Profile: The earth mother slings mud: Mia Farrow

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On Tuesday thousands of New Yorkers gathered on a Manhattan pavement. They were standing outside the building in which Woody Allen was reading an ungrammatical press statement about his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, adopted daughter of his former partner Mia Farrow. The affair has gripped the city. The crowd discussed the business much as they might, over dinner, dissect one of Allen's movies.

Opinions were divided. About half the crowd (mainly the women) were appalled by the alleged behaviour of Allen, this icon of their city. They would never go to see one of his movies again. The other half (mainly the men) said that life and art should not be confused. They would watch his next picture, just as they had enjoyed his last.

Nobody mentioned Mia Farrow.

She would have been pleased. As her former lover faces the possibility of joining the ranks of American comedians - from Fatty Arbuckle to Pee-wee Herman, for example - to be publicly pilloried for their private lives, Farrow has remained aloof in her apartment, surrounded by children. She has three from her marriage with Andre Previn, seven adopted, one by Allen; she also looks after several others. She has successfully cast herself in a public role as fey, dippy, loving mother.

Throughout her adult life, Farrow has claimed motherhood as her main priority. She was born into the Hollywood gentry, where parental role models are thin on the ground, but her family was different. Her father, the director John Farrow, was a convert to Catholicism who believed in the kind of family values that would bring a lump to Barbara Bush's throat. Her mother, Maureen O'Sullivan, abandoned her film acting career to raise seven children in a stable, happy environment - mainly in England. O'Sullivan, who once dived into exotic pools to cavort with Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan films, has plunged into the deep end again, attacking Allen's relationship with Soon-Yi: 'He's old enough to be her grandfather'.

John Farrow christened his third child Maria de Lourdes Farrow, but as she couldn't pronounce her name as a toddler, Mia she became. Her achievements at school were far from outstanding, but strings were pulled and young Mia found herself playing a teenager in the television soap opera Peyton Place. Here she came to the attention of Frank Sinatra, and they married, after a two-year courtship, in 1966.

She was 20, he was 50, an age difference that did not upset O'Sullivan at the time. As people Mia's age were growing their hair, Frank was losing his, and the relationship never flourished. She disappeared to India to meditate, and wanted only a rocking chair as alimony when they divorced in 1968.

She cruised through the late Sixties, the era suiting her dizzy public style. In 1968 she made headlines when she swore while giving evidence for a friend at Bow Street magistrates' court after a minor disturbance. 'If you tell someone to fuck off,' she gushed afterwards, 'it's the nicest thing you could wish them.' In 1969 she made Rosemary's Baby with Roman Polanski, in which she insisted on a double for the nude scenes, and became a star.

By now she had met Andre Previn, the turtle-necked pianist and conductor, who was 16 years her senior. Previn's wife, Dory, inspired by Farrow's role in the courtship, wrote a song called 'Beware of Young Girls'. Farrow and Previn married and had twins and another son.

While Previn cultivated Seventies London society (female society in particular) Farrow concentrated on her children. Motherhood was everything she had expected it to be, and she soon combined it with protest, adopting two Vietnamese infants. She insisted that members of her brood should be US citizens, but when in 1976 she went to register her third adopted child - a six-year-old from a Korean orphanage - she discovered that Americans were forbidden to adopt more than two foreigners. So she campaigned for a change in the law and, using every contact she could, pushed a bill through Congress. In 1977 Soon-Yi Previn became a US citizen.

'Some people make work their personal lives,' she said at the time. 'But I choose to have a family. That's my career. I am from a large family and it seems to me that the benefits are enormous. I want to re-create that environment.'

However, when she divorced Previn in 1979, she was forced to return to acting to support her offspring. After a performance on Broadway one night, Michael Caine and his wife took her to supper at Elaine's in Manhattan. Here Caine introduced her to Woody Allen.

The romance between the neurotic and the earth mother seemed to work from the start. Farrow made him a needlepoint sampler to commemorate their first date; he framed it and hung it on his wall. Allen joked that they were so incompatible - she liked walks in the country, he was 'at two' with nature - that they had to keep separate apartments. In hers, she continued to accumulate children, adopting more and even persuading her partner to father one himself - Satchel, now aged 4.

