Woody Allen Biography

Boy, does Meade cast ugly light on Woody and his work. His best role for a woman, Annie Hall, is “basically stupid,” as Diane Keaton said. In life and art, Woody sought leading ladies he could dominate. He stalled Mia forever before granting her the right to keep her shampoo at his apartment “alongside toiletries belonging to Diane Keaton, preserved there like so many fossilized relics in King Tut’s tomb for more than a decade.” Mia was horrified that he spilled her family’s nasty secrets in Hannah and Her Sisters , and fretted over his obsession with Keaton and her sisters, Mariel Hemingway’s sister, and Mia’s own sister Steffi–whose photos she discovered (shades of Soon-Yi!) in his apartment. Woody’s lovable persona was as fake as his transplanted, dyed hair. And Mia’s no sweetheart herself: having caught her scuzzy dad with Ava Gardner one night as a child, she married Ava’s squeeze Frank Sinatra at 19, and then stole her friend Dory Previn’s husband, André, saying, “You don’t fight what feels good.”

If Meade’s sour, thorough tome is true, nobody in Hollywood fights what feels good, and they all come out looking pretty bad. –Tim Appelo

“Insightful. colorful.” — London Sunday Times

“Scorching.” — New York Daily News, Feburary 6, 2000

It’s all here in this critical biography: reminiscences from Brooklyn boyhood pals, the catalog of neuroses, the ins and outs of filmmaking, Mia and, oh yes, Soon-Yi. — People Magazine, March 27, 2000

The Woody-Mia-Soon-Yi saga, which erupted into tabloid headlines and late-night monologues in August 1992, was more than your average celebrity soap opera. The relationship had lurid undertones of incest, innocence betrayed, and berserk revenge. It had pornographic Polaroids and a valentine with a real dagger through the heart. It had a murmuring chorus of psychiatrists and a locust-like swarm of lawyers in the foreground. It was standard Manhattan neurotic intrigue turned into melodrama, grand opera, the epic poem of our therapeutic culture. So it’s probably inevitable that biographer-novelist Marion Meade, in The Unruly Life of Woody Allen, an evenhanded, prodigiously researched biography that addresses Woody’s entire life and career, devotes more than a third of its pages to the scandal and its aftermath. The scandal resonated, Meade thinks, because Allen’s fame and fortune were built on extracting comedy from the insecurities, identity crises, family and marital vendettas, death-obsessed depressions, and adolescent limbo of his endearing comedic alter ego. — Entertainment Weekly, February 18, 2000

This is not a vile book;it is accurate to its sources, its presentation of the facts of Woody Allen’s life, while highly selective, is not irresponsible. It is actually quite a bit of fun to read, sort of like spending an evening reminiscing. with someone you have known familiarly but not intimately–a former office mate or a world-renowned American filmmaker whose life is as crammed with detail as that of any 64-year-old but contains one action that was at the very least so spectacularly injudicious that it has all but eclipsed every single other professional achievement and personal quirk in his moderately well documented history.In other words, what do you think of first when you think of Woody Allen? Well, that’s where Marion Meade starts, recounting the events of Jan. 13, 1992. — The New York Times Book Review, March 5, 2000′

So go the opening lines of Manhattan, one of the twenty-nine pictures that, all together, form a cumulative portrait of Woody Allen’s life — documents comparable in obsession if not in depth to the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. His most hugely popular film, as well as his biggest commercial success, Manhattan is Woody’s anthem to the island, not the whole of it but a particular slice that he likes to call “the Zone.” The exclusive Silk Stocking District of New York’s Upper East Side runs north-south from Ninety-sixth Street to Fifty-ninth, and from Fifth Avenue to the East River. In the 10021 ZIP code area, there is a little swath of real estate — perhaps a half-dozen blocks below Seventy-second Street — where the median family income of homeowners is more than $700,000 a year. This is Woody Allen country, where there is no squalor or deprivation, no immigrants, virtually no blacks or Latinos in view except those wearing uniforms, and little crime that doesn’t involve property. The typical criminal is a snatcher of gold chains.

The very first time Woody Allen set foot in the Upper East Side he was a small boy, trailing saucer-eyed behind his father, up and down leafy boulevards where middle-aged English nannies wheeled brand-new English baby carriages and great swatches of scarlet and gold spring tulips floated up the middle of Park Avenue. In this place that seemed to be his spiritual home, the adult Woody later recalled thinking that there was “something wonderful about the way the streets feel here,” and those feelings have stayed with him throughout the years.

Whenever he leaves his home, in his rumpled khaki chinos and pullover sweater, he is able to curl back into his dreams of yesteryear and surround himself with the remembered tableaux of those nannies trudging past the uniformed doormen and chauffeurs. In sixty years, the streets have changed very little. It is he who has traversed far beyond his romantic fantasies to become the district’s very own poet laureate.

Deep in the heart of Brooklyn, south of Flatbush, is the neighborhood of Midwood. The distance between the buildings along upper Fifth Avenue and the candy stores of Avenue J, Midwood’s major thoroughfare, is barely more than twelve miles. Measured by subway stops, Midwood is twenty stations away on the D train that rumbles across the Manhattan Bridge. By car, the trip is an easy thirty-two minutes. But the two areas might as well be a thousand miles apart. Midwood in the 1930s was a comfortably middle-class, upwardly mobile, heterogenous neighborhood of mostly Jews and a few Italians. On the quiet, tree-lined blocks were small semidetached houses; on the cross streets, the typical sturdy six-floor apartment buildings; and to the east between Coney Island Avenue and Ocean Parkway, the expensive homes. From the raucous markets of Avenue J wafted the dizzying smells of buttery dough: crunchy, dense rye breads, gooey rugelach oozing raspberry jam, as well as delicious cinnamon-laced babkas. To their oilcloth-covered tables in freshly mopped linoleum kitchens, all the Jewish Midwood housewives carted ingredients to make matzo ball soup and brisket swimming in gravy.

The Konigsbergs lived only a few doors away from the hum of traffic on Avenue J, at 968 East Fourteenth Street, on the upper floor of a redbrick house they had occupied since the birth of their son. Still standing today, it is an imposing example of hybrid Brooklyn architecture, part Tudor cottage and part Italian villa, bristling with a fussy balustrade, a windowed turret, and ornamental brick doodads. The family — father, mother, and son, Allan — were mashed into the apartment with Nettie Konigsberg’s sister Ceil and her husband, Abe Cohen. Too many people in too few rooms made daily living somewhat volatile. Most of the time the child was surrounded by people who spoke to one another in loud voices and waved their hands, all of which made quite a powerful impression. As an adult, detesting family turmoil and the forced intimacy of overcrowded households, Woody would be obsessive about solitude.

Snapshots: She is standing next to her bridegroom on her wedding day, wrapped in silk crepe with a fussy double corsage pinned to her waist. Her eyes are shiny. Her hair, chin-length, is set in a softly waved permanent. Nice new accessories have been meticulously chosen: pearl drop earrings, smart elbow-length gloves, tiny dangling evening purse. Judging by her finery, she looks less like a bride than a vamp done up for a night of ballroom dancing. She is twenty-one years old, a bookkeeper, the youngest daughter of an immigrant Austrian Jew.

By her side, facing the camera, is the bridegroom, a short man of twenty-eight. Quite dapper in an expensive tuxedo, he has a long, rubbery face, a crown of dark hair pomaded into a pompadour, and lips that seem to curl into an almost mocking expression. He is the pampered son of a fairly well-off family but is not going to live or die rich.

They are wedded by Rabbi Jacob Katz on Sunday, June 22, 1930, in the Crotona Park section of the Bronx, where the bride lives with her family at 1541 Hoe Avenue. It is a flawless summer afternoon, all golden sunshine and brittle-blue skies. At Coney Island, three hundred thousand bathers cover the beaches. Eight months earlier the stock market collapsed. Variety headlined the bloodbath, WALL STREET LAYS AN EGG, and soon four million people were out of work. Nevertheless, that summer’s songs — “I Got Rhythm,” “Get Happy” — reflect a peculiar optimism. So does the bride. To look at her on this day when her new life is rolling into focus, she gives the impression of someone expecting a white picket fence in her future.

