Mia: The life and loves of a Hollywood princess

When Mia Farrow appeared in court yesterday as a character witness for Roman Polanski, she was recalling a time when she was a cinematic icon. David Usborne looks at how her life has changed since then
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The actress with the ethereal looks and vulnerable mien, who turned 60 in February, has had much else on her mind. She has 13 children to worry about, most of whom she has raised or is still raising in her secluded Connecticut farmhouse. Of these, nine are adopted from countries in Asia, and some have severe learning or physical disabilities, including palsy, paralysis and blindness. (A fourteenth child, Tam Farrow, died of a heart ailment at the age of 19 in March 2000.)

Nor is her vast brood all that keeps her busy. Farrow is also far from done with her own stage and screen career. In recent weeks, she has been filming the upcoming Arthur with director Luc Besson in the Normandy countryside and shortly will be appearing in an off-Broadway production of Fran's Bed, a play about a dying woman who is coming to terms with her mortality.

Then there are her many causes, including fighting for the eradication of polio around the world. It is a crusade close to her heart - Farrow's own childhood in Los Angeles was interrupted by a bout of polio when she was nine years old. (She made a full recovery.) She also works as a special ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), which took her on a highly publicised visit - accompanied by one of her sons, Seamus - to Darfur late last year.

But never mind all of that. You would imagine the best reason for steering clear of Polanski's libel assault against the Vanity Fair publisher Condé Nast would lie among the ghosts of her own tangled past. Nasty allegations of sex with the wrong people have haunted Polanski for decades. And Farrow knows a little too much about such things herself. Farrow has memories of her own she would surely not reawaken.

Indeed it is Farrow's burden that when fans gather, it is not just her films they are thinking about. It is also the various and rather remarkable romantic calamities of her own life that fascinate, not to mention the details of quite a different trial that unfolded all the way back in 1992 and spawned more tabloid hearings than the Polanski suit against Condé Nast will ever achieve. It also marked the explosive end to her decade-long sojourn with Woody Allen. The stars in that courtroom, here in New York, were Farrow, Allen and their adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn.

Mia Farrow began her acting career with the advantage of distinguished parentage. The daughter of another film star, Maureen O'Sullivan (who played Jane in most of the Tarzan movies), and the Hollywood director John Farrow, she is a member of Hollywood's answer to the aristocracy - her godparents were the gossip columnist Louella Parsons and the director George Cukor.

Born Maria de Lourdes Villiers Farrow (but known to her family from the start as Mia), her career took off early when she landed the role of Alison MacKenzie in the wildly popular 1960s primetime American television soap opera Peyton Place. Her co-star was a young Ryan O'Neal and the show made her a heroine for the American teenage generation. But while she won a huge adolescent following, there were older admirers as well.

Farrow had never made a secret of her ambition to become a star as big as either of her parents and in the mid-Sixties she met a man who could most certainly offer her an entrée to the big leagues of entertainment. His name was Frank Sinatra and even though he was 30 years her senior, the couple quickly sealed their relationship by marrying in 1966. So began the romantic chronicles of Mia Farrow that over the years became as intense and traumatic as any young person would desire. The marriage to Sinatra also introduced her to the pain of less-than-kind tabloid scrutiny. The couple also became the butt of jokes by the comedian Jackie Mason, who claimed to have received death threats after making quips about the marriage. (Mason refused to change his routine, but a week later, three bullets were fired through the door of his hotel room in Las Vegas.)

At about the same time, Farrow, who spent some of her school years at a convent in Britain, was jumping from television to film. More precisely, she was chosen by a certain Roman Polanski to play the starring role in his horror movie Rosemary's Baby, in which she played a woman who unwittingly gives birth to Satan's baby. Such was the notoriety of the film that Farrow's place in celluloid history was immediately assured.

It was while on the set of Rosemary's Baby that her first romantic setback occurred. Two years after their marriage, Sinatra strode into the studio one day to serve his much-younger wife with divorce papers. Farrow, as she later recalled, had no inkling even that her husband wanted out. In the end, however, a relatively amicable break-up ensued and the two of them remained friends until Sinatra's death.

