Melodrama of many acts; profile - Mia Farrow

'A pair of eyes on a stalk': her book will be a bestseller, says Peter Pringle; Mia Farrow

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There she is again, a spindle of a woman with those limpid eyes, dressed to resemble the good Catholic schoolgirl she once was, in a white shirt, grey tunic laced at the front, black stockings and sensible bootees.

The last time I saw Mia Farrow was in a Manhattan courtroom four years ago wearing the same outfit, or one just like it, from the "Innocent Look" rack of her wardrobe. Back then, she was defending herself against Woody Allen who fought for custody of three of her children on the grounds that she was an incompetent mother, prone to hysterics. To no one's surprise, the court found the brilliant but batty Woody Allen to be the one devoid of parenting skills. She kept the children.

Now aged 50 but looking younger as always, she is reading passages from her new autobiography in a bookshop in Manhattan's Union Square, where Emma Goldman declaimed on socialism and feminism in 1916. But hers is no Goldman feminist tract. This is a catharsis devoted mainly to her painful affair with Allen. Even court documents are appended.

On television later, she talks of her romantic forays into the lives of the rich and famous, of her brief marriages to Frank Sinatra and Andre Previn, and how she ended up the world's most famous single mum with 14 children, most of them adopted, in a country house called Frog Hollow. There are two cows, five cats, rabbits, hamsters, birds, lizards and tropical fish. "It feels absolutely right," says Ms Farrow, exhausted by her life's gruelling passage.

SO, WAS Mia Farrow a casualty of Hollywood's high society? The victim of obsessive, talented men? A hostage of American legal canons on divorce and child custody? Or was she a co-conspirator in this American melodrama?

Her book is entitled What Falls Away, a line from Theodore Roethke's poem about the journey to self-knowledge. She would like everyone to believe she was a slightly befuddled, passive participant, an actress and a mother buffeted by stormy tempests beyond her control. But she triumphed, if that's the word, employing an admirable mix of courage, compassion, perseverance and honesty.

Another view might be that, except for a harrowing bout of polio, she plotted the breathless scenes one after another. And that she performed them magnificently. One of the nicest things Woody Allen ever said about her - perhaps the only nice thing he said that survived their epic struggles - is that she is an extraordinary actress, able to play any role.

She is also not a bad writer, as it turns out. Here is how she recalls herself aged nine. "I was much as I am now: a pair of eyes on a stalk, a soul no different from most souls, forever trying to understand, needing to give and to love, not daring to hope for much (and hoping for far too much), full of uncertainties, and unable to protect myself from pain." The bout with polio marked the end of her childhood, she says, but it also left her with survival skills she would need later.

Life began in Beverly Hills as the third of "seven children of show business", the daughter of the Irish actress Maureen O'Sullivan (of Tarzan and Jane) and Australian-born film director John Farrow (of the mid-Fifties Around The World In Eighty Days). The death of her elder brother in a flying accident marked the end of the fairy tale.

The parents split up. She went with her mother to New York; her father stayed in Hollywood. He was charming, a dandy and a philanderer, and soon afterwards he died of a heart attack. Her mother came out of retirement to be the breadwinner and, at 17, Farrow sought work on the stage. She met Salvador Dali who gazed into those pellucid eyes and was transfixed, like others before and since. He took her to a gang-bang in Greenwich Village, but she only watched. She landed a lead part in Peyton Place which, to her amazement, was a stunning success.

Aged 19, back in Hollywood, Frank Sinatra asks her round to watch a movie in his private screening room. They held hands and the next thing you know she's spending the weekend at his desert ranch in Palm Springs. Sinatra was married to Ava Gardner who'd had an affair with Mia's father, but Mia claims to have been surprised he was so famous and never knew about his shady connections. She was bored by the "boisterous" Las Vegas evenings and bemused that he wanted her to learn how to shoot a pistol for protection. He cared about golf, not about her deaf cat who ate only baby food, nor her longing to have a family like in Meet Me In St Louis. At that moment, she should have backed out, but she married him instead.

The union was doomed, of course. "We understood ourselves and each other so little." One day, she's on the set of Rosemary's Baby and Sinatra's lawyers burst in with the divorce papers, which she signed without reading. The divorce was finalised in 1968. For reasons not explained - except that he was the strong father figure she lost as a teenager - she kept seeing him.

