Picking Up The Legos And The Pieces
May 8, 1994
Picking Up The Legos And The Pieces
By DINITIA SMITH
Mia Farrow is sitting in her large, dark, paneled apartment on Central Park West. The light shines through her blond curly hair -- hair she says she cuts herself. She is nearly 50 years old, with 12 children, 3 cats, 4 birds, a hamster, a guinea pig. She has been up last night with her new adopted daughter, 3-month-old Keili-Shea.
Yet she seems eerily younger than her age. Her skin is luminous, seemingly without makeup -- or makeup applied so expertly it is undetectable. The impression of youth is enhanced by her clothes -- jeans, worn white cotton T-shirt, Doc Martens.
Her family has occupied this apartment since she was 18, when her mother, the actress Maureen O'Sullivan, first rented it. Almost every wall is covered with family photographs: Ms. O'Sullivan as Jane in "Tarzan"; her father, John Farrow, who directed "The Big Clock," John Wayne westerns and won an Oscar for his script for "Around the World in 80 Days." The apartment is so dark that Andre Previn, Ms. Farrow's second husband, is said to have once joked: "You have to be careful where you step in Mia's apartment. There might be a baby."
Behind Ms. Farrow is the window from which she can see the apartment of her former lover Woody Allen across Central Park. Today, she prefers not to talk about Mr. Allen directly. "I have tried to take the high road," she says.
But she has a new movie coming out on Friday, "Widows' Peak." She is being interviewed again, and inevitably questions turn to Mr. Allen.
For the past two years, the drama of Woody and Mia's breakup has been played out in newspapers. The destruction of their relationship was like an end to innocence itself. Woody and Mia were generational icons, a quintessential urban couple, endlessly self-absorbed, in endless psychotherapy, simultaneously knowing and childlike, seemingly able to take what they wanted from life, when they wanted, how they wanted it.
Then Woody began having an affair with Mia's 19-year-old daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. Woody Allen had reached too far, into his mistress's family, to pluck her very child out. The innocence had come to an end. Then Mia accused Woody of molesting their adopted daughter, Dylan, now 8 1/2.
Ms. Farrow appears fragile, waiflike, but "the fragility is a disguise," says her friend Stephen Sondheim.
"She's a survivor, very strong and very smart. People think she's fragile because of her voice. She sounds like a breathless, little girl."
Her roots are Irish, and she has an Irish person's love of language. In fact she is quite literary and can discuss the relative merits of Henri Troyat's biography of Tolstoy versus that of Flaubert.
Clearly referring to Mr. Allen, she says: "There is a way in which I have come to see evil. A person relinquishes parts of himself, retains one fragment of his total humanity. The cleverest can represent that fragment as the whole person. The people around him don't realize he is not accountable in the same way others are, that he doesn't experience himself in the same way. There is an emptiness that can give place to anything, that permits behavior unacceptable and unthinkable to others."
Ms. Farrow's new film, "Widows' Peak," is her first in 13 years without Mr. Allen. (Another film, "Miami," written and directed by David Frankel, has not yet been released.) Set in Ireland in the 1920's, "Widows' Peak" is about a woman who, like Ms. Farrow, appears helpless and fragile -- but who has a secret. Joan Plowright plays Mrs. Doyle-Counihan, a wealthy widow who rules the fictional village of Kilshannon with her gossip. Ms. Farrow plays Miss O'Hare, a mysterious, impoverished spinster. One day, a glamorous, young widow (Natasha Richardson) arrives in the village. Miss O'Hare takes a dislike to her. And nothing is ever the same.
For Mia Farrow, the film is a return to her Irish roots. Her mother was born in Roscommon, in northwest Ireland, and her aunts still live in Dublin. Ms. Farrow's great-grandfather, Daniel O'Sullivan, was Lord Mayor of Cork. " 'Widows' Peak' was a journey home," says John Irvin, the director. "But the film was also a break from her past as an artist. Woody Allen has seen her as some kind of icon. I saw her perhaps as more independent, more assertive."
1992: When Life Turns Tabloid
It has been two years since Ms. Farrow found photographs of a naked Soon-Yi, taken by Mr. Allen, and nearly a year since Elliot Wilk, Acting Justice of the New York State Supreme Court, denied Mr. Allen custody of his natural son, Satchel (whose name has been changed to Sheamus), 6; his adopted son, Moses, now 16; and Dylan, 8 1/2 (whose name has been changed to Eliza).
A team of experts from the Yale-New Haven Hospital said they did not believe Mr. Allen had molested Dylan. But Justice Wilk faulted the report and called Mr. Allen's behavior with Dylan "grossly inappropriate." Some New Yorkers know the words that follow almost by heart; they have the rhythms of a biblical pronouncement. "He did not bathe his children," Justice Wilk wrote. "He does not know the names of the children's dentist. He does not know the names of his children's friends. He does not know the names of their many pets." Justice Wilk said that Mr. Allen was "self-absorbed, untrustworthy and insensitive."
