Black and white
True crime stories are supposed to follow a familiar arc – from mystery to resolution. You start with a crime and end with the culprit, a villain safely behind bars, readers’ minds restored to the ease of moral certainty. Take Woody Allen’s 1993 whodunnit Manhattan Murder Mystery, for example.
Then, however, there’s Woody’s own story. In 1992, Mia Farrow accused him of sexually assaulting their seven-year-old adopted daughter Dylan. Soon, the privacy of their family life was shattered as, in a maelstrom of press conferences, court appearances and interviews, the warring sides publicly painted each other as the evil perpetrator of a truly horrific crime.
They were right about one thing: something truly evil had occurred. If you believed Mia and Dylan, Woody was a child molester. If you believed Woody, Mia had coached Dylan to believe her father had done something so monstrous, it would warp her entire life and change those of her siblings, too.
Multiple investigations have failed to pin any guilt on Woody. But now, more than 25 years after the alleged assault occurred, the #MeToo movement has revived the question. Actors in some of his most recent films have rushed to denounce him.
Then, last December, a former model called Babi Christina Engelhardt went public to claim that she had had an eight-year affair with the director. It began, she said, in 1976 when he was 41 and she 16, a year below the age of consent in New York state, though she did not, she says, tell Woody her exact age.
Then, in February, came the announcement that Woody was suing Amazon Studios for $68 million (£52 million), accusing it of breaching their contract by refusing to distribute his latest film, A Rainy Day in New York. “Amazon has tried to excuse its action by referencing a 25-year-old, baseless allegation against Mr Allen, but that allegation was already well known to Amazon (and the public) before it contracted with Allen,” read the complaint. Amazon responded this month by blaming Allen for his public pronouncements on the issue.
The allegations swirling around his private life might be doing irreparable damage to his career, yet the deeper you dig into the mountain of court documents, magazine interviews, blog posts and TV interviews in which Woody and Mia’s family feature, the muddier this picture becomes.
Think you are certain of Woody’s true innocence? Wait till you read Mia’s account, in Vanity Fair, of stumbling across the graphic nude Polaroids he took of her college-student daughter, and then failed to hide. Sure in your conviction that Mia was a victim? Watch Woody’s 1992 TV interview on 60 Minutes, in which he claims that, a month before the alleged abuse of Dylan, Mia called him repeatedly to say: “You took my daughter, and I’m going to take yours.”
In an era when allegations can sink reputations, prompt resignations and spark angry public condemnations, could Woody Allen’s personal life be the most nuanced and instructive of all his studies of the human condition? One that turns the true crime narrative on its head? One that reveals, in a time of black and white morals, the many grey areas that lie in the spaces in between, where secrets can be buried so deeply they will never be discovered, even by a public so hungry for a tidy conclusion that its scrutiny has endured for a quarter of a century?
A family picture
August 1992. A bright August sun beats down on a whitewashed farmhouse and a small lake in Connecticut. A quarter of a century later, one of those present, Moses Farrow, will recall six children lounging inside watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit. A perfect picture-postcard family, in other words.
Something bad is about to happen here, however. Everyone – from those present, to those who hear about it second-hand in the newspapers, on television and later through Twitter – will agree that what happens is evil. They will know that it happens to the seven-year-old girl with the blonde curls, currently transfixed by the cartoon bunny on the screen; that she is traumatised by her parent, the person who should have cared for her most carefully. But which parent? And in what way?
In 1979, when Woody Allen met Mia Farrow at Elaine’s, a Manhattan restaurant, he had been married twice but was childless. He was also America’s most celebrated film director, churning out a movie a year with seemingly unstoppable momentum and genius.
Mia, meanwhile, was Hollywood royalty. The daughter of Maureen O’Sullivan and John Farrow and star of Roman Polanski’s infamous Rosemary’s Baby, by the time she met Woody she had already served as Salvador Dali’s teen muse and seen off two marriages: first to Frank Sinatra (she was 21, he 50), then to André Previn (she was 25, he 40 and married to the singer-songwriter Dory Previn, whose discovery of the affair led to her being admitted to a psychiatric hospital).
Farrow and Previn, the Berlin-born composer and conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, who died in February aged 89, had six children. Three – twins Sasha and Matthew Previn, then Fletcher Previn – were biological; three were adopted. Lark Previn was first to come, from Vietnam in 1973; Summer (later called Daisy) Previn followed from the same war-torn country. Finally, as the marriage was faltering, a child arrived from South Korea, named Soon-Yi Previn.
When Mia began her relationship with Woody, Soon-Yi was about ten years old. The devastating poverty of her early childhood in South Korea means the date of her birth is a mystery, her age estimated only by bone scans.
The public thrilled at the union of Mia and Woody, both in real life and on the big screen (the pair would make 13 films together including some of Woody’s most beloved, like Hannah and Her Sisters and The Purple Rose of Cairo). In private, however, their relationship was eccentric. A judge would later summarise that Woody “viewed her children as an encumbrance. He had no involvement with them and no interest in them.”
Yet Mia’s family grew nonetheless. Following her divorce from Previn, she had adopted Moses Farrow, a two-year-old South Korean boy with cerebral palsy. Woody would become a father figure of sorts to him, as well as to Dylan Farrow, a tiny blonde bundle of a baby girl who arrived from Texas in 1985 and finally, in 1987, to their son Satchel (later known as Ronan Farrow). Even then, Woody remained in his apartment on Fifth Avenue, Mia and the children in an apartment on Central Park West. (“Mr Allen did not touch her stomach, listen to the foetus, or try to feel it kick,” the judge would note.)
Moses would later remember Allen arriving for breakfast carrying newspapers and muffins. The filmmaker would pay his share of the younger children’s school fees (Previn supported his own) and those of the several shrinks that even the children were seeing.
Delving through the various accounts of life in the Farrow/Allen/Previn family, so far this much seems clear. But their story begins to unravel at the start of the new decade. Who did what, when and to whom? As the Eighties turn into the Nineties, two very different camps emerge within this family. Their stories, told with equal conviction, are so divergent that it is like watching two completely different movies that share a single cast. Only, of course, these are real people, whose real-life actions have devastatingly real consequences.
In 1992, Soon-Yi was studying at Drew University and, by different people’s estimates, aged either 19 or 21. She had not had an easy time. She had learning difficulties, the severity of which morphs across different family accounts. Moses and Soon-Yi herself describe them as minor. Others, however, paint her as a young woman so unworldly they thought she might become a nun.
Woody and Mia’s relationship also metamorphoses in the mouths of different family members. He will later claim that, by this stage, it was clearly petering out; Farrow that she still thought they would end their days together. Either way, January 13, 1992 was a fateful day.
Later the same year, Mia would revisit it in a Vanity Fair interview with the journalist Maureen Orth. Woody had successfully completed his adoption of Dylan and Moses just the month before and Mia was in his apartment waiting for the younger children to finish a play therapy session with their psychologist when she lifted a box of tissues from his mantelpiece. Beneath it was a stack of Polaroid photos depicting Soon-Yi naked, her legs spread open, both her vagina and face in shot.
“I felt,” she told Orth, “like I was looking straight into the face of pure evil.”
Explosive rows ensued. Woody would later claim that Mia beat Soon-Yi violently, and that she phoned others to claim he had “molested her daughter, raped her daughter”. Mia’s version of the evening is different, however. She would claim that Woody begged for her forgiveness, asked her to marry him and even stayed for supper with the children.
However the evening played out, we do know that in the following weeks the pair managed to finish shooting a film together, Husbands and Wives. On Valentine’s Day 1992, Woody allegedly sent Mia a red satin box of chocolates. Mia’s gift to him? A photo of her and the children, with toothpicks piercing their hearts and a bread knife through her own.
Mia would later tell a court: “It was not a threat, it was an attempt to depict to a man who didn’t know or didn’t care what he had done… The morality of the situation seemed to have totally eluded him. I wanted to depict the degree of pain he had inflicted on me and my entire family.”
Days later, a six-year-old Vietnamese boy whose adoption had been arranged months previously, arrived in this shattered family home. It became immediately apparent that he was suffering from serious and unforeseen medical problems. He screamed all day. Mia was forced to find a family better able to care for him.
