Sunday 19 November 2017

"Our house guest, writer John Steinbeck, was recruited to be Santa"

Anjelica Huston remembers her childhood holidays on her father's estate of St Clerans, Galway, and her first Christmas after the separation of her parents, director John Huston and prima ballerina Ricki Soma

Christmas at St Clerans continued to be a grand affair. On our first Christmas Eve without Mum, Tony and I decorated the tree with Betty up at the Big House. It rose, shining with coloured lights, from the stairwell of the inner hall to the floor above, the star on top kissing the round crystal globe of the Waterford chandelier.

Each year, our favourite ornaments would emerge from their beds of tissue paper and make their reappearance like friends you'd half-forgotten.

The presents would be piled under the tree. Tony and I were each allowed to open one gift of our choosing on Christmas Eve.

At 10 sharp on Christmas morning, we'd hurry up to the Big House for the formal unwrapping of gifts. The assorted guests would make their appearances, and champagne would be served. After all the presents were opened and we were dizzy with excess, Dad would say: "Shall we adjourn to the dining room?"

The long mahogany table was set with lead crystal, Irish linen and Georgian silver, and the candelabra would be lit. Mrs Creagh would have made a feast – smoked salmon, brown bread, stuffed roast turkey and a Limerick ham, mince pies and bread sauce, cranberry jelly, three different kinds of potatoes, creamed leeks and sweet peas, broccoli and cauliflower and turnips, followed by a flaming plum pudding with brandy butter and port for the gentlemen.

Tommy Holland, a local farmer, was generally the designated Santa. Although one year our house guest, the writer John Steinbeck, was recruited and proved an admirable choice. He claimed to have swallowed copious amounts of cotton wool whenever he inhaled, but visually, he was perfect.

I loved John Steinbeck. He was kind and generous and treated me as an equal. One morning, he took me aside to the drawing room and removed a gold medal on a chain from around his neck and placed it around mine. He explained that it had been given to him years before, when he was a young man visiting Mexico City. It was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the name of the girl who had given it to him was "Trampoline".

John wrote to me often and signed his letters with the stamp of a winged pig, "Pigasus", combining the sacred and profane to great effect.

The holidays were always peppered with Dad's ex-girlfriends and ex-wives. It wasn't long before I realised that my father was making love to many of the women who I thought were my friends at St Clerans.

By now, I had a fair idea of what this meant, Joan and I having witnessed the furious mating of a stallion and mare in the back courtyard below the windows in Dad's loft, an event that had rendered us wide-eyed and literally speechless.

I didn't know when I was little that he'd been married three times before. I only really became aware of that later on, when there was talk of his first wife, who I'd heard became an alcoholic.

And I knew about Evelyn Keyes because there was a story that he told about a monkey he'd owned when they were married and how the monkey had objected to its cage.

He'd allowed the monkey to spend the night in the bedroom. When the curtains were drawn in the morning, the room was destroyed. Evelyn's clothes were in shreds, and the monkey had defecated all over her underwear.

It was the end of the line for poor Evelyn, who cried: "John, it's the monkey or me!" To which Dad replied: "I'm sorry, honey, I just can't bear to be parted from the monkey."

Evelyn came to St Clerans one Christmas, at a time when she was married to the band-leader Artie Shaw. She appeared to me totally mad. She bounded around in a series of velour jumpsuits. I don't think she ever went outside the house, but she complained constantly about the cold.

There was a girlfriend called Lady Davina with a very upper-class British accent. I used to imitate her, much to Dad's amusement. There was a pretty brunette American conquest called Gale Garnet, who sent recordings of her love songs.

There was Min Hogg, who was young and arty, had long dark hair and wore black most of the time. Min let me wear her fishnet stockings and high-heeled shoes, so I could practise walking like a fashion model, up and down the driveway.

There was the novelist Edna O'Brien. I met Edna one morning on the bridge to the Big House. She was attempting to write a screenplay for Dad. I think it was 'The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne'. She was in tears. "Your father is a terrible man," she said, "a cruel, dangerous man."

The patrician beauty Marietta Tree, an American socialite who represented the United States on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights under President Kennedy, was a visitor. Dad remained devoted to her all his life.

He was particularly proud showing her around St Clerans, offering his arm to her to walk in to dinner, her printed chiffon kaftan billowing like a butterfly as they crossed the hallway.

And there was Zoe Sallis, who looked like an Indian princess. I remember Zoe in a white angora V-neck sweater, ballet slippers and black capris. She showed me how to make a ducktail on the outer corners of my eyes with her Max Factor eyeliner. She had beautiful, slanting brown eyes, like Sophia Loren.

Tony put a live rooster behind the Japanese screen in the Grey Room when Zoe first came to stay at St Clerans. I'm not sure what he expected from this exercise, since no one, least of all himself, would be awake to witness the joke, and I would guess that Zoe was sleeping with Dad in his room at the time.

I remember Tony taking me up to Dad's bathroom and opening a small wooden Japanese box inlaid with mother of pearl. He pulled out some pictures of a blonde, naked to the waist, with a hand-written caption: "Looking forward to seeing you, John." I felt a drum-roll in my heart. I wasn't prepared for it.

Later, I came to recognise her as an actress he was seeing during the making of 'Freud' when I went to visit him on that set.

There was Afdera Fonda, Henry Fonda's fourth wife. She wore Hermes scarves and Pucci silk blouses; like Evelyn, she never left the house.

Valeria Alberti, an Italian countess. Very cool, a little boyish. She had piercing brown eyes, acne scars and a good suntan. She looked like she'd been out on a beach all her life. She didn't speak a word of English, but she laughed at everything Dad had to say.

My father's girlfriends were very diverse. Some of them desperately wanted to get up on the horses to impress him; they'd assure Dad that they were great riders. They'd be mounted on the calmest of the rather hefty thoroughbreds in the stable, and invariably there'd be some drama, and it would become blatantly evident that they had no experience whatsoever.

Dad would find this vastly amusing. And one couldn't help but agree with him because they were so earnest. "Oh, yes, John, I ride!"

Extract from 'A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London and New York' by Anjelica Huston. Published by Simon and Schuster and in bookshops now.

Irish Independent

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