John Huston (1906-1987) had the talent and the courage to live as he pleased. Who would not wish to be able to say the same for himself? Who does not feel diminished beside someone who has done as much? Yet one can live as he pleases and still fall well short of the life he might have lived if he had demanded the very best of his talent and courage. In his milieu, where success means winning some of the world’s most coveted prizes, Huston was a monumental figure: perhaps the greatest film director to come out of Hollywood. And he enjoyed the virile roistering natural to a man of his temperament, and which fame, wealth, power, and the superabundance of willing beauties in the movie business made virtually compulsory, and on a titanic scale.

Isn’t this the role an ordinary man would imagine for himself if only he could be born again in a bold and gifted incarnation? It sure sounds sweet to have been John Huston. Was it really as sweet as it sounds? This vivid and rousing new biography by the ceaselessly prolific Jeffrey Meyers raises the question of whether the enviable and the admirable are two different things.

John Marcellus Huston, the only child of Walter Huston and his wife Rhea, was born in the small town of Nevada, Missouri. The family settled in Texas soon afterward, but not for long. Walter itched to resume his premarital life as an itinerant actor and Rhea stormed out for good after four years of marriage to the man she considered an utter failure. For years Walter Huston was a failure, marrying again and forming a vaudeville act with a crass and pretentious woman whom he would divorce. But then success as a serious stage actor, friendships with Eugene O’Neill and Sinclair Lewis, and steady work in the new talking pictures changed his life. After years of wandering from one newspaper job to another, Rhea too struck it rich, marrying a vice president of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The stodginess of the high life in St. Paul, Minnesota, bored her, however, and she left her second husband two years later.

John hardly saw his father until he turned 18. He adored his mother one moment yet could barely stand her the next. In his 1980 autobiography he remembered her as “dominating, demeaning, hysterical, overbearing, proud, protective. She was an adventuress, a gambler, a horsewoman, hardened by convent training, embittered by an alcoholic father, unlucky in love, frustrated in her dream of being more than a sob-sister feature writer for newspapers.” Jeffrey Meyers observes, “John never experienced a normal family life and had no stability as a child.” The biographer does not hammer the point home, but it is clear that the disorderly roving Huston knew as a boy he would duplicate as a man.

Doctors erroneously pronounced a death sentence on the boy when he was 11: The diagnosis was an enlarged heart and failing kidneys, and the prescription (which would only delay slightly the inevitable early end) was a starvation diet, complete bed rest, and a move from Minnesota to Arizona. Two years of this desperate regimen proved more than he could tolerate: John slipped out of the house one night and dove into a nearby canal, where the current pouring through open floodgates sucked him under and nearly finished him off. Survival was so exhilarating he would go back for more and more.

This daredevil hydrotherapy helped cure whatever ailed him. His heart and kidneys would be fine the rest of his life, and the thrill of danger became a driving force. The boredom he suffered as an invalid would always haunt him, and perpetual excitement in heavy dosage was the only known antidote: “The trouble with me is that I am forever and eternally bored. .  .  . If I’m threatened with boredom, why I’ll run like a hare.”

School bored him. Although he would rate, in Hollywood, as an intellectual, he dropped out of high school at 15; as Meyers notes, his formal education roughly equaled Marilyn Monroe’s, but he would read three or four books a week all his life. Boxing excited him. He took it up to recover his strength after the ordeal of doing nothing, and developed into a crackerjack amateur, going 23-2 and winning the California lightweight belt with no worse than a broken nose to show for it. Drawing and painting excited him even more. He honed a real talent and aspired to be remarkable.

Invited to New York by his father in 1924, John tried on Greenwich Village for size, and liked the rough-and-tumble combination of art and sport that no place else could rival. Acting swam in the blood, and there was no harm in trying: Cape Cod’s Provincetown Playhouse, where O’Neill was the reigning master, became the site of Huston’s stage debut in a dreary one-act based on a Sherwood Anderson short story.

After mastoid surgery laid John low, his father gave him $500 to recover in Mexico and he wound up an honorary lieutenant in the Mexican cavalry as an equestrian competitor. The yearlong interlude was not exactly warlike but furnished danger enough to keep Huston amused:

Always going places in Packards. You’d go the rounds of the cafés. Then you’d go to somebody’s finca. Then you’d play the next thing to Russian roulette. You’d cock a pistol and throw it up and hit the ceiling with it. It was great. Just great. I was their top jumping rider.

Marriage followed his return to Los Angeles—wives and lovers will get more detailed treatment shortly—and the couple promptly headed for Greenwich Village. Huston painted, boxed, and wrote, both fish-wrap journalism and upper-middlebrow art for would-be hard guys. Two boxing stories of his made the rounds from his father to Ring Lardner to H. L. Mencken, who published them in the American Mercury. A prestigious publisher paid him handsomely for a marionette play, Frankie and Johnny.

