I Actually Read Woody Allen’s Memoir

Why Hollywood accepted the director for so long. And why it turned on him.

An illustration of Woody Allen
Jean-François Rault / Sygma / Getty / The Atlantic

Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing, is three things: a lively and deeply interesting account of his development as an artist; a lengthy, lurid, and vengeful denial of the child-abuse charges brought against him 30 years ago; and a worthwhile overview of his artistic output since then. It’s an intensely involving book. And one that we almost didn’t get to read.

The publishing conglomerate Hachette acquired it for its Grand Central imprint, but the announcement of this fact—including that actual publication was imminent—was met with outrage. Ronan Farrow, Allen’s estranged son, is also published by a Hachette imprint, Little, Brown. Farrow’s best-selling book, Catch and Kill, includes a lengthy and scathing account of the allegations against his father, who was accused of molesting Ronan’s sister Dylan in 1992, when she was 7. A journalist and an activist, Farrow averred that “as the publisher of Catch and Kill,” Hachette had incurred an “obligation” not to participate in the “whitewashing” of sex crimes committed by powerful men. Hachette employees walked away from their desks in solidarity with Ronan, Dylan, and “all survivors of sexual assault.”

Books are dangerous things, always have been. But so, too, is publishing. It requires courage and an unsparing dedication to freedom of expression, even when a particular title unsettles and disturbs, even when it puts a publisher on terrible footing with her or his employees. And it was because of this sacred trust that Hachette told its employees they could stay or go, but the book would be published.

Of course it didn’t! This is America! Hachette pulped the books and sniveled back to work. It was the pulping of the books that really bothered me. No book burning, with all the trimmings? We know the publishing industry is in financial trouble, but what kind of hellish austerity measure is this? Banned books deserve the works: bonfire, weenies, the whole bit. You want to make a day of it—get the kids to come out.

There was a time in living memory when editors and publishers were courageous men and women, willing to challenge, unsettle, and confront norms, and take whatever flak came their way. Richard Seaver was one such editor. He and the Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset acquired Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X when Doubleday cravenly canceled it after Malcolm X’s assassination. He brought to American readers all sorts of unsettling writers: William Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet. Fittingly, Seaver’s widow, the dazzling Jeannette Seaver, acquired Allen’s book after Hachette lost its nerve, and has published it under her Arcade imprint at Skyhorse Publishing. In doing so, she held true to a principle elegantly advanced by her friend Genet: “If we behave like those on the other side, then we are the other side. Instead of changing the world, all we’ll achieve is a reflection of the one we want to destroy.”

So that’s settled: We have the damn thing. What are we going to do with it? I suppose we could start—why not?—by actually reading it. And within just a phrase or two, you realize why people were afraid of it: Allen is a matchless comic writer and one whose voice is so well known by his aging fans that it’s as though the book is pouring into you through a special receiver dedicated just to him. Woody Allen does a great Woody Allen. The best. The memoir comes off the blocks at 100 miles an hour, its theme “man’s search for God in a violent universe,” its pages studded with very famous names, its scope encompassing Tolstoy and Sid Caesar. It is an excellent exploration of the public man that includes some freighted gestures toward the private one.

Allen is one of the great storytellers of his time, completely original, and any version of his life—including this one, in which we are obviously in the hands of an unreliable narrator, although no more so than in any of his autobiographical movies—can only be riveting. In a matter of phrases, he accomplishes things it takes a lesser writer several chapters to establish. On page one, we meet his father: “Born in Brooklyn when it was all farms, ball boy for the early Brooklyn Dodgers, a pool hustler, a bookmaker, a small man but a tough Jew in fancy shirts with slicked-back patent leather hair a la George Raft.” His uncle: “weak, wan and degenerate looking, wandered around the Flatbush streets peddling newspapers till he dissolved like a pale wafer. White, whiter, gone.” Eight million hours of psychoanalysis and he still can’t get a bead on his terrifying mother, who appears early on as “a wonderful woman; bright, hardworking, sacrificing” and elsewhere as someone who found a reason to slap him every day of his life. Maybe she’s not the “castrating Zionist” of Manhattan, but she sounds frightful. He writes that his parents—this is more like it—“disagreed on every single issue except Hitler and my report cards.” Still, they stayed together for more than 70 years, “out of spite, I suspect.”

The place and time we are visiting, a 1940s outer-borough childhood, is familiar territory, lacquered over and over with the loving nostalgia of so many artists and writers that you can hardly see it through the amber glow. Allen’s version is A Portrait of the Artist as a Second Baseman. That he was, by his own calculation, “very athletic” as well as “healthy” and “popular” emerge as important themes in this section. In his vision of Brooklyn, it is always a sunny day, there’s always someone to play ball with, and the streets and parks and schools are full of beautiful girls, all of them close enough to touch, but always out of reach.