The whirlwind did not stop there, however. Tam, a blind Vietnamese girl, and Isaiah, an African American baby withdrawing from cocaine addiction, were adopted by Mia shortly afterwards. Her children now totalled 11. Decades later, Soon-Yi would tell New York magazine that Mia “was so volatile” at around this stage that “she was like a sinkhole taking everything down with her”.
By July, however, Mia appears to have been secure in at least one thing – her certainty that her daughter’s relationship with Woody was over. Soon-Yi, after all, was far away, working as a summer camp counsellor in Maine. Then came a letter that would shake the foundations of the family yet again. Soon-Yi had been fired for taking too many calls from a man identifying himself as Mr Simon. It was Woody.
From here, events unravelled with dizzying speed. On August 1, Dr Susan Coates, a family psychologist, received a phone call from Mia. She would later give evidence in court, claiming that Mia railed against Woody that day, calling him “satanic and evil”, pleading with her to “find a way to stop him”, then suddenly asking: “Do you think I should marry him?”
It was in this febrile climate that, on August 4, Woody drove to Mia’s Connecticut farmhouse to see the children. In a second Vanity Fair interview with Mia, this one from 2013, Maureen Orth would describe the house as “right out of the old nursery rhyme: There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.”
That day, however, Mia was purposeful. She went out shopping with her friend Casey Pascal and the recently adopted Tam and Isaiah. They left Pascal’s three children at home with Moses, 15, Dylan, 7, and Satchel, 4. The Pascals’ nanny was there too, with the Farrows’ nanny and French tutor. Plus Woody, of course.
When the shoppers returned, Moses would later recall, Mia and Woody went out for supper together before Woody slept in a spare room next to the garage, then left the following morning. Soon after, Mia received a phone call from Pascal.
While they were out shopping, her friend told her, Pascal’s nanny had walked past Mia’s television room and seen Woody in a pose that bothered her. A judge would later summarise it thus: “kneeling in front of Dylan with his head on her lap, facing her body. Dylan was sitting on the couch staring vacantly in the direction of a television set.”
Mia, of course, questioned the seven-year-old Dylan. Slowly, in stops and starts, she filmed her daughter on a video camera as a horrifying story emerged from the little girl. The fact that her account was recorded over so many hours, with gaps between interviews, would later be used to discredit the mother’s and daughter’s version of events.
What was happening in those gaps? sceptics would ask. Was Mia coaching Dylan, driven wild by a desire for revenge against Woody? Or was its halting nature simply the result of a loving parent’s reluctance to pressurise a traumatised child as she struggled to speak the unspeakable?
One thing is certain. From that moment, a family already cracked in half was riven in two.
Mia called her lawyer, then took Dylan to see a doctor, who asked the little girl where her father had touched her. She pointed to her shoulder. Later, over an ice cream, she told her mother that the truth had been too embarrassing to share. When they returned, and Dylan told her original story, the doctor was obliged to inform the police. A chain of events had been set in motion, the scale and horror of which no one in the family could have fully anticipated.
On August 13, having been told of the accusations against him, Woody filed for custody of Dylan, Moses and Satchel. On the 17th, the very same day the filmmaker publicly confirmed his relationship with Soon-Yi, Connecticut State Police announced an investigation into Dylan’s alleged abuse.
Suddenly, every aspect of the family’s lives was under the spotlight. Paparazzi swarmed round Mia’s apartment. Dylan will later remember being carried under a blanket to protect her from the blaze of cameras. Not only the police, but the New York State Department of Social Services and a team from the Yale New Haven Hospital’s Child Sexual Abuse Clinic were all running investigations.
Then, in March 1993, court custody hearings began. In all these different theatres, two radically different versions of life in the Farrow apartment were publicly and vehemently aired. Woody’s camp claimed that Mia had long been emotionally and physically abusive towards her adoptive children; that once Satchel was born, she neglected Dylan, leaving Woody to comfort her. Mia’s supporters countered that Woody’s relationship with Dylan had been troubling for years; that he would get her to suck his thumb and spend play-time in bed with her, that the little girl would complain of stomach aches when he visited.
