John Huston's Galway girls


ALLEGRA HUSTON stands in the gracious hall of St Clerans gesturing to where a 20ft Christmas tree once stood on Christmas Eve, recalling the excitement and how the door would blow open with a ho-ho-ho, as her “Dad” John Huston arrived, writes KATE HOLMQUIST

What makes this moment in Anne Roper’s documentary, John Huston: An American in Galway, so touching is that for Allegra, childhood was very short, ending when she was seven years old and sent from St Clerans to boarding school.

“St Clerans was my childhood – going to the local school, running around, climbing trees. I didn’t have that kind of carefree lovely childhood after I left,” she says.

St Clerans, in Galway, is where Huston created his version of the ideal country life of the horse-riding, fox-hunting Irish lord of the manor during the 1960s and 1970s. Says Roper: “St Clerans is like another character in the documentary, because of what it represented for Huston, and also because, for Tony and Anjelica Huston, it represented their childhood.”

The house became a kind of elaborate film set, embodying what Huston called “the beauty and the peace where you can live life and enjoy it”. Yet while Ireland was “a jewel of a country in the bedrock of the world”, Huston’s own jet-setting life was hectic.

He was a driven man who drank, gambled and made love to excess, constantly travelling, and marrying five times – in addition to his many lovers. St Clerans represented stability, and for a period of almost two decades was the secure setting for the dreamy rural childhoods of Tony and Anjelica, his two children with Ricki Soma, a stunningly beautiful ballerina who Huston married when she was 20 and brought to Galway to help him establish a family and to create for him a gracious country estate that would enable him to live out his Irish fantasy. She gave birth there to Tony and Anjelica Huston, but John soon tired of her and she would never live in the house that she devoted years to refurbishing and decorating.

When Tony and Anjelica were teenagers at boarding school, Ricki returned to London, where she gave birth to Allegra, whose birth certificate stated “father unknown”. Ricki was killed in a car accident when Allegra was four years old and Huston – knowing that he was not Allegra’s biological father – took her under his wing and sent her to live at St Clerans, where she remained until the age of seven.

WHILE SHE RARELYsaw Huston, Allegra did not doubt that he was her biological father and saw nothing strange in his geographical distance. She recalls: “I desperately needed an axis for my world to turn on once my mother was killed, and he was there. I knew my world was turning around him, he was the centre of everybody’s world, and that was very comforting to me. I knew that being physically close, being in the same country even, wasn’t relevant. I felt there was somebody that was in charge. There was somebody who was going to look after me and make sure I had somewhere to live and a family and a school and all of that.”

Huston was always “Dad”, even when it was revealed to her when she was 12 that her biological father was actually John Julius Norwich, at which time she “wasn’t in the market for another father”.

Allegra lived in the “little house” and rarely saw “Dad”, except when he came to stay in the “big house”. The archive footage that Roper turned up in the vaults of RTÉ shows a lavish lifestyle that combines a Hollywood-gilded version of Anglo-Irish ascendancy with an Oceans 11-style party scene, where Charles Haughey was a frequent guest.

Huston even had a Japanese hot rock pool installed, and roamed the grounds in a silk kimono, James Bond-style. Yet at the same time, he told himself he was living a simple rural life, as he went horse-riding in his Irish cap and affected the tweeds of the locals, with everything but the clay pipe.

“In some ways the documentary is an elegy to the pre-Celtic Tiger, pre-vulgar Ireland,” says Roper, who is American and has lived in Ireland for most of her life. As a displaced person herself, she identified with the way Huston fell in love with a particular image he had of this country and the extreme efforts he made to realise that dream.

To pay for the upkeep of the house, the butler, the maids, the horses, the parties and the jet-setting at a time when flights weren’t cheap, Huston was forced to travel away to make film after film, though he filmed in Ireland when he could. The lifestyle exhausted both Huston’s health and his finances, as he developed emphysema, then was forced to sell St Clerans.

But he never fell out of love with Ireland, and his final film, The Deadis, Roper believes, above all a love letter to the country. Clearly dying when he made the film in Hollywood (he was too ill to travel to Ireland), Huston even had a version of the entrance hall of St Clerans reproduced on the set. Huston believed that James Joyce’s The Deadwas the greatest short story ever written. To him, it encompassed everything one needed to know about love, connection and loss. The film was his way of coming home to die.

The making of The Dead, the story of St Clerans and Allegra’s story are just a few of the compelling strands in this richly textured documentary, premiering on RTÉ on Christmas Day, which is about John Huston’s love for Ireland, about Ireland’s love for him, about his children’s devotion to him – and, it has to be said, about Roper’s own “big crush” on a man she regards as the maker of some of the greatest films of the 20th century, such as The Maltese Falcon, Moby Dickand The African Queen. “I think that, if I had met him, I would have fallen for him,” she says.

ROPER HAS TAKENsome care in the film to give insight into Huston’s complex psychology. He was abandoned by his mother, and as a child was moved around from one relative to the next, much like Allegra would later be. Roper sees a link with his tendency to get bored very fast with women. Yet he wasn’t superficial, and had a real interest in psychology, which in the 1940s and 1950s, when he began film-making, was relatively new. A veteran of the second World War, he made a series of harrowing documentaries for the US Department of Defense on what we now know to be post-traumatic stress. These were suppressed, and while Huston went on to be celebrated in Hollywood, he was later discouraged once again by the anti- communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era, which he openly protested.

So it was with a real hunger for a saner environment that he turned to Ireland, and while it may have given him that longed-for peace at times, it didn’t last long. Yet in the archives of RTÉ, his happy days of being an Irishman were set in amber.

Roper has recreated a sense of the 1960s and 1970s that is by turns touching and amusing, as the enamoured locals follow Huston around the countryside “like dogs”, as one puts it in the film.

The Galway connection lives on for Allegra, who, after a substantial career in publishing in London, now lives in New Mexico, where she helps run her partner’s white-water rafting company, and also runs writing workshops. Once a year she visits the Huston School of Film at NUI Galway to teach. “I love that Dad has not been forgotten and that I get to be in Ireland once a year. I feel – home isn’t the right word – I feel comfortable there. I have a lot of friends there.”

John Huston: An American in Galwayis on RTÉ1 at 7pm on Christmas Day. Huston’s film The Deadwill be shown is on RTÉ1 at midnight on December 28th. Allegra’s Huston’s memoir Love Childis published by Bloomsbury, £17.99