His cousin Rita, five years older than Allen, was “the rainbow of my childhood” and she “had perhaps the most significant influence on my life.” This was not just because of the many hours spent playing together, but because she took him to the movies—out of the hectic city and “into the comfortable, dark magic of the movie house.” He was one of those people who walked into a movie theater as a child and never really walked back out. Just as his uncle had melted into Brooklyn, he melted into the movies. (The character he says is most like him is not any of the fictionalized versions of himself, but Cecilia of The Purple Rose of Cairo, who got to leave real life and live in a movie.)

What he loved above all were the “champagne comedies.” At home, his mother kept kosher and his father couldn’t hold a job, but on-screen, elegant men and women took elevators straight up to penthouses, where the champagne corks started popping as soon as the doors opened. “Everybody drank all the time and nobody vomited. And nobody had cancer and the penthouse didn’t leak.” So there he was, “a small boy, loving movies, loving women, loving sports, hating school, longing for a dry martini,” but stuck in Hebrew school.

He loved complicated things you could practice alone: magic and playing the horn and writing. He didn’t tune his radio to the teen idols; he listened to the greats: Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey. He liked to cut school and go to the Paramount Theatre in Manhattan, to see a movie and the stage show; once, he went to the Roxy and the Duke Ellington band was there. When the film ended, the orchestra rose out of the pit playing “Take the A Train,” he says. “The top of my head blew off.”

He was never interested in the brutal realism the other great directors of his era would create: “No, my characters will awaken and the curtains to their bedroom will part, revealing New York City with its tall buildings, and every bit of its thrilling possibilities.” One of the many paradoxes of Allen’s work is that for decades he was considered part of the counterculture, but what he was really interested in were the material comforts and habits of speech of the upper-middle class and the very wealthy. They are treated as subjects of hilarity—but also of worship. His own tastes—the two months at the George V, the penthouse on Fifth Avenue, a decade of dinners at Elaine’s—handily attest to that fact.

Professional success came so fast that there was nothing to explain it except talent. Everyone knew he was a funny kid, and someone told him to send some jokes to a New York press agent. He did, and as a high-school student, he punched out one-liners, sometimes 50 a day, and got paid $40 a week. His name began to appear in show-business columns, which made things a bit uncomfortable, so Allan Konigsberg became Woody Allen. A few years later, he was recruited into the NBC Writer Development Program, where he learned to write teleplays and proved a great success. There, he met the famous comedy writer Danny Simon, who taught him three significant lessons: never have a character say something false to his nature just to set up a joke, never write a scene out of sequence, and trust absolutely no one’s judgment but his own about what was funny. Allen was successful and well-paid in television, but he left to develop his own stand-up act. Jack Rollins, who managed comics, taught him one of the most important lessons, the one he learned all too well: What matters is getting the audience to like you; after that, they’re ready to laugh. Woody Allen created a deep, personal bond with his audience. From the first sentence of the book, I heard it in his voice, as if he were in the room with me.

Soon enough he was writing, directing, and then acting in his own movies. He developed a particular method of moviemaking that was in some regards reminiscent of the studio system: he worked fast, almost never rehearsed, and rarely shot multiple takes or engineered complex shots: “As long as you’re dealing with comedy, particularly broad comedy, all you want is the scene should be lit, loud and fast.” He released a movie or more a year, with never a backwards glance. The idea was to keep working rather than to keep perfecting. Where he diverged from the studio system, however, was in his insistence on complete artistic control. He made François Truffaut look like Jerry Bruckheimer. A studio’s creative participation in a Woody Allen movie consisted of writing the check and then getting delivered a locked film. Auteur theory, American style: take the money and run.

And then, in 1979, when even the diehards were leaving New York for the suburbs because of the crime and the filth and the chaos, he reinvented his city. In Manhattan, we have the New York he dreamed of in all those movie houses: beautiful, safe, majestic, set to the jazz he loved, and available to every dreamer who wanted to believe she belonged there too. And in that movie, you have his life story, as accurately as you do in Apropos of Nothing: A guy with a hopeless and all-consuming love affair with New York, who has Gershwin and Duke Ellington at his fingertips, and who—given the choice—would rather date a high-school girl than a beautiful, smart woman his own age. He’s a 42-year-old guy with a 12th-grade girlfriend, and if you want to understand the ’70s, maybe I have to tell you only that Vincent Canby’s review in The New York Times made no particular note of this fact other than to describe Tracy—played by Mariel Hemingway—as “a beautiful, 17-year-old nymphet with a turned-down mouth.” Or I could tell you that Manhattan was nominated for two Academy Awards and was widely loved by the in-crowd.

