In the summer of 1982 the Irish writer Edna O’Brien came to John Huston’s tropical-beach retreat near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to work with him on the screenplay of A. E. Ellis’ The Rack. This grim, agonising novel portrays a hopelessly moribund patient who endures cruel treatments for tuberculosis in a French Alpine sanatorium after World War II. Huston was drawn to the book because it reminded him of his sickly boyhood and long captivity in hospital. Unpromising material for a film, the project came to nothing but the collaboration between the two struck sparks.

Suffering from emphysema, Huston was looked after by his current mistress, the tolerant Mexican maid of his fifth ex-wife. He was then seventy-six but still handsome and vigorous. A world-famous film director, screenwriter and actor, he was also a bon viveur and collector of art and women. He had lived in splendour on a grand estate, St. Clarens, near Galway, for more then twenty years and had been Master of the fox- hunting Galway Blazers. Huston had become an Irish citizen and loved everything about Ireland. O’Brien was then fifty-two. Divorced and extremely attractive, she was a successful fiction writer and some of her work – including The Girl with Green Eyes – had been made into films.

O’Brien told Lawrence Grobel, author of The Hustons (1989), that she had been dazzled by Huston’s charm but, several years later, was still furious about the way he had treated her. In the beginning, she said, ‘I was stuck on John. I was thrilled by his energy. And that voice – which was totally seductive.’ But she also described her work with him as one of the most gruelling and humiliating experiences of her life. She angrily recalled, ‘If he was just a straight monster nobody would have bothered with him. It was his unpredictability that was so fascinating’ – that unnerved her as if he were a dangerous wild animal. ‘He could be so f*****g condescending. …

My character and my talent just collapsed under that kind of psychological pressure. … He just tore me apart, just totally slaughtered me in a way that was unforgivable.’ Emotionally unravelled by what she called his ‘brain torture’, she told Huston that he was terribly destructive, personally cruel and had a ‘murderous feeling toward women’. She bitterly complained, ‘What you’re doing to me is awful. You’re just trying to kill me.’ Huston viewed it rather differently and thought they were simply incompatible. He recalled that when he criticised her work, O’Brien became hysterical, that if ‘I said something cynical that got to her, she broke down and wept. I consoled her – or tried to – but it was a failure.’

When I was writing Huston’s life I found an article in the obscure Irish journal An Gael (Winter 1987) by Ernie Anderson, his former publicist. Anderson said that O’Brien ‘wrote a thinly disguised fiction about a walk out [an affair] with Huston’. I questioned several Irish scholars who had published books on O’Brien but no one could identify the story. O’Brien chose not to do so. On 22 May 2009 she wrote me a polite but unconvincing letter, citing her faulty memory: ‘I am sorry that I cannot be of help to you with regard to your Huston book. It was so long ago, compounded with the boiling heat of Mexico and a script that never got anywhere, that I do not have clear or for that matter lively recollections of that time. To provide one or two negative remarks wouldn’t be right.’ Since I could find nothing new to add about Huston and O’Brien, and did not want to give an entirely negative account of their emotional relations and work on this uncompleted script, I did not mention her at all in my biography, John Huston: Courage and Art (2011).

A biographer, however, always leaves a few mysteries unsolved, and after my book was printed I still wanted to find O’Brien’s story and her portrait of Huston. After a few dead ends I looked in the first collection of her short fiction to be published after she met Huston, Lantern Slides (1990), and was immediately drawn to the longest and last tale in the book. The title story, which suggests movie-like images of a past life, may have been influenced by a famous image in T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. In that poem ‘a magic lantern’ revealed one’s deepest feelings and ‘threw the nerves in patterns on a screen’.

‘Lantern Slides’ was published three years after Huston’s death, which coincided with the release of his masterly film

Edna O’Brien

version of James Joyce’s greatest story in Dubliners, ‘The Dead’. The main character of O’Brien’s story is Miss Lawless, a middle-aged woman recently returned to Dublin from abroad, who attends a party in a prosperous suburb accompanied by a Mr. Conroy, whom she knew in her youth. Her name and status,

and her complicated amatory past, make her a typical O’Brien character. O’Brien’s party is clearly a satiric variant of the celebration in ‘The Dead’, but she replaces Joyce’s elegiac sadness and family feast with modern characters. Some are randy and on the lookout for new lovers, others have suffered from unhappy love affairs or marriages gone sour, but they all gossip a good deal about one another. A flamboyant character called Reggie, based on Huston, makes a rather late entrance to the party. His arrival disturbs Miss Lawless and becomes the focus of her attention.