One of a half-dozen children, Nettie Cherry was born in New York City in 1908. Her father, Leon, at age twenty-six, left Austria and came to America in 1891, a decade after an older brother, Joseph, had made the trip. Four years later, Leon married Sarah Hoff, another Austrian immigrant. Citizenship applications classify the Cherry brothers as skilled workers — Joseph, a bricklayer, and Leon, a polisher of metalware: gold, silver, copper, brass. At the turn of the century, Leon Cherry lived in the Lower East Side, a ghetto that no amount of nostalgia can glamorize. In foul-smelling rows of tenements with jutting iron fire escapes, where families lived ten to a room, ill-lit hallways were untouched by disinfectants. In the streets, curbs were obscured by uncollected garbage alongside an armada of pushcarts vending chickens and vegetables. Men in black hats, with matted beards and side curls, shouldered their way through crowds of swarthy women who covered their heads with shawls and knew only a few words of English.

It took Leon Cherry seventeen years before he could open his own luncheonette, described in the city directory as an “eatinghouse,” the first of a succession of food, candy, and variety stores that he would own. Then in 1920, leaving behind the decayed tenements, he took advantage of the newly built subway lines running northward and moved to the rural Bronx, where he rented an apartment near his brother on Freeman Street. The 1920 Census records him as a fifty-five-year-old day laborer employed at the Bronx Borough Hall in Crotona Park. The Cherrys, like other pious Jews, spoke in Yiddish at home, their adopted English only out on the street, and lit the Sabbath candles on Friday sundowns. None of them seemed to show interest in higher education. There was no time for books, music, or art. Just reaching the shores of the new land, followed by years of backbreaking toil, had exhausted them.

Nettie’s sister Molly was regarded by her sisters as painfully timid. Uncommunicative, she may actually have been drowned out by the ruckus of a family that never stopped yapping and complaining. Young Nettie, who was anything but meek, would be, as an adult, famously excitable. In the 1989 film New York Stories, she would be memorialized by her son in his vignette “Oedipus Wrecks” as a harpy mother who disappears, only to hang in the sky above New York City like a Bullwinkle balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, from which vantage point she leans down and continues to berate her bad boy. Woody would come to describe his mother as a shallow, narrow-minded woman whose interests tended to be commonplace. He ticked off the highlights of her day: “She gets up in the morning, as she has for years, she works in a little flower shop downtown, she rides the subway home, and she makes dinner. Beyond that she is not too interested in too many things.” Apart from his resentment that he had been forced to drink from the same well, the point about his mother’s limited world contains a kernel of truth. “She’s preoccupied with fundamentals,” he remarked. But not entirely so. As a young woman, it was fantasy, not fundamentals, that initially drew her to her future husband.

Growing up, Nettie followed the example of four older sisters who were obliged to work for a living: Sadie was employed as a stencil cutter at Pictorial Review, while the other three girls got jobs in the garment business as stenographers and clerks. Their brother became a jeweler’s apprentice.

Nettie, like her sisters, studied bookkeeping, and she landed a job with a Brooklyn wholesale business: prime butter, fancy poultry, eggs received daily from the best henneries. Each morning she rode the train from the Bronx to Wallabout Market by the Williamsburg docks, where one day she caught the eye of fifty-six-year-old Isaac Konigsberg, a middle-aged, mustachioed butter-and-egg salesman. Isaac was a Brooklyn bon vivant with hand-tailored suits and worldly tastes, a lover of classical music who listened to Pagliacci and Rigoletto from his own box at the Metropolitan Opera. To sheltered Nettie, his sophistication made her own family look like country bumpkins.