When Ms. Farrow is asked to list the names, ages and preoccupations of her children, she readily complies, but Soon-Yi's name is conspicuously absent. (Even Ms. Farrow's mother seems unsure how many children Ms. Farrow has. "I don't know," she says, when asked. "I think it is 12.")
Ms. Farrow's children come from many backgrounds. The new baby is African-American. Isaiah Justus Farrow, 2, is also African-American. There are Eliza (Dylan) Farrow and Sheamus (Satchel) Farrow. Tam Farrow, a girl, either 12 or 13 -- her adoption papers are not clear -- is blind and adopted from Vietnam. Moses Farrow was born with cerebral palsy and adopted from Korea. Daisy Previn, 19, and Lark Previn, 21, were adopted from Vietnam. Ms. Farrow's biological sons with Mr. Previn are Fletcher, 20, a college student in Hamburg, Germany, and 24-year-old twins, Matthew, who is at Georgetown University Law School, and Sascha, who works in electronics in Colorado.
Then there is the child Ms. Farrow had to give up. In October 1991, she had adopted Sanjay, a Vietnamese child who appeared to be about 6. Ms. Farrow thought he had polio but discovered he was profoundly retarded. "It was a very, very difficult thing to do. But given the ages of the other children, how many there are and all the professional advice, we let him go to another family with two parents who were enthusiastic and waiting for such a child."
When Ms. Farrow is asked about Soon-Yi Previn, she says: "I still love her. You always love your child."
Solutions: A Way Out Through Work
By the time of Mr. Allen's suit for custody of his children was over, Ms. Farrow was understandably distraught. She had been dropped from Mr. Allen's new film, "Manhattan Murder Mystery," having been replaced by Diane Keaton. Then came the opportunity to film "Widows' Peak." "There was a sense of putting it all together and going forward," she says today. "Making a film in Ireland was so far removed from the courthouse. After all that had gone on, it seemed a monumental leap, almost surreal. But I have children to support. To my real delight, it was a pleasure. I was surrounded by people who were caring and funny."
In many ways, all the principal actresses on the shoot last summer were nursing wounds. A biography had been published saying that Ms.Plowright's late husband, Laurence Olivier, had had an affair with Danny Kaye. Ms. Richardson's father had died of AIDS. She had recently left her husband, Robert Fox, to be with the actor Liam Neeson.
Then last August, Mr. Allen arrived in Ireland for his court-authorized visit with Satchel. There were headlines in the Irish press: "Woody: Why My Suffering Goes On" and "Woody's Anguish." "He spoke to the press, as I had anticipated and feared," says Ms. Farrow. "We'd had such a peaceful time. Now again, there were the sounds of gunfire and grenades. My stomach knew to turn over."
Hugh Leonard, the Irish playwright who won a Tony Award for "Da" and who originally wrote "Widows' Peak" for Ms. Farrow's mother, says: "Woody Allen came to Ireland and began to give speeches knocking Mia. Woody pretended to be very hurt and innocent. He put up a facade about being reasonable and wanting to kiss and make up. Everyone on the set closed ranks around her."
Mr. Allen refuses to talk to journalists about his children. "Two years later," says his spokeswoman Leslee Dart, "Mia Farrow is still saying she won't discuss her legal problems. However, she continues to use her friends and family in her attempt to vilify Woody Allen. For the sake of the children, Mr. Allen will not speak to the press."
People close to Mr. Allen say Ms. Farrow is trying to manipulate the press, presenting herself as shy, helpless, in need of a mother's love herself. "She's very charming, very manipulative," says a member of the extended family who sides with Mr. Allen and refuses to be identified. "Anyone who adopts this many children for her own needs has real stability problems."
Growing Up: As the Twig Is Bent
Her father, John Farrow, was Australian, "a legendary womanizer," according to Ms. Farrow, who also wrote treatises on Catholicism, a biography of St. Thomas More and a history of the papacy. Mr. Farrow was what the Irish called "a spoiled priest" and was forever torn between religious obligation and the life of the senses. Mia's best friend as a child was Maria Roach Watkins, the daughter of the producer Hal Roach. Ms. Watkins remembers the Farrow household as "bizarre, almost like two houses."
"There was an adult part we were never allowed to go in. Mr. Farrow read all night long. One of our jobs was to put his ice out in the bar for when he got up. He had his own bedroom with its own entrance. Mrs. Farrow's bedroom was dark green. It was like a sanctuary. If you went there, you had to say your prayers. They were a beautiful family cosmetically, not as perfect inside."
Mia was one of seven children. She had a strict Roman Catholic education. "She was very bossy," says Ms. Watkins. "She was the oldest girl. We put on plays; Mia was always the producer, director and star. The children ran pretty wild. As the oldest girl, she was the mother, the responsible organizer. It doesn't surprise me she had all these kids. Her own mother was there physically, but she wasn't. There were cooks and nannies. Mrs. Farrow would lock herself up in her room. She was not really involved."
When Mia Farrow was 9, she contracted polio. Her parents could see her only from behind a glass barrier at the hospital. When she recovered, the family dog had to be given away for fear it was contaminated, the swimming pool drained, the lawn reseeded.
