iOS app Android app More

Caryn James

Caryn James

Posted April 6, 2009 | 10:32 AM (EST)

Allegra, John and Anjelica Huston: Why Allegra's Fab Hollywood Memoir Speaks to Us


Thank goodness I'm not a Huston. I was entranced by Love Child, Allegra Huston's irresistible memoir about life with her genius Dad -- John Huston, director of masterpieces from The Maltese Falcon to The Man Who Would Be King -- and adored big sister, Anjelica. But even if you've always wanted to be a princess, this book makes you feel lucky to have been born into a stable, middle-class family. With a childhood that took her from an Irish estate to a Long Island suburb to the Hollywood Hills, her unique perspective is both inside and outside Hollywood, a close-up view of a glittering world tempered by an outsider's sense of just how off-kilter that land of money and megafame is. Her memoir offers the very combination of envy and schadenfreude that drives our passion for celebrity culture.

Until now, her story has been a footnote to Huston history. Her mother -- a ballet dancer named Ricki Soma, whose older children were Anjelica and Tony -- died in a car crash when Allegra was four. Anjelica recalled her little sister's reaction as "a banshee wail ... like no sound she's ever heard." Allegra was already a small girl when she was introduced to her kindly but distant father, outsized in every way, with a growling voice that always called her "Honey." Then at 12, she was told that her biological father was John Julius Norwich, a viscount, noted historian, son of the dazzling British socialites Duff and Diana Cooper. Suddenly the girl with one impossibly overachieving family had two.

Huston smartly includes gossipy details that will get her memoir buzz. She and Anjelica, 13 years older, established an unshaken bond. As an adolescent, she often spent weekends with Anjelica at Jack Nicholson's and describes him with affection -- joking Jack, starting the day with a cannonball dive from the balcony off his bedroom into the pool. Yes, it was Jack's house where Roman Polanski had sex with an underage girl, the event that led to his exile. She was less happy living with Anjelica and Ryan O'Neal, who comes off as such a terrorizing brute that Anjelica once hid in Allegra's bedroom closet. Even the 13-year-old had the sense to tell her sister, "You don't have to stay with someone who treats you like that."

But it is the unglamorous side of her life that touches us. She was farmed out here and there throughout her girlhood: a stint with her mother's parents in Long Island, another in a small house in Los Angeles with her nanny and John Huston's long-time assistant, and most improbably with ex-step-grandparents in their L.A. house nicknamed Gloom Castle. She carries everywhere her old blue suitcase with her initials AH -- the sign that this, as least, was her very own -- and only belatedly realizes it was a hand-me-down from Anjelica.
It must be hard to live in a star's shadow. And it is chilling, unthinkable to many of us, to hear her recall how she avoided doing anything badly in front of her father -- something as small as singing -- because "Dad praised accomplishment, not effort." She doesn't indulge in self-pity. In fact, she's terribly hard on herself; in this portrait she is the cautious, color-inside-the-lines child in a family of creative dynamos.

How did she emerge with any emotional sanity? (Really, how? It's the missing puzzle-part of the book.) Yet Huston remained her cherished Dad, Norwich became Father and Allegra established a bond with his family too. Today she and the man she calls "the husband that I'm not married to" live in Taos with their son and run a company that guides whitewater rafters. And she has found her creative niche as a writer; the bland title Love Child doesn't hint at how fluent, vivid and gripping her story is. Most of all, and maybe accidentally, she makes the rest of us feel grateful to put the book down and return to our ordinary, unfamous lives.