My old life ended and my new life began as I was standing next to a baggage carousel in the customs hall at LAX in March 1973. It was there, at the age of twenty-one, that I parted ways with Bob Richardson, the man I had lived with for the last four years, a bold and provocative fashion photographer twenty-four years older than I, with whom I’d been involved in a tempestuous affair. Until this moment we had been sharing an apartment in Gramercy Park, New York. Had it not been for the presence of my father and his latest wife, Cici, with whom Bob and I had just been vacationing in La Paz, Mexico, I doubt that I ever would have had the final stroke of courage it would take to leave him.
I would be staying temporarily at the ranch house in the Pacific Palisades that Cici had owned prior to her marriage to Dad and that she was redecorating to accommodate some treasures from our old life at St. Clerans, a pastoral estate in the west of Ireland where I grew up with my brother Tony—before we moved with our mother to London; before the birth of my half siblings, Danny and Allegra; before I acted in a movie at the age of sixteen with my father directing; before my mother’s death by car crash in 1969, a cataclysmic experience that for me ended that beautiful, hopeful decade, when I moved from England to America.
One morning early in my stay at Cici’s, I ordered a taxi and told the driver to take me to Hollywood. “Do you mean Vine Street?” he asked vaguely. I had guessed that Hollywood wasn’t really a place but rather a state of mind, with a great many parking lots sandwiched between shops and storefronts advertising sex and liquor.
But oddly, there was a sense of coming home to California. Although I had grown up in Europe, I was born in Los Angeles. The desert skies were clear blue and untroubled. Living with my father again felt strange, but he would be leaving soon to resume work on The Mackintosh Man in New York.
I was eager to buy some marabou bedroom stilettos to match the pink swan’s-down-trimmed negligee that Cici had generously just given me. Driving along Sunset in the pale sunshine, I noticed that the panorama was bare and garish, mostly warehouses and two-story facades. There were rows of tall palm trees and purple jacarandas. The air was windy and dry and sweet-scented. Beverly Hills, it seemed, was all about who you were, what you were driving, your pastimes, and your playgrounds.
A few days before, Cici had taken me shopping on Rodeo Drive, where there was a yellow-striped awning above Giorgio’s boutique, with outdoor atomizers that puffed their signature Giorgio perfume. Indulgent husbands drank espresso at a shiny brass bar inside as their wives shopped for feathered gowns and beaded cocktail dresses. For lingerie, the local sirens went to Juel Park, who was known to seal the deal for many aspirants based on the strength of her hand-stitched negligees and satin underwear trimmed with French lace. We lunched at the Luau, a Polynesian watering hole, the darkest oasis on the street, where you could hear rummy confessions from the next-door booth as you tucked behind your ear a fresh gardenia from the scorpion punch. Los Angeles was a small town then; it felt both incredibly glamorous and a little provincial.
Cici, who was in her mid-thirties, had a son, Collin, by a former marriage to the documentary filmmaker and screenwriter Walon Green. Cici had gone to private schools in Beverly Hills and Montecito, and her friends were the hot beauties of the day, from Jill St. John and Stefanie Powers to Bo Derek and Stephanie Zimbalist—glamorous sportswomen and great horseback riders who had grown up privileged in the western sunbelt. She had played baseball with Elvis Presley at Beverly Glen Park in the fifties and roomed with Grace Slick at Finch College in New York. Cici also had a lively retinue of gay friends who were sportive and gossipy and informal.
Cici’s energy was buoyant. She cursed like a sailor and loved a bit of illicit fun, as did I. Our practice, at least a couple of times a week, was to do an impromptu raid on other people’s gardens in the neighboring canyons. I would wield the shears, and with a trunkful of flowers and branches, Cici would drive her candy-apple-red Maserati like a getaway car, burning rubber to peals of laughter; although we tempted fate, for some miraculous reason we never got caught. Sometimes Allegra would accompany us on these forays.
