Woody Allen’s Secret Teen Lover Speaks: Sex, Power and a Conflicted Muse Who Inspired ‘Manhattan’
Woody Allen's 'Manhattan' muse Babi Christina Engelhardt reveals details about her secret seven-year fling with the director when she was a then-16-year-old model.
Sixteen, emerald-eyed, blond, an aspiring model with a confident streak and a painful past: Babi Christina Engelhardt had just caught Woody Allen’s gaze at legendary New York City power restaurant Elaine’s. It was October 1976, and when Engelhardt returned from the ladies’ room, she dropped a note on his table with her phone number. It brazenly read: “Since you’ve signed enough autographs, here’s mine!”
Soon, Allen rang, inviting her to his Fifth Avenue penthouse. The already-famous 41-year-old director, still hot off Sleeper and who’d release Annie Hall the following spring, never asked her age. But she told him she was still in high school, living with her family in rural New Jersey as she pursued her modeling ambitions in Manhattan. Within weeks, they’d become physically intimate at his place. She wouldn’t turn 17, legal in New York, until that December.
The pair embarked on, by her account, a clandestine romance of eight years, the claustrophobic, controlling and yet dreamy dimensions of which she’s still processing more than four decades later. For her, the recent re-examination of gender power dynamics initiated by the #MeToo movement (and Allen’s personal scandals, including a claim of sexual abuse by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow) has turned what had been a melancholic if still sweet memory into something much more uncomfortable. Like others among her generation — she just turned 59 on Dec. 4 — Engelhardt is resistant to attempts to have the life she led then be judged by what she considers today’s newly established norms. “It’s almost as if I’m now expected to trash him,” she says.
Time, though, has transfigured what she’s long viewed as a secret, unspoken monument to their then-still-ongoing relationship: 1979’s Manhattan, in which 17-year-old Tracy (Oscar-nominated Mariel Hemingway) enthusiastically beds Allen’s 42-year-old character Isaac “Ike” Davis. The film has always “reminded me why I thought he was so interesting — his wit is magnetic,” Engelhardt says. “It was why I liked him and why I’m still impressed with him as an artist. How he played with characters in his movies, and how he played with me.”
Two of Engelhardt’s close friends from the period affirm they were aware of Engelhardt’s relationship with Allen at the time — one would even drop her off at his penthouse. Photographer Andrew Unangst, who was dining with her at Elaine’s the night she made her move on Allen, also says he knew about the long-running tryst she initiated that night. “She was a knockout, and outgoing too,” he says of the gambit. Engelhardt’s younger brother Mike remembers Allen calling their parents’ home: “I’d holler out, ‘Babi, it’s Woody!’ My brain didn’t think something romantic; I was 11 or 12 and a huge fan. I mean, Bananas?!”
Engelhardt and her journey, shared here publicly for the first time, are complicated. She’s proud of her teenage self as an up-by-her-bootstraps heroine who successfully beguiled a “celebrated genius.” Even now, she holds herself largely responsible for remaining in the relationship as long as she did and for the frustration and sorrow that ultimately came with the liaison — one in which, by her description, she never held any agency. (Most experts would contend that such an uneven power dynamic is inherently exploitative.)
Even with hindsight, though, she’s unwilling to indict Allen, who declined to comment for this story. “What made me speak is I thought I could provide a perspective,” she offers. “I’m not attacking Woody,” she says. “This is not ‘bring down this man.’ I’m talking about my love story. This made me who I am. I have no regrets.”
Today, Engelhardt (who dropped Babi from her name and goes by Christina), is a divorcee and mother of two college-aged daughters living in a crystal-filled apartment in the flats of Beverly Hills. Since childhood, she says she’s been a psychic reader, interpreting the stars for boldface names (just as she once did for Allen, who was not impressed). One paid psychic client, the late Pop Minimalist artist Patrick Nagel, gifted her the original piece above her living room sofa. It’s here, with a portfolio of her yellowed and brittle modeling photos in hand, that Engelhardt travels into her past.