India is next. She meditated with the Maharishi. "Winds howled raw at the foot of the Himalayas, where saffron-swathed monks were wading serenely in the icy Ganges." A little wordy, perhaps. The Beatles turned up. The Maharishi is overcome and in an unholy gesture slips his arms around her. She wriggles free.

Back to New York and Vietnam war protests - Joni Mitchell, the Mamas and Papas, and Bob Dylan. And a moment of truth. "Among the most important days of my life ... I wish I could tell my children that throughout the Sixties I was busy fighting bigotry, but it wouldn't be true ... When the people left I was alone, my music was Mozart and Bach, Beethoven and Mahler, especially the slow movements." And then - enter Andre Previn, maestro, "a raconteur second to none ... so quick he arrived before he even left". Eh? The result of a holiday with him in Ireland: twin boys.

Slight problem. Previn is still married and his wife doesn't want a divorce - "which I completely understand, most of the time". They married following his divorce. Previn buys her a pretty cottage in England, but there's a bigger problem. The busy composer/conductor is hardly ever there. In the second year of marriage they spent a total of 15 days together. "It was not an atypical year." Loves dies, but children multiply - to a total of six, three sons and three adopted daughters, two Vietnamese and one Korean.

New York again and in Romantic Comedy on Broadway. Her acting career is no more than a footnote in this book. Michael Caine wants to take her to Elaine's. She would prefer to curl up in bed with a biography of Tolstoy, so she says. Caine prevails. Woody Allen is there. She'd sent him a fan letter about his films. A week later his secretary - yes, his secretary, asks her to lunch. He's 10 years older and very rich. She's barely making ends meet. She claims she never knew he played the clarinet and had never heard of Sidney Bechet or Jelly Roll Morton - or Lutece, one of the finest restaurants in New York, where he takes her.

That's page 192, and the book ends at 367. The rest is about the absurd life they lead, with him on one side of Central Park trying to be alone in a large apartment, and her on the other stuffing her modest place with children and pets which he can't stand - any of them. The affair was always inappropriate.

He loves New York and she likes the country. She finds a house out of town, mainly for the kids and Woody won't go. When he does he won't use the shower because the drain is in the middle of the pan. Too many germs floating around his little feet.

Also, he hates going out, except to posh restaurants. She loves parties and hates dressing up for anything, except the stage. They go to three parties in a dozen years. Woody sees his shrink every day and takes his temperature every two hours. She's never been to a shrink - yet. He won't talk about marriage; and agrees to a child only after his psychiatrist condones it. Emotions are generally off-limits. Mia asks if he would go to her son's high school graduation. Woody replies, "I'll have to think about whether you have any right to ask me that."

FINALLY. To the last episode.

Astoundingly, the courts allow Woody to become the adoptive father of two of the children. But his deficiencies as a family man are magnified by his affair with Soon-Yi, Mia's adopted Korean daughter. She finds porno pics of the liaison on his mantlepiece. On the mantlepiece? Isn't that an exit line? But she hangs on. "I had lost confidence in my ability to survive without him."

Mia told him: "This is crazy, I can't be your mother-in-law!" But Mr Allen's view was different; he's sophisticated about these things. Soon- Yi was not her "real" daughter. He suggests: "Let's use this as a springboard into a deeper relationship." He gives her "three lovely leather-bound volumes of Emily Dickinson's poems" for her birthday, and she goes out to dinner with him.

But each knows it can't go on. She charges the wretched Woody with sexual abuse of another adopted daughter, five years old. Although the district attorney found "probable cause" existed for a prosecution, the case was dropped for fear of further harming the child by exposure to the criminal process.

And there it is. The play, or the film, or whatever it was, is over. In disgrace, Mr Allen is still at large, making great movies and keeping up the affair with Soon-Yi. He has limited visitation rights. Mother Mia is in Frog Hollow, with all the children, "looking for the right pony".

The television cameras at the bookstore suggest another celebrity bestseller is upon us. If only she hadn't purged the book of photos of Woody - not one among seventy-five. If only she'd had an index to all those famous names - but then few would have got past the "As" for Allen. If only she'd not been in Union Square. She's no Emma Goldman.

But she could certainly play the part.

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