After the sale of St. Clerans, Allegra had moved in with her Irish nanny, Kathleen Shine, whom we called “Nurse,” to share a rented house in Santa Monica with Gladys Hill, Dad’s co-writer and secretary. Heartbroken by the death of our mother and still painfully loyal to her, Nurse had been a staple of Tony’s and my childhood. Gladys was calm, deliberate, intelligent, and kind. A pale-complexioned woman with ice-blond hair from West Virginia, she was devoted to Dad and shared his passion for pre-Columbian art. She had worked for him in the previous decade and was part of the family in Ireland when I was growing up.
Allegra was going on nine and was extremely smart; it was already her intention to go to Oxford University. From the time she was a baby, she’d had an innate, deep wisdom and a sweet formality about her.
I looked up Jeremy Railton, a handsome Rhodesian friend from my former life, when I was going to school in London. He had been designing the sets for a play by Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and was living in an apartment on Fountain Avenue. We picked up our friendship where we’d left off five years before. He introduced me to his social circle, which included the comedy writer Kenny Solms and his collaborator, Gail Parent; the talent agent Sandy Gallin; Michael Douglas and Brenda Vaccaro; Paula and Lisa Weinstein; and Neil Diamond. Kenny and Gail wrote for The Carol Burnett Show and numerous television specials for Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke, and Julie Andrews.
Cici knew that I was still shaken from my split with Bob Richardson. She did her best to take me out and introduce me to people, but I was more interested in riding her horses and walking in the next-door garden. She and Dad had just celebrated the completion of a new Jacuzzi, and one afternoon I found the actor Don Johnson and a male friend of his floating in it. Though I was grateful to Cici for her efforts, I was somewhat embarrassed and ran back to the camellia trees.
A Swedish friend of hers, Brigitta, who owned Strip Thrills, a dress shop on Sunset, told Cici that she was going to a party at Jack Nicholson’s house that evening and invited her to come along. Cici asked if she could bring her stepdaughter, and Brigitta said fine, that it was his birthday, and Jack loved pretty girls.
I borrowed an evening dress from Cici—black, long, open at the back, with a diamanté clasp. Brigitta and another Swedish girl picked us up, and the four of us drove in Brigitta’s car to Jack’s house on Mulholland Drive, on a high ridge separating Beverly Hills from the San Fernando Valley on the other side. It felt like we were on top of the world.
The front door of a modest two-story ranch-style house opened, and there was that smile. Later, after he became a superstar and was on the cover of Time magazine, Diana Vreeland was to christen it “The Killer Smile.” But at the time I thought, “Ah! Yes. Now, there’s a man you could fall for.”
In 1969, when I was still living in London, I had gone with some friends to see Easy Rider in a movie theater in Piccadilly Circus, and had returned alone some days later to see it again. It was Jack’s combination of ease and exuberance that had captured me from the moment he came on-screen. I think it was probably upon seeing the film that, like many others, I first fell in love with Jack.
The second time was when he opened the door to his house that early evening in April, with the late sun still golden in the sky. “Good evening, ladies,” he said, beaming, and added in a slow drawl, “I’m Jack, and I’m glad you could make it.”
He motioned for us to enter. The front room was low-ceilinged, candlelit, and filled with strangers. There was Greek food, and music playing. I danced with Jack for hours. And when he invited me to stay the night, I asked Cici what she thought. “Are you kidding?” she said. “Of course!”
In the morning, when I woke up and put on my evening dress from the night before, Jack was already downstairs. Someone I came to recognize later as the screenwriter Robert Towne walked through the front door into the house and looked at me appraisingly as I stood on the upper landing. Then Jack appeared and said, “I’m gonna send you home in a taxi, if that’s okay, because I’m going to a ball game.”
The cab took me back the half hour to the Palisades. When I got out in the backless evening dress, Cici was at the door. She looked at me and just shook her head. “I can’t believe you didn’t insist that he drive you home,” she said. “What are you thinking? If he’s going to take you out again, he must come and pick you up and take you home.”
Jack called a few days later to ask me out. I said, “Yes. But you have to pick me up, and you have to drive me home.” And he said, “Okay. All right. How about Saturday?” And I said, “Okay. But you have to come and pick me up.” Then I got a follow-up call on Saturday saying he was sorry, he had to cancel our date, because he had a previous obligation. “Does that make me a secondary one?” I asked.
“Don’t say that,” he said. “It’s not witty enough, and it’s derogatory to both of us.” I hung up the phone, disappointed. That evening I decided to go out with Jeremy and Kenny Solms and Gail Parent. We were dining at the Old World café on Sunset Boulevard, when they started to whisper and giggle. When I asked what was going on, Gail said, “You were supposed to see Jack tonight, right?” And I replied, “Yes, but he had a previous obligation,” and Kenny said, “Well, his previous obligation is a very pretty blonde, and he just went upstairs with her.”
I took my wineglass in hand and, with heart pumping, climbed the stairs to the upper section of the restaurant and approached Jack’s booth. He was sitting with a beautiful young woman whom I immediately recognized as his ex-girlfriend Michelle Phillips. I had seen them photographed together in magazines when I was living in New York. She was in the group the Mamas and the Papas. As I reached the table, a shadow passed quickly over his face, like a cloud crossing the sun. I lifted my glass airily and said, “I’m downstairs, and I just thought I’d come up to say hi.” He introduced Michelle to me, not missing a beat. She was charming. I guess they were at the end of their relationship at that point. One morning, some weeks later, she drove to his house on Mulholland Drive to collect something she had stored there. Upon discovering that I was with Jack, she came upstairs to his bedroom with two glasses of orange juice. From that moment, we became friends.
* * *
On one of my first dates with Jack, he took me to the races at Hollywood Park. He wore a beautiful cream wool suit with an American flag in rhinestones pinned to his lapel. He got a hard time at the gate to the grandstand for not wearing a tie. Jack gave me fifty dollars’ betting money. I won sixty-seven and returned his fifty.
I was still wrapped up in thoughts of Bob Richardson and the suddenness of our parting. I wrote in a diary I was keeping at the time that I didn’t know what was me and what wasn’t anymore, that I’d been Bob’s possession and his construct, saying the things he might say, even smoking his brand of cigarettes. I thought it must be planetary, all this disruption and indecision. Someone said it was fragments of helium floating about the atmosphere, because everyone I met at the time seemed touched by a peculiar madness. Even Richard Nixon had lost his moorings and was on his way to being impeached. In the overture to our relationship, Jack sent mixed messages. Alternately, he would ask me to stick around or would not call when he said he would. At one point he told me he had decided that we should cool it, and followed that up with a call suggesting we dine together. Sometimes he called me “Pal,” which I hated. It implied a lack of romantic feeling. I didn’t want to be his crony but, rather, the love of his life. I thought he was still very involved with Michelle, who seemed to have made up her mind to move along.
Jack gave me a variety of nicknames. I started off as “Fab.” As in “The Big Fabulous,” which became, with a German accent, “Ze Bik Fabuliss.” This was because when I first came to Los Angeles, Jeremy and Kenny used to say “the most fabulous” all the time, a habit that I had adopted. Then, I don’t know why, my name developed into “Toot,” rhyming with “foot,” or “Tootie,” which became “Tootman Fabuliss.” Then it became “Ze Bik,” and then simply “Mine,” or “Minyl.” Jack had nicknames for most people. Warren Beatty was “The Pro.” Marlon Brando was “Marloon.” Fred Roos was “The Rooster.” Arthur Garfunkel was “The Old New G.” Jack had a thing about names. He liked Harry Dean Stanton’s name so much that he wrote it somewhere in every film that he did. So, whether it was his initials on a prison wall in graffiti or carved into a tree in a Western, if you look closely at this period of his movies, you’ll see HDS somewhere. He called Michelle “Rat” in the nicest way possible. His car, a magnificent Mercedes 600 the color of black cherries, was christened “Bing.”
