A lot of Anjelica Huston’s memoir, which recounts the first 22 years of her life, centers on her father, John, 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.”
Huston, 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 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 “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. “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 “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 the world, and after her parents separated, she spent her adolescence between St. Clerans and London, where her mother 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.
Huston says she did not keep 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 says 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. “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. …So yes, there are moments of terror, and then when you’re finished, you think ‘Oh, that was great!’”