Friday 17 August 2018

Woody Allen, Mia Farrow and the troubled tale with a thousand twists

A recent piece written by Moses Farrow about growing up as the adopted son of Mia and Woody Allen has added yet more fuel to a fire that has been burning for more than 25 years

Ronan and Mia Farrow
Ronan and Mia Farrow
Ronan and Mia Farrow
Dylan Farrow
Soon Yi Allen
Woody Allen, Fletcher Previn, Mia Farrow (holding Dylan Farrow), Moses Farrow and Soon-Yi Previn
Woody Allen

Emily Hourican

Fifty years ago last month, Roman Polanski's cult film Rosemary's Baby premiered at Cannes, and was instantly a massive success. This most modern of horror films is an intense, unrelenting psychological trip that covers our most primal terrors: betrayal, madness, conspiracy, the fickleness of reality, and whether evil resides within or without. It is, even now, terrifying.

Almost immediately, rumours of a curse began. The first 'victim' was composer Krzysztof Komeda who, a year after the film's release, fell at a party, spent four months in a coma, then died.

A year after that, producer William Castle became very ill with severe kidney stones and apparently hallucinated scenes from the film while delirious, yelling, "Rosemary, for God's sake, drop the knife!"

The strange and violent aftermath of Polanski's life is well known. His heavily-pregnant girlfriend Sharon Tate was savagely murdered by the Manson Family, and the words 'Helter Skelter' were written on a wall in blood, thereby dragging the Beatles into a wild conspiracy that later took in John Lennon's assassination, across the road from the iconic Dakota building in New York where Rosemary's Baby was filmed. Roman himself was then charged with the rape of a 13-year-old, and has lived in exile from the US ever since.

Woody Allen, Fletcher Previn, Mia Farrow (holding Dylan Farrow), Moses Farrow and Soon-Yi Previn
Woody Allen, Fletcher Previn, Mia Farrow (holding Dylan Farrow), Moses Farrow and Soon-Yi Previn

These were all obvious, physical tragedies. But what of Mia Farrow, break-out star of the film, whose haunted eyes, pixie crop and ability to descend through several rungs of terror without becoming a caricature, were so vital to the delicate balance of objective evil versus psychological disturbance?

At the time, Farrow had only had a few small acting parts, and was known for her marriage to Sinatra -she was 21, he 50 - far more than as an actress. Physically, she was wrong for the part; Polanski had imagined a more voluptuous, earth-mother type in the role (Sharon Tate had lobbied hard and was devastated not to be cast), but once he met Farrow, he was struck by the possibilities of her more ethereal charm. And indeed, her gaunt, pitiful-looking pregnancy added hugely to the visual grip of the film.

Mia's troubles began before the film even finished shooting. Sinatra had demanded she give up her career before they married and was so furious that she took the part, that he served her divorce papers on set in front of the cast and crew. They had been married just two years, and Mia once described herself at that time as an "impossibly immature teenager". Later, Mia would quote Sinatra's attitude as "'I'm a pretty good provider. I can't see why a woman would want to do anything else'," adding herself, "That's the way men thought, and you felt pretty guilty wanting something for yourself." Although she also said, in that same interview, that "he came back, over and over and over and over. I mean, we never really split up."

Rosemary's Baby ends with the most chilling scene of all: Rosemary, having been told her baby died at birth, discovers him at the centre of a coven who worship him as the son of Satan. She approaches the cradle where the child is crying because he is being rocked too hard, and is encouraged to rock him herself. "Are you trying to get me to be his mother?" she asks, to which the answer is "Aren't you his mother?" She reaches a hand out towards the cradle.

Given the many troubles that have pursued Farrow throughout her adult life, nearly always stemming from her role as mother, there is something particularly chilling about watching that scene back.

Most recently, her adopted, now estranged son, Moses, wrote a long, detailed and very sombre post online about the serious allegations of sexual abuse against Woody Allen involving his adopted daughter Dylan, and Moses's own childhood with Mia, in which he defends Woody and alleges that he, too, suffered abuse, of an emotional and physical kind, and that Mia was the perpetrator.

"Given the incredibly inaccurate and misleading attacks on my father, Woody Allen," Moses writes, "I feel that I can no longer stay silent as he continues to be condemned for a crime he did not commit.

"I was present for everything that transpired in our house before, during, and after the alleged event. Now that the public hysteria of earlier this year has died down a little... I want to share my story."

The 'public hysteria' he mentions was Woody Allen's inclusion in the #metoo hall of shame, with a variety of actors saying they regretted working with him, because of the abuse allegations.

