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

Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game