In the end, the Yale New Haven Hospital team would find that “Dylan was not sexually abused”, concluding that the most likely reason for her allegations was a result of being “coached or influenced by her mother” and being “an emotionally vulnerable child who was caught up in a disturbed family”.
The validity of their findings was, however, called into question by Acting Justice Elliott Wilk, the judge presiding over Mia and Woody’s custody battle. On June 7, 1993 he granted custody of the three children to Mia, allowing the teenage Moses to decide what contact he would have with his father. Of Satchel he said: “I believe Mr. Allen to be so self‐absorbed, untrustworthy and insensitive, that he should not be permitted to see Satchel without appropriate professional supervision until Mr. Allen demonstrates that supervision is no longer necessary.” When it came to Dylan: “It is unclear whether Mr. Allen will ever develop the insight and judgement necessary for him to relate to Dylan appropriately.” All immediate visitation was denied, pending further review.
The conclusion of police enquiries, however, appeared less black and white. In September, and in a controversial announcement that Woody objected to, Connecticut state prosecutor Frank Maco said that the investigation would go no further, despite “probable cause” to prosecute, in order to avoid further damage to Dylan. The child was “traumatized to the extent that I did not have a confident witness to testify in any court setting, whether that’s a closed courtroom or an open courtroom”, he would later explain. In October, meanwhile, the New York Department of Social Services’ 14-month investigation found “no credible evidence… that the child named in this report has been abused or maltreated. This report has, therefore, been considered unfounded.”
Woody’s attempts to appeal against Justice Wilk’s decision were, however, unsuccessful. His contact with not only Dylan but also Satchel was soon severed entirely. He married Soon-Yi in 1997 and the couple adopted two daughters – Bechet in 1999 and Manzie, who followed soon after. As is routine, two judges investigated each adoption application before granting them.
Mia and the younger children moved to Connecticut and, for a while, it seemed like everyone could draw a curtain on the past. Woody’s films continued to be hits with both box offices and critics. In 2012, he won his third Oscar, for best original screenplay for Midnight in Paris. Mia became a human rights activist and more adoptions brought the total of her children to 14.
Dylan changed her name (retaining Dylan only for public statements), married and had a daughter. Satchel, too, changed his name, to Ronan, and went to Yale Law School at 16. If his relationship with Woody was not already dead by 2013, it seemed to receive one final, fatal blow when, in Mia’s Vanity Fair interview with Maureen Orth, she suggested that Frank Sinatra might, in fact, be Ronan’s biological father.
Tragedy casts a long and dark shadow, however. Tam Farrow died of heart failure in 2000. Lark contracted Aids and died on Christmas Day 2008. In 2016 Thaddeus, adopted from an Indian orphanage in 1994, shot himself fatally in the chest aged 27. Not even sadness on this scale was spared entanglement in the family feud. Moses Farrow would later claim that Tam’s fatal overdose occurred after a fight with Mia, and pointed out that Thaddeus’s suicide occurred “less than 10 minutes from my mother’s house”.
Yet aside from the occasional tweet (“Missed the Woody Allen tribute,” wrote Ronan in 2014, “did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?”), and a first-hand account of Dylan’s experience published in a 2014 New York Times blog, for the most part the family’s affairs remained out of the public eye.
Not white or black
Then, in 2017, the #MeToo movement burst on to the scene, radically altering the balance of power and opinion in Hollywood. Ronan Farrow was at its heart. Now a highly successful and increasingly prominent journalist, he was instrumental in The New Yorker’s investigations into allegations of sexual abuse against Harvey Weinstein.
In December of that year, days after the first UK civil claim against Weinstein was issued in the High Court and British actress Kadian Noble accused the producer of sexual assault, Dylan herself wrote a comment piece for the Los Angeles Times headlined: “Why has the #MeToo revolution spared Woody Allen?” The following month she gave her first TV interview, to CBS News. In it, she tearfully confirmed the version of events she had first conveyed 25 years ago in her mother’s camcorder recordings, had reiterated to Maureen Orth in 2013, then again in her 2014 New York Times blog post.
She also, however, called on those actors who continue to star in Allen’s movies, “especially since so many of them have been vocal advocates of this MeToo and TimesUp movement, that they can acknowledge their complicity, and maybe hold themselves accountable to how they have perpetuated this culture of silence in their industry”.
