Read time: 7 minutes
Allegra Huston’s Say My Name is an elegant literary treat seemingly made for women over 45. The novel starts with 48-year-old Eve, a New Jersey-based garden designer with an aesthetic sensibility and a dead-end marriage, coming upon the son of her late brother’s best friend, a sultry musician named Micajah, who is all of 28. The two of them fall in love with the kind of shocking immediacy that quickens the page turning and the pulse.
Huston challenges traditional assumptions about relationships and provides a new take on the May-December romance.
“An erotic novel for the #MeToo moment,” is how well-known writer Joan Juliet Buck describes Say My Name. Buck happens to be Allegra Huston’s lifelong close friend and virtual big sister. But many less biased than Buck agree with her. “In fast-paced but thoughtful prose, Huston challenges traditional assumptions about relationships and…[provides a] new take on the May-December romance,”Booklist said.
In the book there is not a whiff of shame that the woman is 20 years older than the man. Eve and Micajah share elegantly described sex and soigne adventure, but when they part ways, at the end, Allegra says, they have each given each other “the best thing a lover can give you—the best version of yourself.”
Living Among the Stars
This is something Allegra Huston knows about; over her fascinating life she has truly become the best version of herself. The younger sister of Anjelica Huston (by 18 years) and the daughter of John Huston’s beautiful fourth wife, ballerina Ricki Soma (who died in a car accident when Allegra was four), Allegra has created stability and joy for herself despite the hectic uncertainty of her youth and a sense of being the plainer outsider in her family’s enormously glamorous world.
She has a lot to say about feminism, the heinousness of the word “cougar,” the joy of enriching your life after 45.
At 53, Allegra is a former publisher, film producer, and memoirist (her much-praised Love Child tells her life story) who currently makes her living as a copy editor. She has a lot to say about feminism, the heinousness of the word “cougar,” the joy of enriching your life after 45, and how she created her self-esteem by “learning to be not the supporting character in others’ lives but the leading character in my own life.”
Joan Buck, who was Anjelica Huston’s girlhood best friend, says: “I’ve known Allegra all her life. She is the only person I have ever known who combines such generous amounts of brain, heart, emotion, and talent. I’ve relied on her grounded intelligence since she was a teenager and relied on her good sense, realistic sophistication, and profound empathy as a friend.”
After a pleasant conversation at her recent New York book party, I called Allegra when she got back home to Taos, New Mexico.
Exploring the May-December Thing
SW: First, let’s talk about the book. Why did you write it?
AH: I wish I could tell you it was based on my actual life [she laughs]. But it’s, sadly, not. There is no man in my life right now, unfortunately. I started out with a romantic fantasy—I’d love to be the center of a love story, where a musician wrote a song about me, like Angie or Layla. And I came up with Micajah, who writes Night Blooming Jasmine for Eve.
But it was more than that—a lot of my emotions are in this book. It’s about giving yourself new, good things in your mid-40s. I learned to play the piano at 48. I’ll never be Vladimir Ashkenazy, but that’s okay—I do it for my own pleasure. My sister Anjelica has started taking up pottery. And my book’s character, Eve, starts working with clay at 48. It’s exhilarating for women our age to take up new hobbies.
So the book is not simply a love story. It’s about a woman finding her independence and autonomy through the vehicle of love. And it ends with the woman being not dependent on the man. She’s happy and sufficient with herself.
It’s about giving yourself new, good things in your mid-40s.
SW: Yes. You handled that part deftly – it’s not a cliche “message” about self-esteem—or cliché about romance. It’s sexy and dark and sophisticated but still manages to give a message about self-esteem.
AH: Thank you! Any form of Jackie Collins I did not want to be! [LAUGHS]
SW: It’s a bold story about ageism against women. At one point an observer asks Eve if she is Micajah’s mother and she un-self-consciously says, “No, I’m his lover.” In another passage, Eve’s good friend Barbara touts the benefits of a woman being 20 years older than her man. “It’s an ideal love affair. Neither of you wants to reproduce [or] settle down. I’m sure you have no desire to pick up another man’s socks so soon after being released from the socks of your husband.” Was this intentional?
AH: Absolutely! I’ve always known a lot of women who are significantly older than the men and who are very happy. I know a woman who’s 81 and the guy is 65. My best friend in London is married to a man 12 years younger. And another close friend is married to a man 15 years younger. One friend in Santa Fe is with a man 20 years younger. And in virtually every case, it was the younger man who did the chasing.
It’s so much more common than we think. Every time I do a reading, two or three people come up to me afterward and say, “My husband” or “my boyfriend” is “15 years younger!”
The older-woman shaming is a stigma without reality, and I don’t think the stigma is helped by this horrible term “cougar”—the older woman as a predatory, desperate, blood-seeking, carnivorous creature hunting down this poor little innocent rabbit of a younger man.
