Once, she was seen as a victim, her youth and relative innocence taken advantage of by a powerful, much older man who sucked her into his vortex. Or, alternately, she was a Lolita, a seductress who wittingly betrayed the Mother Teresa–like figure who’d saved her from life in an orphanage. These days, Soon-Yi Previn is seen as an accomplice of sorts, who, in the wake of renewed accusations by Dylan Farrow that Dylan’s adoptive father, Woody Allen, sexually molested her, has stood by Allen even as his reputation has plummeted and his once-revered films have been reassessed in the light of the #MeToo movement. Throughout this time, Soon-Yi herself, the slim Korean-born woman with a curtain of dark hair who showed up occasionally at Allen’s side in grainy news images, has said virtually nothing, her sphinxlike presence adding to the mystery of what actually took place. He did what? She’s how old? And whose daughter?
There is a way in which Soon-Yi’s very opaqueness enabled people to project their own fantasies onto her as if onto a blank screen. And, as it turned out, the series of events that came upon the heels of the couple’s controversial romance quickly took on the aspect of a cosmic soap opera, in which gossip mutated into mythology and mere hunches about someone’s guilt or innocence calcified into die-hard convictions.
More than a quarter-century after the public learned of the affair that “broke every taboo,” in the words of child psychiatrist Paulina Kernberg, the 47-year-old Soon-Yi is ending her silence. She’s long believed that her relationship with Allen fueled the inquiry into the allegations surrounding Dylan, but only recently has she felt compelled to tell her own side of things, to talk about what drove her away from her adoptive mother, Mia Farrow — and toward the man who’s now been her husband for 20 years. “I was never interested in writing a Mommie Dearest, getting even with Mia — none of that,” Soon-Yi tells me quietly but firmly. “But what’s happened to Woody is so upsetting, so unjust. [Mia] has taken advantage of the #MeToo movement and paraded Dylan as a victim. And a whole new generation is hearing about it when they shouldn’t.”
Not for the first time will it occur to me how different Soon-Yi is from the person whom Farrow more than two decades ago described as slow, even dim — and who was dismissed as Allen’s brainwashed mouthpiece when she did speak up, in August 1992, in a statement to Newsweek: “I’m not a retarded little underage flower who was raped, molested, and spoiled by some evil stepfather — not by a long shot.” Over a series of conversations that began in May and continued intermittently through June and July, Soon-Yi, a voracious reader with a slightly quirky sense of humor, is articulate and self-aware. “Woody says I can make jokes but I don’t get them — I’m always looking deeper for the meanings,” she says.
We talk mostly in the couple’s six-story townhouse on one of the Upper East Side’s prettiest blocks, the same block where Allen shot scenes for Annie Hall 42 years ago. “I am a pariah,” he says one day when he joins us for lunch, wearing his usual outfit of a light-blue button-down and rumpled khakis. “People think that I was Soon-Yi’s father, that I raped and married my underaged, retarded daughter.” (As if to underscore his point, he mentions that his and Soon-Yi’s contribution to Hillary Clinton’s last campaign was unceremoniously returned.) Allen, an assiduously healthy eater as well as an unremitting hypochondriac, pokes at his food, while Soon-Yi is ever the attentive hostess, refilling my water glass as soon as it’s empty and offering me seconds of lasagna and salad before I’ve finished the last bite of my meal.
After lunch, we go up a flight of stairs to the living room. It has floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on a garden and features drawings by Oskar Kokoschka and John Sloan in addition to a collection of Americana: an assortment of pewter jugs (a favorite of Allen’s but not of Soon-Yi’s), a cradle with quilts, a green leather spa chair from a sanitarium, and a bellows on the wall. As I look around, checking out the very personal bric-a-brac, Soon-Yi declares, “If we get divorced, I get to take the teddy-bear doorstop.”
I myself have been friends with Allen for over four decades and have always been somewhat mystified by him, in part because of the almost Aspergian aloneness of the man and in part because of the genuine diffidence — the lack of a discernible ego — that lies just beneath both a lifetime’s worth of ambitious productivity and his nebbishy film persona. His unwillingness, or perhaps inability, to contest his ongoing vilification — or, when he does take it on, to fan the flames (“I should be the poster boy for the #MeToo movement,” he recently told Argentine TV. “I’ve worked with hundreds of actresses, and not a single one — big ones, famous ones, ones starting out — have ever, ever suggested any kind of impropriety at all”) — also contributed to Soon-Yi’s decision to talk publicly.
Farrow’s point of view has been well aired, particularly in two lengthy articles by Maureen Orth in Vanity Fair: her oddly arranged relationship with Allen, in which the two kept separate abodes; her loving and committed attitude to her adopted children (who would eventually total ten in number); and Allen’s purportedly consuming and, finally, sexually predatory interest in Dylan, who contended as recently as January on CBS This Morning that, one afternoon in August 1992, her father touched what she as a 7-year-old called her “private part.” In a statement for this story, Dylan called Soon-Yi’s assertion that she was pushed by her mother to speak out “offensive.” “This only serves to revictimize me,” Dylan said. “Thanks to my mother, I grew up in a wonderful home.”
With regard to almost every aspect of life in the Farrow household, Soon-Yi’s story, like those of her younger brother Moses and Allen himself, is strikingly different from what’s put forth by Mia and Dylan as well as their son and brother Ronan Farrow, the journalist who has written a series of high-profile #MeToo stories over the past year. I can’t pretend to know what actually occurred, of course, and neither can anyone other than Allen and Dylan. Even the judge who eventually denied Allen custody of Dylan opined that “we will probably never know what happened on August 4, 1992.” All of life is filled with competing narratives, and the burden of interpretation is ultimately on the listener and his or her subjectively arrived-at sense of the truth.