Suddenly Woody’s neuroticisms and oddities, for decades a celebrated ingredient of his genius, began to look out of step at best, suspect at worst. In June 2018, he gave an interview on Argentinian TV news programme Periodismo Para Todos, in which he said: “I should be the poster boy for the #MeToo movement. Because I have worked in movies for 50 years. I’ve worked with hundreds of actresses and not a single one – big ones, famous ones, ones starting out – have ever, ever suggested any kind of impropriety at all. I’ve always had a wonderful record with them.”
Despite this, many of them had already begun distancing themselves from him. In September 2017, Kate Winslet was praising the “incredible director” of her film Wonder Wheel while Jude Law was signing up to join Selena Gomez and Timothée Chalamet in the cast of Woody’s next movie, A Rainy Day in New York. Less than six months later, however, Winslet was expressing “bitter regrets… at poor decisions to work with individuals with whom I wish I had not”. Her words were widely interpreted as a comment on her work with Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein. Wonder Wheel struggled critically and commercially against this change in the winds.
Worse for Woody was the public denouncement from cast members of A Rainy Day in New York. At the start of last year, before the film could be released, Gomez, Chalamet and Hall all donated some or all of their fees to the Time’s Up movement.
Amazon Studios (the boss of which, Roy Price, resigned in 2017 in the wake of sexual harassment allegations) has yet to set a release date for the movie, leaving a heavy question mark hanging over its fate and those of the three unmade films still left in its contract with Woody.
There has been widespread speculation that, should the film ever see the light of day, it will be without fanfare, premiere or press. Others have suggested that Woody might return to making films in Europe, to escape the harsh spotlight of Hollywood and find less sensitive sources of funding.
As Woody’s sister and long-time producer Letty Aronson explained in 2014: “In Europe, there’s never been a studio system. It’s really always been independent financiers. So it’s easier to go there… and get money.”
In the meantime, Woody’s run of releasing a movie a year, unbroken for half a century, may be over. But the gossip mill is turning at an ever-faster rate.
At the end of January, the actress Frieda Pinto told The Guardian that she would never work with Woody again, “because I’m in solidarity with women who have come out with their stories, whether they are proven or not. I’m just going to stick to what my gut instinct tells me.”
Others, of course, have come out in defence. In the same month, Michael Caine told Rolling Stone: “If he had a trial and someone proved he had done something, I wouldn’t do it. But I didn’t read of him being on trial and being found guilty or fined or sent to prison or anything. This is all things that people say. You can’t go on hearsay the whole time.”
The stars in this strange and sad serial have spoken too. Last September, New York magazine published an interview with Soon-Yi. “I was never interested in writing a Mommie Dearest, getting even with Mia – none of that,” she told Daphne Merkin. “But what’s happened to Woody is so upsetting, so unjust. [Mia] has taken advantage of the #MeToo movement and paraded Dylan as a victim. And a whole new generation is hearing about it when they shouldn’t.” Meanwhile, Mia herself appeared on the cover of Elle and said of her time with Woody: “It’s not all white or black. Otherwise you’d ask yourself what on earth you’re doing with that person for ten minutes, let alone for ten years… I reached a place many years ago where I just don’t care about him.” Today’s moral climate, however, is not a place where such grey areas can thrive.
Woody | 2001 Time magazine
I am not Soon-Yi’s father or stepfather. I’ve never even lived with Mia… I was not a father to her adopted kids in any sense of the word… I didn’t feel that just because she was Mia’s daughter, there was any great moral dilemma… It wasn’t like she was my daughter.
Moses | 2018, his personal blog
She is not Woody’s daughter (adopted, step, or otherwise), nor is she developmentally challenged. (She got a master’s degree in special education from Columbia University!) And the claim that they started dating while she was underage is totally false.
Ronan | 2011, Life magazine
He’s my father married to my sister. That makes me his son and his brother-in-law. That is such a moral transgression… I lived with all these adopted children, so they are my family. To say Soon-Yi was not my sister is an insult to all adopted children.
Soon-Yi | 2018, New York magazine
Mia was never kind to me, never civil. And here was a chance for someone showing me affection and being nice to me, so of course I was thrilled and ran for it.
