Woody Allen’s autobiography caught my attention because of its title. Any book with “Nothing” in its title demands my notice. Allen and I grew up in neighboring parts of Brooklyn at the same time. He went to Midwood High School, I to James Madison – the latter less than 2 miles south of Midwood. Both are on Bedford Avenue. We were both in the class of 1953. The environments we grew up in were almost identical. There are no other similarities. But this is Allen’s story, not mine.
The first part of the book depicts Allen’s childhood and parents. It’s the funniest and most readable section of the book, though it is also the cruelest. Allen’s depiction of his mother, Nettie, is not pretty. He demeans her looks and behavior. She kept the family functioning despite a warm but feckless father who was not much of a provider. They stayed married for 70 years though according to their son they agreed on nothing. Allen is kinder to his father.
A sidebar – Allen inserts them throughout the book. I didn’t read it. I listened to it. It was read by its ancient author who still has the full Brooklyn accent welded to his well known quivery voice. Allen has always sounded like the old man he now is.
The entire book is a list of how bad he is at almost everything he has succeeded at. He rapidly achieved mention, then fame as a joke writer, comedian, playwright, actor, director, and even musician. All of which he claims to do rather poorly. His self description reminds me of Milton Berle’s response to applause. He’d hold up his right hand motioning the audience to stop applauding while simultaneously using the fingers of his left held mid thigh to encourage them to continue. Allen’s book length protest of ineptitude does not convey sincerity. The bio seems to offer a blueprint of how to get rich while not being good at anything.
Then there are the contradictions. Allen claims to have given up reading reviews of his work while still a young man. He then spends much of the book reciting what the critics had to say about his work. He tells us about his first flight on a private plane and how he would only fly private thereafter forgetting that he had earlier described a private flight out of Ketchum, Idaho from which he fled after having to share a bathroom with Ernest Hemingway’s son. He was visiting Mariel Hemingway who had invited him to visit the family. He invited her to go to Paris with him. She declined. He says this refusal had nothing to do with his premature departure. This invitation to the City of Lights is described a little bit after he had denied a special interest in very young women.
He also denies that he is an intellectual by mentioning four famous books that he hasn’t read, but then mentions almost every cultural icon of western civilization. Allen in his movie Manhattan says that Flaubert’s Sentimental Education is one of the reasons life is worth living. He’s indulging his penchant for pretentiousness which is next to boundless. You’re in really rough shape if this novel is what makes your life worth living. Maybe Allen thought he was a pseudo-intellectual.
Allen drops more names than there are stars in the Andromeda galaxy – movie stars, authors, athletes, painters, princes, queens, kings, directors, musicians, composers, gangsters, presidents, politicians – he knows them all. But, of course, he doesn’t care about them. All he wants is to stay at home and eat soft boiled eggs mixed with Rice Krispies. For someone who doesn’t like to travel he’s done a lot of it. He spent a lot of time at Elaine’s restaurant and bar in New York. He said the food was awful. So why was he there? It was a hive of celebrities whose presence Allen claimed to hold no charm.
Once he’s finished with a movie or project he loses interest in it and moves onto the next project. He writes, or says, that the assassination of President Kennedy held his interest for only a minute or so; he then returned to whatever he was writing at the time.
His personal relations have been a series of disasters. He married his first wife when he was 20 and she 17. He says that the marriage ended when after studying philosophy she proved that he didn’t exist. One suspects that he never really existed. He had a talent to amuse (he quotes Noel Coward), but no sechel. A lifetime of psychotherapy seems to have had no effect.
His second wife is someone he claims to still be very close to. Then he describes her as an unfaithful semi-psychotic nymphomaniac. Very hard to understand the continued bond.
Allen has directed a lot of movies. I lost count at 50. He gives a very brief précis of each in chronological order. If your interested in an incisive discussion of what the movies meant and how they were made, you won’t get it.
Despite the negative tone of the above discussion, there are a lot of laughs in the book and some interesting stories. But these vanish when Allen gets to the two part scandal that has followed him for almost three decades. He formed a long term relationship with Mia Farrow who had started collecting children as though they were baseball cards before she met Allen. He put her in a number of his movies. Some of the children who were acquired after the relationship were adopted or possibly fathered by him.
Then came the famous Polaroid photos of Soon-Yi Previn. Soon-Yi had been adopted by Farrow and her then husband Andre Previn. While some of her siblings were Allen’s children she was not. Soon-Yi’s relationship with Allen started when she was legally of age, though 35 years younger than Woody. Understandably, Farrow was outraged. She accused Allen of sexual molestation of their seven year old daughter. The charge resulted in a criminal investigation of Allen. He was eventually cleared of the charge. But the scandal was a mess for all concerned. Allen and Soon-Yi have been married for 23 years and have two adopted children.
The scandal resurfaced 20 years later when Mia and her son Ronan (supposedly Woody’s, as well) brought up the issue again. This time he was canceled by many of his friends and associates. This part of the book is not an easy go. Allen’s arguments are convincing, but one would just as soon focus on something else. It’s a slog. I suppose he couldn’t avoid the subject, but the reader or listener might do well to skip over it.
Allen is a lifelong liberal who has supported all the “correct” causes. He was very surprised to find himself on the wrong side of revealed opinion. But he belongs to a pack that typically includes more than a few cannibals. While his standing in the US has slipped, he still appears to have a receptive audience outside of America.
The only part of his life that he doesn’t underestimate is his clarinet playing. He regularly performs with a jazz group to sold-out audiences. He says his playing is terrible. He’s wrong, it’s awful, or even worse than that. Youtube has many examples of his playing. You can easily verify this assessment of his playing.
What to make of the book? First, it had a hard time getting published as its original publisher surrendered to the the cancel mob. Woody is still persona non grata among the glitterati. Allen has led an interesting life that he does his best to make seem less interesting than it really was. He has gone out of his way to portray himself as a schlemiel – his word. His bio is a two dimensional picture of a very complicated guy. Worth a listen, but you’ll soon forget its contents.