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Life With Father : Anjelica Huston Talks About the Risks and Rewards of Growing Up in a Famous Family

June 21, 1987|MARK MORRISON | Mark Morrison is West Coast senior editor of US magazine.

ANJELICA Huston was born in Los Angeles in 1951, while her father was in the Belgian Congo filming "The African Queen." John Huston didn't see his daughter until three months later, when the Huston family came to Paris, where John was directing "Moulin Rouge." The Hustons stayed in France unti 1953, when John went fox hunting in Ireland, fell in love with the countryside and moved his family to a 150-acre estate, St. Clerans , in County Galway.

"It was a fairy-tale childhood. My father was away three-quarters of the time, but when he came home he brought wonderful presents. He was kind of a Santa Claus figure. He'd go make "The Barbarian and the Geisha" in Japan and return with incredible silks and kimonos and Japanese dolls and fans. He'd go to Mexico and come back with hampers of semiprecious stones and serapes. He was always very lavish, very extravagant, very elegant. Every time he returned home, the house would come alive. Mahogany would be polished, fires would be lit, guests would arrive. He would bring back with him a completely eclectic group that normally would not find themselves in each other's company in a thousand years--a driver he had in Mexico, Pauline de Rothschild, John Steinbeck, the local parish priest, and the gentry who were terribly proper and awfully awfully . He's very much a natural aristocrat; he doesn't differentiate between which is better in life, a farmhouse or a chateau.

"Life at St. Clerans mostly revolved around riding. My father could come back after five months and get straight on a horse and go hunting, jumping six-foot-high stone walls and God knows what within a day. It takes most people two to three weeks just to warm up to that, even if they're good riders.

"When I was 12 years old, I cub hunted. That was a big thing--one's first real hunt. I was 'blooded,' as they say. When you finish the hunt, the huntsman takes the tail of the fox and stripes the blood on your face. I wasn't wild about having guts sort of spread on my face, but it was really a big compliment."

At St. Clerans, Anjelica grew up removed from the real world--riding Connemara ponies, catching eels in the river, talking to imaginary creatures. She studied with French tutors and spent winter holidays in Switzerland. But even when he was home, John Huston was not a playful father. The son of actor Walter Huston (whom John directed in his Oscar-winning "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"), John was a painter, prizefighter and journalist before he settled into screen writing. He was moody, restless, a perfectionist at work and at home.

"He could be quite a taskmaster. Of course, you always longed to please him, presenting your drawings to him for approval, practicing your riding to show him how you'd improved. . . . I don't think you think about being close as a child.

"I remember going to his room in the mornings around 10 o'clock. He would hold court in his bed. He had a beautiful Louis XIV bed. Green, carved artichoke pillars with two birds intertwined on top. My brother (Tony) and I would curl up with him and draw and talk about our plans for the day. We were happy for his just being there. But we found he was more inclined toward what was adult in children than what was childish in children. Because of his intellect, he didn't suffer fools gladly. You didn't want to get on his wrong side. Once, at the dinner table, the subject of Van Gogh came up. I said somewhat flippantly that I didn't like Van Gogh. He said, 'You don't like Van Gogh? Then name six of his paintings and tell me why you don't like Van Gogh.' I couldn't, of course. And he said, 'Leave the room and, until you know what you're talking about, don't come back with your opinions to the dinner table.'

"But when it came time for my father to leave again, we would cling to his legs as he was to be driven to the airport. A sense of magic would be gone from the house, and things would get a little dull again."

Ricky Soma, Anjelica's mother, was 20 when she became John Huston's fourth wife. She had given up her career as a ballet dancer, given birth to two children, and suddenly found herself in the hinterlands of Ireland doing needlepoint . Soma, who had been photographed by Philippe Halsman for the cover of Life in 1947, left Huston when Anjelica was 10 and took her children to London. Anjelica saw even less of her father.

"My mother's life in Ireland must have been quite repressive. My father was usually away, working, so she must have been very lonely on a large estate in the middle of nowhere. For his part, my father always had a taste for adventure, a taste for the good things. That included other women. I can't imagine that that could have been, ultimately, terribly satisfying for her. Eventually, my father had a son with another woman, and my mother had a daughter with another man. It was evident that things were never going to go back to where they had been.

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