That is an insightful observation, an artistic way of seeing the world, Marlo. What is your personal motto? Your guiding light?

Thomas: Run your own race. My father told me that years ago. When I was 18, I was appearing in a play. All the newspaper reviews were comparing me to my father. He was such a big star — and I was a little pip-squeak. Will she be as funny as Danny Thomas? Will she be as popular? Will she last as long? I said to my father: ‘I’m going to change my name, Daddy. I don’t think that I can handle this comparison.’ He replied: ‘I raised you to be a thoroughbred. And thoroughbreds run their own races. They don’t look at the other horses. They wear their blinders and they run. And that is what you have to do. You just run your own race.’ That was one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten.

Manske: Your favorite childhood Christmas memory?

Thomas: Putting up and trimming the tree together as a family. We made ornaments — popped popcorn and strung it with cranberries into a garland. My parents were very much into us making things and not having everything bought. My Dad also put out a big nativity scene in front of our house. My sister and brother and I would bring the hay, arranging it near the statues, which were large figures about four feet tall, and decorate the little barn that my father made. It was very much a family ritual. People in our neighborhood would drive by and bring their children to see it.

Manske: How will Phil and you celebrate the holidays this year?

Thomas: On Christmas Day, our family visits. I’m sort of the Mama Bear. Everybody comes to our home. For 30 years or so, Phil and I have also hosted a New Year’s Eve party in our home with the same friends, couples. They arrive around 8:30. We enjoy cocktails and dinner and then celebrate midnight. After that we play charades — until three in the morning!

Manske: COVID shut down your ability to entertain family, friends and business partners in your home. What did you do in the meantime?

Thomas: Even though I couldn’t entertain others, I still set a very pretty table for Phil and myself all the time. I still arranged flowers and candles. Still used our best tableware. Still had music playing. I was just doing it for the two of us. I don’t believe that there are ‘company things’ that you use only when you have company. I don’t understand that concept. I use all my beautiful things all the time. Phil and I are just as important as any company. I want my home to always be beautiful.

Manske: You have traveled extensively world-wide. What is your favorite destination?

Thomas: Phil and I are crazy about all of Italy. We really like southern Italy: Positano, Ravello, Sorrento, Capri. I remember one special morning, we were in our hotel room and heard music outside. We opened the window. There was a man sitting near a tree, playing a mandolin. It was so lovely! I live in New York City and the tempo here is very fast. When I’ve traveled to places like Sorrento, the pace is very slow. Phil and I take time there to enjoy [everything]. Even going to a meal there is not a rushed thing, not a stop on the way to something else. Meals are to be fully experienced in Italy.

Manske: Where do you yearn to travel that you have not yet seen?

Thomas: Latin America — Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil. That is our next voyage.

Manske: The holidays can be a busy time for entertaining. What tip would you most like readers to know?

Thomas: Enjoy yourself [and the moments]! Some people are apprehensive about entertaining and worry about it. Yet your friends and loved ones appreciate you for you. They are not looking to check if everything goes together. When you invite somebody over and they say yes, they’ve made a contract with you to have a good time. Make your guests feel welcomed. There is no bad way if you do it from your heart. [Choose] special foods that they like. If a friend really loves cheesecake or chocolate, have those things. Say: ‘I got these chocolates for you!’ You’ve invited them and you want to make it about them. My mother used to always say: ‘The eyes eat before the stomach. Make it all pretty. If your food is presented well, guests can’t help to want some of it.’

Manske: Do you have favorite hors d’oeuvres or snacks that you serve for get-togethers?

Thomas: I always put out a vegetable crudité with multi-colored dips, like avocado, salsa and hummus. At Williams Sonoma, we designed a three-cup condiment dish with a handle [so it can be passed around]. I also serve a charcuterie of cheeses and meats and salami — I’m half Italian! My mother was very much into sausages. I designed a Williams Sonoma tray for charcuterie. It is very inviting.

Manske: What Williams Sonoma design ideas are ahead for you?

Thomas: What I am working on now is a silver pedestal. My mother had silver candy dishes on pedestals. I recently designed one for Williams Sonoma that I hope will come out in the spring. It is nicely weighted. We are doing it in two sizes. A small one like my mother’s and then one in a much larger size. I have the larger sample size in my living room now, filled with nuts. It looks beautiful on the table. [In addition] I have the sweetest little glass dish with a woven basket that I bought in Japan; it has a handle. Someday, [it will be inspiration] for my collection.

Manske: You are a host with the most enthusiasm.

Thomas: It’s very joyful. For me, entertaining is about being joyful and festive. When people walk into my home and when they sit at my table, I want them to feel very welcome and know that I really wanted them to be here.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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