‘Lantern Slides’ has several deliberate verbal echoes of Joyce, the subject of O’Brien’s short book in 1999. The doctor and writer, Oliver St. John Gogarty, was a close friend of Joyce. In O’Brien’s story, a Mr. Gogarty is one of the guests at the party. In the Nestor chapter of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus declares, ‘History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake’. In O’Brien, Dr. Fitz tries to console a woman who has been deserted by her husband by telling her that the whole experience ‘was a bad dream from which she would one day awaken’. Joyce also wrote an early essay on Henrik Ibsen’s play, When We Dead Awaken. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom first makes love to Molly on Howth Hill. In O’Brien, Miss Lawless walks with Mr. Conroy on the Hill of Howth, where ‘the rhododendrons would be in bloom’.

O’Brien’s Mr. Conroy signals the obvious connection to Joyce. She writes that her party, like the one in ‘The Dead’, ‘was a smart gathering in a select part of the outskirts of Dublin’ and that ‘the hum of voices presaged an evening that would be lively’. Her party has ‘elderly ladies’, like the hostesses, Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia Morkan, in Joyce. The décor in O’Brien’s party includes ‘low tables crammed with ornaments, porcelain boxes, veined eggs, and so forth’. In Huston’s film version of ‘The Dead’, which connects him both to Joyce and O’Brien, Aunt Julia poignantly sings Bellini’s Arrayed for the Bridal as the camera moves away from her, travels upstairs to an empty bedroom, focuses on the cherished dolls’ house, delicate embroidery, old photographs, glass slippers, rosary and crucifix – all of which recall the past and the dear dead members of the family. In Joyce, Miss Ivors strongly criticises Gabriel Conroy as a West Briton for publishing in a pro-English newspaper and taking his holidays on the Continent instead of in the West of Ireland. In O’Brien, Bill the Barrow Boy takes Miss Lawless ‘to task, in a joking way, for having become an exile’.

Joyce’s theme is the enduring influence of the dead on the living. In both stories memories of the heroine’s first love surge to the surface as recollections of the past dominate the present. In Joyce’s story, Bartell D’Arcy’s song, The Lass of Aughrim, evokes Gretta Conroy’s memory of Michael Furey, the young lad she had been ‘great with’ as a girl in Galway, who used to sing that very song to her. Gretta recalls her grief when, back at school, she learned that Michael Furey had died. On their walk in O’Brien’s story, Mr. Conroy and Miss Lawless also ‘relived several moments of their past’. ‘He talked of his first love’; and that evening she felt ‘a flood of childhood evocations. … The party had begun to trigger in her a host of things, memory upon memory.’ Recalling her loss of virginity as a young woman with an older man, Miss Lawless thinks, ‘Twenty-five years had gone by since that momentous occasion on the dunes. It was there she had surrendered herself.’ She had ended her affair with the man she calls ‘Abelard’ when she got to know his wife and three children. (Peter Abelard, a medieval philosopher, impregnated Héloïse and was castrated by her uncle. Their love letters later became famous.) In ‘The Dead’ Joyce undercuts Gretta’s emotion by revealing that Furey worked in the gasworks. O’Brien similarly has Miss Lawless discover from Conroy that her first love is now almost blind and walks with a stick.

In O’Brien the minor detail that Mr. Conroy works in a hotel alludes to the climactic scene in ‘The Dead’. In Joyce, Gabriel and Gretta Conroy, after attending the annual Twelfth Night dinner party, spend the night at the Gresham hotel. She tearfully tells her husband about her first love and Gabriel realises that she loves Furey more than she has ever loved him. Joyce’s story ends as snow, ‘general all over Ireland’, falls faintly ‘upon all the living and the dead’. In O’Brien the tiny lit evergreens that descend from the ceiling at the party suggest ‘sleigh rides, and the air fresh and piercing with the fall of snow’.

In ‘Lantern Slides’ Miss Lawless wears a heavy gold Mexican necklace, a symbolic detail that suggests O’Brien’s journey to Puerto Vallarta and may have been a gift from Huston. Reggie, a brilliant but promiscuous man, makes a dramatic entrance to the party and reminds Miss Lawless of her youthful Abelard: ‘He was wearing a black dress suit and a cream shirt with frills that reached all the way down the front. The suit seemed to be not of serge or wool, but of silk, and the sleeves were wide, like the sleeves of a woman’s kimono. … He was obviously a man of note. … He had something of the quality of a panther. She felt that his shoes, which she could not see, were made of suede, or else they were slippers, because he seemed to walk so softly.’ Huston also loved to dress up in fancy clothes and display his lavish wardrobe, including handmade shirts and suits, velvet dinner costume with broad bow tie and soft monogrammed slippers – and a Japanese kimono.