One of the first things I noticed about Jack was that he had a great many people around who performed all sorts of functions for him. On Saturdays the guys would all sit in the TV room at the back of the house and drink beer and eat hot dogs and watch sports all day. Jack might leap up to demonstrate a slam dunk. As long as he had a friend sitting by, nodding his head, a smile decorating his face, life was good. I think, for the most part, that’s all Jack needed. In some ways, he was a man of simple tastes. A receptive and appreciative audience always charmed him.
Others had the job of helping Jack keep his life running smoothly. He called his assistant, Annie Marshall, “My staff.” The daughter of the late actor Herbert Marshall, Annie was tall, dark, and pretty, brilliantly funny, neurotic, and smart as a whip. There was Helena Kallianiotes, who was a complete mystery to me at the beginning. Helena was “Boston Blackie”; born in Greece, dark and brooding, she had mahogany eyes, a waist-length snarl of black hair, and a compact, lithe body, and had been a belly dancer in Boston. She was also a great cook, and provided the Mediterranean food at Jack’s party. She was a fascinating woman, complicated, intense, and secretive. The writer of Five Easy Pieces, Carole Eastman, a very good friend of Jack’s, had seen Helena dancing in the late sixties and had been so impressed that she’d introduced Helena to Jack and the director, Bob Rafelson, who gave her a small but memorable role in the movie. Knowing she was at loose ends afterward, Jack offered her a position looking after his house. She was living there when we first met, at his party, and eventually moved to a house that he acquired next door.
Helena wasn’t really a housekeeper. She was Jack’s chief of staff, to a degree, although there was often confusion about the running of the house, as Jack would appropriate many people to perform the same task. Helena was also the keeper of his confidences and trust, and always had Jack’s best interest at heart. Sometimes they had fights, and he would blame her if something broke down or went missing; she took some heat but was always fiercely loyal to him.
* * *
During my first months in L.A., I spent a lot of time at Kenny Solms’s house, alternately nursing and bullying my friend Jeremy, who had developed a very high temperature but refused to discuss his ailments. At one point, Kenny and I decided to drive him to the nearest emergency room, at Cedars-Sinai. He was terribly ill and ultimately needed an operation.
I was riding Cici’s horses in the mornings up at Will Rogers Park, then going into Beverly Hills to visit with Kenny while Jeremy was in the hospital. Sometimes I would stay at Kenny’s house, and together we would enact scenes from A Little Night Music for our own personal amusement. We liked to believe our version of “Send in the Clowns” was nonpareil, and our performance became something of a daily ritual that I greatly enjoyed.
* * *
After Jeremy recuperated, I decided to rent a place with him high up on Beachwood Drive under the Hollywood sign, opposite a rustic little riding school that, for ten dollars an hour, would rent you a horse you could ride on a trail over the pass to Glendale. There you could hang a feed bag on the horse and halter it to a post while you ate tacos and drank beer. The house itself was Spanish, with white walls and yellow trim around the windows, cool inside, with tiled and wooden floors, alcoves, rounded portals, and French doors leading to a central courtyard. Upstairs there were balconies overlooking the garden, and my bedroom was a perfect little white box. Cici gave me a selection of housewarming presents, including a Sony record player, beds, chairs, tables, and lamps. We had a lot of fun parties in Beachwood Canyon, but because it was the beginning of my relationship with Jack, I was spending my nights more often than not at his house on Mulholland Drive, then taking taxis in the early morning down Coldwater Canyon across town to Beachwood. My practice was to arrive at the house and start washing the dirty dishes soaking in the sink from the previous night.
