"This is your father." I'm four years old. I've been led into a room in Claridge's hotel, by a woman I don't know. A man with long arms and long legs, whose elbows and knees form exaggerated angles under the soft surface of his clothes, sits on the sofa smoking a cigar. I don't know what to say; I've never met my father before. I play warily on the floor, aware of the sharp point of the coffee table near my cheek. My father is talking with other people in the room, who defer to him and laugh at his jokes, but I feel him watching me.
The man, my father, was the famous film director John Huston. My mother – Enrica Soma Huston, his fourth wife, a ballerina so beautiful she'd been on the cover of Life magazine aged 18 – had recently been killed in a car crash, and the house in London where I'd lived with her had been packed up and sold. Soon I would move to Ireland to live at his estate. He was rarely there.
Eight years later, the same thing, pretty much, happened again. By then I was living in Los Angeles, with my stepmother, Cici. Hers was the seventh house I'd lived in since my mother died, and though I'd been with her for two years I knew it wouldn't last. She and Dad were in the middle of an acrimonious divorce, sparked by her discovery that he'd been sleeping with the maid, and he and the maid had already decamped to Mexico.
"Allegra, I have something to tell you," she said. "John isn't really your father."
She wanted it to come as good news to me, but it didn't. Dad was the sun whose gravity centred my entire universe, the fixed point that defined the orbits of virtually everyone I knew. I was used to being known as "John Huston's daughter". If I wasn't that, who was I? And where did I belong? Given my nomadic existence, there was a frightening answer to that: nowhere. Another father, who hadn't shown up until now, promised only more upheaval. Without Dad to anchor me, I could imagine myself spinning off into some outer darkness.
"Your real father is an English lord. I told him he should come and visit you. He's coming tomorrow."
I wasn't impressed by the "lord" part of this, though it seemed that Cici was. I was not in the market for another father. Dad was as real a father as I'd ever known, or wanted to know. But as the news sank in, along with the embarrassment and hand-me-down shame, I began to feel a sense of relief spread through me. At least some of the mysteries of my life so far could be explained.
Most people don't have to be introduced to their father. Most children don't have to be instructed to call a stranger "Daddy". And why had it never been obvious that I should live where he lived? Why had a newspaper interview with Cici included the vertigo-inducing phrase "John's adopted daughter"? When I'd seen that, I'd kept silent, not daring to ask Cici what she'd actually said, blaming the reporter for confusing the fact that I wasn't "really" Cici's daughter (though she often called me that) with the idea that I wasn't "really" Dad's. For comfort I'd taken my passport out of the shoebox from my closet, and run my fingers over the photograph which had been indented by the force of Dad's hand as he signed it on my behalf: "John Huston (father)".
The next day, my "real" father arrived, in a torrential downpour. His initials were embroidered on his shirt: JJN. The name John Julius Norwich meant nothing to me then; I didn't realise that he was as famous in London, as a historian and media personality, as Dad was in Hollywood. After the long, awkward hour we spent together, I had no idea whether I would see him again.
My mother was estranged from her husband (though not divorced, which meant that Dad was in fact legally my father) when she met John Julius. He was married, with two children, and had no intention of leaving his wife. My mother went ahead with the pregnancy knowing she would raise me as a single mother, and knowing too that whispers would follow us, scandal would haunt us. Cici told me, urgently, that day that I was a child of love. I carried that phrase with me for decades like a loaded gun, which she'd aimed at Dad but which I felt, in my darker moments, was aimed at my own head. When I finally got up the courage to read my mother's letters to John Julius, I discovered that yes, thank God, it was true: he was the man she had loved above all others.
I wrote a book about this strange, amoebic family of mine and called it Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found. The title was my sister Anjelica's suggestion, and the perfect one. The most important thing in convoluted families, I learnt as I wrote, is that the child feels loved. I knew from a young age that I was a problem which required constant solving; but I never felt unloved. I was lucky. Losing one's mother to a car crash at age four isn't a readily accessible idea of good luck, but I've come to accept it as the condition that was required for my luck to fall into place. If Mum had lived, I would almost certainly not have had two kind, generous fathers; so many dear brothers and sisters; and a succession of beloved mother figures who stepped in and saved me when, unconsciously, I needed them most.
I read about other "love children" now, and wonder what love has to do with it. What is it with these powerful men and their nannies and maids? A friend of mine who knew both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Marlon Brando well says scornfully that they were both just too cheap to get a prostitute. It's more than that, though. When you're a movie star, you feel both invincible and besieged: you can't go out of the house, but whatever you do inside it is all right. Some people will always tell you you're God. And while you wait for your next job you can play God, jiggling the puppet strings of the people around you and creating new life.
When you read the reports, it's all about the monstrous man, the wronged women, lust and greed and deceit and calculation. What kind of creation story is this for a child? As a newborn, the child is an ego-rocket for its surreptitious father, whose ego has an insatiable hunger for rockets. Soon, if he's a decent man in other ways, the child is an inconvenient duty; if he isn't, the child is no more than a by-product, the living equivalent of collateral damage. This new Schwarzenegger child whose name isn't Schwarzenegger has to go to school tomorrow, given no real protection by the media's pious pixelation of his face and coy withholding of his name. Everyone he knows, knows it's him. Salacious pictures of his mother are bandied about. If he's feeling strong, he can boast about his Terminator DNA, but DNA is a shabby substitute for a father. His mother's husband has left the building. His "real" father is about as unreal as it gets.
