John Huston: A Talent to Burn

Over the course of his 81 years, John Huston lived a life as prolific as it was protean. Though he gained international stature as a writer and director, his pursuits were legion. But the passion that lasted the longest was the one that was most private to him: he loved to paint and draw. And though he completed hundreds of oils and filled innumerable sketchbooks, never in 70 years did he exhibit his work. His art was far too personal for that.

I once asked to see John's sketchbook and he showed me dozens of extraordinary nude drawings he had done of his last companion, Maricela. Soon after he died I asked her if I could reproduce one of them in my book, The Hustons. "I destroyed them," she told me. "I just couldn't look at them and think of him. I guess I made a mistake."

She wasn't alone in having destroyed Huston's work. John's fifth wife, Cici, burned the painting he had done of her after she found out Huston was sleeping with her maid (who happened then to be Maricela). "He got all my worst qualities and exaggerated them," she said. "It looked like I had blood dripping from my fingernails."

Olivia de Havilland, who thought she was going to marry Huston in 1942, visited John at St. Clerans, his Irish estate, in the early sixties and any thought she might have had of rekindling their once fiery relationship was iced when he took her to his studio and showed her a painting of his housekeeper "stark naked, eating an apple and lying on the floor."

The portrait of Anjelica as a teenager hung on a wall in St. Clerans for many years. The one of a Cardinal was done after Huston received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Otto Preminger's The Cardinal (for which Huston was paid with two Jack Yeats paintings). Huston had kept the robes, which he liked to wear into Galway, as the locals whispered about the strange new Cardinal in town.

In Mexico, Maricela got angry with him when he plucked her prize watermelon and devoured it in one sitting. "It would only die on the vine, baby," he told her. To appease her he painted her a picture of that watermelon.

Huston was also fond of drawing erotica. Cici had among her papers a drawing he did of a woman swallowing a male organ the size of a sword. Next to this portrait John had drawn a couple in embrace styled after erotic Japanese prints. His last painting, of the back of a large nude, stood by the front door of Maricela's house. John like to look at it when we talked.

Director Jack Clayton echoed what many people told me: "John numbered amongst the ten best directors of our era, but my feeling was that he really didn't care very much about film directing. He should have been a painter. He had an unbelievably wonderful pictorial eye."