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The actor talks about her new memoir, her fractured family history — and, yes, Woody Allen, too


The long, complicated truth about Mariel Hemingway

April 8, 2015

The world breaks everyone and many people get strong in the broken places, to paraphrase Mariel Hemingway’s grandfather Ernest. And, to repurpose a line from Manhattan, the movie that made her a star, you have to have a little faith in . . . yourself.

These are some of the lessons gleaned from the life of the actor, author, and wellness advocate, whose new memoir Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction, and Suicide In My Family and young adult book Invisible Girl, are out this week. While not exactly Hollywood tell-alls (though she name-drops a few of her lascivious male costars), the books paint in vivid detail how she was thrown against her famous family’s rocky history. Her grandfather was Ernest Hemingway; the famous writer committed suicide four months before she was born, and there was a pervasive darkness that ran through the family bloodline.

Despite putting on charming performances at parties, Mariel’s parents were constantly locked in a battle of wills. “Watching wine take effect is like documenting evolution in reverse,” she writes of their pinot-throwing brawls. Her father, Jack, a writer and world-class fly fisherman cut from rugged Hemingway cloth was a kind but distant, often drunk enigma. (She questions now whether he was improperly intimate or even sexual with her two older sisters, drawing no conclusions, but noting “there was a persistent sense of unease in the house.” He died of heart complications in 2000.) Her mother, Byra, nicknamed “Puck,” was a critical woman; she suffered from depression and struggled with cancer for years before dying in 1988. This flip of the parent-child dynamic left Mariel as both caretaker and martyr, the one daughter to make peace as her sister Margaux, once an in-demand supermodel, fought addiction and committed suicide in 1996, and her sister Muffet suffered from schizophrenia. Mariel says she wanted to tell this story to show how a famous family can be a familiar one. This is not a beach read, but it’s a worthy one.


By writing about her life, Mariel Hemingway aimed to show readers how a legendary family can also be a familiar one. The public has already seized on one revelation in the books: Hemingway recounts director Woody Allen’s visit to her family home in Idaho, after they became friends during her Oscar-nominated role in Manhattan. His ultimate goal, it seems, was to persuade her to travel with him to Paris. But despite her parents’ eagerness for her to accept the invitation, Mariel told the 40-something director that she would not be joining him. She was 18 years old. Hemingway tells the story not to discredit the director, but to reveal her parents’ shocking willingness to offer up their teenager to an older man, one known to be a connoisseur of women.

So, no, Woody isn’t the heart of this story: He barely warrants a whole chapter. Mariel has her own to tell, and she shared some of its highlights in a candid conversation with Women in the World.

Hemingway, 53, lives with her boyfriend Bobby Williams in LA, from where their rock-climbing and yoga Instagrams practically radiate Vitamin D. She discussed the intense pressure of being a woman in Hollywood, whether she’d work with Woody again, and the distorted public perception of the Hemingway mythology.

Women in the World: This doesn’t feel like a book about a famous family. Was the point to show how yours suffered universal issues—mental health, divorce, depression, suicide—and how you recovered?

MH: My passion now is to help other people understand that they’re not alone or isolated in how they feel, whether it’s being the caretaker of someone who’s suffering from mental illness or addiction, or who’s been left behind by suicide or those who actually suffer themselves. I think we’re at a tipping point of being able to talk about this issue without feeling shame and embarrassment.

WITW: Typically when someone writes a memoir, others can help the writer fill in the blanks. Since so many people passed on in your family, did you find it difficult to recreate your memories?

MH: I wrote the young adult book first, and it was shocking to me when I sat down to write how much clarity I had. It was like a movie. If you had asked me what happened on this day, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. But for some reason, all the memories came out so easily. It was actually bizarre to me.

WITW: Wasn’t it difficult to write about such heavy topics for a YA audience?

MH: Being a young girl was the most difficult and confused time in my life. I didn’t understand that we weren’t normal. I didn’t understand much of anything. I just knew that I loved my family. I loved my mother, I didn’t want her to die. I loved my dad but I figured that he was strong enough to handle everything. This was everything I needed to say when I was a kid and couldn’t.

WITW: In writing about shooting Manhattan, you talk about how you felt heard for the first time by Woody Allen. And he actually came out to Idaho to visit you once. Tell us about that.

MH: That whole experience changed my life. People want to see it after reading the book as, “Let’s look at when he came to Idaho and asked me to go to Paris,” but really, in my mind, he came as a friend. But the time before that was so powerful for me as a human being, because I was so deeply insecure, and for somebody to listen to me and talk about films … I was an Idaho girl! I was a country bumpkin. I was playing Tracy, a character I had no business playing and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was like “Uhh, yeah, sure, you’re my boyfriend in the film! Whatever that means.” For me it was a great experience filming in the city….It was profound. He changed my life. And the thing was, in the end, you changed my life, but you’re not going to be my boyfriend. And I had to come to that realization without the help of my parents, and the reason for telling that story of him coming to Idaho is to show that I was always self-parenting. I so wanted them to show up and take over. But it just wasn’t in them.

WITW: Because they were too impressed by him?

MH: Yeah, they were totally impressed and, to be fair to them, I seemed like I was far more sophisticated, even to my parents, than I was. I told them later [at age 18], “Oh, I want to move to New York,” and didn’t get an argument from them. It was like, “Shit, now I’ve gotta move to New York.” What I’ve learned in my life is all your lessons come down to your own decisions. No one is going to make those choices for you.

