The author, whose groundbreaking reporting on Allen’s relationship with Mia Farrow and her children challenged the dominant media narrative, looks back on the Herculean effort required to call an iconic celebrity to account.
Original Publication vf.com – By Maureen Orth March 5, 2021
“WAS ORTH FAIR TO WOODY?”
That was the headline of Liz Smith’s syndicated gossip column on October 8, 1992. Vanity Fair had just published my 10,650-word investigation into the sordid saga of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, and effectively shattered Woody’s control of the media narrative surrounding allegations that he had sexually molested his seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan,and had begun an affair with one of Mia’s adopted daughters, Soon-Yi.
The article revealed that Woody had been in therapy for two years for “inappropriate behavior” toward Dylan; that, clad only in his underwear, he would entwine himself around her in bed; that he would have her suck his thumb; that he rubbed suntan lotion between her buttocks; and so on. It also contained new details regarding Mia’s adoption of Soon-Yi, Mia’s difficulty bonding with the child, and the origin of Soon-Yi’s love affair with Woody—much of which is now being retold nearly 30 years later in Allen v. Farrow, a new documentary series on HBO. (Full disclosure: I appear in the first and third episodes.) I spoke to the children’s nannies, the neighbors, Mia’s oldest friends, the piano teacher, lawyers, a tutor, anyone I could, to find out whether Mia was a fit mother, because I had no idea and no preconceived notions going into the story. The answer was a resounding “yes.”
My story became front-page news, and Team Woody’s strategy was to wield the threat of a libel lawsuit early and often. In her column, Smith cited “the detailed notes” of Woody’s powerful publicist, Leslee Dart, “of how and when she was called by Orth” to request an interview with her client. I did so at least three times—through Dart, through Woody’s sister, and through his lawyers—but Woody always refused. Nevertheless, Dart thought I hadn’t tried hard enough to get Woody’s side of the story. Never mind that he had already been on the covers of Time, Newsweek, New York, and People. Smith opined that the notes “will make convincing testimony should this thing go to trial.”
In newspapers across the country, Woody’s lawyers were quoted vowing to sue Vanity Fair and me, but they never did. Meanwhile, the story kept gaining traction. Two months later, on December 3, Liz Smith was at it again: “WOODY: PLENTY STEAMED,” the headline proclaimed, “at how he’s coming off in the media” after “the now-famous Vanity Fair article.”
Before publication, Vanity Fair’s legal team helped to make sure that, if we were sued, our case would stand up in court. So we went over the piece line by line for two days, spending eight hours in one session, to make sure everything checked out. It’s hard to overestimate the idol worship of Woody Allen in those New York–centric days. To all the nerdy males in charge of the cultural desks of major media outlets, Woody was a god, not just for his undeniable talent and intellect but because he always ended up with the beautiful blonde in his movies.
Mia, by contrast, was mostly thought of as a kook, who burst on the scene in the ’60s eating butterflies with Salvador Dalí, marrying Frank Sinatra at 21, and then going on to adopt all those kids. In total, she ended up with 14 biological and adopted children.
Mia’s mother was the Irish-born actor Maureen O’Sullivan, who was most famous for her role as Jane opposite Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan. I was lucky enough to get through to her on the phone one day and even luckier that she ended up trusting me. Her voice was very theatrical, and when she called I would pick up the phone to hear, in a low and breathy tone, “Maureen, this is Maureen.” It was she who witnessed the lotion-rubbing incident. She told me how disturbing she found Woody’s behavior toward Dylan and put me in touch with other eyewitnesses.
In those days unattributed sources were not as prevalent as they are today. My sources were nearly all on the record. Nevertheless, Vanity Fair also encouraged me to get a signed statement from Mia, who was not talking publicly to the press, to promise that, if necessary, she would testify for us in court. I asked her mother for help. Just as we were putting the story to bed, I received a signed statement of agreement from Mia that I kept folded in the back of a drawer until long after the statute of limitations ran out.
It was not until a decade later, in 2002, that I met Mia Farrow for the first time and saw firsthand how Dylan had been affected by her ordeal. Mia had come to Washington to appear in a benefit theater performance, and Dylan accompanied her. To my eyes, Dylan, then 17, appeared to be extremely shy and tentative. She did not want her mother to leave her sight.