Reggie’s distinguished appearance is as striking as his costume. He has the same good looks and imposing presence as Huston, and the guests take notice when he enters the room. ‘His long fawn eyelashes were soft and sleek. … His eyes were a washed blue and they conveyed both coldness and hurt. His voice was very low and when he did turn to address her his manner was detached. … He had that lit-up quality that gave off a glow even though his manner was cold. … He was a ruthless man, and she could see that he would be at home in any gathering – had sufficient a smile and sufficient a tan and sufficient savoir-faire to belong anywhere.’

O’Brien bases Betty, the hostess and guest of the surprise birthday party, who has been suddenly abandoned by her husband John, on Huston’s estranged third wife, Ricki Soma. Betty was ‘the pretty and ever-cheerful wife who dressed always as her prominent husband liked her to dress, which was smartly; who rode to hounds at her husband’s wish; who rarely complained if he failed to turn up at a theatre or a concert; who organised lunches, dinners, breakfasts for fifty or more at the last minute; and who even overcame her fear of skiing – all for his sake.’ Ricki, who was twenty- three years younger than Huston and lived in a separate house on his Irish estate, was the perfect hostess. She also, though afraid of horses, joined in his passion for fox hunting. Huston had many love affairs, which Ricki had meekly tolerated until she left him in 1962. In January 1969, when driving with her Jamaican lover, the thirty-nine-year old Ricki died in a car crash in France. Huston, self-controlled as always, showed no emotion when told of her tragic death.

Miss Lawless hears that Reggie’s wife has also died in an accident. She was drowned while trying to rescue a friend who had been thrown from a horse as she tried to ford a swollen stream. Since his wife rode to please him, Reggie is indirectly responsible for her death. But according to the party gossips, he was now ‘chasing young girls, his wife hardly cold in the grave. … This husband was swanning about in Italian-style clothes, getting sympathy off ladies for his tragedy.’ Miss Lawless is shocked but thrilled by Reggie’s cool demeanour. He tells her that when he learned of the accident, ‘he had not lost his composure – not once’ and seems to have no real feeling for his late wife. ‘“She was a good friend and a good lover,” he said quietly.’ Reggie ‘sent a chill through Miss Lawless, and yet his features were so fine, his manner so courteous, and his eyes so sensitive that she found a way within herself to excuse him. She wanted him to be human, to be seared by the tragic event. She wanted to peel off his mask.’

Ironically, the worldly Miss Lawless, who has missed her chance to marry, finds herself falling under his spell and is thrilled by the possibility of becoming his lover: ‘She had not seen anyone she admired for a long time. Her excitement was utter. … She wanted to lie close to him and to be aware of him dreaming … in a hectic, amorous, intoxicating night.’ Though a middle-aged woman, she swoons like a schoolgirl. Her hope for a compensating affair with the second Abelard – an older, dominant and clever man – allows her to make her ‘peace with the first Abelard.’

Though ‘Lantern Slides’ consciously echoes ‘The Dead’ and draws our attention to the Joycean parallels, the story is really about O’Brien’s irresistible attraction to and unhappy affair with Huston, who often slept with the women who worked with him. When she discussed Huston with Grobel she was still angry, but in the writing of the story she seems to have reflected on her own behaviour. There is a tremendous contrast between the rage she expressed to Grobel and her portrayal of Huston in the story. Miss Lawless – whose surname suggests her reckless past – excuses and forgives Reggie’s glaring faults: his ruthlessness, detachment, coldness and indifference to his dead wife. Instead of retaliating for his ill-treatment (as she saw it) with a vitriolic fictional portrait, O’Brien overcame the humiliation, anger and hostility she had felt, and characterised him as a deeply flawed but brilliant, charming and overpoweringly seductive man. O’Brien, a year younger than Ricki Soma, was conflicted about her emotional involvement with Huston and, when I wrote to her, seemed embarrassed about her portrayal of him in the story. She had revealed far too much about her own feelings for Huston and, twenty years later, was unwilling to talk to me about him.

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