The next year, John tailed Walter to Hollywood. The son started out contributing dialogue to movies starring the father, and soon caught on as a screenwriting regular. But his marriage fell apart, he took to heavy drinking, got into two drunken car wrecks, and then killed a woman with his car—through no fault of his own. John took heat from the press, and Walter lined up a short-term screenwriting contract for him in London so that things could cool off. When the job ended, John was reduced to singing for his supper in the streets. A providential score in the Irish Sweepstakes and a screenplay sale brought in enough money that he could take off for Paris and a shot at serious painting. This time he realized for certain that he did not have the talent to win distinction as an artist.

But he needed to distinguish himself, somehow, and he would do that in Hollywood. After working on several screenplays between 1938 and 1941, he bulled his way into the chance to write and direct The Maltese Falcon, the archetypal private-eye movie, cold-eyed and wittily sinister, against which all others are measured and come up short. This first big success pointed Huston at 35 toward his life’s work, and he would direct 40 films, writing 20 screenplays by himself or in collaboration.

Telling the story straightforwardly, eschewing flashbacks and fancy camera maneuvers, became his artistic credo. He considered casting the indispensable directorial skill. And he honored the integrity of the original works from which he adapted his screenplays. Much of the stinging patter in The Maltese Falcon comes directly from Dashiell Hammett’s novel, the notable exception being the final, signature line, the most famous in any Huston film, lifted from The Tempest: “The stuff that dreams are made of,” the cynical hero calls the statuette that men (and a woman he fell in love with) were willing to kill for.

The life Huston led after that first smash hit would have fulfilled many men’s dreams. As a Signal Corps officer, he made stunning war documentaries in the Aleutians and in Italy, risking his skin and loving the action. During congressional investigations into communism in Hollywood he stood up for freedom of speech, although he admitted that in some of his political activism the anti-Soviet liberal had been a Red stooge. While filming The African Queen in the Belgian Congo, he devoted almost as much energy to hunting big game as he did to the picture. He drank too much, gambled too much, smoked 20 cigars a day, shot a Bengal tiger from the back of an elephant. In 1953, he bought and restored a Georgian manor in the west of Ireland, St. Clerans, and carried on like a lord, filling the house with art treasures, fishing in his private trout stream, foxhunting as Master of the Galway Blazers.

When St. Clerans grew too expensive to maintain, he decamped to an outpost on the then-primitive Mexican west coast near Puerto Vallarta. Although he regarded directing as his true business, he made a reputation as a character actor, best known for the incestuous, murderous, rich Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. For the last two decades of his life he suffered from emphysema, and directed Under the Volcano, Prizzi’s Honor, and The Dead from a wheelchair.

And of course, there were the women. When does a man who is catnip to women cease being a charming rascal and qualify as a scoundrel? When he treats his wives, mistresses, and casual flings the way Huston did—as though they deserved his contempt for having fallen for him. Almost from the start of his first marriage to Dorothy Harvey, his high school sweetheart and a philosophy student in college who intended to become a poet, tarty actresses rumpled his bedsheets on a regular basis. “There were so many pretty girls,” Huston recalled. “It was completely inconsequential, never serious—until Dorothy entered a room at the wrong moment.” Dorothy proceeded to drink herself into oblivion. They divorced and he accepted responsibility for the damage done. After his second wife, Lesley Black, delivered a stillborn girl, she was unable to conceive again and became deeply depressed. Huston’s affairs with Mary Astor and Olivia de Havilland, who starred in his movies, propelled her into a complete breakdown.

He married his third wife, the actress Evelyn Keyes, on the rebound from Marietta FitzGerald, the love of his life, a woman of grace, refinement, and Brahmin bloodlines who adored Huston but knew better than to marry him. Evelyn, for her part, was a luscious ex-chorus girl who proposed to Huston soon after they started seeing each other. Her gaucherie rubbed Huston raw, however, and his public humiliation of her served as heartless entertainment. Huston’s pet chimpanzee that smashed Evelyn’s perfume bottles and defecated in her dresser drawers spelled the end. Evelyn announced that it was her or the chimp, and Huston went for the chimp.

