Anjelica Huston’s mother, Ricki Soma, grew up over a popular Broadway Italian restaurant called Tony’s Wife on West Fifty-Second Street in New York. At 14 years of age she was already a beauty, and a ballet dancer. She looked like the Mona Lisa, in fact she was considered so beautiful that a few years later her photograph appeared on the cover of Life magazine.
Tony’s Wife was a busy, buzzing restaurant frequented by the Nelson Rockefellers, Frank Sinatra, and Mario Lanza. As a child on visits Anjelica remembers ‘the pots boiling, and the steaks sizzling, men in white shouting at one another through the steam.’
Her grandfather became famous for his hilarious aphorisms such as “There is no intelligence without the tongue!” and “Through knowledge of me, I wish to share my happiness with you!” and many more, all of which delighted his clientele, and were often repeated with amusement in the Huston family. One evening John Huston was there, and chatted to the beautiful waitress, helping out on a busy night. Four years later, when Ricki was 18, she became his third wife.
Within two years Ricki had two children (Tony born in April 1950, and Anjelica the following year ). Shortly after Huston swept them away to live in Ireland. Huston fell in love with Ireland almost as quickly as he fell for beautiful women. Actually his love for Ireland lasted longer than many of his liaisons. When he came home from filming around the world, Ireland allowed him to live the life of a generous host, and country squire which he relished.
When Anjelica was five he moved them from a home in Co Dublin into St Clarens, a magnificent Georgian house at Craughwell, Co Galway. There were maids, and a nurse; a full time groom and a stable of thoroughbreds. Dinner was a formal affair with crystal and silver. Hunting with the Blazers on winter mornings was fast and furious. He would bring entertaining friends from the film world to stay, and, much to the delight of the children, beautiful girlfriends. They didn’t understand that their father’s affairs could be so hurtful for their mother.
Sense of humour
For a few years Ricki accepted her situation. She enjoyed the challenge of bringing St Clarens back to life after years of neglect. She liked Ireland, and adored her two children. She had a mad sense of humour. She and her friend, Nora Fitzgerald, would occasionally go into the countryside at night and saw down billboards which they thought were a blight on the landscape.
Once they took a large key from the reception at Ashford Castle hotel, and surely to the children’s delight, locked the dining room doors trapping everyone inside. They left the hotel in fits of laughter.
But Ricki gradually grew disillusioned with her marriage. She had given birth to two babies in under two years, had given up her ballet career, and already Huston had moved on. In this sensitive, and beautifully written autobiography, A Story Lately Told* Anjelica tells us that, in between her father’s visits, life could be quite lonely. ‘We were in the middle of the Irish countryside, in County Galway, in the west of Ireland, and we didn’t see any other kids. We were tutored, and my life was mostly fantasy - wishing that I were a Catholic so that I could have a Holy Communion, and wearing my mother’s tutus on the front lawn, hoping a husband would come along so that I could marry him.’
In 1961 Ricki moved the two children to live in London. After an abortive attempt to school Anjelica in an all French Lycée, she eventually settled into the bright teenage world of Holland Park comprehensive. She remembers ‘the scents of London in the sixties: Vetiver, Brut and Old Spice for boys; lavender, sandalwood, and Fracas for the girls; unwashed hair, and cigarettes. Along the Portobello Road, fish and chips and vinegar, tobacco, patchouli, curry, freshly rotting fruit, bacon frying, a trace of body odour.’ It was back to St Clarens for holidays, or meeting Huston on various film sets or at premieres.
There were some dramatic changes too. Much to her surprise her mother fell for the historian and travel writer John Julius Norwich. Anjelica was stunned. How could her mother choise another man compared to her dad? She describes her father as ‘a swashbuckler, great-hearted and larger than life. He was intelligent and ironic, with a warm voice like whiskey and tobacco.’**
Julius Norwich, she thought, was intellectual and cold. He walked back to his wife, leaving her mum to give birth to Allegra alone; but the baby immediately became a great favourite of Anjelica’s.
Huston also had another child with Zoe, a beautiful Indian girl whom Anjelica loved during her visits to St Clarens. She never made the connection that Zoe and her father were lovers. Huston invited both Anjelica and Tony to Rome to meet their new brother Danny. The children were appalled.
Death in Italy
Anjelica became a tall, slim young women. She moved with ease into modelling and acting. Through her father’s guidance she began to take good, and not so good, small parts in films. Huston was not always her best guide. He told her to turn down the part of Juliet in Zeffirelli’s successful 1968 film Romeo and Juliet, to appear in his film A Walk with Love and Death. She understudied Marianne Faithful as Ophelia in a renowned production of Hamlet, played by Nicol Williamson, at London’s Round House theatre.
But her modelling career really took off. Her stunning good looks were photographed by all the leading photographers of the day, including David Bailey. She did an extended shoot in a gypsy caravan in Connemara for Vogue. She fell for older men. The photographer Bob Richardson was controlling and abusive, and practically drove her to suicide. Eventually she summoned the courage to kick him out.
The actor James Fox seduced her and broke her heart. While on a modelling shoot in Paris she met him again. He came on powerfully to her, determined to take her to his hotel room. She pleaded tiredness, and closed her door in his face. Just then another suitor, the aristocrat Arnaud de Rosnay, called. ‘A few minutes later I ran down stairs and jumped into his Ferrari. We went to his aunt’s deserted mansion in the Bois de Boulogne, and made love on his big wolf coat by candlelight till dawn. By my loose standards at the time, a fine case of revenge.’
But the poor girl suffered terribly after the sudden death of her beloved mother Ricki. She was killed instantly in a car crash in Italy. A friend later gave her some of the personal effects that her mother had had in the car that fateful day. Before Ricki left London, Anjelica had given her a box of tapes to play on the journey down. The friend obviously hadn’t looked inside. Anjelica took the box home, and when she was alone opened it. The tapes fell out covered in dark, sticky, blood.***
(I understand that part II of this very honest autobiography is due this autumn ).
NOTES: * A Story Lately Told - Coming of Age in Ireland, London and New York, published by Simon & Schuster, on sale €18.60.
**In 1964 John Huston made the film Night of the Iguana in Mexico with Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and the young Sue Lyon. Liz Taylor was there too. A small fishing village was taken over by the company for the duration of the film. On the first night, as everyone gathered, Huston threw a welcoming party for the actors, and presented each of them with a gold-plated derringer and five bullets apiece. He told them that the guns could be used on one another should the going get fierce!
By all accounts these were the usual attractions to making a film with Huston: Attractive people, a jungle location, storms, guns, wild animals, insects, and a good deal of tequila.
*** John Huston immediately took the baby Allegra into his care, and raised her as his own. In January 1971 he wrote to Anjelica to say he was putting St Clarens up for sale... ‘Sad but necessary. The expense of running the place has more than trebled in the last few years, so it’s a luxury no longer to be afforded.’