SW: I see what Joan Buck means by the book’s relevance to the #MeToo movement. You sound like you’re getting your already-existing feminist juices flowing right now.
AH: I am. I think we all are. With #MeToo, we’ve brought out in the open so much of what was unconscious in the culture. All that “Women have to make nice,” “Women just smile and take it.” We’ve all been brought up that way. No more! My 17-year-old goddaughter said that her uncle was complaining about #MeToo and who women are taking over the role of the courts and that “poor men” [a sarcastic laugh] “don’t know what they’re allowed to say any more. And my goddaughter—good for her!—said, “Yes, you actually have to think before you open your mouth now. Because for so long we’ve had to think before opening our mouths.” What’s wrong with everybody—male and female, powerful and not—thinking before they pop open their mouths? That way we can try to be kind and compassionate and considerate.
Out of Place, Out of Sorts
SW: You sound like someone who’s learned a lot of life lessons. You had a glamorous but tumultuous childhood. Your mother died in a car accident when you were four; you went to live on an Irish estate with larger-than-life John Huston. You discovered at 12 that your real father wasn’t Huston but, rather, an English aristocrat. Then you had your teen years in Super A list Hollywood, living with your older sister Anjelica and Jack Nicholson. What did you learn from all this?
Every time I do a reading, people come up to me afterward and say, “My husband” or “my boyfriend” is “15 years younger!”
AH: Many things. Losing my mother at four, finding out my father was very different from who I thought he was, living in a different house every year: It’s a tough situation for a child. It’s very unsettling. I guess I made the best of it by understanding that the world has a hell of a lot of possibilities. So having had that background, I try to focus on the present, not living in the future.
Maybe one way my background affected me is that I never wanted to get married! Getting married says you’re going to be together for the rest of your lives and my childhood had so much change in it, I guess I automatically rejected the notion of nailing down a future. I have a wonderful 15-year-old son, Rafael, and his father, Cisco Guevera [a white-water rafter from whom she is now separated], and I have a very good relationship sharing parenting of him.
SW: That’s original, too. A “daughter of glamour” and a—white water rafter. You’ve charted your own course.
AH: I had to. I was used to being on the outer plane of people—John Huston, and my sister Anjelica and her crowd—who other people revolved around, as if they were the sun and the moon and the stars. They were the stars. And who was I? Plain and pudgy and bookish.
Anjelica is one of the most beautiful women in the world. When I went to live with her, she was a successful model with talent (she could act, she could draw, she could sing!), living with a famous movie star. I was so not of that world. I was not a great, thin beauty. I went to a private school in L.A. with lots of surfers—I wasn’t that type, either! Every night, I would sit on my bed, reading, and I felt very out of place.
SW: How did you get past that?
AH: First of all, a self-help group released me from the sense that I was the secondary character in the lives of more fabulous people. Then my brother Tony [who is older than Anjelica] said, “You always wanted to go to Oxford. Why don’t you apply?”
Well, I had dropped out of high school at 15! But that didn’t stop me. I went to tutors and to a tutorial college in London, and I tried again and again until I was accepted. Yes, I went to Oxford. Attaining that goal was very fulfilling.
Building Her Own Life
SW: But what is interesting is: You did go to Oxford. You worked in book publishing in London and at a film company there, and you wrote many articles and then your memoir. And now your novel. But your day-to-day life is as a copy editor. With your accomplishments and pedigree, it’s hard to make the connection to copy editor.
AH: Well, that’s how I pay my mortgage, and I’m proud of that. If you’re a writer, you can’t make your whole living as a writer. Teaching would absorb me too much in the work of my students, leaving me little emotional space for my own writing. And I live in Taos—because I love it here—where there aren’t too many office jobs for someone like me. So copy editing can be done long-distance and it is satisfyingly kind of mechanical.
I was used to being on the outer plane of people—John Huston, and my sister Anjelica and her crowd—who other people revolved around.
SW: Well, your book is beautiful and you’re an original, in the true sense of the word. Your past doesn’t quite predict your present. You’re honest about the insecurities you lived through. You’ve gotten elegance from your high-level childhood and life, but you retained a pragmatism and humility. No wonder Joan Buck, who is no slouch in the wry perception department, speaks so highly of you. May I reach out to Anjelica for a quote about you, too?
AH: Well, you—cooould. But, you see, I’ve just told you what I went through getting past the little-sister-of-the-fabulous-famous-woman and becoming my own person. So why do that?
SW: You make a lot of sense.
AH: But Anjelica did write a very nice Amazon review of my book. You can find it by going on Amazon.uk.
At Allegra’s suggestion, I did look it up: “Congratulations, Allegra, on an exciting, passionate, romantic and poetic novel. Five stars from your sister Anjelica!” It’s a lovely tribute. And it’s true. Allegra’s book, Say My Name, is poetic. And it was written by a very sensible woman. A neat trick, that!