In any event, it’s Mia et al.’s account of events that has so far carried the day. Actors such as Greta Gerwig, Colin Firth, and Mira Sorvino have recently apologized for accepting roles in Allen’s films, while many of his most avid fans have turned against him, everyone from New York Times movie critic A. O. Scott to my media-alert periodontist, who told me on my last visit that he’d never watch another Woody Allen film.
By Soon-Yi’s own account, despite a certain regalness of bearing (“Mia described me as ‘elegant,’ ” she says at one point. “It was the only positive thing she said about me”) and the upscale life she now lives, complete with a chef and a driver, things haven’t been easy. “I didn’t have the luxury of messing up,” Soon-Yi says in her youthful voice with its faint, almost imperceptible trace of a Korean accent. “I fought for my survival since infancy.”
She first comes into view in about 1975 as a 5-year-old runaway on the streets of Seoul. (There are no extant records of Soon-Yi’s early life, but a document signed by both Mia and André Previn, her adoptive father, who declined to comment for this story, has her date of birth as October 8, 1970.) “I remember being extremely poor,” Soon-Yi tells me in our first sit-down interview in her book-lined living room. “You know, no furniture, nothing. Just a bare room and a mother, and we had a backyard, kind of with concrete. No trees, no foliage. I spent most of my time in the backyard, I don’t know why. And then I decided one day to run away. That this couldn’t be for life, that there must be something better out there. I don’t know how I came to that realization, but it was miraculous.” I wonder whether Soon-Yi really remembers having these thoughts or whether they’re in part an adult reconstruction, if only because they seem too sophisticated for a 5-year-old. But when I press her on it later, she insists that this is how she felt. “You know,” she says, “I was always mature for my age. I think from being on the streets and stuff.”
When Soon-Yi was a girl, she says, Farrow asked her to make a tape about her origins, detailing how she’d been the daughter of a prostitute who beat her. The request puzzled her, Soon-Yi says, since she had no memory of anything like that, so she refused. (Soon-Yi says she’d love to find her biological mother, but she assumes she’s dead; a 23andMe kit she tried didn’t turn up any promising matches.) “I had nowhere to go,” she says of that period in Seoul, “so I was running around the streets, going through the garbage looking for food. And I ate a bar of soap. The soap was the worst-tasting — I could think of it now, it was just disgusting. And then I was looking outside a bakery, you know, because I was starving, and this woman asked if I wanted something to eat. She bought me something, and she was trying to get information from me about where I lived. I wouldn’t answer, so she brought me to the police station and then the police sent me to an orphanage. I liked it there, and then some people came — and I remember hiding under a table — to take me away to a different orphanage.”
Soon-Yi’s tone is matter-of-fact, as though it’s important to her to get the details right without sounding self-glorifying or -pitying. “She was strong since she was 5 years old; it must be genetic in some way,” Allen chimes in during one of his appearances (which often prompt Soon-Yi to protest, “You’re interrupting me”). And, indeed, I sense early on in our conversations that she has a certain resilience, verging on toughness. She seems determined to look back with dispassion — except, that is, when her adoptive mother enters the picture. It was at the second orphanage — run by nuns who Soon-Yi says were “extremely nice” to her despite her being “a little rebellious,” going so far one day as to pull off one of the nuns’ habits to satisfy her burning curiosity as to whether there was hair underneath — that their paths converged. Kim Wan, whom Soon-Yi met in the orphanage and who was adopted by an American couple at the same time, has stayed in touch with Soon-Yi over the years. She agrees that the nuns were kind but the house mothers less so. “If one girl wet her bed,” she tells me, “we all got whipped.”
Farrow’s emissary, a woman named Connie Boll, who worked for a Connecticut organization called the Friends of Children, picked out Soon-Yi from among the children who had been presented one by one onstage at the orphanage to an audience of prospective parents. (When Soon-Yi asked Boll many years later why she had chosen her, Boll said she had been taken by Soon-Yi’s “chutzpah.” She’d twirled around and leaped off the stage while the other children just bowed and walked off.) Farrow was married to Previn, with whom she had three children, and had already adopted two Vietnamese infants, Lark and Daisy, in 1973 and 1974. (To adopt Soon-Yi, Farrow challenged federal law, which at the time allowed only two international adoptions per family.) She sent dolls and other gifts to the orphanage and then arrived one day in May 1977, camera in hand, to pick up the now-6-year-old girl. “I remember the second I laid eyes on her,” Soon-Yi says. “There was a big excitement and hoopla around her. And she came to me and she threw her arms around me to give me a big hug. I’m standing there rigidly, thinking, Who is this woman, and can she get her hands off of me? She didn’t ring true or sincere.”
From then on, things got worse, in Soon-Yi’s telling, though a family spokesperson refuted all her memories of physical abuse, neglect, or showing favoritism to one child over another. And the custody judge later ruled that Farrow was a “caring and loving parent,” while five of her children with Previn — along with Isaiah, Quincy, and Ronan Farrow — said the same in a statement: “None of us ever witnessed anything other than compassionate treatment in our home.”
Soon-Yi says that from the very beginning, she and Farrow were “like oil and water,” suggesting that maybe it was because by the time she was adopted she was too old to be shaped to Farrow’s specifications. “Mia wasn’t maternal to me from the get-go,” she says with some vehemence. Soon-Yi remembers, for instance, the first bath that Farrow gave her, in a Korean hotel room, as traumatic. “I’d never taken a bath by myself, because in the orphanage it was a big tub and we all got in it. Here, it was for a single person, and I was scared to get in the water by myself. So instead of doing what you would do with an infant — you know, maybe get into the water, put some toys in, put your arm in to show that you’re fine, it’s not dangerous — she just kind of threw me in.”
Soon-Yi’s first home with Farrow was in Surrey, England, in what she describes as “a beautiful, picturesque house with a thatched roof,” surrounded by “daffodils as far as the eye could see.” Theirs was a blended family avant la lettre: André Previn, who adopted Soon-Yi; Daisy and Lark; Farrow; and the couple’s three biological children, the twins Matthew and Sascha, followed by Fletcher. The household included a virtual menagerie featuring a talking parrot, dogs and cats, newts, and a ferret. Despite the pastoral tranquillity, Soon-Yi says, she felt achingly unhappy, a state of affairs that was not helped by Mia’s and André’s “bone-chilling tempers” or by Mia’s playing favorites. “There was a hierarchy — she didn’t try to hide it, and Fletcher was the star, the golden child,” she says. “Mia always valued intelligence and also looks, blond hair and blue eyes.” Soon-Yi had arrived without knowing a word of English, and Mia was impatient with her new daughter’s learning curve. “She tried to teach me the alphabet with those wooden blocks. If I didn’t get them right, sometimes she’d throw them at me or down on the floor. Who can learn under that pressure?” Soon-Yi, whom Farrow briefly renamed Gigi (perhaps because Previn had composed the music for the film of the same name), says she was left wondering if she would fit in better elsewhere. “I’d see other houses far away in the distance,” she says wistfully, “and think, Oh, maybe they would like a nice Korean girl. You know, a nice little girl.”
In 1979, Farrow and Previn divorced, and Farrow moved back to the States with most of her brood (the 9-year-old twins stayed behind with their father). The family first lived on Martha’s Vineyard, where Soon-Yi remembers an incident in which she was excluded from playing in a paddling pool with the younger children. She “maneuvered” her way in, Soon-Yi says, and when Lark got hurt, “maybe slipped or something,” Farrow rounded on her, yelling, “Look what you’ve done! You never listen! I should send you to an insane asylum!” As Soon-Yi puts it, “I was shaking. I was so scared I thought she was actually going to put me in an insane asylum — and I understood what it meant.”
In New York, Farrow got a starring role in a play, and the family moved to her mother’s (the actress Maureen O’Sullivan) roomy apartment on Central Park West (Hannah and Her Sisters was filmed there), where Soon-Yi shared a room with Lark and Daisy. After having been sporadically tutored for nearly a year, mostly by nannies who read to her while Farrow filmed Hurricane in Bora-Bora, she attended a makeshift school “in the basement of a church, behind the Natural History museum, where all we did was eat Ritz crackers and play with blocks.” Soon-Yi was then placed in third grade at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, where she was two years older than her classmates. Although this seems to me like one of the few instances Soon-Yi provides of Farrow’s giving thought to how things might have felt to her daughter, Soon-Yi insists she did it only because of her conviction that Soon-Yi was “hopelessly backward.”
“I do have a little learning disability,” Soon-Yi says almost bashfully. “I’ve never spoken about it, because Mia drummed it into me to be ashamed about it. It comes out in spelling, and I had to work much harder in school. But I was driven and interested, and I wish I’d had a tutor the way some kids do for homework.” Her learning difficulties — to this day, she admits to having trouble with homonyms, in particular, and spelling (“Thank God for the iPhone! I dictate everything!”) — continued to cause strife with her mother. “Mia used to write words on my arm, which was humiliating, so I’d always wear long-sleeved shirts. She would also tip me upside down, holding me by my feet, to get the blood to drain to my head. Because she thought — or she read it, God knows where she came up with the notion — that blood going to my head would make me smarter or something.” Farrow also resorted, as Soon-Yi describes it, to “arbitrarily showing her power”: slapping Soon-Yi across the face and spanking her with a hairbrush or calling her “stupid” and “moronic.” Sometimes, according to Soon-Yi, Farrow lost it completely, as when she threw a porcelain rabbit that her mother had given her at Soon-Yi (“She never really liked it,” Soon-Yi wryly observes. “That’s probably why she threw it at me”), smashing it to pieces and startling both of them. “I could see from the expression on her face that she felt she had gone too far. Because it could have really hurt me.”
Forty-year-old Moses Farrow, who was two when he was adopted, in 1980, describes Mia’s mothering similarly, as a “total breakdown of your spirit, to ensure that you would do what she wanted you to do. It’s the honeymoon when you’re first adopted, then the veil gets pulled back and you start seeing Mia for who she is.”
During our many talks, I ask Soon-Yi several times if she has any positive recollections from her years with Farrow. She unfailingly answers that she doesn’t. “It’s hard for someone to imagine, but I really can’t come up with a pleasant memory.” Despite that, I’m unsure whether Soon-Yi has always seen her mother in such stark terms or whether this is a portrait that has been shadowed over time, its darkness inevitably added to by the abrupt and almost surreal way in which their relationship would come to an end after Farrow discovered some nude Polaroids Allen had taken of Soon-Yi after their affair had begun. Soon-Yi says that she “regrets” that her mother found the pictures — “I think it would have been horrible for her” — but notes that they were taken in the privacy of Allen’s home, for themselves. “You know, we were both consenting adults,” she says (she was 21 at the time), before conceding that there “could be something very Freudian” about the fact that Allen left a few of them on his mantel.
Allen first entered the scene, as Farrow’s boyfriend, when Soon-Yi was 10, and she hated him on sight: “Woody wasn’t interested in meeting us children. And the feeling was mutual; we weren’t interested in meeting him. I hated him because he was with my mother, and I didn’t understand why anyone could be with such a nasty, mean person. I thought he must be the same way.” To make matters worse, one day Soon-Yi overheard Allen tell Farrow that he thought Soon-Yi was “inordinately shy and that I should see a shrink. And I’m thinking the most famous neurotic is saying this — and this is how he makes his living, being shy! I hated him before, but I hated him double for saying this.” Her enmity wasn’t lost on Allen. “You always look at me as if you’re going to come at me from behind a closet with a knife,” he once told her. Soon-Yi laughs as she recounts this. “He almost won me over with that comment because he was so spot-on.”
Knowing Allen over the years, as I have, I’ve come to understand that, despite his artistic gifts and endless years of psychoanalysis, there is something oblivious about him. He is the opposite of someone “in touch” with his innermost feelings. When I press him one day on what drew him to Farrow, he answers as though reading off a CV: “She was very beautiful. She was smart. She put her best foot forward. She was in the same business as me. What was not to like?” Soon-Yi, who seems far less detached than her husband, adds, “Anything she set her mind to she was good at … Anything that she shows an interest in she excels at. She’s an amazing photographer and draws and knits well. She was very, very creative. It’s a shame,” she says, as if talking to herself. “There are things to admire about her.”
In this instance, Farrow’s laserlike interest was beamed at Allen (she’d written him, he tells me, a love letter years earlier), to whom she proposed marriage several weeks into their relationship and then two weeks afterward told him she wanted to have his child. When Allen recounts this chain of events, Soon-Yi grills him: “And that wasn’t a turnoff? You didn’t run the other way, run for the hills? This is why I wrote him off as a major loser,” she jokes. When Allen tries to explain himself, she turns to me as if he weren’t in the room: “He’s a poor, pathetic thing. He’s so naïve and trusting, he was probably putty in her hands. One thinks that he’s so brilliant … and yet on certain things he’s so shockingly naïve it makes your head spin and you think he’s putting it on. Mia was waaay over his head,” she says, and bursts out laughing — not quite at Allen but at the thought of his susceptibility to Farrow’s charms.
Meanwhile, life in the Farrow household — Allen continued to live across the park at his Fifth Avenue address and never slept over at Farrow’s Central Park West apartment (“We didn’t think of him as a father,” Soon-Yi says, “and he didn’t even have clothing at our house, not even a toothbrush”) — went on in its harum-scarum fashion. “Money was always an issue,” Soon-Yi says. “When we moved to Central Park West, we had a big, staticky TV with antennas, and it was my job to ask André for a new one when he called.” Farrow originally hired a babysitter when she stayed over at Allen’s apartment but eventually started leaving the children — Soon-Yi, Lark, Daisy, Fletcher, and Moses (the last four were younger than Soon-Yi) — alone at night, beginning when Soon-Yi was 12. “We were not allowed to tell André when she did that,” she says pointedly.
Soon-Yi also says she and her adopted sisters were used as “domestics,” while Farrow kept busy rearranging the furniture, ordering from catalogues, working on her scrapbooks, and talking to her friends on the phone. “We did the grocery shopping, starting in third grade, for the entire family,” Soon-Yi says. “Lark and I wrote the list of everything that we needed for the house, we paid for it, we unpacked it. When I went to Ethical Culture, I had to pick up my siblings … In Connecticut, Lark cooked, and we cleaned the bathrooms, cleared the dishes, washed up, and did the sweeping. When Woody started coming up to Connecticut, I ironed Mia’s sheets.”
When Soon-Yi reached puberty, she was pretty much left to her own devices. “I wish she had taught me how to put on makeup,” she says. “I don’t know how to do any of that stuff. Mia never taught me how to use a tampon, and my babysitter got me my first bra.” Her best friend from fifth grade on, Alexis Clarbour, noticed how self-sufficient Soon-Yi was: “She had to take care of everything herself, including the younger children, from a very young age. She didn’t have the guidance most children have from their parents. My mother was much more maternal to Soon-Yi than Mia. She was the one, for example, to take Soon-Yi for college tours.”
Moses’s story of his childhood also paints Mia as seemingly lackadaisical about the ordinary, drudgelike chores of mothering and harsh with some of the adopted children. “It pains me to recall instances in which I witnessed siblings, some blind or physically disabled, dragged down a flight of stairs to be thrown into a bedroom or a closet, then having the door locked from the outside,” Moses, now a family therapist, recounts in a lengthy blog post he published in May. “She even shut my brother Thaddeus, paraplegic from polio, in an outdoor shed overnight as punishment for a minor transgression.” (Mia denied all her son’s claims to the Times.) In 2016, Thaddeus died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and a decade and a half before that, Tam, the blind orphan from Vietnam, died at 19 of heart failure, according to Mia and published reports at the time. But based on what he says Thaddeus told him, Moses insists that Tam’s death was a suicide caused by an overdose of pills. Lark also died in tragic circumstances. Living in poverty, she was 35 when she died, in 2008, from AIDS-related pneumonia.
Soon-Yi’s first friendly encounter with Allen occurred when she broke her ankle playing soccer in 11th grade. As she tells it, the pain “radiated up and down my entire body,” but she “limped back to Marymount,” the Catholic girls’ school she’d transferred to in fifth grade from Ethical Culture. She didn’t call Farrow, because “it was not in my vocabulary to call her for help ever,” but when she got home, Allen took one look at her swollen ankle and suggested she see a doctor.
When she came home from the doctor’s, in a cast and on crutches, Allen offered to take her to school. By that time, he was coming over to Farrow’s apartment at 5:30 in the morning to see Dylan (whom Farrow had adopted in 1985) and Satchel (who was born in 1987 and who started going by his middle name Ronan after Mia and Woody split), and Soon-Yi began to soften toward him: “You know, he didn’t have to offer. I’d never been nice to him really.”
It was after this incident that Allen and Soon-Yi started going to Knicks games together — it was, ironically enough, Farrow’s idea, because Allen expressed concern over Soon-Yi’s seeming introversion, and Farrow knew he was always looking for someone to go to basketball games with. Soon-Yi gradually began to open up to Allen, especially because she sensed that things had soured between him and her mother. “They never went out to dinner anymore or did anything together, and so I knew the relationship was just because of the kids.” While Farrow has repeatedly said the two were still a couple at the time, Allen echoes Soon-Yi’s belief that his connection with Farrow was shot: “When Satchel was born, Mia got a breast pump and locked herself in the bedroom with him. She told me that there were native tribes in Africa or South America who breastfed their kids until 7 or 8 years old and that she had every intention of doing that with Satchel. When I’d go over there to have dinner with the kids, she would take Satchel into her bedroom and close the door … She was obsessed with him, completely obsessed.” Soon-Yi adds, “She was never able to love more than one person at a time, I guess, so all her focus when Satchel came went to him. I remember she would be in the room with the door closed, nursing Satchel or sleeping with him, and Dylan would be outside the door, crying.”
Farrow has said many times that this is the opposite of what happened, that it was Allen who was obsessed with Dylan; to the extent that Farrow was in her bedroom, the family spokesperson says, it was the result of recovering from a difficult delivery.
I take this opportunity to ask about the rumors, not discouraged by Mia, that Ronan is Frank Sinatra’s son. (She married Sinatra at age 21 — he was 29 years her senior — and they divorced after two years.) “In my opinion, he’s my child,” Allen answers in his slightly doleful way. “I think he is, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it. I paid for child support for him for his whole childhood, and I don’t think that’s very fair if he’s not mine. Also she represented herself as a faithful person, and she certainly wasn’t. Whether she actually became pregnant in an affair she had … ”
In 1991, Soon-Yi graduated from Marymount. She still has a copy of her yearbook, in which Farrow wrote, “A mom couldn’t dream of a better daughter. You are a miracle and my pride and joy. I am profoundly grateful for every minute along the way. Congratulations, bravo, and three cheers for our Soon-Yi.” Soon-Yi looks on impassively as I study the inscription, and when I ask her how she feels about it, she replies that she’s “grateful” to Farrow: “I mean, I’d be a completely terrible person if I didn’t feel grateful to her, right?”
On another occasion, Soon-Yi shows me two photo albums that Farrow dropped off after Soon-Yi’s affair with Allen had come to light and she was no longer living at home. The photos show the budding orphan in various sweet frocks, looking incomparably cute, and are accompanied by Farrow’s handwritten text: “You have improved me, Soon-Yi, and it is a joy.” The discrepancy between Farrow’s chronicle of events and Soon-Yi’s is hard to make sense of. Could things really have looked so good but in actuality have been so bad? Is it possible the truth lies somewhere in between? But when I suggest to Soon-Yi that perhaps it was a generous gesture of Farrow’s to make the albums in the first place and drop them off in the second, she comes right back at me in an email written early one Friday morning in May: “It’s because Mia thought that maybe she could win me over and I would look through the albums and feel guilty and run back to her … I’m sure it was a calculated move … Mia was never invested in me. I wish she had been. However, I’m a very realistic person, and I know this to be correct. The albums were something that she liked to do for her own pleasure. She made them for all the kids. Mia was trying to create a fairy-tale version of reality. I wish she hadn’t made the albums and spent some quality time with me.”
After working over the summer as a salesgirl at Bergdorf Goodman, Soon-Yi began her freshman year as a commuter student at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, in September 1991; she eventually majored in art. It was sometime during that fall that her affair with Allen began. Both of them are vague on how and when their friendship turned sexual — “It was 25 years ago,” she says — beyond the fact that it was a gradual process. “I think Woody went after me because at that first basketball game I turned out to be more interesting and amusing than he thought I’d be,” Soon-Yi offers. “Mia was always pounding into him what a loser I was.” At one point, Soon-Yi sends me an email addressing the inception of their affair: “We talked quite a bit,” she writes, “and to the best of my memory I came in from college on some holiday and he showed me a Bergman movie, which I believe was The Seventh Seal, but I’m not positive. We chatted about it, and I must have been impressive because he kissed me and I think that started it. We were like two magnets, very attracted to each other.” In other words, the first stirrings of what would become an enduring romance sounds like a scene straight out of a Woody Allen movie.
Early on, Soon-Yi says, she and Allen had a conversation about how their relationship might affect Farrow and the family if it were discovered — they had planned to keep it secret. But neither imagined that what Allen called their “fling” would last. “I’d meet someone in college, and that would be done,” Soon-Yi says. “It only became a relationship really when we were thrown together because of the molestation charge.” Absent that, she believes, Allen “might just have continued with Farrow for the sake of the kids.” Unlike her husband, however, who famously decreed, borrowing a line from what he tells me is a short story of Saul Bellow’s (it’s actually a line from a letter by Emily Dickinson), that “the heart wants what it wants,” Soon-Yi characterizes their affair as “a moral dilemma.” While she says it was clear that things were over between Woody and Mia, it was still “a huge betrayal on both our parts, a terrible thing to do, a terrible shock to inflict on her.”
“I know this is no justification,” she goes on, sitting across from me, her back ramrod straight. (“Posture,” she says quietly to Allen whenever he begins to slump. “I married her for her posture,” he quips.) “But Mia was never kind to me, never civil. And here was a chance for someone showing me affection and being nice to me, so of course I was thrilled and ran for it. I’d be a moron and an idiot, retarded” — she pauses here, mindful that this is one of her mother’s words for her — “if I’d stayed with Mia.” She adds, as if to set the record straight, “I wasn’t the one who went after Woody — where would I get the nerve? He pursued me. That’s why the relationship has worked: I felt valued. It’s quite flattering for me. He’s usually a meek person, and he took a big leap.”
All the same, the brazenness of what Soon-Yi and Woody did — the transgressiveness — is at the least disconcerting. It’s not surprising that the public at large viewed it as a virtual case of incest, especially since Allen’s role in Farrow’s family was never clear to begin with. Was he an interloper or an in loco parentis figure? Soon-Yi is adamant that Allen was not a stand-in father to her: “I already had a father,” she points out. “He was André Previn, and Mia never married Woody, nor did they ever live together. He was my mother’s boyfriend, plain and simple. He was like a separate entity. I thought Mia had pulled the wool over his eyes by getting him to believe that she was such a great mother. I felt he was not very observant, not worth getting to know. This is why it’s the biggest shock to me that we ended up together.”
Or was she perhaps, as some would have it, a kind of eroticized daughter for Allen? Certainly Farrow established the grounds for that interpretation by first using the word rape for what went on between Allen and Soon-Yi. That idea was heightened by the Dylan allegations, which set up a scenario in which Allen could be seen as harboring pedophilic inclinations.
I can’t help but wonder, I tell the couple, whether they got together to take revenge on Farrow, consciously or subconsciously. Allen says the notion doesn’t fit for him, while Soon-Yi dismisses it as “preposterous.” “Would I be with him for over 20 years to get vengeance at Mia?”
Spending time with the two of them, I notice that Allen will take Soon-Yi’s hand and hold it during dinner and that he occasionally ruffles her hair when standing behind her, while she is sweetly solicitous of him when they walk together into a restaurant and he is unsure of his steps. But neither seems big on sweeping expressions of passion. “We weren’t thinking, My God, let’s get married,” Allen says. “Our relationship deepened as we went through the barrage of terrible accusations, and the paparazzi forced us to take walks only on my penthouse roof.”
Soon-Yi, depending upon the moment, sees it both ways at once — as a slowly evolving attraction and as a thunderbolt, a coup de foudre. “I was madly in love with him,” she announces. It sounds completely heartfelt and as though it just happened yesterday. “Completely attracted to him, physically and sexually. I know he’d said that I’d meet someone in college, but I’d already decided. I came to realize how understanding he was and what a sweet person he was. He grew on me.” In an email she sends me, she slightly revises the scenario, showing a different side of herself, one in which she comes across less as the vulnerable, virginal girl she was than as a charming flirt: “I think Woody liked the fact that I had chutzpah when he first kissed me and I said, ‘I wondered how long it was going to take you to make a move.’ From the first kiss I was a goner and loved him.”
While waiting for Satchel to finish a psychotherapy appointment at Woody’s apartment in January 1992, Mia discovered some of the nude photos he’d taken of Soon-Yi. All hell broke loose. “I remember the phone call when she found the photos,” Soon-Yi says. “I picked up the phone and Mia said, ‘Soon-Yi.’ That’s all she needed to say, in that chilling tone of voice. I knew my life was over and that she knew, just by the way she said my name. When she came home, she asked me about it, and I — survival instinct — denied it. And then she said, ‘I have photos.’ So I knew I was trapped. Of course, she slapped me, you know the way of things. And then she called everyone. She didn’t contain the situation; she just spread it like wildfire, and then she was screaming at Woody when he came over. Meanwhile, Dylan and Satchel are living under her roof and they are very small, 6 and 4 years old. They hear their mother going crazy, screaming in the middle of the night for hours.”
On January 18, as Farrow recounts in her memoir, What Falls Away, she wrote a group letter to her children, which began, “An atrocity has been committed against our family and it is impossible to make sense of it. You know that I share your pain and bewilderment and anger. But I feel the need to talk and think further with you.” Shortly thereafter, Soon-Yi says, Farrow threw her out of the Central Park West apartment, and she went to stay at a friend’s house, all the while maintaining contact with Farrow. “I wanted to get back into the house because being out of the house I had no idea what was going on. So she let me come back, and I could hear her talking to Allen on the phone, saying, ‘She regrets everything, she’s threatening to commit suicide,’ which was a lie.” Allen joins in: “I’d get these calls in the middle of the night, saying, ‘Soon-Yi is threatening to jump out of the window.’ And you know, Mia is an incredibly good actress, and I’m thinking, My God!” (The family spokesperson maintains that Soon-Yi did talk about suicide and that Mia did “her utmost to shield her children from a trauma” caused by the revelation of the affair.)
At some point, a psychiatrist who lived across the hall from Farrow suggested it might be helpful for Soon-Yi to see a shrink and recommended a psychoanalyst at Columbia. Soon-Yi says she felt she “had to be careful, because I wasn’t sure if Mia had poisoned him. He told Woody that he had to put money away for me for college because they were threatening to cut me off financially.” (Soon-Yi had seen André Previn shortly after the photos were discovered, and he told her he would no longer pay for her education.)
In what sounds like a scene straight from Rosemary’s Baby — the one where a very pregnant Rosemary (played by Farrow), finally aware that she’s caught up in a dangerous plot, darts across the city looking for a phone booth — Soon-Yi recalls that “there was some talk that Mia hired someone to follow me. I was constantly nervous. But on 81st and Central Park West I saw a pay phone. I called Woody and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not suicidal. I don’t regret anything, and whatever you need to do I understand.’ Those were my exact words. I knew he had a lot to handle and the last thing he needed to do was worry about me.” Listening to her, I can’t imagine myself remotely possessing such equanimity at that age.
On Valentine’s Day 1992, Farrow sent Allen an elaborately gothic collage, in which she’d pasted a family photo on a flower-encrusted, gilded heart and then stuck skewers through the hearts of the images of the children and a real knife through her own heart. Around the same time, Allen’s sister, Letty Aronson, tells me, Farrow called and announced, “ ‘He took my daughter, I’m going to take his.’ I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. [Dylan] loves Woody. A child should have a father.’ She said, ‘I don’t care.’ ” All this Sturm und Drang took place, paradoxically, alongside a rather quotidian reality, in which Farrow and Allen continued to see each other, however turbulently, and she continued to act in his latest film, Husbands and Wives. “We did not know what was going to happen,” Soon-Yi says. “Mia was so volatile. I understand she would be angry — don’t get me wrong, she had every right to be. But she was like a sinkhole taking everything down with her.”
That summer, Soon-Yi went to work as a counselor at a camp in Maine, where Allen called her frequently under the code name “Mr. Simon.” Soon-Yi was fired because of the constant calls and returned to New York to stay with her friend Alexis. Until this point, Farrow had been under the impression that the pair’s relationship was over. On August 1, she called Susan Coates, a psychologist who’d been helping the family, and described Allen as “satanic and evil” and entreated her to “find a way to stop him.” From here on in, the battle between Mia and Woody grew ever more heated, with charges and countercharges flying. On August 4, the sexual abuse of Dylan, in a small crawl space in Mia’s house, allegedly took place. Mia eventually produced a video in which she asks Dylan about what occurred, a video that has been the subject of great contention over the years. Mia and her various confederates who are said to have seen it contend that it’s proof Dylan was molested, while Woody and his confederates who are said to have seen it insist that Dylan was obviously manipulated into accusing her father, as was played out in the custody action.
A little over a week after Dylan’s alleged abuse, Allen says, two of Mia’s lawyers, Alan Dershowitz and David Levett, floated to him the idea of an immediate confidential settlement of $5 million to $7 million. The same day, Allen sued Mia in New York State Supreme Court for the custody of Satchel, Dylan, and Moses, contending that they were unsafe in her hands and were going to be turned against him. Four days later, Allen released a statement confirming his relationship with Soon-Yi, saying it is “real and happily all true.” He also announced that he loved her, which Soon-Yi says took her by surprise: “I only knew that he loved me when he gave the press conference and said it publicly. Even then, I wasn’t sure if he meant it. We had never said those words to each other.” Maybe, she says, she kept quiet about her feelings to avoid “scaring him away,” or maybe “I didn’t want to admit to myself how much I had fallen for him.”
On March 18, 1993, after a seven-month inquiry by a team of three child-abuse investigators at Yale–New Haven Hospital, Allen’s lawyers reported that he had been cleared of molesting Dylan Farrow. Mia’s lawyers called the confidential report “incomplete and inaccurate.” On May 3, 1993, a sworn statement by John Leventhal, the pediatrician who headed the team, was released, theorizing that Dylan was emotionally unstable and had been coached by Mia to accuse Allen. But a month later, in a 33-page decision, Judge Elliott Wilk questioned the work of the Yale group, calling it “sanitized.” While Wilk wrote that it was “unlikely that [Allen] could be successfully prosecuted for sexual abuse,” he credited Mia’s testimony that Allen was “aggressively affectionate, providing [Dylan] with little space of her own and with no respect for the integrity of her body.” Wilk denied Allen’s custody request, as well as visitation rights with Dylan; a year later, Allen lost an appeal of that decision. In the meantime, New York State child-welfare investigators completed a second inquiry into the case, concluding that “no credible evidence was found that [Dylan] has been abused or maltreated.”
Roughly three years later, on December 23, 1997, Woody and Soon-Yi got married in the mayor’s office in Venice, though neither of them, as they tell me, believes in the institution. “You know, I thought it was a slip of paper,” Soon-Yi says. “I find it a silly thing.”
The decadeslong animus that has been hurled against the couple has left its mark, making them leery of the public in general and the press in particular. They’re also both fatalists with a fatalist’s wariness about expecting too much from the world. The fact that their marriage has lasted two decades seems to have come as something of a surprise even to them, much less to others looking on. “That’s what Mia must be the most shocked by,” Soon-Yi says. “That is so foreign to her. She probably can’t get her mind around that.” I ask Soon-Yi at one point if she thinks she could have handled the affair differently or shouldn’t have started it to begin with. “No,” she says, without elaboration. Allen believes it would’ve probably been the same “if I had gone off with an airline stewardess somewhere and wanted joint custody of the kids or visitation. Sex is always like Jewish guilt — it has a certain dramatic impact on the audience. But it would’ve been the same thing.”
One Monday evening, the three of us talk late into the night, which is unusual because the couple are early-to-bed-early-to-rise types. Shortly before nine, Allen goes off to play with his jazz band at the Carlyle, and when he returns Soon-Yi and I are still deep in conversation. We’ve been discussing the years after the affair broke and her decision not to work — she tested out her interest in art the summer after her sophomore year at Drew by interning at a Gagosian gallery and eventually got a master’s degree in special education at Columbia and volunteered at various schools. The couple have two adopted children (two judges investigated each adoption, as is routinely done, and okayed them) because of Soon-Yi’s strong convictions about the narcissism inherent in having biological children. “I could definitely have children,” she says, “but I was never interested. I find it the height of vanity and very egocentric. I don’t need kids out there who have similar traits to me and look similar to me and Woody. Why is one’s DNA so special? Why would one keep on breeding when there are so many kids out there who need a loving home?”
The girls, Bechet, 19, and Manzie, 18 (named for jazz greats Sidney Bechet and Manzie Johnson), were both adopted as infants, and Soon-Yi says that, thanks to Mia, she knew what kind of mother she didn’t want to be. She admits that when she first got Bechet, she “felt the whole weight of the responsibility — that here was this human being who was a blank slate. I thought, Oh my God, she’s dependent on me for everything! And suddenly I got scared. But with Mia I’d been responsible for the younger ones, and I had done a ton of babysitting, so I really did know what to do. Still, I was a little intimidated. So I said to Woody, ‘What do you think of her?’ and he said, ‘She’s just perfect.’ And all my fears went out the window.”
According to friends of Soon-Yi’s whose kids have gone to school with hers, she was a hands-on mother, intent on taking her girls to museums, Broadway shows, the movies — places she says she’d never once gone with Farrow. “[Soon-Yi’s] job was raising these children, being there for Woody, running the house,” says Lorinda Ash, who met Soon-Yi when they worked at Gagosian. “She made sure they got the best tennis lessons, piano, guitar, ballet classes, whatever. She was always researching and asking advice. At the same time, she insisted that they practice and do their homework. Their life was very structured.”
Now that the girls are grown (Bechet is a sophomore in college, and Manzie just started her freshman year), the couple are more close-knit — you might call it symbiotic — than ever. Allen describes how they spend their time together as “parallel play,” which makes Soon-Yi laugh. “Parallel play,” she repeats. “Yes, I think you’re right. We eat breakfast together — we eat all our meals together, and we’ve never spent a night apart since we married — and then I work out, either Pilates or my trainer or the treadmill. I also do yoga. I read the New York Times and point out pieces for Woody to read. Then we have lunch, and in the afternoon I’ll see a friend and go to a museum or shopping or whatever.” (Although by her own admission Soon-Yi loves clothes, and has an enviable sense of style, she is a careful consumer. “Woody calls me penny-wise and pound-foolish,” she cheerfully announces. She frequents sample sales, she says, and buys her flowers and fruit at Costco.) “And then we have dinner,” Soon-Yi continues, “usually with friends.” “She fills the social calendar for six weeks in advance,” interjects Woody a bit glumly.
Inspired by Alexis Clarbour, who told me her friend has “blossomed” in the years she’s been married to Allen, I ask Soon-Yi whether she thinks she’s been reshaped by her husband. “Reshaped?” she asks. “I mean, he’s given me a whole world, a whole world that I wouldn’t have had access to. So if you mean that way, then yes.” Allen joins in, in case I’ve gotten the wrong impression: “She’s got a large personality. I provided her with material access and opportunity, but it’s all her. I’m more introverted and nondescript.”
I ask what they fight about, and Soon-Yi answers immediately. “Probably the kids. He feels I’m too harsh, and I feel he’s too lenient.” Woody extends the contrast: “That’s the basic kids argument, that one is the disciplinarian. Soon-Yi is so disciplined in life. Obviously she had to be to survive and control life — and she does it beautifully. I, on the other hand, came from a loving Jewish family” — not that they sound all that loving to me, especially his mother, who he once told me slapped him every day, but it’s all relative — “and I give the kids anything they want, whenever they want. I want to spoil them, just as I want to spoil her.” To which Soon-Yi responds, laughing, “It’s okay if it’s directed at me. But I think it’s good that they have a balance. It’s not a free-for-all with him, either.”
It’s past 11 when I finally get up to go. Soon-Yi shuts off the lights and air-conditioning immediately after we leave the room, as she always does, because she is environmentally minded and because she has inherited some of Farrow’s frugality (and, she points out, her “French country” taste in decorating). Before I let myself out, I stop to watch the two of them go upstairs together, holding hands. Later, as I walk home, I find myself wondering whether Soon-Yi’s voice — having finally been heard — will be listened to, much less change anyone’s opinion. It’s a gamble she’s taken by speaking out, but then again, she’s never been one to play it safe.
*This article appears in the September 17, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!