Growing up on an idyllic Irish estate as the daughter of legendary director John Huston and prima ballerina Enrica Soma, Anjelica Huston was virtually predestined to become an artist. Her new memoir, A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York, reflects on her unconventional and culturally dynamic upbringing before she became the Academy Award-winning actress and director audiences know today. On Monday, December 9, ALOUD presents a special evening with Huston in conversation with Irish writer Colm Tóibín at the historic Wilshire Ebell Theatre. From her love of fairy tales to her friendship with John Steinbeck, we caught up with Huston about the literary side of her life before her upcoming ALOUD appearance, which will include readings, song, and rare Huston family footage.
In one of the anecdotes from your childhood, you wrote that you lived in the storybooks your mother gave you such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales. How do you think these imaginative tales shaped the way you think about storytelling today?
Huston: I was very influenced by Arthur Rackham’s illustrations in my early copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and imagined that fairies and elves lived in the roots of the hawthorn trees, and had banquets where they misbehaved and had wings like butterflies. I think that those images along with Grimm’s text shaped my imagination and the way I saw things from once upon a time to happily ever after.
What books besides the Grimm’s Fairy Tales did you love growing up in Ireland?
Huston: Madeline, Orlando the Marmalade Cat, T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Fattypuffs and Thinifers, Little Women, Jo’s Boys, Little Men, An Old Fashioned Girl, The Secret Garden, The Owl and the Pussycat.
You also write about knowing John Steinbeck and exchanging letters with him over the years. Can you talk a little more about this relationship? What was he like? Do you still have these letters?
Huston: John Steinbeck was engaging and warm; from the moment we met (I was about 8) he and I hit it off. He liked to tell me stories and spoke to me as an equal, not condescendingly, as to a child. We became good friends. I think my father was slightly mystified, but delighted we had forced this bond. He asked me later to see the letters John sent to me, sadly they became misplaced when Dad was living in Mexico.
From your mother and father to their friends (like Edna O’Brien writing a screenplay for your father), you were around many “working” artists. What did you learn about craft or the process of making art from these artists?
Huston: Morris Graves was a fascinating man; a friend of my parents and a beautiful artist. I remember drawing with him and his helping out with a great fancy dress costume for our pug, Pansy. Likewise, the artist Jaqueth Hutchinson who made collages with me. But craft was something I was not aware of until later on. My father’s work was a serious business but he was also a painter, and I sat for him on quite a few occasions. I looked at a lot of art books—Dad and Mum loved to talk about painting and art.
Did you spend any time in libraries as a child? Or do you have any connections to libraries in your work today?
Huston: No, I grew up in rural Ireland, and I did not have access to a library. Later, when I was living in London and going to school there, I began to use a library. I’ve been a part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles’ Gregory Peck Reading Series since it began. In 2010, I participated in the National Library of Ireland’s Summers Wreath festival in Dublin to celebrate W.B. Yeats’ birthday and their Yeats collection.
The second installment of your memoir will focus on your move to Los Angeles… are there any sneak peeks you can give Angelenos to look forward to?
Huston: My second book, Watch Me, will take me through my years in Los Angeles, my relationship with Jack Nicholson, my work as an actress and director, and include stories from my life and marriage to the late sculptor, Robert Graham.
Get tickets to the ALOUD program here.