Ms. Farrow's mother believes that the hospital stay contributed to Mia's later desire to adopt children. "The children around her -- some died, some were in iron lungs," Ms. O'Sullivan says. "Maybe that's what started her. She was very brave to be 9 and shunted off in that dark hospital." In fact, after giving Sanjay up, Ms. Farrow would still like to adopt a child who has had polio. "I would love to parent such a child," she says.
Ms. Farrow's polio was followed by a series of other blows. The family moved often, to Spain, England, California, New York. Then when Ms. Farrow was 13 her brother Michael Damien Farrow died in a plane crash. When she was 17, her father died. There was no money, and she had to go to work, performing in "The Importance of Being Earnest" on Broadway in 1963.
At 20, Ms. Farrow married her first boyfriend, Frank Sinatra, who was nearly 50. By then, she was known to millions as Allison MacKenzie in Peyton Place. "The day she got married, it was really sad," remembers Ms. Watkins. "We all imagined being married in the church we had gone to. Frank didn't want anyone to find out, the press. She was going to Las Vegas and getting married. The problem with Frank was that he had his life with Mia, and his other life with his cronies. I think they were really in love, but his cronies never respected her, and she never respected them. He reminded me of Mr. Farrow -- the flashes of temper. Then he could be so charming and wonderful, and turn around and be somebody else."
The marriage was brief. To this day, she and Mr. Sinatra remain on good terms. "I love him very much," she says. While married to Mr. Sinatra, she appeared in the film "Rosemary's Baby" and became a star.
With Mr. Previn, whom she married after leaving Mr. Sinatra, Ms. Farrow seemed eager to forge the perfect childhood she had never had. There was a house in Surrey with a thatched roof and twin babies. But Mr. Previn, who was a successful conductor and composer in his 40's, traveled frequently. Ms. Farrow wanted to work. Eventually, pregnant with Fletcher, she played Daisy in the film "The Great Gatsby." She and Mr. Previn were divorced in 1978.
Growth: With Woody And After
In 1980, when in her mid-30's, she began seeing Mr. Allen, who was 45. "She was interested in his intellectual craziness," says Ms. Watkins. "Mia is always looking for a project, and he was a project. His neuroses challenged her -- to give him a lovely home, even though he had his own apartment. Mia likes to please men. She likes difficult men -- it's really sick," Ms. Watkins says with a laugh.
With Mr. Allen came the period of her greatest artistic growth. Ms. Farrow could play anything, it seemed: a bespectacled therapist in "Zelig," a Mafia moll in "Broadway Danny Rose," a girl from the Bronx with an adenoidal whine in "Radio Days," the sad, deceived woman in "Husbands and Wives," which prefigured the unraveling of her own relationship with Mr. Allen.
All the while, she and Mr. Allen maintained separate residences and spent weekends together at her country house, Frog Hollow, in Connecticut. "He never wanted to be married to me," Ms. Farrow says now. "He said he didn't believe in it -- it's just a piece of paper. He said we were married in every respect."
Even after she and Mr. Allen separated, Ms. Farrow continued adopting children. "The last time she adopted, I was distressed," says her mother. "I said, 'Oh, Mia, it detracts from your personal life and your physical life. What man would want to be so involved with so many children?' "
But to Ms. Farrow, raising 12 children and working as an actress has not been as difficult as it might seem. On movie sets, she says, "I just turned my camper into a nursery. Right after having Sheamus, I was so exhausted, sometimes I would just cry. Sometimes I felt like I had spent the night with vampires."
BUT NOW, SAYS MS. Farrow, "I just have six at home. The others are very independent. Even Tam" -- her blind daughter -- "can babysit, though I wouldn't leave her alone with them. She's very responsible. She's the one who finds things. When we lost the baby chinchilla a couple of years ago, she came into my room at 5 in the morning and said, 'Mom, I found it!' She had heard it.
"I have a good time," says Ms. Farrow, "unless I'm sick." There is a tincture of dry humor in Ms. Farrow these days. "I've been picking up Legos for 23 years," she says. "By now I think I'm immune to everything." She has a housekeeper and a babysitter who work from 9 to 5. She has a cleaning woman twice a week.
Would she ever marry again? Recently, there have been reports in some newspapers that she is dating the actor Daniel Day-Lewis. "I'm not going to say anything about Daniel Day-Lewis," says Ms. Farrow. "On principle."
For now, the Farrow family seems one almost singed by sorrow. "My oldest son" -- Matthew Previn -- "said, 'We have defined ourselves to ourselves, and to each other, in a way that is not usually afforded to people other than through tragedy, and that's a privilege."
In June, Ms. Farrow will give up the huge apartment -- with all its mementos and photographs, the bookshelves with John Farrow's books -- and move her family to Connecticut. Ms. Farrow glances around the huge room. "Recently, my mother said to me, 'This used to be a joyous place, but I think it's depressing now. It's a shrine to the past.' I think she's right."