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Mon December 2, 2013

For Anjelica Huston, The 'Story' Starts Long Before Los Angeles

When I saw that the actress Anjelica Huston had written a memoir, I thought, "Oh, good, I'll read that." I assumed it would be filled with wild stories from '70s and '80s Hollywood and her relationship with Jack Nicholson. What it was like to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. General movie-star debauchery, carried out in the wedge shoes and oversized sunglasses of that era.

But I hadn't yet seen the subtitle of Huston's book, which is "Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York." The memoir ends with her arrival in L.A. (a second volume is set to come out next year), and I have to say I didn't miss any of the glitz. Huston's early life is ornate enough on its own. And though Jack Nicholson, who later became her partner, doesn't make an appearance here, that's fine. There wouldn't have been much room in this book for another big, charismatic figure. A Story Lately Told already has two of those: Anjelica and her father, legendary film director John Huston. He's such a major player both in the world and to his daughter that her book, in addition to being a coming-of-age story, is also a father-daughter story. While there are plenty of scenes that don't involve him, he's present even when he's absent — and he's absent a lot in her early life, off on location shooting movies like The African Queen, with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.

"Over the years," Huston writes, "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. ... They considered him a lion, a leader, the pirate they wished they had the audacity to be."

But the powerful father is matched by an equally powerful daughter. From an early age, Anjelica is sensitive, smart, irreverent, physically and intellectually unconventional. Her father gets it, and he treats her specially. "I could tell that Dad was proud, fascinated, but a bit baffled by me," Huston says. "He knew that I had an ability to channel my instincts. But on the other hand I was emotional and stubborn and not interested in following his advice."

Both father and daughter have met their match, though the drama in the story really doesn't take place in their interactions, but in their often unspoken powerful feelings for each other. John Huston, while married to Anjelica's mother, a very beautiful and elegant former ballerina, was constantly unfaithful to her. And Anjelica knew it. The father's affairs with an endless assortment of exotic beauties, and the mother's sorrow and frustration –– are felt deeply by their young daughter.

This, I guess, is one way a person becomes sophisticated: by watching the very adult complexities of her parent's marriage. And, along the way, being visited by an assortment of movie stars and fascinating, elegant people from around the world. Huston's privileged childhood is described with great texture. The enormous estate in Ireland where her family lived is a rambling, magical place. The names that are dropped in this book don't constitute name-dropping, but are simply the names that populated her childhood: "I met the poet W.H. Auden, who took tea in his carpet slippers in [the] kitchen."

Her world is so insular — and the people who come and go are mostly extensions of that world — that there isn't much awareness on her part that her circumstances aren't like almost anyone else's. Just as Eloise never seems to know that living in the Plaza is unusual to say the least, young Anjelica commenting on staying at "one of the grandest hotels in Dublin," or saying that "lunch was usually at ... another gracious Georgian hotel. ... Dublin bay prawns were my favorite" makes you marvel at her insularity. But you don't hate her for it. This is the way she was raised.

It's clearly important to Huston, as it is for all writers, to get the details right. But I was reminded of the effort of all this in her mention of her mother's "long, detailed, descriptive" letters to her father when he was away that were filled with "updates on horses, gardens, the locals, and us children." Huston writes, "Her letters are like affidavits, as if she had made an oath to report dutifully." The same can be said for a couple of faithful descriptions in this book of things we don't necessarily need to know about, like the names of the different governesses who took care of Anjelica and her brother Tony. That kind of accuracy can feel surprisingly slow in a book that's almost always so alive with sense memory.

If Huston's early life seems outsized and fairy-tale-like, the pain that shoots through it is the kind that anyone can know. Her mother, off on a trip to Italy with a lover of her own, is killed in a road accident in France. "I think of my mother all the time," Huston writes. "Diana Pickersgill's mother, Dorothy, died in a car crash, too. Diana described such a loss as an abduction, and so it is." When John Huston comes in from Rome for the funeral of his wife, Anjelica and her brother meet him at the train. "Other than the initial greeting on the station platform, I don't recall a single embrace or any word of consolation. But then he might have known that I blamed him for abandoning her."

When Anjelica as a very young woman gets involved with much older men, anyone with a smug and limited understanding of psychology might think they understand what draws her to them. And of course the complex and not-quite-gettable older man figures largely in her inner life, though she is a smart and subtle enough writer not to aim for a pop diagnosis, but instead, once again, to go for something truer, deeper and richer than that. Again and again in this stirring memoir of a highly unusual life, Anjelica Huston just tries to show what it's been like, being her.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Anjelica Huston has written a memoir, but it might not be the kind you'd expect from a long time A-list actress. Instead of wild Hollywood stories about winning an Oscar or life with Jack Nicholson, Huston's book carefully chronicles her childhood and young adulthood. Here's Meg Wolitzer with a review.

MEG WOLITZER, BYLINE: The book actually ends with her arrival in L.A. and I have to say it was so full of old school glamour and outsized personalities, I didn't miss the Hollywood stories at all. Anjelica's father was the legendary filmmaker John Huston. It's clear how much Anjelica admired him. Not only women, but men of all ages fell in love with my father, she writes.

They considered him a lion, a leader, the pirate they wished they had the audacity to be. But much of the drama in the story is in the father and daughter's unspoken feelings about each other. Anjelica's mother was a very beautiful former ballerina. John was constantly unfaithful to her and Anjelica knew it and felt it.

And then her mother, off on a trip to Europe with a lover of her own, is killed in a road accident. When she next sees her father, Huston writes, I don't recall a single embrace or any word of consolation, but then he might've known that I blamed him for abandoning her. I guess this is one way a person becomes sophisticated, by watching the very adult complexities of her parents' marriage. And, I suppose being visited by an assortment of movie stars and fascinating, elegant people from around the world.

I met the poet W.H. Auden, she says, who took tea in his carpet slippers in the kitchen. It's clearly important to Huston to get the details right. At one point, she describes her mother writing to her father. Her letters are like affidavits, Huston says, as if she had made an oath to report dutifully. The same can be said for a couple of descriptions in this book of things we don't really need to know about, like the names of each one of her governesses. That kind of accuracy can feel surprisingly slow in a book that's otherwise alive with sense memory.

As a young woman, Anjelica gets involved with much older men. Anyone with a smug and limited knowledge of psychology might think they understand this. But she's a smart and subtle enough writer not to aim for a pop self-diagnosis. Instead, she goes for something truer, deeper and richer than that. Again and again in this stirring memoir of a highly unusual life, Anjelica Huston just tries to show what it's been like being her.

SIEGEL: The book is "A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London and New York," by Anjelica Huston. The second volume will be published next year. Our reviewer is Meg Wolitzer. Her latest book is "The Interestings." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.