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Woody Allen’s Memoir Is Shrouded in Secrecy. Why?

An investigation into the most toxic book of a toxic season.

Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos

It takes a long time to make a book. Publishers generally trumpet projects upon the acquisition of a manuscript or the signing of a deal. So when on March 2 of this year, Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, announced that it would publish Apropos of Nothing, a memoir by Woody Allen, on April 7, the news was met with surprise—the equivalent of a midnight album drop in the staid world of books.

Grand Central provided few details, creating, rather than dispelling, an air of mystery: The book would speak for itself, when it arrived. A spokesman confirmed that the house had acquired the manuscript a full year earlier, in March 2019. In May 2019, The New York Times reported that Allen had been shopping a book; the paper could not confirm that a deal had been made but acknowledged, “If one has, it has been kept tightly under wraps.” So it would seem.

The reticence may have been because of the unusual terms of the sale. Two editors at publishing houses that had considered the manuscript told me that Allen offered the book for no advance (a payment against future royalties that is standard in the business) in exchange for full authorial control. This, too, was unusual for the publishing industry, even if Allen is known for demanding the final cut on his films.

Hachette will not confirm whether Grand Central agreed to these terms when signing up Allen’s book. At least one publisher I spoke to passed on the project, not out of moral objection but because the staff felt more work was needed on the manuscript. (I agree, but more on that later.) Publishers typically gauge a project’s merits with a profit and loss statement—production costs weighed against a guess for how the thing might sell. Allen’s book would have required a different calculus; the exchange of a publisher’s imprimatur for the vision of an auteur. 

The risk Allen’s book poses, of course, stems from the fact that he is a controversial figure. His daughter, Dylan, has accused him of sexual abuse; he left his long-time partner, Mia Farrow, and began a romance with her daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, now his wife. It is a complicated and salacious story. Some consider Allen a genius; others persona non grata; others still, a monster. 

As an editor at another imprint pointed out—I spoke to several industry professionals; almost all were reluctant to play Monday morning quarterback without the promise of anonymity—if you’re making a book deal in secret, perhaps it’s worth interrogating why. 

In certain cases, there are valid reasons for discretion. In 2019, Hachette’s imprint Twelve announced that it would publish A Warning, the expansion of a much-discussed New York Times op-ed by an anonymous member of the Trump administration. This book, too, was disclosed one month before publication; the author’s identity remains withheld. The opacity surrounding A Warning can be understood as bravery, even patriotism—a desire to protect an author who dared speak truth to power. The secrecy about Allen’s book feels different.

There are five major trade publishers in this country: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Hachette. It’s a perilous moment for this ever-beleaguered industry; two days after Grand Central announced Allen’s book, ViacomCBS stated its intention to sell Simon & Schuster. In business, profit is always the incentive, but publishers have the additional pressure of proving their worth to their corporate owners.

Each publisher is comprised of a constellation of imprints, fiefdoms with their own staff and varying degrees of editorial independence. This organizational strategy allows a corporation the sleight of hand that disguises contradictions: Penguin Random House, for example, has published both Donald Rumsfeld (at its imprint Sentinel) and Michelle Obama (at Crown). 

Arcade, 400 pp., $30.00

Hachette, at its imprint Little, Brown, published Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill. Farrow is Allen’s estranged son, but even beyond the familial strife playing out within the house, the irony was stark. Farrow is a prominent voice in the #MeToo movement, and his book documents the legal and bureaucratic maneuvers corporate actors use to quiet claims of abuse. To many, Allen personifies sexual predation, and Hachette’s evasive steps to keep news of his book secret recalls some of what Farrow’s book critiques. 

The Times reported that, in an email to Hachette’s chief executive, Michael Pietsch, Farrow wrote: “Your policy of editorial independence among your imprints does not relieve you of your moral and professional obligations as the publisher of Catch and Kill, and as the leader of a company being asked to assist in efforts by abusive men to whitewash their crimes.”

The book was announced on a Monday. On Thursday, some Hachette staff organized a walkout in protest. On Friday, Hachette executives announced they would not, in fact, publish Allen’s memoir. They returned the rights to the author. By Sunday, Allen had inked a deal with the independent publisher Skyhorse, under its Arcade imprint, which published the book last week.

