“Dad couldn’t bear cowardice. Acts of bravery came high on his register. He expected us [his children] to take informed chances. If you had balance and followed the rules of safety, such as learning how to roll with the punches, the chances were that you would survive. Risks were fun: that jolt of fear and then the sudden thrill of having it behind you.”
-Anjelica Huston, A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York, pg. 63.
Famous familial dynasties make up fascinating environments. These larger-than-life characters often mimic, but never fully embrace traditional familial behaviors. They often tend toward the dramatic or the spectacular. They exist apart from but are wholly entrenched in the pettinesses of interpersonal relationships and everyday life. They often loom over our cultural, social, or political landscapes, but we are rarely given a nuanced glimpse into the lives they lead. In A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York, Anjelica Huston offers us access into the lives of the Hustons, a filmic dynasty of devoted creatives and independent eccentrics whose influence stretches all the way back to the 1920s and the work of her grandfather, Walter Huston. But the tale is ultimately Anjelica’s. It is the story of growing up as a Huston, of both embracing and pushing against the legacy of her nearly mythic father, director John Huston. It is the story of a woman forging her own identity, one that is both distinctive from and linked to her larger family.
A Story Lately Told is a mesmerizing journey through the youth of a woman whose life was undoubtedly impacted by the gregarious and unrelenting presence of her father. Anjelica regales us with descriptions of houses, of interiors so lush and filled with the artifacts of adventurous lives that it seems, at times, as if you are walking through a fairy tale, a dream so full, so opulent, and so well composed that it charms and beguiles you. Huston is able to strike a chord of honesty amid all this adventure and luxury. It never seems excessively out of touch. She is self-aware. She is recounting the world around her, and the world around her was constructed to be a reflection and extension of the exciting, adventurous, and creatively awe-inspiring films, life, and principles of her father. It was an atmosphere, with all its inspiration and manic artistry, that embodies her father and his films. The houses were decorated and the family was being raised as if it were an extension of his films. Anjelica recounts stories of the illustrious persons she met unknowingly. She tells stories of performing plays for Peter O’Toole, running into Montgomery Clift on the set of one of her father’s films, and an incident where John Steinbeck played Santa Claus at a Huston family Christmas gathering. These men are stripped of their legendary status, they are mere mortals wandering around the set that is Anjelica Huston’s life and it is a pleasure to see them there.
The book details the complexities of having a father with such a distinctively domineering and gregarious character. As Anjelica grows up, she struggles to make space for herself, to cultivate an identity in the shadow of her father. It is not all a fairy tale, it is the story of a domineering man who expects considerable talent and ingenuity from all those around him, including his children. As Anjelica matures, she begins to realize that it is imperative that she carve out space for herself. She rejects acting, against her father’s expectations. Instead, she pursues modeling, working with some of the most innovative photographers and fashion houses of the 1960s. Here, in this world, she is able to carve out a niche for herself that was solely her own, made up of her own ambition, her own talent, and her own passions. It is not a place where she is forced to rely on or acknowledge her father or his influence. It is all her own.
Anjelica Huston’s A Story Lately Told is the story of the magic of a life surrounded by beauty-by art, music, antiques-and its contrast with the harshness of the real world. It is the story of the calm beauty of a created world and the shock that occurs when the real world comes crashing into it. It is the story of a family both impetuous and imaginative, charming and volatile. It is the story of a woman’s journey to selfhood, a story of her determination to assert her own identity in the morass of personality and myth that make up her father. It is both a love letter to her youth and upbringing as well as to the father that while often difficult, was, ultimately, an immense and essential presence in her life.
Huston, Anjelica. A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York. New York, Scribner, 2013.