Back Story

When twenty-three-year-old John Farrow arrived in Hollywood in 1927 from his native Australia he already had one published novel under his belt.  He hoped he could somehow turn that moderate bit of success into a career writing and directing pictures. Farrow was confident he had talent as a storyteller and had little doubt he’d carve out a name for himself sooner than later. And he did. By the end of 1928 he’d produced two successful screenplays and within the next two years would write three more pictures and publish an additional novel, later adapted for the movies. 

            Farrow’s success came quickly. But his fast track to Hollywood’s A-list was a slow walk down a country road compared to the fevered pace with which his sexual prowess among local starlets became legend. Farrow’s career as a respected film director paled by comparison to his reputation as a womanizer, even as a sexual predator.  The psychological problems that triggered Farrow’s behavior were unsettling and far-reaching, troubles he would never understand or even recognize. 

            When Farrow met actress Maureen O’Sullivan, neither could foresee the terrible path that lay before them, how his afflictions, coupled with her own emotional instabilities and her religious fervor, would eventually lead to conflict, resentment and disdain. She knew he was troubled but ignored it. Years later, she finally spoke of his flaws. “I knew he could never be faithful to me but I accepted him as he was.”  But she never talked about the physical abuse. “Farrow was a smart man but he liked to hit [Maureen],” Groucho Marx wrote in his autobiography years later. “She’d come to the set [of A day at the Races] with a black eye and they’d have to send her home.” Maureen took John’s temper in stride; a handsome, successful husband was worth the price.

            There was no shortage of sun that afternoon in 1936 when Farrow married Maureen O’Sullivan, nine years after they met. The guests toasted the happy couple, then celebrated for hours. When the party ended, the newlyweds retired to separate bedrooms and closed their doors. Both staunch Catholics, they lived this way for the next twenty-seven years, married until Farrow’s death in 1963. As they raised their family, they built a  fairy book house on secluded grounds in Beverly Hills. They gave their daughter. Mia Farrow, and her six siblings, all the makings of a privileged life to help shield them from all of life’s hardships.  But that was only half of what they gave them.

            John Farrow could also give his kids a one-two punch when they didn’t obey. He believed strongly in corporal punishment and, as Mia Farrow writes in her autobiography, What Falls Away, hehad no qualms about tossing an errant toddler across the room. Her father had “an almighty temper,” Mia recalled, and he hit her with his walking stick more than once. 

            O’Sullivan was not there to protect her children. As one of Mia’s girlhood friends remembered, O’Sullivan loved giving birth to her children but had no idea what to do with them.  She spent much of her time alone in her bedroom, the large cross hanging on the wall overshadowing her bed. “The walls were painted dark purple, and if you went into her room you had to say your prayers.” 

            O’Sullivan also had a temper. She could hurl a dinner dish to Mia’s face with perfect aim and without flinching. Then she would disappear for days on end into her bedroom: she could replenish the energy it took to stand up to the slightest whisper of her growing alcoholism and of Farrow ‘s continuing abuse and philandering. Farrow hated having kids underfoot; away from the set he liked his solitude. If not on location, he’d slip unseen into his office to write another novel.   

            Maybe it was alcohol behind the mayhem; maybe something worse. But the turmoil that held up the walls of their house took each of them into its fold. Death and disaster struck frequently, traumatizing family members already emotionally damaged.  Addicted to trauma yet unable to escape it, they lived in anguish. 

            The Farrow family photos most fans saw in the 1940s, with Farrow and O’Sullivan sitting in front of their Beverly Hills home and their seven children spread out in front of them, is the stuff of the Classic Hollywood dreamscape. But many photos failed to reveal a close up view of each child’s face.  No one smiled.

            Mia Farrow later described her childhood as “half fairytale, half nightmare.”  From the outside, their home looked beautiful, an elegant structure sitting on a half-acre of grounds on an exclusive Beverly Hills street. Yet, inside, the seven beautiful Farrow children lived in one part of the house, their parents in another. Affliction found both sides.  Mia contracted polio when she was nine-years-old. Later that year her brother, 15-year old Michael, was hit by a car; four years later he died in a plane crash. His death only intensified the alcohol-fueled battles between Farrow and O’Sullivan. 

            The Farrows’ intimacy with tragedy and trauma somehow binds the family through the decades, moving freely and shape-shifting from one generation to the next.  Mia Farrow, like her mother, lived separately from her last partner, Woody Allen. While her acting career flourished, she adopted one child after another, as if she could replace her own emotionally abusive parents with her serial attempt to revise her childhood. But loving these he kids was not in the mix. As one adopted son, Moses, later said, she offered emotional and physical abuse, and abandonment. Then she fed the family to the media.  Mia made public what her mother hid.  Yet she’ll always be her mother’s girl. The large cross that hung above her mother’s bed now hangs above hers.