Allen maintains near-silence on the controversy of which he has long been the center. For the most part, he just makes his movies (26 since 1992; another is due out this year). In Apropos of Nothing, he wants to tell us how it feels to be a pariah, and I wish he hadn’t begun with this memory of his school days:

It wasn’t long before my mother was a frequent visitor, embarrassed as I tried to explain to the dean what I meant by the line, “She had an hourglass figure and all I wanted to do was play in the sand.” Things were very prissy in those days and the Appropriate Police were everywhere.

The gag is a dismissal of prevailing sexual mores, with a twist of persecution complex. Everyone’s so uptight; everyone’s against me. Allen has long maintained that he is innocent of abuse, and later in the book trumpets his feminist bona fides:

In fifty years of making films, working with hundreds of actresses, I’ve provided 106 leading female roles with sixty-two award nominations for the actresses, and never a single hint of impropriety with any one of them. Or any of the extras. Or any of the stand-ins. Plus, since being independent from studios, I have employed 230 women as leading crewmembers behind the camera, not to mention female editors, producers, and everyone always paid exactly equally to the men on my films.

Allen is surprisingly forthright on the various accusations against him—what he calls “that whole mishigas.” In 1992, Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn came to light. The director was 56, Previn estimated to be 21. (Soon-Yi’s exact birth date is unclear, not uncommon for adoptees, particularly of her generation; she was adopted as a young child by Mia Farrow and her husband at the time, the conductor André Previn.)

By that point, Farrow and Allen had been romantically and professionally involved for years, though Allen writes that things had cooled since Farrow became pregnant by him with Satchel (now called Ronan), who was born at the end of 1987:

Very early on, as I had described, Mia turned to me when we went to the movies and said, “I want to have your child.” Now it was years later, and she had finally struck pay dirt, impregnated as she was by yours truly. From the moment this natal Mega Ball was hit, she turned off me.…  The key she had given me to her apartment years ago, she now wanted back. Though I grasped that over the past years our relationship had become more serviceable than all-consuming, still, this came as a sudden shock. 

He writes that he and Soon-Yi kissed after he screened The Seventh Seal for her. 

I’m giving my pedantic lecture on Kierkegaard and the Knight of Reason and she’s listening dutifully, trying to keep her eyes open, and quite smoothly if I do say so myself, I lean in and kiss her without knocking over anything.… She is complicit in the osculation and, to the point as always, says, “I was wondering when you were going to make a move.”

Allen is not exactly blasé about it all, but it’s close. He notes Farrow’s anger at discovering the affair: “Of course I understand her shock, her dismay, her rage, everything. It was the correct reaction.” It’s been 28 years, and the relationship still seems surprising, though he and Previn are married and parents to now-grown children.

Allen and Previn, in 2009
(Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

In August 1992, Allen asked a court for custody of Satchel, his biological child, as well as Dylan and Moses, both of whom had been initially adopted by Farrow, who then granted paternal rights to Allen. This was shortly after Dylan accused him of sexual abuse. Allen maintains now, as he did then, that this charge was concocted by Farrow as an act of revenge. He writes: “Another vituperative call, this time to me, ended with ‘I have something planned for you.’ I joked that placing a bomb under the hood of my car was not a proportionate response. She said, ‘It’s worse.’” 

The custody hearings took place in 1993. Allen failed to win the children, but the charges of abuse were not found to be credible. Nevertheless, the public perception of the man was forever changed. Seeing the near-60-year-old cavort with the decades-younger daughter of his former paramour inevitably reminded people that he’d been accused of molesting a child. His exoneration in a court of law hardly seemed to matter.

Well before the #MeToo era, Allen’s relationship with Previn occasioned a reevaluation of his work. It seemed newly unsettling how Manhattan dramatizes the relationship between a fortysomething comedy writer (Allen) and a high school girl (Mariel Hemingway). This story has its basis in fact: Allen was briefly involved with a teenage actress named Stacey Nelkin, whom he’d cast in Annie Hall. (He writes: “We dated on and off, saw a few films, listened to music, discussed books, and of course jumped into the percales.”)

It seemed vaguely troubling how his character in Crimes and Misdemeanors has terrible relationships with women, save a comfortable rapport with his teenage niece. Nothing untoward is suggested in the movie, but still. The year Allen’s affair with Previn was revealed, he released Husbands and Wives, a subplot of which is the romance between Allen’s character and an undergraduate played by Juliette Lewis. 

Allen received the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 2014 Golden Globes. Shortly thereafter, Dylan Farrow published an open letter in Nicholas Kristof’s blog at the Times; it was the first time she had publicly addressed these events, and perhaps the first time a whole generation of filmgoers and readers heard those accusations against Allen. The director responded with a Times op-ed of his own, in which he (prematurely) declared his final word on the matter. There was something truly distressing about this back-and-forth—the paper of record embroiled in a sordid family drama. 

The saga of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow is complicated, and younger people can be forgiven for knowing that the man is, in the contemporary parlance, problematic, without knowing precisely why. The book does not exonerate him because, at this point, nothing could. The slogan “Believe Women” is the prevailing philosophy of the #MeToo era, but fact exists independent of belief. A desire to support those speaking out about abuse runs headlong into the reality that, on this matter, as in so many others, there will likely never be consensus, or proof, or clarity. 

We live in a culture so deferential to celebrity that my inquiries about Allen’s book were met with a bit of indignation and a sense of embarrassment, as though I’d asked something uncouth. It’s less that I wanted to speak to the author himself—I did, though he says his piece in the book at hand—than that I wanted to confirm some simple facts about the book’s strange odyssey.

I can understand Hachette’s desire to put the incident behind it. I can understand Skyhorse’s desire to focus on the book rather than the story of its origin. But here’s some of what I cannot understand: Was Allen’s manuscript edited, and copy edited, and read by corporate lawyers while under contract at Grand Central?

The book was acquired by Skyhorse on March 8 and published 15 days later. Is this text the same as the one Grand Central had intended to publish? The authorial voice is loose by design, but there are lapses that I’d imagine would bother most editors (like a forgetful relative, Allen clumsily repeats an anecdote, about a statue of him erected in a Spanish town). I do not know whether the more salacious disclosures—such as that Ronan “had his legs broken a few times and reconstructed to lengthen them” to gain the advantage of height that might serve him in a future political career—have been subjected to legal review. 

The book’s publication feels anticlimactic, overshadowed by these mysteries (and more pressing matters). I asked several people in the business whether they could envision it having had a more successful journey. Many stressed the importance of consensus inside the organization: “I have to have staff working on books they are psyched to be working on,” one editor said. “I think with that lens—can I have this person working on this book in good faith, and with enthusiasm? If the answer is no, then I don’t think we would publish it well.”

Allen’s lamentations about political correctness or cancel culture (or whatever you’d like to call it) were echoed within the industry, in response to Hachette’s decision to drop the book. One editor found the Hachette staff’s walkout surprising, an affront to the business’s inherent hierarchies: “You can’t willy-nilly walk out and make me change my publishing strategy.”

Jeannette Seaver, who ultimately acquired Apropos of Nothing at Arcade, shared this view. “I come from a long line of free speech protesting,” she told me, speaking of her late husband, Richard. “And my reaction was the one that Dick would have had. What do you mean? This great publishing house, Grand Central … how can they possibly drop a book on the basis of a protest by their employees?”

Stephen King tweeted about the affair, “The Hachette decision to drop the Woody Allen book makes me very uneasy. It’s not him; I don’t give a damn about Mr. Allen. It’s who gets muzzled next that worries me.” Many derided this response, pointing out the gulf between corporate censure and actual censorship. But editors working inside a system controlled by corporate forces are less sanguine. “I think it’s a dangerous practice for a publisher to say ‘We’re not going to honor a contract,’” one told me. “I wouldn’t want to be owned by a hypothetical big media company and have someone come to me and say ‘You have to cancel this journalist’s book because they’re very critical of China and we do business with the Chinese government.’”

The incident highlighted a generational rift in the business. “There’s an entrenched baby boomer managerial class throughout most of the publishing industry,” another editor told me. “Their ideas about free expression were very much formed during 1960s cultural changes. Then you have a large underclass of poorly paid entry- and mid-level employees who are largely coming from the millennial generation—some are even younger than that. And they did not grow up in a repressive culture. The idea that free expression, rebelling against 1950s repression, is the paramount value, is anathema to them. The idea that speech and cultural production can be harmful is very real. And it’s incredibly difficult to bridge that gap, especially where commerce is involved.”

