LONDON – For a while, Mia Farrow was a genuine housewife. In a life of bright lights and dark, dark shadows, this must surely count as one of the most unusual periods of them all: a moment of apparent stability and respectability in the late 70s and early 80s. During this time, she picked up her twin sons Matthew and Sascha by the conductor Andre Previn from their ballet classes and music lessons and took them back to the family home in Leigh, southeast England, much as if she had never been the daughter of Tarzan’s Jane, Maureen O’Sullivan, nor the young bride of Frank Sinatra.
But this was the era when the notion of adopting needy children took hold. At 28, she persuaded Previn to help her adopt two Vietnamese daughters, Lark Song, who died of pneumonia in 2008, and Summer Song, now known as Daisy.
It was a motherhood jag that has stayed the distance and which has come to define Farrow, 68, at least as much as her prodigious acting talent or her clear, angelic looks. The actress eventually had a total of 15 children, including Fletcher, her third son by Previn, her adopted Korean daughter Soon Yi, and her son Ronan, once known as Satchel.
And it is 25-year-old Ronan who is the cause of the latest storm to encircle his mother. Interviewed for last month’s edition of Vanity Fair magazine, Farrow admitted that “possibly” he was the son of her first husband, Sinatra, and not of Woody Allen. Although by the time of Ronan’s conception she was in a relationship with Allen and Sinatra was with his wife, Barbara, she claims she and the singer had “never really split up.” He was, she agrees, the love of her life. Farrow’s suggestion, however, has been scorned by both Sinatra’s 85-year-old widow (“It’s just a bunch of junk,” she told the Desert Sun newspaper) and by Allen’s spokesman who said it was “so fictitious and extravagantly absurd that he is not going to comment.”
Unfortunately, the fact that blond Ronan looks the image of Sinatra, and also has a propensity to croon, means this story is likely to run and run. Even Ronan’s own witty tweet about his paternity — “Listen, we’re all *possibly* Frank Sinatra’s son”— hardly seems designed to draw a firm line under speculation.
Vanity Fair lays out the evidence from Farrow’s perspective; Ronan is regarded as family by Nancy Sinatra Jr, apparently. And in the horror following the revelations about Allen’s affair with her daughter, Soon Yi, Farrow was able to turn to Sinatra’s “people” for protection. They turned up outside her apartment in a gray sedan, she says, to advise her.
She was the eldest daughter of seven children born to the Irish actress O’Sullivan, who starred as Jane in Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan films, and to the writer John Farrow, a great friend of PG Wodehouse. Farrow now says she regards her childhood in the Hollywood Hills as far from ideal. Although the Farrows were well-off, she believes it is often hard for the children of successful or famous people to find satisfaction in later life. Her own family was also devastated by the sudden death of her 19-year-old brother Michael in a plane crash. Chaos took hold for a while, her childhood friends recall.
After school, the teenage girl found fame as the star of the TV soap Peyton Place and she quickly caught the eye of Sinatra, spending time on his yacht. According to Shirley Anne Field, also an attractive ingenue of the day, Sinatra’s angle of approach then was both direct and yet strangely remote. The British actress recently recalled how he once telephoned and asked if she “liked to party” and then sent round expensive clothes and jewels for her to wear when he came to London. Naively, Field admitted, she had had no idea exactly what the singer had meant by “to party.”
For Farrow, the love affair and eventual marriage saw her in a high-profile relationship for the first time. The couple were photographed everywhere, although Sinatra, according to Farrow, was keen for her to give up work. He saw himself as “a pretty good provider.” Things seem to have fallen apart during the filming of one of her greatest screen roles, the part of Rosemary Woodhouse, the vulnerable expectant mother in Roman Polanski’s sinister film “Rosemary’s Baby.” While she coped with demands on set, according to the director, she collapsed when Sinatra served divorce papers to her.
By the time she played her next major role, the high-society beauty Daisy Buchanan in 1974’s “The Great Gatsby,” she had become Previn’s third wife, marrying him in the winter in Venice. In a pattern to be repeated, Farrow found herself once again the partner of a great man. (Aside from Allen, she has had affairs with Philip Roth and Vaclav Havel.) Yet for friends of Farrow, this behavior is no pathology. Instead, they argue, it is so-called “alpha males” who are drawn to her fiery intelligence and what Roth has described as her “utter lack of ostentatiousness.”
Whatever the reason, Farrow has lived her life in public and has frequently popped up, like Allen’s Zelig, at the center of things. There she is with the Beatles in India sitting with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; there she is in 2005 testifying on behalf of Polanski against Vanity Fair; and there she is again at The Hague in 2010, giving evidence in the war crimes trial of the former Liberian President Charles Taylor.
Her 10-year relationship with Allen, conducted from homes on either side of Central Park, saw her starring in several of his best films, including as the poignantly downtrodden heroine of “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” the sensitive matriarch in “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” and the brash Tina Vitale in “Broadway Danny Rose.” It was during the filming of “Hannah and Her Sisters,” in which Farrow took the title role, that the roof caved in.
Compromising photos of Soon Yi taken by Allen were discovered and the family quickly disintegrated. According to Soon Yi, she had never regarded the filmmaker as her father and was 20 before the relationship began in earnest.
“I came to America when I was 7. I was never remotely close to Woody. He was someone who was devoted exclusively to his own children and to his work, and we never spent a moment together,” she has since said. But the world was horrified.
When a 75-year-old Allen spoke to the press recently to promote “Midnight in Paris,” he took a similar line. “What was the scandal? I fell in love with this girl, married her. We have been married for almost 15 years now,” he said.
Yet the Vanity Fair article pointedly reminds his fans that Allen was also accused of inappropriately touching his adopted daughter, Dylan. In fact, he received therapy to help him with these feelings. The reclusive Dylan, now 28, who has not seen her father since the court cases that followed, and who has changed her name, has now spoken for the first time about the emotional trauma she says was inflicted by Allen, with his alleged frightening obsession. Farrow, it is still suggested, had initially attempted to protect the director’s image because she was in awe of him and because, as she once said, he always presented himself as “a morally superior person.”
Fans of the work of both parties are left in a bleak gray mist. As a result, the former couple are likely to be knocked back and forth in a public struggle to find black and white for the rest of their lives and beyond.
Ronan, a Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar who was awarded America’s annual Richard C Holbrooke Award for Social Justice alongside his mother, has no such doubts, however, about who is the bad guy.
“I cannot see [Allen],” he has said. “I cannot have a relationship with my father and be morally consistent.”
His words reveal the extent of the family’s plight.
While cinema-goers around the world may once have been upset to hear that Allen, then widely regarded as a beacon of liberal good humor, might be a crucially flawed man, it turns out this was not the only valuable project that has been threatened. Farrow had also set out to prove that generous, liberal thought could be brought into the home. Her large, inclusive family, her domestic haven for the afflicted of the world, was permanently damaged.