Open and thoughtful, Engelhardt unspools a life story that took root in a strict German immigrant household and blossomed into a Zelig-esque series of adventures as she attempted to break into modeling: partying with Iman, jet-setting with Adnan Khashoggi, dining with Stephen King, working as a personal assistant to Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire financier later convicted for soliciting an underage girl. Following her time with Allen, she went on to become a platonic muse to Federico Fellini during the auteur’s late-life journeys in Rome and Tulum, Mexico, then spent years tending to egos as a hostess in the executive dining room at Paramount before landing her current gig, working as an assistant for producer Bob Evans. What’s made her attractive to these powerful men, both personally and professionally, she posits, is in part what Allen appreciated in the first place: “I was pretty enough, I was smart enough, I was nonconfrontational, I was non-judgmental, I was discreet, and nothing shocks me.”
She’s already written, and kept private, two volumes of unpublished memoirs, one focusing on her Fellini years, the other on her time with Allen. In the latter, Engelhardt portrays a relationship of unequals. From their first rendezvous (quizzing her on the meaning of life, challenging her to a chess match, inviting her to watch a basketball game in his TV room, making out with her), terms were decreed by Allen. She considered him then, and still considers him now, a Great Man. She pushed back little if at all.
“I was a pleaser, agreeable,” says Engelhardt, a fan of Allen long before they met. “Knowing he was a director, I didn’t argue. I was coming from a place of devotion.” They operated under two key unspoken rules: There’d be zero discussion about his work, and — owing to the celebrity’s presumed necessity for privacy — they could only meet at his place. By her count, on more than 100 subsequent occasions, she’d visit him at his apartment at 930 Fifth Ave., where she’d invariably make her way to an upstairs bedroom facing Central Park.
“The curtains were always drawn,” Engelhardt says. “The view must have been spectacular.” She shrugs. “I wasn’t there for the view.”
Another element that may have factored into her dynamic with Allen, Engelhardt muses, was her German background. “I had been taunted, tormented as a ‘Nazi child’ in the Jewish neighborhood I grew up in: Matawan, New Jersey. [The family moved to a rural area of the state when she was a teenager.] My father ran around in lederhosen. I had doors slammed in my face.” Her parents were both postwar emigres, her father — by his account — a 14-year-old ditch-digging conscript into Hitler’s army serving near the French border before the end of the war. “Woody’s the uber-Jew, and I’m the uber-German,” she says. While the pair never discussed their difference, she contends it hovered, at least on her end: “There was a chip on my shoulder about wanting to please those who cast me aside. I wasn’t confrontational because I thought, ‘Nobody likes Germans.’ ”
By Engelhardt’s recollection, about a year into the relationship, Allen occasionally began bringing in two other “beautiful young ladies” for threesomes. Engelhardt says she had experimented with bisexuality and at times found the experiences with Allen “interesting — a ’70s exploration,” she says.
But she felt differently when, after they’d been sleeping together for four years, Allen beamingly announced that he wanted to introduce her to his new “girlfriend.” (Engelhardt had presumed she was the girlfriend.) It turned out to be Mia Farrow, who was 14 years older and already famous for Rosemary’s Baby and The Great Gatsby.
In her manuscript, Engelhardt writes, “I felt sick. I didn’t want to be there at all, and yet I couldn’t find the courage to get up and leave. To leave would mean an end to all of this. Looking back now, that’s exactly what I needed, but back then, the idea of not having Woody in my life at all terrified me. So I sat there, patiently, calmly trying to assess the situation, trying to understand why he wanted the two of us to meet.”
Despite the initial shock of jealousy, Engelhardt says she grew to like Farrow over the course of the “handful” of three-way sex sessions that followed at Allen’s penthouse as they smoked joints and bonded over a shared fondness for animals. (“When Mia was there, we’d talk about astrology, and Woody was forced to listen,” she laughs.) Engelhardt writes in her manuscript, “There were times the three of us were together, and it was actually great fun. We enjoyed each other when we were in the moment. She was beautiful and sweet, he was charming and alluring, and I was sexy and becoming more and more sophisticated in this game. It wasn’t until after it was done when I really had time to think of how twisted it was when we were together … and how I was little more than a plaything.” She continues, “While we were together, the whole thing was a game that was being operated solely by Woody so we never quite knew where we stood.”
“I used to think this was a form of mother-father with the two of them,” says Engelhardt. “To me, that whole relationship was very Freudian: how I admired them, how he’d already broken me in, how I let that be all right.”
