“Allegra, I have something to tell you.”
I was 12 years old when my stepmother, Cici, sat me down in her sun-filled Los Angeles living room. I’d been living with her for two years by then—and not long before this day, my dad, the film director John Huston, had run off to Mexico with her maid. My mother, Enrica Soma Huston, Dad’s fourth wife, had been killed in a car crash when I was 4. So I was a veteran of upsetting news.
“John isn’t really your father.”
She wanted it to be good news, but it wasn’t. Dad was the center of my universe, and the sun around whom almost everyone I knew seemed to revolve. Because Dad was famous (he directed The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, and many others), I was so used to being identified as “John Huston’s daughter” that I couldn’t think of myself as anyone else. I felt myself spinning off into some outer darkness. If I cried, my tears would stain the suede couch. Suddenly, I realized I wanted them to. I wanted to leave a mark of my pain on the fabric of the material world.
“Your real father is an English lord. He’s coming to visit you tomorrow.”
My “real” father? This sounded more like a fairy tale, the unpleasant kind. When he left, after a long, awkward hour, I had no idea what role he would play in my life. None would be fine with me.
Yet despite the vertigo of feeling my identity disintegrate, and the hand-me-down shame that the secrecy implied, relief began to spread through me. At least this explained some things: primarily the memory that worried at me like a terrier, of being led into a hotel room at the age of 4 and introduced to a long-armed, long-legged man smoking a cigar—Dad, John Huston—and told, “This is your father.” Normal kids don’t have to be introduced to their fathers. Why did I have to be told, a few months later, to call him “Daddy”? Why, until I’d moved in with him and my stepmother, had I not lived in the house where he lived? Why had a local newspaper writer referred to me as “John’s adopted daughter”?
In the years that followed, I felt more and more alien in Los Angeles. Pale-skinned and bookish, I was not a Southern California girl. I hated having my photograph taken. I felt shy and embarrassed around famous people. I was “passing” as John Huston’s daughter. At 16, I moved on my own to London. If my “real father” was English, maybe what England represented was the “real” me.
The secret that was revealed to me that rainy day in L.A. spawned two that I took on the burden of keeping for many years. The first, that Dad wasn’t my father; the second, that John Julius Norwich was. (He is a historian and media personality, the son of an admired politician and a legendary beauty, as famous in the U.K. as Dad was in the U.S.) The primary person from whom I kept the secrets—though I knew he knew perfectly well—was Dad. John Julius’s visit, his very existence, was never mentioned between us, and I loved Dad more for treating the biological reality as trivial, irrelevant. He loved me no less than his other three children.
As the years passed, what remained of the lie became less visceral. My last name was Huston, as it always had been; Anjelica was my famous sister, which she undoubtedly was (through our mother, at least); officially, John Julius was my “godfather.” I had been embraced by my English brother and sister, who always referred to me as their sister (leading to many baffled, polite English silences); and I grew close to my second father as well, though I never called him by anything other than his given name. For Christmas and other holidays, I went to Mexico to see Dad. Dad died almost 24 years ago. Eventually I moved to Taos, N.M.—for me, neutral ground. When my son was born (into a wedlock-free zone), we held an extraordinary fiesta for his christening, and all my brothers and sisters, and John Julius, came. Suddenly, my two families were one: my family. For the first time, I felt myself settle at the center of my own life.
Huston is the Author of Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found (Simon & Schuster).