It is clear that Isaac liked Nettie because he lost no time introducing her to his younger son Martin, his favorite and a boy he had coddled for as long as anybody could remember. A sharp dresser, Marty, however, was not blessed with good looks. He grew up to have a long, gargoylish face and a goofy grin. Nettie, while no great beauty, had blossomed into an attractive young woman, a spunky, tart-tongued redhead. At once she took a shine to Marty, an amusing, amiable young fellow who knew how to have a good time, a “high-stepper,” she later called him. At the time they met it was the twenties, and he squired her to Tavern on the Green, an expensive new restaurant in Central Park. Nettie was thrilled. With little to look forward to except marriage to some Bronx palooka, she suddenly was offered unexpected promise.

Isaac had three children but made no secret of his preference for Marty. When Marty was a schoolchild, he pulled strings to get him chosen team mascot for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Not surprisingly, Marty grew up with a sense of entitlement, faithfully nourished by his father. During World War I, Marty joined the Navy. After the Armistice, the nineteen-year-old enjoyed being stationed in England but felt unhappy without a car, a situation Isaac promptly remedied with an expensive Kissel roadster to drive abroad.

Although the Konigsbergs and the Cherrys were first-generation Jewish immigrants, a friend of Woody’s observed, “they came from different worlds.” The Russian-born Isaac, who was far more successful than Leon, managed to make a good living from several business enterprises. His first port of call, with his wife, Janette, had been England, where he learned to speak the King’s English and where his daughter Sadie was born, before making the journey to New York in 1899. In Trow’s City Directory for 1901, he is listed as a peddler living on Henry Street on the Lower East Side, but he soon distinguished himself in the wholesale coffee business, traveling abroad on behalf of his employer, sometimes romping off to Europe for the pleasure of attending the horse races. Later, he progressed from salesman to entrepreneur and bought a fleet of taxicabs, then several movie theaters, but these businesses failed. He was reduced to selling butter and eggs when Nettie was introduced to him in the late twenties. To the impressionable Nettie, Isaac appeared to be a prosperous, cultivated gentleman.

Commentary:
“My mother is an orthodox paranoid and, while she doesn’t believe in an afterlife, she doesn’t believe in a present one either.”
— Woody Allen, 1967

By 1935, after two years of FDR’s New Deal, the newspapers were predicting a stronger economy and happier times. Out west there was drought and soil depletion — the talk was of Okies and dust bowl farmers who didn’t have a penny — but in New York City, fewer businesses were failing and fewer numbers of people had to go on the dole. Statistics like these were meaningless to the Konigsbergs, who were having trouble putting food on the table. Nettie, like most women of that period, stayed home and kept the house. She cooked, swept, and ironed, but, whether by accident or design, she bore no children. To save on rent, the couple often doubled up with Ceil and Abe Cohen, or sister Sadie and her husband, Joe Wishnick.

Hard times and strong family ties would account for their domestic arrangements, but there may have been another explanation. Husbands, in Nettie’s book, were supposed to earn money and pay bills. But Marty, who told everyone that he was a butter-and-egg salesman, moseyed from job to job. He plotted fantastic schemes to get rich fast. Not that he thought of himself as a failure. He changed his clothes three or more times each day. He idled away afternoons at Ebbets Field whenever he got the chance, frequented his favorite pool halls, or slipped into a haberdashery to order a new suit he couldn’t afford. If Nettie was always belittling her husband, Marty, too, must have been disappointed to realize his bride could work herself into a temper over practically anything. Unable to enjoy each other’s company, gradually having less and less to say to each other, the pair of antagonists still remained together, warily eyeing each other over a Maginot Line. At least that was the way Woody depicted them in his work.

In a comedy routine, “Mechanical Objects,” Woody told the audience how his father lost his job after being replaced by a tiny gadget that was able to do everything Marty did — only more efficiently. “The depressing thing is that my mother ran out and bought one,” he wisecracked. No row ever put an end to their marriage. However much Nettie may have wished to replace Marty, however loudly she screamed, she never could bring herself to divorce him. Marty drifted from one line of work to another: salesman, pool hustler, bookmaker, bartender, egg candler, jewelry engraver, and cabdriver. He seemed incapable of sticking to one thing for long, subject to a restlessness that would be inherited by his son.

After five years of marriage, Nettie became pregnant. Even though they were residents of Brooklyn, living then at 1010 Avenue K, she decided to deliver the baby in the Bronx, at Mt. Eden Hospital. Allan Stewart Konigsberg was born on a Sunday evening, at 10:55 p.m. on December 1, 1935, which gave him a sun in Sagittarius and a moon in Aquarius. With his carroty hair, big ears, and milky skin, he looked just like his mother.

Parenthood did nothing to improve the relationship between the Konigsbergs, but now there was a witness to the rancor. By this time, daily warfare had become practically a way of life. The household pathology was, as Woody remarked years later, “there all the time as soon as I could understand anything.”

Shortly after the baby’s first birthday, Nettie found work as a bookkeeper for a Manhattan florist and began traveling back and forth to the city every day. Her son was tended by a succession of caretakers, mostly ill-educated young women who desperately needed the money and were not terribly interested in the fine points of early childhood development. As Woody later recollected, they invited friends to the house and sat around gossiping all day while he played by himself. Although crib memories tend to be suspect, he claimed to distinctly remember that once, as he was lying in his bed, one of these women shoved a blanket over his face and almost suffocated him.

In the evenings when his mother returned from work, she had little time for reciting bedtime stories. When he got on her nerves, which was frequently, she wound up spanking him. As a result, he grew up believing that from the cradle he had been unwanted. Nothing would ever convince him otherwise.

On the Couch:
“His one regret in life is that he is not someone else.”
— From the jacket copy for Getting Even

In the sixties, when he was trying to develop his comedy act, Woody got back at his parents by stitching them into his routines. His mother, he riffed, left a live teddy bear in his crib. When he got older she warned him never to be suspicious of strangers. If anybody with candy beckoned him into a car, he should hop right in. Poking fun at relatives is normal for comedians, but Woody’s family evidently offered an exceptionally rich lode of material for put-downs and wisecracks. With age, he mellowed and presented Nettie and Marty almost nostalgically in his coming-of-age movie, Radio Days. Even so, his description of their contentious marriage remains basically unchanged.

“His mother,” recalled boyhood friend Jack Freed, “had a hot temper and was always taking a whack at him. Whenever he got her goat, she’d start howling and yelling before taking a good swipe at him. If my mother hit me that hard, I’d have run away crying, but he never cried. He had an amazing ability to restrain his emotions. His mother couldn’t control herself at all.”

In 1986, Nettie was a woman of seventy-eight, a resident of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, living rent-free at her son’s expense in one of the new apartment high-rises. Woody sat his mother on a chair, facing the camera.

“Did you hit me?” he asked from behind the camera. Making a documentary about her life and the life of Mia Farrow’s mother, actress Maureen O’Sullivan, two women who seemed to share nothing in common, seemed like an intriguing idea. “Mia’s mother was a movie star all her life and knew nothing else,” he explained afterward. “She was Tarzan’s mate. She had a Beverly Hills pool and hung around with Bogart and all these people.” Maureen was a thoroughbred filly, whereas his own mother was a plow horse, “a typical Jewish-neighborhood cliché in every way,” he said.

The tiny, snowy-haired woman was squinting.

“I remember you would hit me every day when I was a child.”

Hit him? she asked incredulously. What did that mean? That she whipped him?

“No, but you were always slapping me.”

His insistence on dredging up the past made her testy. Of course she smacked him. What did he expect, a saint? He was a stubborn kid, never listening to her when she corrected him, jumping around and pulling off his clothes, making her crazy. But she refused to stand for any monkey business. “You were too active and too much of a child for me,” she said. “I wasn’t that good to you because I was very strict, which I regret.”

Her daughter, on the other hand, had been a cuddly, docile child. “I was much sweeter to Letty than I was to you,” she reminded him.

Leave a Comment

Pin It on Pinterest