Allen, famously, could face only one hour a day with the brood. None the less, on the couple's 10th anniversary, Farrow said: 'He is absolutely besotted by them all. A friend to the older children, the father to the youngest three.'

While she mothered, Allen wrote movies for her. Much has been made of the proximity between Allen's celluloid persona and the real thing, but Farrow proved versatile, playing a gangster's moll and an elfin waif with equal precision.

In Hannah and Her Sisters, however, something of the real Farrow seems to appear on the screen: Maureen O'Sullivan plays her mother; Farrow's children play her children; even her apartment appears as her apartment. Farrow, according to one critic, 'appears to be floating passively in another world'. But was Farrow playing herself, or Allen's image of her? Those who have visited the seven-bedroomed flat on Central Park West where Farrow billets her family report that the scene is nothing like Allen's portrayal. An air of clinical efficiency pervades the place, Farrow presiding with brisk control. She has never employed staff, preferring to delegate domestic responsibilities to the children.

'When I first met Mia and she was telling me about all the children she had adopted,' Allen once recalled, 'I said: 'Oh, what a nice gesture,' and she said no, I had it all wrong; it's not what she did for them, it was what they'd done for her.'

In January this year the calm of the apartment was shattered. Farrow, who had suspected for some time that something was going on - her relationship with Allen had grown lukewarm - found some nude photographs of her daughter, taken in Allen's apartment. For six months she kept the secret within the family. With Sinatra and Previn, she had eschewed lawyers and handled the divorces herself. She hoped this disaster could be controlled in the same way - privately.

But then, in June, Farrow called a family meeting. She gathered all her children, including Soon-Yi, around the kitchen table (it must be some table) and begged Soon-Yi to give up Allen and return to the fold. Soon-Yi chose to leave.

This was the ultimate treachery. That Allen had been unfaithful she could perhaps accept - she had been through that with Previn. That Allen had been unfaithful with her adopted daughter she might learn to live with. But Allen had taken her daughter away from her. This was humiliation - it undermined all the rules and power structures she had established in her role as earth mother.

Denied access completely, Allen was the first to start proceedings. He demanded custody of three of the menagerie of children - Satchel, and two whom they had adopted jointly, Moses, 14, and Dylan, 7. He believes they are living in an 'unhealthy' atmosphere.

Farrow has proved in the past that if she is cornered she will fight. In 1979, on the set of the disaster movie The Hurricane her co-star, Timothy Bottoms, made an irritable offhand remark about her. She punched him in the mouth, no questions asked. For the latest bout of fisticuffs, she has hired Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor renowned for defending such personalities as Claus von Bulow, Mike Tyson and Leona Helmsley.

When news leaked out of a Connecticut police investigation into Allen's alleged abuse of one of his adopted children, he angrily denied it. He behaved in the clumsy and unworldly way his movie alter ego might. At a press conference he was a nervous mess, fumbling with his spectacles and sweating under the television lights.

Farrow, meanwhile, has remained majestical. With her clan closed around her she disseminates nuggets of information while keeping her distance from the media. Almost unheard of for a major star, she does not employ a public relations adviser - as with the household chores, she gets the children to do that sort of work. Joanna Molloy, the New York Post's Woody-and-Mia correspondent, was astonished on Wednesday when Lark Previn, 19, one of the adopted Vietnamese children, appeared at her desk offering an exclusive interview in exchange for information about Soon-Yi's whereabouts. Her mother had sent her, Lark told Ms Molloy.

On Tuesday the custody hearing will begin. This may yet be the emotional equivalent of her fight with Bottoms, which left her with 16 stitches in a chin wound. The pre-fight betting is that, when the legal sparring is over, and no matter what the outcome, Allen will be the one on the canvas, although he claims to have evidence which will prove that Farrow is too disturbed to be a fit parent. Allen believes he can pick himself up and win in the final round. And whatever happens to the family, the possibilities for movie plots about angst-ridden New Yorkers are virtually endless.

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