Woody | 2014
a New York Times piece, responding to Dylan’s blog post
… of course, I hadn’t molested Dylan… I was a 56-year-old man who had never before (or after) been accused of child molestation. I had been going out with Mia for 12 years and never in that time did she ever suggest to me anything resembling misconduct. Now, suddenly… when I would be on my raging adversary’s home turf, with half a dozen people present, when I was in the blissful early stages of a happy new relationship with the woman I’d go on to marry – that I would pick this moment in time to embark on a career as a child molester should seem to the most skeptical mind highly unlikely.
Moses | 2018
his personal blog
It was an unfinished crawl space, under a steeply-angled gabled roof, with exposed nails and floorboards, billows of fiberglass insulation, filled with mousetraps and droppings and stinking of mothballs, and crammed with trunks full of hand-me-down clothes and my mother’s old wardrobes… The idea that the space could possibly have accommodated a functioning electric train set, circling around the attic, is ridiculous. One of my brothers did have an elaborate model train set, but it was set up in the boys’ room, a converted garage on the first floor.
Ronan | 2016
The Hollywood Reporter
I believe my sister. This was always true as a brother who trusted her, and, even at five years old, was troubled by our father’s strange behaviour around her… But more importantly, I’ve approached the case as an attorney and a reporter, and found her allegations to be credible.
Woody | 2014
The New York Times
Undoubtedly the attic idea came to her [Mia] from the Dory Previn song, With My Daddy in the Attic. It was on the same record as the song Dory Previn had written about Mia’s betraying their friendship by insidiously stealing her husband, André, Beware of Young Girls.
Dylan | 2014
a New York Times blog post
Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me. He talked to me while he did it, whispering that I was a good girl, that this was our secret, promising that we’d go to Paris and I’d be a star in his movies. I remember staring at that toy train, focusing on it as it travelled in its circle around the attic. To this day, I find it difficult to look at toy trains.
Moses | 2018
his personal blog
For months now, she had been drilling it into our heads like a mantra: Woody was “evil”, “a monster”, “the devil”, and Soon-Yi was “dead to us”… My mother was our only source of information about Woody – and she was extremely convincing… I had also learned repeatedly that to go against her wishes would bring horrible repercussions.
Soon-Yi | 1992
Mia was always very hot-tempered and given to rages which terrified all the kids. They can’t speak freely because they’re still dependent on her. But they could really tell stories and I’m sure one day will. It’s true Mia was violent with me and I have conclusive proof.
Dylan | 2014
My memories are the truth and they are mine and I will live with that for the rest of my life. [Mia] never planted false memories in my brain. My memories are mine. I remember them. She was distraught when I told her. When I came forward with my story she was hoping against hope that I had made it up.
Matthew Previn, Sascha Previn, Fletcher Previn, Daisy Previn, Ronan Farrow, Isaiah Farrow, and Quincy Farrow | 2018
a statement delivered via Dylan Farrow’s Twitter feed
We love and stand by our mom, who has always been a caring and giving parent. None of us ever witnessed anything other than compassionate treatment in our home, which is why the courts granted sole custody to our mother of all her children. We reject any effort to deflect from Dylan’s allegation by trying to vilify our mom. While we would rather not have to speak publicly about this painful time in our lives, we also couldn’t be silent as she is once again unfairly attacked.
Acting Justice Elliott Wilk | 1993
ruling on Woody and Mia’s custody battle
There is no credible evidence to support Mr Allen’s contention that Ms Farrow coached Dylan or that Ms Farrow acted upon a desire for revenge against him for seducing Soon-Yi. Mr. Allen’s resort to the stereotypical ‘woman scorned’ defense is an injudicious attempt to divert attention from his failure to act as a responsible parent and adult… We will probably never know what happened.
Tortoise attempted to contact the representatives of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow for this article but received no response.
This article is a slightly updated version of one published earlier by Tortoise.
Photographs top to bottom: Brian Hamill/Getty Images, David Mcgough/LIFE/Getty Images, Ann Clifford/LIFE/Getty Images, David Mcgough/LIFE/Getty Images, Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images