Woody Allen taught us that New York is the center of the world and L.A. is outer space. He installed himself in Elaine’s for a thousand dinners in the company of glittering figures of yesteryear (Norman Mailer! Liza Minnelli! Bill Bradley!) and made movie after movie and became one of the famous people the rest of the country associates most closely with the city.

But just as the book is purring its way into fifth gear, as the accolades and the movies are getting bigger and bigger, and the anecdotes better and better, just as his life is getting more and more interesting—the author slams on the brakes so hard, the airbags deploy. We have left the Before for the After year of 1992, during which the world discovered that Allen was involved in a secret, sexual relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, his girlfriend Mia Farrow’s 22-year-old adopted daughter, whom he had known since she was 10. Six months later, he was accused of a much darker and very different kind of transgression: sexually molesting his and Farrow’s 7-year-old daughter, Dylan. For the past 30 years, Allen has had the uphill battle of explaining to the public that the first charge is true but excusable because “the heart wants what it wants” and that the latter charge is false. For just as long, the Farrow side of this battle has been trying to convince the public that the first charge is inexcusable and that the second is true.

We are as far from popping champagne corks as we can possibly get. For all the main characters here, the past isn’t over. It burns and writhes in the details and particulars of experts’ opinions, physicians’ notes, third-party investigations, interviews, and physical examinations. The public should never have been allowed to wallow in and consume such sorrowful events as entertainment. Is the author really going to take us through his side of the story one more time?

He is.

Here is the explanation Allen tenders in the book about why he took up with his girlfriend’s daughter. He had simply realized that “here was a sharp, classy, fabulous young woman: highly intelligent, full of latent potential, and ready to ripen superbly if only someone would show her a little interest, a little support, and most important, some love.” The explanation fits the larger theme of this section, which is essentially a character assassination of Mia Farrow. That she offered her daughter absolutely no love, support, or encouragement is a low blow. But Allen has no limits to what he will say, right down to suggesting that the suicide of her son Thaddeus was motivated by her cruelty to him.

He acknowledges how painful the Soon-Yi situation was for Farrow, but he doesn’t in any way apologize for it; rather, he explores her emotional response the way a screenwriter limns a character: “I understand her shock, her dismay, her rage, everything. It was the correct reaction.”

Now here is Woody Allen on Dylan as a baby: “I quickly found this tiny baby girl adorable and found myself more and more holding her, playing with her and completely falling in love with her.” This is not, as he might say, the correct reaction. “Completely falling in love” with your aging girlfriend’s infant daughter—he would not adopt Dylan, becoming her second parent, until she was 6 years old—is probably not the route to take if you are trying to sway the crowd. Soon enough, Woody Allen goes back to the defense he’s long provided against the sexual-abuse allegation: It didn’t happen; Mia Farrow was enraged by the Soon-Yi situation, and leveled a false accusation to get back at him.

For her part, Dylan Farrow has been vocal about how painful it was to be disbelieved, to have been, in her words, “tossed aside.” The truth is that she was believed by the people who really mattered: Her mother believed her, and the prosecutor believed her—he told Mia Farrow that there was enough evidence to charge Allen, but together, he and Farrow decided it would be too much for the little girl.

But there was another huge group of people who did toss her aside: those who work in the movie business. Woody Allen made nearly 30 films after the allegation. He got a standing ovation at the first Academy Awards after 9/11, when he made a surprise appearance at the event, which he had always avoided. (“It is my pleasure,” Whoopi Goldberg said, with great feeling, “and my honor to introduce … Woody Allen.” ) He was there on behalf of his beloved New York, telling the audience it was still a great place to make movies. The Golden Globes gave him a lifetime achievement award just six years ago. The #MeToo movement changed all that. Or, more exactly, Dylan Farrow’s plaintive insistence did, expressed in both a Los Angeles Times opinion piece called “Why has the #MeToo revolution spared Woody Allen?” and her one wrenching on-camera interview with Gayle King, which finally changed Hollywood’s opinion.

The story of the allegations against Woody Allen has been brought to the public over and over and over again, in hideous detail, and Allen has denied them over and over and over again, with some powerful evidence on his side, including exoneration by the Yale New Haven Child Sexual Abuse Clinic.

