When at least one parent is famous, as was the case with Anjelica Huston and her father, the director John Huston, it’s only natural to approach the notion of celebrity with a little more caution and suspicion than others. Growing up in an idyllic estate in Ireland, Huston played hostess to a never-ending cavalcade of the rich and famous, from John Steinbeck to Peter O’Toole. The first of Huston’s two memoirs, A Story Lately Told, captures her childhood curiosity and attention to detail. She spends pages detailing perfumes and the personalities of horses in a manner which manages to be distant yet personal. As she grows older, she’s able to parse the working habits of two very different creative titans: her father and the famed photographer Richard Avedon.
Huston paints her father as a man of voracious appetites, a practitioner of the type of masculinity that fell out of favor when Hemingway killed himself. John would frequently be away from Ireland making films, and upon his return the house would explode with life. He would bring gifts from faraway countries and throw large parties. She became aware on some level of his frequent money troubles, often brought on by gambling. She also noticed a sexism in her father, who would prefer to bring her brother on hunting and fishing trips. But beyond isolating himself from women, she noticed,
“Dad stood alone. He was a lonesome pine. I think there were places that my father wouldn’t go with anyone. He had demons. He could be charming and captivating, seductive, and charismatic, but if he had it in for you, watch out. His eyes were brown and inquisitive, like monkeys’ eyes, with a keen intelligence. But when he got angry, they wouldn’t turn red. He was disgusted by ignorance, prejudice, and stupidity, but sometimes I think that Dad was just plain angry”.
Her first time witnessing this intelligence and rage was in Rome, when John was filming an epic as ambitious as they come, The Bible. She describes the scene as surreal and like the heart of a tornado, the only way John Huston wanted to film: “A group of men followed Dad through the Garden of Eden, receiving his instructions. Occasionally one of them would ask a question and write the answer down in a notebook; others would field his questions and offer explanations. We entered a concrete building and went to the makeup department to see the progress on what was to be a full bodysuit for the serpent. They had begun to paint the latex that morning, and even to my untrained eye, it looked a little lurid. Dad took one glance at the costume and became enraged. I’d seen that happen once before, when an antique dealer had chosen to gold-leaf an ancient mirror after its purchase and before delivery, only meaning the best. Now, as then, steam was coming out of Dad’s ears.”
This hot and cold style eventually turned off the younger Huston, who sought out calmer contemporaries when she was making her own art. Modelling, she was drawn to professionalism of Richard Avedon. Avedon at the time was at the peak of the mountain of culture, class, and sophistication knows as ‘high fashion’. “When I think of Dick,” she writes, “most often he is standing alert beside his tripod-mounted Hasselblad camera, his face close to the lens, a line to the shutter between his thumb and index finger. He wears a crisp white shirt, Levi’s and moccasins. His black-framed glasses travel from the bridge of his nose up to his forehead. As he focuses, he sweeps back a forelock of thick gray hair when it falls across his eyes. His gaze is keen and critical. He understands glamour like no other photographer. Dick’s studio exuded an atmosphere of luxury and taste, a place where art and industry dovetailed harmoniously. Although I considered him a friend first, I rarely saw him socially. He was one of the grown-ups.”
The descriptors, with cartoon smoke for her father and Avedon being an adult, are telling. The quality of her work with Avedon, particularly in Vogue, also speaks volumes. Huston could certainly deal with the fiery approach , she would later work with her father on a film that would win her an Oscar, Prizzi’s Honor, but she knew the importance of balance. Sometimes, when you’re moving mountains and dealing with recording one of humanity’s most retold stories to film, you need someone who will explode. When in a more intimate setting, it can help to have the cool hand of Avedon. And one of the greatest talents of all, one that can be difficult but worthwhile to develop, is Anjelica Huston’s ability to see when each is needed.
By David Grossman. This piece originally ran in the We Work Magazine. Republished with permission.