Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Is Angelica Huston channeling Colette? Read Vol. 1 of her memoirs, A STORY LATELY TOLD. Can't wait for Vol 2, WATCH ME, in Nov.

As a girl, Angelica Huston's mom would encourage her to read Colette and, of her many influences, this one may have taken root. In her first memoir, A STORY LATELY TOLD: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York (Scribner, Simon & Schuster), there is similarity to Colette in her acute observations; less about what people said, than their experiences and the lives they created.

There's also an account of her modelling years that reminded me of Colette's backstage look at the Folies Bergere. Both think they're not really the "type." Colette says she's too self-conscious, a writer performing a pantomime in a music hall. Angelica believe's she not beautiful enough. She had Richard Avedon's word on this. When her parents inquired whether he thought the young Angelica was model material, he'd said her shoulders were too broad. Angelica added a nose that's too large, eyes too small, a look not for conventional beauty. Both Colette and Angelica wrote about shoddy reality behind the "glamour." The artistes of the music hall, like the "girls," who model, were always without money. Payment for both was at the mercy of management's arbitrary rules..

Angelica and Colette also had in common childhoods in the country with artistic mothers. Sido, Colette's mother, was a water colorist, a lover of nature, an incredible gardener and cook. Ricki, a former ballet dancer once on the cover of Vogue, transformed rooms with her singular aesthetic, combining beauty, function and humor. Huston's worldly family was grounded on their Irish country estate, as Colette's was in a provincial French village. Oddly, the Hustons were readily accepted by the neighboring gentry, joining in the hunting and drinking. 

Tony, Angelica's brother, and she lived with their mother and servants in the cozy Little House on the estate, except when their father landed home between films. Then they were allowed in the Big House, an ancient building of cold stone, warmed by extravagant floor heating and the imaginations of Angelica's parents. They filled themed rooms with artifacts from all over the world. John Huston was a cultural potentate, bringing to his kingdom rare and usually expensive trees, animals, fabric or furniture. Once desired, objects appeared, even if, like his Matisse, he gambled for it. Amid the outrageous expense were always rumors of her family's imminent poverty. 

While Angelica was full of wonder for flowers and animals, water and rocks, Tony, a few years older, explored gunpowder and fed chicks to his falcon collection. Both  ran wild around the countryside, reined in by servants and their mother for meals, baths and tutoring. Eventually, they were sent to local Irish schools and, though an indifferent student, Angelica liked pageants and concerts. Occasionally, her father was in town to attend one or celebrate her birthday with a jewel.

Angelica was consciousness of her mother's growing sense of abandonment. She describes one evening, when Ricki planned an elegant party. She wore a sophisticated dress and when weather derailed the event, was alone, all dressed up with no place to go. Angelica ponders the performing world her mother gave up to marry her father; her expectations of the marriage, and the life she settled for. Months would go by, until John Huston would swoop in with the cast and crew of The African Queen or some other production, and the Big House would come alive. Ricki's job was to keep the estate in readiness for his arrivals.

John Huston loved showing off his life as the master of an Irish country estate. He'd dress like an aristocrat in tweed cloaks and hats. But his fabulous artifacts, whether Medieval or Renaissance, Japanese or Mexican, were the glory of the world, the backdrop of his life. The dogs and horses, the grounds and plumbing, and the education of his children, were Ricki's world. Glamorous, beautiful, she was also his proud possession and expected to perform, as were the children. Angelica recalls him quizzing her about the "news". He always challenged them to tell him something interesting they learned. The pressure of disappointing her father could reduce her to tears; sometimes of  anger, at the demands of her imperious, egocentric and yet loving, often solicitous father.

This country idyl broke down, when her parents began to separate. Soon, when her father came with his parties of important friends, Ricki was away. And at the Big House were various lady friends, though John eventually installed Betty to run the household. Ricki's absence from Ireland began in an amorphous way, Angelica muses. She must have learned of John's affairs. Yet, Angelica only knew that her mother was gone and Betty was in charge. It would be a year, until she and Tony were told of the separation, and more time before they went to live with Ricki in London. Yet, ever the empathic child, Angelica was aware of her mother's feelings of abandonment, as her father pursued himself in the arms of other women.

Ricki was less of an authoritarian than her father, except during Angelica's adolescence in the late 60's in England, when she kept after her about school and curfews. But there were also times, when Ricky traveled, not alone. Though she was careful to keep her private life from her precocious teenager, Angelica knew her mother was trying to rebuild her life. Angelica was also finding herself. At 15 and 16, she looked older, wore miniskirts and lots of make-up and flirted with men.  .

One of the strengths in this memoir is Angelica's ability to be both the child puzzling out her world and the adult making shrewd conjectures with an instinct for emotional truth. She shows both her self-involved teen behavior; the lies, skipping school, petty theft, and her wrenching attempts to become her own adult person. She has sex and feels used. She decides to become an actress and has a chance to audition for Zefferelli's Juliet. But then her mother lets her know that her father wants to manage her debut. He has her fly to Rome to work on his film. Angelica dislikes the script and feels no affinity with the part. Worse yet, the process of working with her father is devastating. When she's savaged by reviewers, she decides to pursue a modelling career.

Angelica's adolescence in London was shadowed by Ricki's bouts of depression, culminating with the news she was pregnant by a lover. Angelica, already resentful after meeting her father's love child in Rome, views the baby as another interloper. But her resentment disappears in real joy at the wonder of her baby sister, Allegra. Those feelings were soon dwarfed by the tragedy of her mother's death, abruptly killed in a car accident.

If  there's a "ghost" writing this memoir, it's the absence of Ricki and Angelica's attempt to make sense of that void. When John Huston takes Allegra and her nurse to Ireland, Angelica is relieved that her sister will be taken care of. Left on her own at 17, with feelings beyond the comfort of family friends, Angelica went to New York. While pursuing her modelling career, she did visit her grandparents at their restaurant in New York. And, though they never openly criticized Ricki's husband, they took extra care of her daughter.

Through old family connections, like Avedon, Angelica was introduced to Eileen Ford, and she soon worked with not only Avedon, but legendary photographers like Bailey, Penn, Helmut Newton, for shows by Valentino, Zandra Rhodes, and other great designers, crisscrossing Europe. Eventually, she became involved with photographer Bob Richardson, as muse and lover. His was a talent so attuned to her own, and yet so mentally unbalanced, that she began to come undone.

In this most painful part of the memoir, Angelica is unflinching about the reality she experienced. She describes the highs of their life together, both aesthetic and chemical, and the intense emotional connection that made her suffer through increasingly destructive lows. Apartments and belongings were destroyed but that was little compared to her battered spirit and increasing emotional fragility. In one of John Huston's most amazing roles, this father intervened to give his daughter a way out.

This memoir recreates the life of a exceptional and imperfect family,  How this artist became herself seems a triumph of what was best in these people--originality and stalwart affection.

S.W.