What strikes me about all of this is the way the family can’t let go of it, or move past it, the way the main characters are forever tempted to plead their case in public, when it doesn’t belong in the public eye, and when all of them have said all that can possibly be said about this event. When Gayle King showed Dylan an old video clip of her father on 60 Minutes, denying everything, she broke down. “I’m really sorry,” she said piteously. “I thought I could handle it.” Of course she could not.

Allen makes an astute point in this otherwise scabrous and unnecessary part of the book: For decades, Mia Farrow has tried to convince the world that Allen had molested her young daughter. But until very recently, she was one of Roman Polanski’s defenders. In 1977, Polanski was charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. He pleaded to a lesser crime—sex with a minor—and then fled the country, living since then in exile in Europe.

Drugging and raping a child are about as bad as it gets, as, one might assume, Farrow would agree. Yet in 2005, Farrow flew to England to be Polanski’s literal character witness in a libel suit. If the Farrows needed an answer about how Hollywood could have accepted Woody Allen for so long, they have their answer right there.

In January 2018, when the family’s hope that Allen would be run out of Hollywood was finally coming true, Mia Farrow realized that she was herself a carrier of the #MeToo contagion for having supported Polanski for so many years. She decided to rectify the situation by, bizarrely, sending a tweet to Polanski’s victim, Samantha Geimer: “Dear Samantha, I need to tell you how very very sorry I am that I ever defended Polanski. I send you my respect and love.”

Well, thanks a lot, is what I would have said, but I am not an evolved person.

Samantha Geimer is a remarkable person. She tweeted back, archly and with great feeling: “You need not be sorry. People support their friends. I understood that at 14 and took no offense to the many letters. I never needed the belief of strangers to validate my truth. Roman and my family reconciled long ago, I wish he and his family nothing but happiness.”

“Nothing but happiness.” Now there’s a phrase for you. Some wrongs are so great that no legal or bureaucratic process can ever make things right. At some point, the only way to get unchained from a monster is through forgiveness. It would seem impossible for Geimer to be able to forgive Polanski, but she did—who understands how grace operates?—and has apparently been at peace ever since.

In any event, good old Hollywood (seat of our moral betters, who labor to instruct us on the best opinions on all matters including foreign policy and electoral politics) suddenly, overnight, in a kind of road-to-Damascus situation, decided that it’s wrong to sexually molest a child. Hollywood also decided—again, after 30 years—that Allen is guilty of such a crime. Today he can’t get his movies distributed in the United States. He’s dead to the industry.

The inevitable question, lately raised about artists as different from one another as Picasso and R. Kelly, is this: Can we still enjoy his work?

Of course we can, because the movies don’t really belong to Woody Allen any more than they do to you and me. When I watched Manhattan recently, I didn’t think of the moral rightness or wrongness of clicking Play, and thereby sending a few quarters tinkling through the gears of a system that will ultimately benefit Woody Allen financially. Instead, I thought about the summer evening when my mother and I escaped the Catskills house of a great aunt and drove into Kingston to see the movie, feeling transported and cosmopolitan for a blessed couple of air-conditioned hours. When I think about Sleeper, I remember sitting beside my father, on a bus traveling across the Bay Bridge. Love and Death: The four Flanagans laughing their way across the Atlantic on a long, long ago charter flight from San Francisco to Dublin.

Movies hold a place in our life that’s different from that of books or television or music, because the act of leaving home and going into a theater marks them in some way. I took my boys to see Duck Soup at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles when they were small, not just because it’s Duck Soup but because of the scene in Hannah and Her Sisters in which the Woody Allen character, distraught by his realization that there is no God and considering suicide, stumbles into a revival house to find the movie playing. He says in voice-over:

The movie was a film that I’d seen many times in my life since I was a kid, and I always loved it. And I’m watching these people up on the screen and I started getting hooked on the film. And I started to feel, How can you even think of killing yourself? I mean, isn’t it so stupid? I mean, look at all the people up there on the screen. They’re real funny—and what if the worst is true? What if there’s no God and you only go around once and that’s it? Well, you know, don’t you want to be part of the experience?

I did.

I do.

I’m a Woody Allen person, not because I disbelieve Dylan—in fact, I believe her. I’m a Woody Allen person because his movies helped shape me, and I can’t unsee them, the way I can’t un-read The Great Gatsby or un-hear “Gimme Shelter.” These are things that informed my sensibilities. All of them are part of me.

So here is his book, the valedictory of an 84-year-old man who has followed no one’s passion but his own. As to our opinion about his past, one thing is for sure: He couldn’t care less about it. “Rather than live on in the hearts and mind of the public,” he says in the final lines of the book, “I prefer to live on in my apartment.”

Exit laughing.