Since my son was exactly the same age as Dylan, the case had always haunted me. How could Mia’s family and older children survive such a public and lurid battle? By then Woody had lost both the trial and the appeal for custody of the three children he had with Mia: Dylan, Satchel (then Seamus, now Ronan), and Moses. He was also required to pay Mia’s legal fees, which climbed to more than $1 million. But Woody didn’t stop. He hauled Mia into court for everything from visitation rights to firing the children’s therapist. In the process the children were subjected to examinations in shrinks’ offices and also the judge’s chamber. Over a grueling four years, Mia never once lost in court, but in order to pay the $200,000-plus annual legal fees, she was forced to work constantly, taking her away from home. These losses were all but overlooked in big-time media outlets like The New York Times when the story did not go Woody’s way. The first trial was heavily covered and ended in mid-1993 with a scathing condemnation from Judge Elliott Wilk, who called Woody “self-absorbed, untrustworthy and insensitive” and said he had demonstrated no parenting skills.
During the course of the investigations into Dylan’s allegations, Woody’s lawyers, led by Elkan Abramowitz, played a game of full-court intimidation. They hired a phalanx of private investigators to shadow Mia’s children and the state police investigating the case. And they attempted to have the prosecutor, Connecticut state attorney Frank Maco, who stated he had probable cause to arrest Woody but declined to prosecute because of Dylan’s fragility as a witness, first fired and then disbarred on flimsy charges. The effort failed, but it cost the state of Connecticut $250,000 to defend Maco. In a separate case, Paul Williams, the decorated caseworker for the New York City Child Welfare Administration who handled the city’s investigation, was suspected of believing Dylan. Before long, he was taken off the case and suspended. The New York City files themselves disappeared altogether.
For decades Woody has claimed total exoneration by citing the Yale New Haven Hospital report that Maco had commissioned only to inquire whether Dylan could be a reliable witness. Instead, the hospital staff went off on their own and concluded—based on interviews conducted by two social workers whose boss prohibited them from testifying and whose notes were destroyed—that Dylan was prone to fantasy and probably made up the molestation charge. Mia was never interviewed. Judge Wilk wrote in his decision that he had “reservations about the reliability of the report.”
After meeting in 2002, Mia and I periodically kept in touch. In mid-2012, at the height of the Penn State sexual assault scandal involving assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, she reached out to me saying the “Sandusky stuff has reopened wounds in our family. That and a burst of Woody Allen publicity making it clear that nobody remembers what happened to Dylan.” She said that Dylan’s privacy was essential. But she also cc’d Dylan on the email, saying they spoke a great deal and that “this email is a result of a conversation of today.”
Dylan, then 27, married, and living in Florida, has never backed down from the assertion she made at age seven that Woody violated her in the attic of Mia’ Connecticut home (where several of Woody’s hairs were indeed found). But she was not ready to speak publicly. It took a lot of effort on my part to convince her, but I was able to fly to Florida in April 2013 to have Dylan give me her first on-the-record interview. We spoke for four hours. She told me she was still terrified of Woody, recounted vomiting at college after seeing his face on a fellow student’s T-shirt, and told me she freaked out if she happened to turn the page of a magazine and see his face. She called her fears “crippling” and explained how she couldn’t shake the guilt that all the family’s pain was on her: “I felt I was damaging the family structure; that was crushing, damning.” I was not to reveal where she was living.
I proceeded to interview eight of the children about their unusual upbringing (most described it as “cool”) but also how the scandal derailed the family. Ronan, who was living in L.A. writing songs and recording an album at the time, didn’t want to discuss his sister’s part of the story, although he proudly spoke about his travels to Africa with Mia, who had become an ambassador for UNICEF in 2000. Ronan had clashed almost from birth with Woody, who referred to him as “that little bastard.” At age three, Satchel kicked Woody, who twisted his leg until he screamed.
When I interviewed Mia, she told me that Frank Sinatra was “possibly” Ronan’s real father. Then Sinatra’s oldest daughter, Nancy, emailed me to say that Ronan “is a big part of us, and we are blessed to have him in our lives.”
When it came time to publish, Vanity Fair P.R. director Beth Kseniak asked me what I thought our press release should lead with. I was proud of having secured Dylan’s first interview, and in retrospect it’s clear that the article was an early step on the road that led her to become the outspoken #MeToo advocate she is today. But at the time I was worried that the media might find her again and the intrusion could set her back. So I told Beth we should lead with Frank Sinatra possibly being Ronan’s father. The ensuing firestorm that bombshell caused in the tabloids almost completely erased the impact of Dylan herself speaking out.
Now Dylan is having her moment, even as the rest of the family has to relive everything Woody Allen has put them through yet again. But this story has always been about more than one family. To me it’s always been disturbing to see just how effectively the celebrity industrial complex protects its gods. Like Michael Jackson (whom I chronicled five times), Woody Allen was considered such a universal genius that his entitlement was complete—he carried on with total impunity, no matter how undeniable the facts might have been. Maybe now, nearly 30 years after I first set out to uncover the real story, a reckoning is finally here.