These began around the same time as Ronan, formerly Satchel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist recognised for his efforts in chasing down the Harvey Weinstein story, and a vocal supporter of Dylan, called out the 'culture of silence' around the allegations, saying "Initially, I begged my sister not to go public again... I'm ashamed of that, too... But when Dylan explained her agony in the wake of powerful voices sweeping aside her allegations, the press often willing to be taken along for the ride, and the fears she held for young girls potentially being exposed to a predator - I ultimately knew she was right."

Moses writes in detail about the day in 1992 on which Woody Allen is alleged to have sexually assaulted the then seven-year-old Dylan in Frog Hollow, the Connecticut house where Mia Farrow lived with some of her 14 children. Moses, at the time, was 14. His mother was out, the children were being minded by nannies, but he felt himself very much in a position of responsibility.

Seven months earlier, Mia had found out - via a bunch of Polaroid photos - that Woody was in a relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, her 21-year-old adopted daughter. Betrayed, enraged, she had, writes Moses "been drilling it into our heads like a mantra: Woody was 'evil', a 'monster', 'the devil, and Soon-Yi was 'dead to us'." So often was it said that Moses's brother Satchel (who later changed his name to Ronan), then four, apparently announced to one of the nannies that 'my sister is f**king my father'.

That a four-year-old could say such a thing is some indication of the degree of disturbance they had been swept up in. In this heightened climate, writes Moses, there was no way that he, the 'man of the house' that day, was going to let Woody out of his sight, let alone allow him to disappear off with his younger sisters.

And so, he insists, the abuse did not happen, could not have happened, as Dylan later described it.

Woody Allen was the third significant relationship of Mia Farrow's life - although her combination of delicate beauty and brilliance had bewitched many men, including Philip Roth and Vaclav Havel - and came at a time when he was the most celebrated director in the US, and she was a year out of her marriage to Andre Previn. At that time, they were together, pretty much the ideal of a sophisticated, modern couple, equals and intellectuals. Famously, they did not live together, instead they had apartments at opposite ends of Central Park, and the idea of their respective lights twinkling out into the night was both romantic and charming.

Woody seemed a safe and kindly shore for Mia, the fragility of whose appearance back then seemed to be a reflection of her personality. She was pure Hollywood from birth, the daughter of movie star Maureen O'Sullivan (Jane, to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan) and writer-director John Farrow. One of seven children, who seem to have been left largely to their own devices, she contracted polio aged nine and was placed in an isolation ward for three weeks, an experience she later said "marked the end of my childhood". When she was 13, her older brother Michael, died in a plane crash aged 19.

When John died suddenly of a heart attack, Maureen moved the family to New York, and at 17 Mia began looking for acting and modelling work, "because there was no money". She posed for Diane Arbus and became a kind of muse to Salvador Dali. By 19 she was soap-opera famous, thanks to Peyton Place, which brought her into Sinatra's rather louche orbit of nightclubs and casinos. After the divorce - famously, she looked for no alimony from Sinatra, just a set of wineglasses - Mia went to stay with her friend, songwriter Dory Previn, then married to composer Andre, with whom Mia began an affair.

Later, Dory would write her most famous song: "Beware of young girls/ Who come to the door/ Wistful and pale of twenty and four/ Delivering daisies with delicate hands…"

Mia and Andre were married for nine years. They had three children together, and adopted the first three of Mia's 10 adopted children, including Soon-Yi. The couple divorced in 1979, with Mia adopting Moses as a single mother the following year, and Dylan five years later.

By then, she and Woody were together. In all, they had a 12-year relationship, and she starred in 13 of his films, including Hannah And Her Sisters. In 1987, Mia gave birth to Satchel, later Ronan, who she has hinted may in fact be Sinatra's biological son. In 1991 a New York court allowed Woody to co-adopt Moses and Dylan (just a month before Mia found out about him and Soon-Yi), while Mia went on to adopt another five children between 1992 and 1995.

Until the scandal of Woody and Soon-Yi broke - and it is worth pointing out that, for all that it was a betrayal, and in very questionable moral taste, there is nothing actually illegal about that relationship, given that Woody is neither Soon-Yi's step or adopted father, and indeed that they have survived as a couple, apparently happily, for 26 years now - the Woody-Mia story was a kind of fairytale. In that version, Mia was an eccentric, loving, open-hearted Lady Bountiful, filling her house with abandoned children, some with complex physical and emotional needs, blending them into a happy, privileged whole with her own biological children.

But once Mia found those Polaroid photos, the fairytale has been turning darker and darker, with her increasingly cast as 'the old woman who lived in a shoe', who had 'so many children she didn't know what to do'.