Allegra came to visit with me sometimes at Beachwood Drive on weekends. Once I dressed her in my grandmother Angelica’s Edwardian gown that I had salvaged from St. Clerans, and tried to take her picture in a hammock, but she was reluctant and camera-shy; even at nine, she reminded me so much of Mum—loyal, sensitive, sweet, and wise, but without the advantage of having had our mother for long.
Jeremy and I planted a pretty garden at Beachwood, full of foxgloves and forget-me-nots, wisteria, chrysanthemums, passion flowers, and dahlias. Jeremy started to keep quail in the back yard, and we had a lovely pair of resident raccoons and their babies. We vowed one day to have a farm together, a place where we could be totally free and creative, and make a haven for animals.
One morning when I entered the kitchen, I met an extremely handsome young man with black hair and dark eyes. His name was Tim Wilson. We smoked some grass and bonded instantly. He told me that he was studying Transcendental Meditation. That summer Jeremy, Tim, and I planned out our dream farm on paper, drawing a map describing where each of us might live, what our animals might be, where each of us might have ponds and plant gardens. Eventually, this would become a reality.
* * *
There was a nascent western branch of the New York clan in Los Angeles. A lot of people were making the shift—Berry Berenson, Pat Ast, Peter Lester, Juan Fernández, Dennis Christopher. European friends, too, were making the journey west. There were about ten places to eat in town—the Bistro, Trader Vic’s, Perino’s, Chasen’s, the Cock’n Bull, La Scala, Scandia, the Old World, the Source, the Brown Derby.
Things happened at a leisurely pace. Unlike New York, where the pavements abounded with energy and purpose and everyone seemed to have an objective, Los Angeles was filled with friendly people who seemed content to hang out at home in tracksuits and kaftans, waiting for good things to come to them, or those who relied on whimsy for advancement: A girl in a pink Corvette had her own billboard opposite Schwab’s pharmacy. Her name was Angelyne; she had blow-up breasts and seemingly did nothing other than advertise herself. Andy Warhol had just originated the idea that everyone in the world could be famous for fifteen minutes.
Up on the Strip, the hot clubs of the moment—the Roxy, the Whisky, and the Rainbow Room—were all owned by Jack’s best friend, Lou Adler, who was president of Ode Records, and his partner, Elmer Valentine; they catered to a young, hip crowd. But we also celebrated Groucho Marx’s eighty-second birthday at the Hillcrest Country Club. Groucho had a companion and secretary, a woman called Erin Fleming who, along with the young actors Ed Begley, Jr., and Bud Cort, was helping him to come out of retirement. As I recall, he sang “Animal Crackers” and made a pass at me before he temporarily lost consciousness.
Anjelica Huston was twenty-nine years old and trying to create a place for herself as an actress in Hollywood when the director Tony Richardson said to her: “‘Poor little you. So much talent and so little to show for it. You’re never going to do anything with your life.’ Tony had a singsong voice, like one of his own parrots, but there was no mistaking the edge. ‘Perhaps you’re right,’ I answered. Inside I was thinking, Watch me.”
In A Story Lately Told, Anjelica Huston described her enchanted childhood in Ireland and her glamorous but troubled late teens in London. That memoir of her early years ended when Anjelica stepped into Hollywood. In Watch Me, Huston tells the story of falling in love with Jack Nicholson and her adventurous, turbulent, high-profile, spirited seventeen-year relationship with him and his intoxicating circle of friends. She writes about learning the art and craft of acting, about her Academy Award-winning portrayal of Maerose Prizzi in Prizzi’s Honor, about her roles as Morticia Addams in the Addams Family films, Etheline Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums and Lilly Dillon in The Grifters, and about her collaborations with many great directors, including Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Bob Rafelson, Francis Ford Coppola, and Stephen Frears. She movingly and beautifully writes about the death of her father, the legendary director John Huston, and her marriage to sculptor Robert Graham. She is candid, mischievous, warm, passionate, funny, and a superb storyteller.