When Anjelica Huston was born on July 8, 1951, in a hospital in Los Angeles, her renowned father, John Huston, was deep in the heart of the Belgian Congo filming The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.
The famously intrepid director was sent a note announcing the birth of his daughter. In her memoir A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London and New York (Scribner, $25, in stores Nov. 29), the author recounts her dad’s typically no-nonsense reaction.
“When the messenger handed the telegram to my father, he glanced at it, then put it in his pocket. Katie Hepburn exclaimed ‘For God’s sakes, John, what does it say?’ and Dad replied ‘It’s a girl. Her name is Anjelica.’ ”
And then production resumed. A lot of Huston’s book, which recounts the first 22 years of her life, centers on her legendary father, who received 15 Oscar nominations (and won two) for such films as The Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon and The Night of the Iguana.
“Over the years, I’ve heard my father described as a lothario, a drinker, a gambler, a man’s man, more interested in killing big game than in making movies. It is true that he was extravagant and opinionated. But Dad was complicated, self-educated for the most part, inquisitive, and well read. Not only women but men of all ages fell in love with my father, with that strange loyalty and forbearance men reserve for each other. They were drawn to his wisdom, his humor, his magnanimous power; they considered him a lion, a leader, the pirate they wished they had the audacity to be.”
Speaking via telephone from Los Angeles in advance of her appearance at the 30th Miami Book Fair International, Huston, now 62, remembers her father fondly, even though he was capable of extremes — writing her a letter from the set of The Bible filled with drawings of animals to striking her violently without warning when he disapproved of the way she walked as a teenager. Her mother, Enrica, was a ballerina who had studied under George Balanchine and danced on Broadway for Jerome Robbins but gave up her career after marrying John in 1950 in Mexico — the same day he divorced his previous wife, Evelyn Keyes.
“Both of my parents were very vivid — they were both big characters,” Huston says. “They were artists, my mother as much as my father, except that her particular genius was never permitted a space around his. My father was extreme in the way dramatic people are extreme. They go from one side of the barometer to the other. He had a temper. He had several marked characteristics. He was one of the biggest animals of the jungle, if not the biggest. I respected him, admired him, was in love with him the way little girls love their fathers, but he scared me too. He had a big roar. His nature was that of a big lion, and that’s how he responded when things weren’t going his way. He was capable of pouncing.”
Huston says she began working on A Story Lately Told during breaks on the set of the first season of NBC’s now-defunct Smash, encouraged by her friends Graydon Carter (the editor of Vanity Fair) and filmmaker Mitch Glazer (TV’s Magic City). Already in a reflective state of mind after the death of her husband Robert Graham in 2008, she began by writing only about the incidents in her life that interested her, not necessarily in chronological order.
“I couldn’t write it in a linear way, because that would have bored me to death,” she says. “The initial writing dictated itself to me. Then I went back and filled in the gaps with things I hadn’t originally intended to write about. The pieces started to come together, like a puzzle. I have directed three movies, and it was very much like editing a film. You have to go over it again and again. I overwrote a good deal, and I wrote it all by hand — it was brain to hand. I didn’t grow up typing, so it doesn’t come as naturally to me. I had reams and reams of paper and very stiff wrists when I was through. But in a way that was part of the process: Thinking things through on paper.”
Huston admits she led a charmed childhood —“an exalted life” — moving to Ireland with her parents and her brother Tony in 1953 to live in a 110-acre estate built in 1784. She rode ponies, went fox hunting and met many of her father’s famous friends (Marlon Brando, Peter O’Toole, Edna O’Brien). She traveled around the world, and after her parents separated, she spent her adolescence bouncing back and forth between St. Clerans and London, where her mother now lived.
A Story Lately Told , which is written in a lovely, almost fairy-tale style, allows the reader to relive Huston’s childhood in transporting detail. On her first Christmas after her parents’ separation, which she spent with her father:
“At ten sharp on Christmas morning, we’d hurry up to the Big House for the formal unwrapping of gifts. The assorted guests would make their appearances, and champagne would be served. After all the presents were opened and we were dizzy with excess, Dad would say ‘Shall we adjourn to the dining room?’ The long mahogany table was set with lead crystal, Irish linen, and Georgian silver, and the candelabra would be lit. Mrs. Creagh would have made a feast — smoked salmon, brown bread, stuffed roast turkey and a Limerick ham, mince pies and bread sauce, cranberry jelly, three different kinds of potatoes, creamed leeks and sweet peas, broccoli and cauliflower and turnips, followed by a flaming plum pudding with brandy butter and port for the gentlemen.”
Amazingly, Huston says she wrote the book almost entirely from memory, not having kept any journals as a child.
“Most of it is pure recollection,” she says. “I had an uncluttered eye, because there wasn’t that much going on in the green heart of Ireland, so one had time to ponder these things. I still think I have an observer’s eye. Also, for my profession, I rely on sense memory to be able to put myself into any kind of emotional place, and I’ve always been good at it. That’s why I love books: They allow you to imagine and give you an alternate life to your own.”
Huston’s life grew more troubled as she got older. Her beloved mother died in a car crash. Her debut as lead actress in a film — in 1969’s A Walk with Love and Death — was panned by critics. When she went on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson looked utterly bored. And after she embarked on a long-term (and ultimately destructive) relationship with photographer Bob Richardson, at one point she wound up on her knees on a beach in Mexico, a gun pointed at her head.
A Story Lately Told ends at the point in the 1970s where Huston’s successful modeling career would segue into acting and, eventually, her own Oscar. Although she initially intended to write her memoir in a single volume, Scribner publisher Nan Graham suggested she split it into two books. The second half, Watch Me, will be published next fall.
Huston says that the process of revisiting one’s life — and committing it to paper — can be a revealing experience.
“Sometimes it takes you to places you can’t imagine,” she says, laughing. “You have to ask yourself ‘Why am I going through this?’ ‘Why did I do this to myself?’ I say this in full recognition of the fact that acting is a strange art, a kind of black art. But at the same time, it’s also a life. Either you attack it or you don’t. I’ve always been one of those people willing to jump into the deep end — not because I like the deep water in particular, but maybe because I had a father who always told me to get back on the horse. If I don’t do it, I feel like I’ve missed out on something. So yes, there are moments of terror, and then when you’re finished, you think ‘Oh, that was great!’ ”