A prospective replacement bride already awaited: Ricki Soma, a former Balanchine student and cover girl, 23 years younger than Huston and barely 20 years old when they began their adultery. He married her in 1950, their son Tony (who would cowrite the screenplay for The Dead with his father) was born two months later, and his daughter Anjelica (who would star in Prizzi’s Honor and The Dead) was born the next year. Marital boredom arrived with paternity: Neither Ricki nor his growing children counted for much with Huston—though like Walter with him, he would show an interest in his children once they were old enough to be interesting. The usual run of available lovelies kept him whirling. He fathered another son, Danny, by one of them; Ricki countered by having a daughter with the (married) English peer and historian John Julius Norwich. In 1969, when Huston got word that Ricki had been killed in a car crash, he paused for a tearless moment, and then said, “Well, we’d better have our lunch.”

The woman Huston married in 1972, Celeste Shane, was a Beverly Hills knockout exactly half his age. Some of Huston’s closest friends couldn’t understand what he saw in her; they were offended by her coarseness. But what he saw, as he told Danny’s mother, was incomparable skill in the sack.

“Rather than moralizing about Huston’s conduct,” Jeffrey Meyers advises, “I would urge readers to take pleasure in his impressive achievements.” In fact, however, Meyers’s own distaste for Huston’s sexual conduct tinges this biography. And Huston himself knew that he had failed the women he claimed to love, and had failed them all the same way. The achievement is impressive for all that, as Meyers says: “The intensely productive Huston probably made more great films than any other director,” outdoing his contemporaries Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, and David Lean. Meyers rates eight as masterpieces—The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The African Queen (1951), The Misfits (1961), Fat City (1972), Under the Volcano (1984), and The Dead (1987)—and I would add The Man Who Would Be King (1975).

Huston’s heroes tend to want more than they have any chance of getting, or of keeping once they have it. If they come through their ordeal alive, sad resignation is the best they are left with. (The African Queen, in which Humphrey Bogart not only kills Germans but gets the girl, is a happy exception.) Huston’s work also exhibits a clockwork artistry that has passed out of style. Apparently slight touches in his films delineate the emotional landscape of the entire picture. Early in The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade’s partner is murdered, and a police detective, trying to be decent to Spade, says, “I guess he had some good qualities.” When Spade (who had been sleeping with his partner’s wife) replies, “I guess so,” the nearly affectless tone suggests the brutal carelessness that rules this amoral world. Yet in Spade’s demeanor there is a shading of regret that a man should have to build up such a callus in order to protect himself from his own feelings.

In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre the camera cuts back and forth and lights up the faces of two prospectors ablaze with avarice as the third partner (Walter Huston), who studies them impassively, measures out the daily take from their gold mine. Later, Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) will shoot his partner Curtin and, thinking he has killed him, stare into his campfire as into the flames of hell. Mexican bandits corner Dobbs, and one repeatedly lifts his trouser leg to check out his boots. The bandit’s greed has a feral lewdness, and after the bandits murder Dobbs, two of them fight for his boots. The gold is there for the grabbing, but the bandits mistake it for dust and the wind scatters it.

The opening shot of The Dead—Huston’s final film, based on James Joyce’s supreme short story—shows snow falling at night and shadows moving behind thin curtains; the dim grayish forms will prove to be dancers at a party, and from the start they evoke the ghostliness of the visible world. Joyous feasting, compulsive drinking, faces rapt or bored at a poetic recitation, the dance that goes on and on while those too old to join sit apart, a husband’s discovery that before his wife ever met him she loved a boy who died for her at 17: “One by one we’re all becoming shades.”

Among Hollywood filmmakers, Huston was about the best at what he did. Yet he understood that even his was a middling talent practicing a lesser, derivative art. As Meyers puts it, “He didn’t consider movies a high art, like painting and writing, and respected the author, not the director, as the auteur. Thirty-four out of thirty-seven of his feature films were adaptations of novels, stories or plays.”

But Meyers gets the great theme of Huston’s films exactly right: “t he tremendous struggle to achieve the impossible and the loss of the goal at the moment of triumph.” Perhaps this theme attracted Huston because he had turned aside from determined struggle and chosen easier success with its alluring perquisites.

In his memoir, Huston tells of taking a ditzy babe to dinner at “21” during World War II and being seated next to the table of H. L. Mencken, “just about the greatest man of our time.” Overcoming his shyness, Huston introduced himself and Mencken glowingly remembered his stories in the American Mercury some 15 years before. To turn out screenplays and direct films would be all right for some people, Mencken told him, but not for a writer of Huston’s abilities: “You were meant to be a serious writer.” When the conversation was over, Huston’s date asked him who the man was, and Huston told her the “greatest man’s” name. “Who’s he?” she said.

John Huston braved enemy fire and tiger charges and elephant stampedes. He made terrific movies. But the moral courage required for true excellence in life and art? That he lacked, and he knew it, and maybe in the end he was the one to suffer most for it.

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.

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