The old-fashioned name for this is sanctuary trauma: the sense that a child has of waking up one day and feeling his or her world to be unsafe. It's a form of post-traumatic stress, as David Stewart, a respected family therapist in Taos, New Mexico, describes it. It arises not just in children of broken homes but in adopted children also, and in those who have been victims of abuse or invasive medical procedures against their will. As he says, "It's not what happens in your life, but whether you agree with it". The safe parent is taken for granted; it's the unsafe parent, the absent parent, whom the child with sanctuary trauma equates with the loss of security.
Somehow, I guess, I agreed with the story of my two fathers. I used to feel that after my mother died, nothing could ever throw me again. Everything beyond that was bait-and-switch; I knew where the real loss was. An unexpected father, an unexplained brother coming for the Easter holidays? A second father: did you think I'd crumble, did you think I'd lay down and die? Now, with a child of my own, I don't feel that way any more. Some things I couldn't survive. I hope the universe is done with testing me.
But agreeing with one's destiny isn't the same as reconciling it. When I moved to London at age 16, tired of the shuffle around other people's houses and ready to live on my own, I met my English brother and sister, who instantly claimed me as family. I learnt to trust, and love, my English father, though for a decade he was my "godfather" in public, until the disguise wore threadbare and the secret flopped exhausted into view. I lived mainly within what I thought of as the "English" part of myself, the pale-skinned, bookish, unphotogenic creature that had made me feel like an alien in Southern California. On visits to LA and Mexico, and on the phone to my sister, my Huston identity resurfaced. But though Dad was proud of me – the only one of his children to finish university – and my job in publishing, my two selves didn't feel like one.
Drinks parties were minefields. I dreaded meeting new people. "What does your father do?" "How many brothers and sisters do you have?" I would choose one father or the other to base the answer on, but inevitably I would end up in a tangle. It took me years to learn to tell the truth without excessive detail about who slept with whom while being married to someone else. There's no shorthand for people with my creation story. We make it up as we go along.
I was a confusing mixture of confidence and diffidence. I knew what I thought, and I knew what I could do (within tightly controlled parameters), but I was never sure when was the right time, or where was the right place. I felt less intelligent, less beautiful, less charming, less interesting, flat-out less important than my two glamorous fathers, my beautiful lost mother, my movie-star sister, my wildly imaginative brother. I was a supporting character in other people's lives, which seemed right and familiar to me. I was also an outsider: English in the US, American in England, dogged yet comforted by that familiar feeling of alien-ness, which occupied that space where my sense of self should have been. I was lightly anchored in the world, like a tethered balloon blown by an irregular wind, tugging at its moorings.
The thought of marriage gave me a swooping sickness in my stomach. It seemed insanely reckless to make promises about a future that could, in that light, only bring unpleasant surprises. But I would fantasise about a wedding: the party that the whole family has to attend. When I found I was pregnant with a love child of my own, the idea came together: a christening. It was a bizarre and wonderful event that took place deep in the canyon of the Rio Grande in June 2003, and as I sat in a rubber raft decorated with juniper boughs and plastic grapes and glittering tin hearts, my son on my lap and his father beside me, wearing a flowing watery dress that had been one of Anjelica's costumes in The Mists of Avalon and a crown of golden laurels, and saw on the shore my three Huston siblings, my English brother and sister, and John Julius all waiting for us (Dad had died 16 years before), I felt for the first time truly at the centre of my own life. The fragments of what I had always thought of as my two families came together into one strangely-shaped but perfect whole.
We don't have to let the chains of DNA and marriage certificates define our family. I was lucky that both my families held to a code of generosity, both my fathers taught me that love and good manners – which, after all, are based on consideration for others – are more important than shame, resentment, even what the world understands as pride.
"Rise above it," Dad used to say as a kind of mantra for mental peace. He was a bigger man for taking me in as his own. And the one person who truly had reason to feel wronged – Anne Norwich, John Julius's wife at the time I was born – welcomed me without reservation when I turned up at her door. Adults can be cruel, selfish, thoughtless, emotionally torn – and often a child results. We can, at our best, rise above it, and love the child.
'Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found' by Allegra Huston is published by Bloomsbury, £17.99
A father's perspective: 'I had a DNA test. I wasn't her dad'
"I was with the same woman for 20 years. We got married in 1988, and had Mia in 1992. I was massively proud. She had jet-black hair, even though we're blond, and she didn't have any of my characteristics. I thought my wife had had an affair before Mia – she'd denied it.
We separated in 2000 and got divorced in 2008. I signed away all the equity on our house – around £400,000 – because I didn't want Mia to have to move. I carried on paying her private school fees, hefty maintenance and mortgage. Then, when she was 15, one of my close friends became ill. His dying wish was that I would get a DNA test to put my mind at ease.
I had a test. The results came back: I wasn't her dad. I'm a tough old boot, but it was like someone ripped my heart out and jumped all over it, leaving a black hole. It's heart-rending. My friends were inconsolable, they knew how much I love Mia.
When Mia and I next met, we sobbed. For two years, I had a breakdown, and was unable to work. I was on anti-depressants, and the doctor was going to section me because I was talking about suicide. I went after my ex-wife financially for paternity fraud, but I'd missed the window of 12 months.
Mia and I made a pact that we'd never let our relationship go. She still calls me Daddy – why wouldn't she? I am. But the pain has been horrendous, and there's no guidance for anyone in my position. When I look back, with all the heartache and upset, at least she's had a head-start in life and she's done ever so well. No matter what you're going through, you still have to consider the child."
Interviewee's name withheld. His daughter's name has been changedReuse content