As for Farrow, she explains, “I always had the impression that she was doing this because he wanted it.” Engelhardt recalls when the story broke about Allen’s relationship with Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn (now his wife of nearly 21 years). “I felt sorry for Mia,” she says. “I thought, ‘Didn’t Woody have enough ‘extra,’ with or without her, that the last thing he had to do was to go for something that was totally hers?’
“He had groomed Mia, trained her, to put up with all of this. Now he had no barriers. It was total disrespect.” (Farrow declined to comment on this story.)
Allen’s prolific career had largely been unaffected by his personal-life controversies until the arrival of the #MeToo reckoning. In October 2017, the red carpet premiere for his Amazon Studios release Wonder Wheel was canceled, and in January 2018, two stars of his follow-up film for the streamer, A Rainy Day in New York — Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Hall (who previously had appeared in Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona) — apologized for working on it and donated their salaries to anti-harassment organizations. A Rainy Day in New York, originally expected to debut this year, is still without a release date.
Looking back on her relationship with Allen, Engelhardt believes the only time she ever witnessed him truly reveal his vulnerability was after he took an unexpected phone call from Diane Keaton. She remembers that his ex-girlfriend told him the cat they’d shared together had died. “It caught him off-guard,” Engelhardt says. “He just sat there next to me and looked at his hands. They were trembling. In that moment he wasn’t even in the room.”
Engelhardt, who had begun taking acting classes with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg during her time with Allen, remains hurt that he refused to assist her in obtaining a SAG card. “It was the only thing I’d ever asked for of him, and he told me, ‘No, that’s something you’ll need to get on your own,’ in a tone that said ‘drop it,’ ” she recalls. In the fall of 1979, without telling Allen, Engelhardt secured work as an extra on Stardust Memories. “I didn’t even see him there; it may have been second-unit,” she says. “My dream was that he’d have seen me and pulled me out from the crowd. But I showed up with the crowd and left with the crowd.” She never told him she’d been there.
She also hid something much more tragic from Allen. Engelhardt had repeatedly been raped in the years before meeting him, first by an older classmate, then on multiple occasions by a family friend. “The unpleasant things that happened to me, I wanted to forget that they happened,” she says.
Over time, Engelhardt grew increasingly unfulfilled by her arrangement with the auteur, eventually leaving New York. “I thought I was special, and then I realized he’s a big person and he’s got a big life — I’m in his life,” she says. “It’s a rainbow with many colors, and I’m one of them.” By the late 1980s, she had ended up part of Fellini’s creative circle in Rome, working in his office. One day, Allen, a noted fan, called him. “I was the one to pick up,” Engelhardt says. “He said, ‘You’re with Fellini — you left me for Fellini?! That’s so cool!’ He was shocked I was with, of all people, his hero.” She still marvels that, to her mind, Allen finally valued her only when he came to (mistakenly) believe that another man, one he idolized, had successfully wooed her.
Engelhardt last heard from Allen in January 2001, when he sent her a letter thanking her for sending him a copy of a documentary she’d appeared in about the making of The Voice of the Moon, Fellini’s final film. “I hope you’re happy and well,” Allen wrote. “I recall our times together fondly. If you’re ever in New York I would love you to meet my wife — she’d like you. We get out to California every so often. If you’d like I’d call and perhaps we could all get together.”
Engelhardt assumed, given their history, that a proposed meeting with Allen and Previn wasn’t meant to be platonic. “I already had children then,” she notes. “I was like — not that I’ve gone square, but my priorities were different. I just wanted to stay away from that.”
It’s been more than a decade since Engelhardt last viewed Manhattan when she rewatches it in November. The TV set in her living room isn’t working, so she uses the one in her daughters’ bedroom — “how appropriate,” she jokes. Settling in on a bed, amid a dangling dreamcatcher, Engelhardt pulls her legs in close as Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” famously swells over the opening skyline interlude and the narrative unfolds.
Engelhardt first saw the film at a matinee while the pair were still involved. “I didn’t know anything going in — that’s how little I knew about what he was working on,” she says. Based on the advertisements, she thought that any romance would hinge on the adult stars, Meryl Streep and Keaton, and was stunned as the story focused on Allen’s stand-in as he alternates between bemusement and distress by his can’t-quit-it relationship with a soul-baring teenager played by Hemingway.