At one point, Mia claimed to feel so threatened by Woody that she rang Sinatra looking for help. Through him, she apparently met with a mysterious man in "a grey Sedan" who gave her names and phone numbers in three cities to call should she ever feel in danger. "I remember babbling, 'Thank you, thank you'," Mia recalled. "Off he went, and I did feel safer."

The allegations of sexual abuse were made in the days after August 4, 1992, the day Moses writes about. Farrow said she returned home to be told by Dylan that Allen had assaulted her in the attic. She reported the allegations to the family paediatrician, who reported them to the authorities.

The claims were investigated, and Woody, who has consistently denied them, was never charged, although there was enough disagreement between various legal and medical experts to leave fertile ground for the years of continued claim, counter-claim and speculation.

Moses's post is titled 'A Son Speaks Out', and is a powerful, compelling and well-written plea, one that attempts to bring some kind of clarity and perspective to a terrible and tragic mess. The fact that all it does is muddy the water further is simply a reflection of just how many stories there now are, swirling furiously about, and how very sad all these stories are.

In his post, Moses describes mornings with Woody: "Even though Woody... never lived with us or even stayed the night at our apartment in the city - he would often come over around 6:30 in the morning, bringing two newspapers and a bunch of muffins. I would wake up before the others, and so he and I would sit at the kitchen table together for breakfast. While he read The New York Times, I'd grab the Post and go straight to the comics and word puzzles. We'd spend this peaceful time together before waking Dylan. He'd make her a couple of slices of toast with cinnamon or honey and be there as she ate her breakfast."

Of the relationship between Woody and Soon-Yi, he says: "Yes, it was unorthodox, uncomfortable, disruptive to our family and it hurt my mother terribly. But the relationship itself was not nearly as devastating to our family as my mother's insistence on making this betrayal the centre of all our lives from then on."

And he describes the "fatal dysfunction" of his home as having started long before Woody. In fact, he roots it in "a deep and persistent darkness within the Farrow family."

Moses claims that Mia told him "that she was the victim of attempted molestation within her own family". He mentions Mia's brother, John, "who visited us many times when we were young, is currently in prison on a conviction of multiple child molestation charges", and another brother, Patrick, who committed suicide in 2009.

He describes ugly arguments between Mia and some of her children, including the allegation that: "She even shut my brother Thaddeus, paraplegic from polio, in an outdoor shed overnight as punishment for a minor transgression."

Moses claims that he himself was humiliated and physically abused by Mia, once forced to stand naked in a corner of her room, in front of his older siblings, because he cut the belt loops off a new pair of jeans.

Three of Mia's adopted children are now dead. One, Thaddeus, committed suicide. Another, Tam, died of an overdose after many years struggling with depression, although Moses speculates that this too was suicide, saying that "of course, blindness didn't impair her ability to count." Another sister, Lark, apparently struggled with addiction and died, aged 35.

Moses details the many reasons why Dylan's testimony against Woody cannot be true - from the size of the space where it was alleged to have taken place, to the presence there, or not, of a toy train-set she claimed to have been looking at. However, the crux of his claims is that Dylan's statements were coached and influenced by Mia Farrow, and that this is consistent with the way in which the family were brought up.

Moses ends his post by appealing directly to his sister. "To my sister Dylan: Like you, I believe in the power of speaking out. I have broken my silence about the abuse inflicted by our mother. My healing began only after getting away from her. And what she has done to you is unbearable. I wish you peace, and the wisdom to understand that devoting your life to helping our mother destroy our father's reputation is unlikely to bring you closure."

Within this divided family, Mia has always supported Dylan, although she says that she didn't want her to go public with the claims, something Dylan did in 2014, with an open letter to The New York Times.

Ronan's response to Moses's post has been to say: "This happens every time Dylan speaks… After relentless legal scrutiny of my mother's parenting - and efforts to discredit her - she was granted sole custody to protect us from Woody Allen. We all grew up with offers from him to speak out against our mother in exchange for support. (He made helping to pay for my college education contingent on turning against her and lying. I declined)… I believe my sister."

Woody, himself, has said nothing public, but his daughter with Soon-Yi, Bechet, last week wrote on Facebook: "I never wanted to involve myself in the social media debates involving my father, but there comes a point when I realise that I can either continue pretending that none of this is going on, or stand up for him... now it is my turn to support him."

While Mia Farrow's response has been to say: "Moses has cut off his entire family - it's heartbreaking and bewildering that he would make this up. We all miss him and love him very much."

It's a battle with no winners and many losers, in which facts no longer seem discernible - too much time has gone by, there are too many differing accounts - so that the only certainty is the amount of hurt and damage inflicted by people who once loved each other and considered themselves family.

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