Anjelica Huston brings her reflections of childhood to the Free Library

"A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York" by Anjelica Huston.
"A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York" by Anjelica Huston. (From the book jacket)
Posted: November 22, 2013

Thirty years before she played Morticia Addams on screen, a preteen Anjelica Huston stood in front of the bathroom mirror pretending to be the slinky ghoul with the almond eyes and arched eyebrows. The future model, actor, and memoirist had a morbid streak as wide as the Irish Sea. One of her favorite books, she writes in A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York (Scribner, 242 pages, $16.42), the first volume of her two-part memoir, was a collection of Charles Addams cartoons. Their macabre humor was a respite from a childhood often marked by loneliness and loss.

"People often think that looking in the mirror is about narcissism," she observes in the prologue of her book. "Children look at their reflection to see who they are."

The same might be said of adults and their autobiographical reflections.

Most everyone knows that Huston is the third generation of a Hollywood dynasty. Her paternal grandfather Walter won a supporting actor Oscar for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Her father John won writer and director Oscars for that film. Thirty-five years later, John directed Anjelica to her own Academy-winning turn in Prizzi's Honor.

Less well-known is that the actress, 62, likewise descends from a writing dynasty. Rhea Gore, her paternal grandmother, was a legendary crime reporter. Her father wrote more than 20 produced scripts. A Story Lately Told proves that Huston is a third-generation storyteller. As she chronicles her earliest memories through age 22, she echoes the rhythms and structures of novels like Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and What Maisie Knew, focusing on surface sensations of youth while implying profound internal changes.

On the page she has a distinctive lilt, the consequence of being raised in Ireland, where her mother, Ricki Soma, a Balanchine ballerina and fourth wife of a spouse 24 years her senior, restored St. Clerans, an estate in County Galway. Mother and children (son Tony was firstborn) lived in the adjacent Little House while Ricki fixed up the Big House.

She decorated it in John's outsized image, lining the rooms with the spoils of his location shoots. Japonaiserie from filming The Barbarian and the Geisha, wild game shot while making The African Queen, Toulouse-Lautrec posters amassed while filming Moulin Rouge, Mexican tiles and pre-Columbian art collected during The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Huston describes her parents as being like a fairy-tale king and queen, evoking Ricki's "translucent" beauty and John's spellbinding tales. His stories were "quite like his movies - triumph and/or disaster in the face of adversity; the themes were manly." (Perhaps the best-ever summation of John Huston as a film artist.)

In some ways, it was an enchanted childhood, with poodles, piglets, and ponies aplenty. Her mother was a constant presence. Not so her peripatetic father, off in far-flung locations. When he was around, he was wreathed in cigar smoke and a retinue of assistants, producers, and women Anjelica would gradually recognize as his paramours.

"I knew that men and women sometimes shared a bedroom," Anjelica writes, "but I had never seen my parents do this, and I had no way of knowing what went on in other households." Anjelica wonders whether Ricki's focus on restoring the Big House was her way of trying to restore a marriage interrupted by John's business and other consuming pleasures.

Her father's absence was as formative as his presence. His children felt him in his beloved artbooks and his possessions. When he was in residence he challenged them with questions, physical dares, and Olympian advice: "The worst thing," he told Anjelica, "is to be a dilettante."

Although she sensed the deepening rift between her parents, she doesn't remember being told they were separating. She was 9, afraid to ask questions, when she relocated to London with her brother, just as the '60s began to swing. By the time she was 14, each of her parents had newborns with other partners - sister Allegra (Ricki's child with historian John Julius Norwich), and brother Danny (John's child with actress Zoe Sallis). At the time Anjelica most craved the attention of her parents, their focus was elsewhere.

She gets attention elsewhere. From boys. From photographers. She starts modeling. Huston has an olfactory memory of London during her teenage years - "Vetiver, Brut and Old Spice for the boys; lavender, sandalwood and Fracas for the girls." She has a chromatic memory for the precise hues and textures of what she wore. Her father cast her in a movie, and a vicious critic likened her to an "exhausted gnu." When she was 17, she lost her mother in a car accident. Her world spun off its axis. She moved to New York.

She was almost six feet tall, with legs long as the Thames and black-olive eyes accentuated by kohl. When she was the same age as her mother when Ricki wed John, Anjelica took up with fashion photographer Bob Richardson. He was 24 years her senior. Anjelica did not know he was a drug addict, self-medicating to compensate for his mood swings. She rides the bipolar pony with Richardson and gets thrown and thrown again. After four years, she walks out.

Huston is both her mother's daughter and her father's, a woman of feeling and of action. Compared with the eccentrics in her family of origin, Huston's imperturbable screen creations Maerose Prizzi, Morticia Addams, and Etheline Tenenbaum seem restrained.


AUTHOR EVENT

Anjelica Huston: "A Story Lately Told"

Noon Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. Sold out.

Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org


carriedrickey@gmail.com

Carrie Rickey will be in conversation with Anjelica Huston at the Free Library on Thursday.

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