“I cried through most of the movie, the dawning of realization slowly settling in as my greatest fears crept to the surface,” she writes in her memoir manuscript. “How could he have felt this way? How was our partnership not something more than just a fling? We had shared such a special bond right from the start, something magical, and now here was his interpretation of me and us on the big screen for all to see in black-and-white. How could he deconstruct my personality and our life together as if it were just some fictional creation for art house fatheads to pore over?”
When she next saw Allen, she told him she found an awful lot of similarities between her and Hemingway’s Tracy. (Not just in their tender ages; they were both, among other salient details, gorgeous would-be actresses with an interest in photography who, perhaps to others’ surprise, exalted their clever beta male beaus as erotic alphas.) “I thought you would,” she recalls him responding. There was no further bite, and, as usual, she didn’t push it. “That was it,” she reflects in the book. “That was all I would ever get out of him about the film, and looking back now, I am so angry with myself for not being stronger.”
Engelhardt doesn’t suppose she’s the sole inspiration for Tracy. She knows that actress Stacey Nelkin, who dated Allen while she was a 17-year-old student at Stuyvesant High School after meeting him during the making of Annie Hall, has stated she was his Manhattan muse. (Still: “When I heard her say that, I was like, ‘Whatever.’ “) For Engelhardt’s part, she presumes Tracy is a composite and that any number of Allen’s presumed other real-life young paramours, including the two she met during threesomes, may have collectively stirred the director’s imagination. “I was a fragment,” she explains. “Great artists cherry-pick.”
Manhattan operates for Engelhardt as deja vu, looking-glass and trapdoor, from an early scene at Elaine’s (“Hah!”) to Ike’s postcoital insistence that Tracy can’t be spending the night at his bachelor pad. “He always did the same with me,” she explains, “although he had his driver sending me away in his white Rolls-Royce. I often ended up at the Port Authority, heading to New Jersey.” (“It’s a brilliant film,” she repeats, again and again.) Yet at the film’s emotional climax, when Tracy tells Ike “not everyone gets corrupted; you have to have a little faith,” Engelhardt is wryly unillusioned: “Of course, he didn’t have faith in anybody.”
When it’s over, Engelhardt is struck by how, to her, Allen had conjured a make-believe world in which Ike could conduct his relationship with a teenage partner, able to parade her in public and among friends in a fantasyland devoid of any disapproval, noting how it contrasted with her own enforced seclusion. “I was kept away,” she observes. The ethical milieu Allen establishes among the rest of the adults in the film is striking. Without exception, they’re either amusedly ambivalent or outright supportive of the pair’s relationship. Indeed, Ike’s own perpetual hand-wringing about its appropriateness — as though such hand-wringing were tantamount to absolution — is brought into even sharper relief by its absence elsewhere.
In a draft for the shooting script for Manhattan (co-written by Marshall Brickman) and now a part of Woody Allen’s archival papers at Princeton University, Tracy is described by various characters as being as young as 16. In the last scene of the film, she assures Ike, “I turned 18 the other day. I’m legal, but I’m still a kid.” In the other copy of the script on file at Princeton, her age is typed as “seventeen,” then crossed out and corrected by hand to add another year.
In January, The Washington Post published an article that catalogued the “misogynist and lecherous musings” in his Princeton papers. It zeroed in on a couple of short-story drafts in which he’d portrayed middle-aged men romantically entangled with teen girls as well as an unmade television pitch featuring a 16-year-old girl described as “a flashy sexy blonde in a flaming red low cut evening gown with a long slit up the side.” Engelhardt says of the piece: “It put all of the dots together. It made me realize that I was part of a pattern. I’d never been privy to his mind in that way.”
After she unloads the Manhattan DVD, Engelhardt offers a final thought for the evening. What if it had been the teenage girl’s story that had been the center rather than that of the middle-aged man? “It’s a remake I’d like to see.”
A week after the screening, Engelhardt confides that Allen has preoccupied her dreams. “I used to dream of making love to Woody,” she says. “Now I’m dreaming of him dying in my arms.”
She’d also been dreaming of her 19-year-old daughter. In Engelhardt’s slumber, she’d learned that a significantly older suitor, a major celebrity, was pursuing her child, that he was offering to show her the world, to take her to Paris. “I was mirroring myself,” she says. “In the dream, I was OK with it.” Now that Engelhardt was awake, was she still on board? “Um, no.”
This story also appears in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.