WITW: You write about that attraction of someone valuing you in this emotionally evolved way, but in the reverse, you had to know it was, in a different way, fulfilling to the older man who was taking an interest in his ingénue.

MH: Throughout history, men like younger women. They give them energy, they help them in so many ways. So it’s not a new concept. We’re all up in arms about that, but that’s what men do. As they start to feel older, that makes them feel younger. Is it bad? I don’t know. I don’t have judgment about it. I just know that at the time I conveyed to Woody: “I’m not going to be your girlfriend.”

WITW: Did you speak to him while you were writing the book?

MH: I saw him before writing the book. We’re not super close. I made Deconstructing Harry [in 1997], but we’re not friends. He was a different life. I admire him as an artist and think he’s one of the great filmmakers of all time, and I’m really honored that I got to work with him, and I don’t have any judgment about him at all, and I don’t know about all the other stuff that’s happened in his life. I wasn’t a part of his life after Manhattan.

WITW: If he offered you another role, is that something that would interest you?

MH: Oh my God, yeah. I would probably end up playing a mother or something.

WITW: He’s now casting Emma Stone and a few other young women. So he hasn’t changed too much.

MH: Nope. That’s who he is. Let him have it. Whatever.

WITW: The way your parents would put on a performance at parties and then viciously fight afterwards sounded a little like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Did seeing their dual sides draw you into acting?

MH: I think that’s exactly what enabled me to do well as an actor while I was a kid. I knew how to change personalities and be different in different situations because I was always watching them. And being an actor is all about listening and watching. Of course, there was no acknowledgment that that’s what I was doing at the time; when I was younger, I wanted to be an architect and sing on Sonny & Cher.

WITW: There’s this myth that your grandfather, Ernest Hemingway, needed alcohol to fuel his writing, but you write that he was actually very disciplined—and that’s a trait you seem to share. Do you feel close to him in that way?

MH: Since I didn’t actually know him, I can only project what I feel about him, but I do feel a very deep, visceral understanding of who he was. He was so disciplined about not drinking when writing. I think he inherently knew that that was a bad situation, and I think his alcohol addiction was self-medication for the pain he couldn’t handle. His father committed suicide and his mother was just brutal. She was a really tough lady and judged him and thought his writing was disgusting. He had all this going on and back then nobody talked about these subjects, so I have an understanding of that desire to understand yourself, but not be able to talk about it.

WITW: People tend to romanticize suicide when it involves famous people. Do you consider this book a corrective to that thinking?

MH: I would like to think so. Also it’s a corrective to the romanticizing of hard drinking and writing and living this macho existence, which I’m sure, if my grandfather could do it again, he would choose a different way.

WITW: Your sister Margaux left town and the next week showed up on a magazine cover and quickly became a supermodel, but that sudden fame was very dangerous for her. Does that make you worry about our society, in which instant fame is even more common?

MH: We live in an environment where our 15 minutes of stardom is now five minutes, and it’s horrible. Look at these young people who make copious amounts of money and then can’t handle their lives, and the people around them who want something from them. I think it’s far more challenging than it was. The environment in which I became an actor is so different from how it is now. It’s just harsh.

WITW: After she died, people told you she was funny and charming and happy, which is a side you never saw. Did that make you think that no one really knows other people?

MH: Not even your own family. Maybe because it’s your family, you might know them less than anybody does. So many people would tell me: “We loved her, she had this smile and laugh and she was so much fun.” And I was like, “Who are you talking about?” I almost didn’t recognize her.

WITW: Are you still producing your grandfather’s memoir A Moveable Feast?

MH: I am, and I’ve got an amazing writer [Elizabeth screenwriter] Michael Hirst, who’s going to write it, whether it’s a film or a TV special.

WITW: Any ideas on who might play your grandfather?

MH: It’s such a different time. It’s him at 23. Back then, 23-year-olds looked like 33-year-olds, so now you’re able to cast someone who’s a little older. But I think finding men that are really masculine and male like he was, it’s not as easy nowadays. I don’t know who that’ll be.

WITW: Your healthy, mindful lifestyle now seems at odds with the Hollywood schmoozefest. Do you miss that environment?

MH: No, I was never very good at it. I was never a social butterfly. I watch my daughters [model Dree and artist Langley] and they’re great, they do it no problem. But that’s just not my world. I love being outside and living a normal life. I love speaking to groups and foundations, and I’m part of the Ryan Licht Sang Bipolar Foundation, which is trying to find a test for bipolar disorder, because it’s horribly misdiagnosed and people just think that their kids are poorly behaved when they really need help. Having a focus makes more sense to me. Just going out to be seen, I’m not good at it, because I don’t understand it.

WITW: You seem to have such a different relationship with your daughters than you had with your mother. How did they react to your books?

MH: My girls and I are very close, but they don’t think about my life in that way. They accept it, they love it, they love me, but it’s not like they’re rushing out to read the book. I think they feel really secure with themselves. They were told that they were loved, and that they should be strong, and they’re two very independent girls, and I’m proud of them. They don’t have to be a part of my past, because it’s my story to tell. They don’t have to have the baggage of my family.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity