Anjelica Huston orders a cheeseburger with fries for lunch at the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif. Huston, the daughter of acclaimed film director John Huston, is slender, elegant, and down-to-earth. She has evident taste and moxie, and she’s meeting with me to talk about Watch Me (Scribner, Nov.), the sequel to her 2013 memoir, A Story Lately Told, also published by Scribner.
In the book, Huston boldly recounts her heartaches, struggles, joys, and accomplishments over the past 40 years, picking up where A Story Lately Told, about her charmed childhood at her father’s manor house in Ireland, left off.
“Watch Me is from the point of view of a woman,” Huston says. “I’m not a child anymore, I’ve entered my 20s, and I’m part of a bigger world.” The book covers her glamorous but tempestuous love affair with Jack Nicholson, her work as a critically acclaimed actress, the death of her father, and her marriage to sculptor Robert Graham.
“There’s a time in your life when people start to ask you, ‘When are you going to have a baby?’ And then it’s, ‘When are you going to write a book?’” says Huston, 63. “I didn’t have the baby, but I thought maybe the book was a more tangible dream.”
Huston had no interest in a memoir replete with “juicy nuggets.” She signed with Bill Clegg at William Morris Endeavor, whose genteel approach resonated with her. Scribner’s Nan Graham became Huston’s publisher, and Bill Whitworth, “who is of a dying breed of brilliant, educated grownups,” became her editor. “Nan has been fantastic and points me in all the right directions,” says Huston. “As an actress, I love a good director.” The memoir was originally conceived as a single volume, but she was pleased when Graham suggested that it be split into two books.
“It’s easy to think that memoirs are just about the retelling of a life, but the story should have a certain buoyancy to it and it should introduce the reader to people, almost like a conversation,” Huston says. “That’s what I’m looking for. You shouldn’t feel that a confessional is incumbent on you.”
Watch Me begins with Huston’s move to Los Angeles from New York in 1973. Leaving a successful modeling career behind, she joined L.A.’s artistic and intellectual community and soon became romantically involved with Nicholson. “We had a mutuality,” she says of the actor. “Jack has a very specific, very keen sense of humor and a deep intelligence. He was extremely charismatic and was at the apex of his allure, so it was hard not to be attracted to him.” Huston writes extensively about their 15-year love affair, admitting her naïveté through his countless infidelities. “For a sophisticated girl, I could be tragically gullible,” she says. “Maybe it’s why acting has always appealed to me. If I want to, I can believe almost anything.” Huston has appeared in 60 films and is best known for her roles in The Addams Family, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, and, more recently, the television series Smash.
Nicholson was generous with Huston in many ways, and his kindness often redeemed him in her eyes, until his confession that he was having a child with another woman brought their relationship to a heartbreaking end. Their split in 1989, after a long period of emotional estrangement, was respectful—for the most part. Not long after the breakup, though, Huston read an article in Playboy that mentioned a romantic encounter Nicholson had with a young woman while he and Huston were still together. She describes her reaction in Watch Me: “I... walked straight into Jack’s office. He was coming out of the bathroom when I attacked him. I don’t think I kicked him, but I beat him savagely about the head and shoulders. He was ducking and bending, and I was going at him like a prizefighter, raining a vast array of direct punches.”
Readers might be inclined to cheer her on. Asked if she got Nicholson’s permission to include him in Watch Me, Huston laughs and says, “No, I don’t ask people’s permission to write about them. Besides, what would I have said? ‘May I, Jack?’ ”
In her previous book, Huston wrote primarily about people who are no longer alive, but that’s not the case in this second installment. “It’s harder to write about living people because you have that open fidelity to your friends to be clear and kind, and not to betray anything of a secretive nature or something they wouldn’t want imparted,” she says. “Whatever I have to say is because it happened, or it’s about me, and not because it’s puerile or will get people riled up.” Stories about Ryan O’Neal, Michael Douglas, Bill Murray, and others appear throughout Watch Me, as well as insights into Huston’s relationships with her three siblings and large extended family.
Huston was a teenager when her mother, Riki, died in a car accident, so her primary role model was her father, who had an enormous personality and a dynamic, creative ego. It took her years to step out of his shadow and be accepted on her own artistic merits; when she did, no one was more proud than he was. Huston won an Oscar in 1985 for Prizzi’s Honor, which her father directed.
Watch Me is the first time that Huston has written about her father’s death in 1987, from complications due to lung disease (he was a longtime heavy smoker). “When [writing about him] started to feel painful, I knew it was right,” she says. “We can’t write about something like that and be satisfied if it’s not. It was unbelievable, what he went through—the frailty, when his body was failing.”
Huston’s marriage to sculptor Robert Graham in 1992 was a profound turning point in her life. “It was a wonderful marriage,” she says. “It was mature, we both knew what we wanted, we both had established careers, so we understood each other.” Graham designed their house in Venice, Calif.—a kind of oasis, with beautiful landscaping and a large studio in which he worked. As with her father, Huston nursed Graham when he became ill; he died in 2008. Nicholson attended the funeral. “He was a prince,” Huston says, “and stayed by my side throughout.”
Huston is an assured and fluent writer, and says she would like to try her hand at writing a novel, “if I get lucky enough to find out how to do it.” Life remains exciting to her, and she looks forward to working with Martin Sheen on Broadway next year after her book tour for Watch Me.
As for looking back, Huston says, “I didn’t have any trouble with memory on the first book, but I struggled with Watch Me. It’s more recent, and once you get into the pattern of an everyday life—dinners, people, occupations, vacations, stuff—maybe it’s just the sheer quantity of information that causes you to drop a few marbles. I refuse to say it has anything to do with age.”
Wendy Werris is a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles.