John Huston: Courage and Art: Book Review

"John Huston: Courage and Art"
Courtesy of Crown Publishing

Crown Archetype, 496 pages, $30

A new biography fleshes out the wild sex life of the legendary director.

This article first appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Jeffrey Meyers has very little new to say about the 40 films John Huston made, but he does have quite a bit to add to the record about the many women who swam through the late director's life. Huston was a rake of an elevated order; so wide a swath did the charismatic, charming, difficult, passionate, intellectual and sadistic swashbuckler cut that a more fitting title for this particular biography might have been The Sultan of St. Clerans, a reference to the Irish manor house that was the defining Hustonian domain. Much has been written about him over the years but, for those still intrigued about who did what to whom in Hollywood's heyday, Meyers has not been shy about doing some detailed record-keeping.

The author of 23 previous biographies, including a good one about Ernest Hemingway, Meyers begins with a detailed but overly emphatic prologue that stresses the parallels between Hemingway and Huston. Yes, they were both macho artists with a blood lust for big game and multiple wives. They also knew and, apparently, liked each another. But Hemingway produced an indelible original oeuvre while Huston made almost nothing but adaptations of existing literary works. And, almost paradoxically, Hemingway suffered from the kinds of doubts and insecurities that were utterly foreign to Huston, who moved so easily from one woman and film project to the next.

The best account of Huston's eventful life is contained in Lawrence Grobel's 1989 volume The Hustons. Meyers basically rehashes existing information about John's unconventional upbringing as the son of the mostly absent actor Walter and peripatetic journalist Rhea, as well as his early aimlessness, personal obstreperousness and struggles as a painter in Paris, actor and burgeoning screenwriter. Enough books have already documented Huston's important films, from The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen to Under the Volcano, Prizzi's Honor and The Dead.

So what's new here? Lots of gossip about Huston's extensive amorous activities from the many horses' mouths. Just as many men who knew him were jealous of Huston's way with women (he and Errol Flynn once engaged in a prolonged fistfight over Olivia de Havilland; Huston lost), most men would enjoy being remembered by their women as favorably as Huston is by his. Bluntly describing his subject as "a compulsive satyr," Meyers reports that most of Huston's paramours "gave his sexual performance rave reviews." His fifth wife, Celeste (Cici) Shane, whom he nastily described as a "crocodile" in his memoirs, testifies that, even though he was 66 when they married in 1972, "he was the best of my whole life. Honest to God, John was an incredible lover." He evidently felt the same way about her.

One could construct several categories for the women in Huston's life. There were the quick conquests; as Celeste says, "John would screw anything that wasn't nailed down." Some of these were actresses, including Zita Johann, Mary Astor, Ava Gardner and Eiko Ando. He also had five wives: first sweetheart Dorothy Harvey, aristocratic Irish beauty Lesley Black, actress Evelyn Keyes and model/ballerina Ricki Soma (Anjelica's mother) and then the wealthy, self-possessed Celeste. He was faithful to none of them and generally tired of them after a while, which runs contrary to his pattern with the women who make up a third category, the long-standing mistresses. With de Havilland, the refined and sophisticated Marietta FitzGerald Tree, French actress Suzanne Flon and Zoe Sallis, the mother of his son Danny, to name four of the most important of his long-term lovers, Huston conducted affairs that continued, on and off, across many years and marriages. He sired three children.

Illuminating this hitherto unexplored but obviously central aspect of Huston's life helps Meyers round out a fuller portrait of the man than has previously been offered; he clearly conveys his subject's allure, cruelty, intellectual thirst, game-playing, paradoxical emotional intensity and distance, callousness and egoism. Meyers does not mention it, but I always loved Orson Welles' remark to the effect that his friend excelled at playing Mephistopheles to his own Faust. He was, indisputably, a complex figure, and Meyers catches that while also writing with evident haste.