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Rosemary's Mother : WHAT FALLS AWAY: A Memoir. By Mia Farrow . Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 370 pp., $25

March 02, 1997|CELIA McGEE | Celia McGee is the publishing industry columnist of the New York Observer

Star power usually stems not from strength but from weakness: the need to adore as well as the need to be adored. Mia Farrow got a double whammy. It hasn't just been the extraordinary series of husbands and boyfriends who projected their latent desires onto this perennial girl-woman but also a public that wanted to worship a blond waif in all its own ways. Then there's the flip side: the fears, insecurities and other emotional lacunas that caused Farrow to look for admiration and affirmation in many a wrong place. Her attempts to figure out these cross-purposes of her life have led her to produce a compelling book. Was revenge also a motive? Doubtless. A big advance? Just try raising one child in New York City (and now northwest Connecticut), let alone 14 (10 adopted).

But her memoir, "What Falls Away," is also a book engendered by pure scandal: the highly publicized breakup of her 12-year relationship with Woody Allen because of her discovery that her much-older (than her) director and gentleman caller had been having an affair with her much-younger (than either of them) 17-year-old adopted daughter.

In Farrow's life, apparently, no gruesome situation goes untopped: She further claims that Allen was guilty of sexually abusing her 7-year-old adopted daughter, and--almost more horrifically--she was guilty of having desperately ignored that the abuse was going on. Her confession provokes the reader to think thorny thoughts about the relationships between art and life, perversion and creativity, amorality and genius.

Farrow, born to the screwed-up royalty that is Hollywood, saw plenty of those relationships from the start. Apart from an evident feel for writing, what makes her book different from the standard celebrity autobiography is her ability to recognize such complicated, timeless conundrums, her compulsion to try to understand them and her efforts to figure out her own complicity--her own starring role--in them.

On the fame-and-fortune score alone, she's got the competition beat. In addition to being the daughter of Irish-born actress Maureen O'Sullivan and writer-director John M. Farrow, she had the Charles Boyers for Beverly Hills neighbors on one side and, on the other, producer Hal Roach's wife "endlessly at work around the grounds weeding and sweeping and weeping into her broom." She acted with Elizabeth Taylor, ashramed with the Beatles, was introduced to Allen at Elaine's by Michael Caine on her way to dinner with Mick Jagger. The woman who finally drove her mother out of her father's bed and into a separate bedroom was Ava Gardner, the very love goddess who ended up preceding her by only a few wives in Frank Sinatra's life.

Tour buses had every craven right to drive down her childhood streets--the only ones not famous were the pitiful celebrity seekers on the outside of America's glamour looking in. The family dog was Lassie's granddaughter, for Pete's sake. (Take that, you aspiring autobiographers of stardom!) There is a sole male icon missing from the personality-studded array of photographs included in a book that is one-third about him: Woody Allen.

The answer to why Farrow seemed condemned to a repeating pattern of unsatisfactory love matches with, as she says, father figures, appears to lie in one short passage among the many elegant, impassioned, shocking apercus that make up the book. By the time, at 17 and finished with her "Dickensian" convent boarding school in England, "I joined my mother for Christmas in New York," she writes, "relations between my parents had shattered completely. . . . I pretended not to notice that George Albott, my mother's director, seemed to be taking more than a professional interest in her. But when my father phoned in the early hours of a January night, I could not, could not, tell him where she was. And later still, when the phone rang and rang, I pulled the pillow tight around my ears.

"And when, in the hard light of day, we learned that my father had died that night of a heart attack with the phone in his hand, winds of nothingness blew across my soul."

Now she had essentially killed the father who had so often abandoned her and her six siblings for booze and philandering, and thereby seemed condemned to spend the rest of her life sacrificing herself at the altar of infelicitous father surrogates to expiate her crime. A devout Catholic, she had wanted to be a nun, then a missionary-style pediatrician; this seemed to present yet another opportunity for self-abnegation. Catholic guilt combined with Freudian longing: like, hello--no wonder she ended up with the disastrously inappropriate Allen. Her psychological modus operandi made for some interesting times.

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