From Sinatra, Farrow skipped within two more years to another celebrity of the music world, though one far more comfortable on his country estate in England than on the strip in Las Vegas. In 1970, she married the conductor André Previn by whom she had already had twins. She was pregnant when the couple received first word of the murder of Polanski's late wife, Sharon Tate, in 1969, while they were holiday in Florida. And it was very soon after that that Farrow met Polanski in Elaine's restaurant in Manhattan to commiserate with her friend. It was memories of that meal that she was being asked to recall yesterday on the stand in London.

Life with Previn was stable for a while, even though Farrow was said at the time to be deeply jealous of his frequent travels and suspicious that he was less than faithful while away from home. But the couple had three children - Matthew, Sascha and Fletcher - and adopted three more. These were Daisy, Lark Song and, finally, a little girl from South Korea called Soon-Yi. The marriage ended in divorce in 1979.

Again solace was to come quickly to Farrow, although you could argue that Cupid has been more cruel than kind to the actress. Enter stage left, the infamously complicated director of comedy and romantic farce, Woody Allen. This time, marriage never ensued, but the two became a couple, both in love and in business and their relationship bore fruit in the form of numerous Allen films in which she appeared, including Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and her Sisters (1986 - rather too directly, for her taste, based as it was on her own family's tribulations) and also Husband and Wives (1992). And there were more children: Satchel, and an adopted son and daughter.

It was while the couple were filming Husbands and Wives that Farrow discovered nude photographs of Soon-Yi in Allen's apartment and accused him of an improper relationship with her. There were also vague claims that he had abused another of Farrow's children, much younger, but this was never legally upheld and Allen firmly denied it. Allen never denied his relationship with Soon-Yi, however, who was 21 years old at the time. They are married now with two adopted children of their own.

Allen suffered most from the fall-out from the furious 1992 court battle over custody of their children. Yet it was surely a harrowing experience for Farrow and her children. (Satchel has since changed his name to Seamus Farrow and refuses even to acknowledge that Allen was ever his father.) A prodigy, he recently graduated from private university - Bard College, in the Hudson Valley - at the age of 16, worked on Senator John Kerry's presidential campaign last year and is now preparing to study law at Yale University.

Anyone would forgive Ms Farrow for wanting to forget Allen, the whole year of 1992 and the many weeks she spent in court under the glare of the world's media. Which is why her appearance on the stand yesterday seemed a little heroic. Nobody in court yesterday could have looked into her still milky features and not have been reminded of her own traumas at the mercy of a judge. She may have prevailed in her own case, but she lost Soon-Yi for ever.

Eight years ago, she released a book about her years with Allen, entitled What Falls Away. "He was my boyfriend, but also my boss," she wrote. "He was very particular about what he ate and how things looked. He was not a man who wanted to share everything. He didn't want to share a bathroom, for example. We built him a bathroom in this house in the country and it was "Woody's bathroom". We wanted to please him and it wasn't so easy. In the end, maybe he's not someone who can be pleased."

In an interview she gave to American television earlier this year, she conceded that she has not exchanged a single word with Soon-Yi since the Allen trial ended 13 years ago. "The hardest thing to let go of is a child," she told a reporter from the celebrity news programme Insider. "To let go of the hope that one day she'll return. But, finally, we had to give up her place at the table."

She added: "I really believed that she would wake up and say, 'What am I doing?' You can't go every day wishing someone would call. If the phone rings will it be her? If I walk down the street will I see her? I had to make a peaceful thought about how she's gone her way and she's no longer a part of the family."

Arguably, Farrow's collaborations with Allen were her halcyon days, professionally speaking. Most of the films she remains remembered for were created under his direction. Critics, however, credited Farrow with lifting the 1974 film The Great Gatsby, co-starring Robert Redford as F Scott Fitzgerald's enigmatic hero, from merely mediocre to almost memorable. And then of course, there remains the lasting impact of her work in the first of all her films, Rosemary's Baby.

Polanski was not in court yesterday - to avoid the risk of extradition to the US on charges of child rape, he has been delivering his own testimony via video-phone from Paris. If he were, you wonder what Farrow might say to him. Nothing might be more apt than these words she once said about herself many years ago. "I get it now... that life is about losing and about doing it as gracefully as possible... and enjoying everything in between."