Corporations are guided by profit motive. It’s hard to reconcile Hachette’s choice to publish Allen with the imperative to retain Farrow, whose Catch and Kill has sold more than 160,000 copies in hardcover, a success by almost any metric. Presumably, its executives believed that this would demonstrate the editorial independence of its various imprints, but it has simply laid bare that the ethics of many of the people who make books are at odds with the corporate entities that pay them to do so.

No one I spoke to felt there was a broader lesson in this whole story. Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America, cited the legal maxim hard cases make bad law. “You wouldn’t want to derive from this highly particularized case, with its unique set of circumstances, a general principle that if the majority of a staff of a publishing house isn’t supportive of a book they should have the power to shut it down.” At the same time, that’s precisely what happened. Only time will tell if this is a one-time incident or a new reality.

I’m glad the book exists, as both a test of the culture’s willingness to tolerate the views even of people considered toxic and a document in itself. I think Hachette’s initial strategy of secrecy has meant that the story of the book’s publication overshadows a discussion of the text’s merits.

Apropos of Nothing is a reminder that Woody Allen has been playing himself for a long time. Well before his first film—1969’s parody Take the Money and Run—Allan Stewart Konigsberg was honing the character we know as “Woody”: neurotic, urbane, culturally (though not religiously) Jewish, intellectual. It’s a performance, as Allen acknowledges in his book: 

It is amazing how often I am described as “an intellectual.” This is a notion as phony as the Loch Ness Monster as I don’t have an intellectual neuron in my head. Illiterate and uninterested in things scholarly, I grew up the prototype of the slug who sits in front of the TV, beer in hand, football game going full blast, Playboy centerfold Scotch-taped to the wall, a barbarian sporting the tweeds and elbow patches of the Oxford don. 

The body of work—films, plays, screenplays, books; even his appearances as an actor in other people’s movies—is united by a refined sensibility. The character Allen plays in Manhattan lists what makes life worth living: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of a Mozart symphony, a Louis Armstrong recording, Swedish films, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, and “those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne.”

In the memoir, Allen demurs. These citations are evidence, he alleges, of “a flair for appropriating snippets from erudite sources too deep for me to grasp but which can be utilized in my work to give the deceptive impression of knowing more than I do that keeps this fairy tale afloat.” 

At this point—Allen turns 85 this year—the man may be more persona than person. The memoir promises intimacy but delivers, mostly, shtick: hackneyed references (“headhunting tribes in Borneo”), a sprinkling of Yiddish (the beautiful “fumfered”), old showbiz argot (a successful film is one that “played well”), jokey allusions to Thiruvananthapuram or Zanzibar that affirm his indifference to the world beyond Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He’s a comedian, and this is his memoir, so I suppose he can be forgiven a few jokes. Still, one wishes they’d been a bit funnier. 

Allen’s act is well known enough that this memoir’s readers would always be a self-selecting bunch. Though I’ve loved many of Allen’s movies, I was mostly unmoved by his whiz-bang voice; though I’m a sucker for gossip, I was mostly uninterested in his prodigious name-dropping. Leave aside, if you can, the question of whether Woody Allen ought to be canceled and consider, instead, whether he’s simply gone stale.

Allen cannot truly illuminate his work. Perhaps no artist should be expected to do so. Barbara Kopple’s 1997 documentary, Wild Man Blues, which follows Allen, a hobbyist jazz clarinetist, on a European tour, is far more revelatory. Apropos summarizes the artist’s early years, then tells the story of his scandal, and finally collapses into a rush of recap—I made this movie with this star, then this movie with another star. It is muddled, odd, and, frankly, boring.

Consider this revelation about his longtime collaborator and friend Diane Keaton: “In time I dated her beautiful sister, Robin, and we had a brief romance. After that I dated her other beautiful sister, Dory, and we had a little fling. The three Keaton sisters were all beautiful, wonderful women. Good genes in that family. Award-winning protoplasm. Great-looking mother.” I hoped he might draw some parallel between this (icky!) fact and what I consider his greatest accomplishment, Hannah and Her Sisters, in which his character marries two sisters in the same family. Not so.

So many of the various players in this controversy declined to speak with me, seemingly content to let the author have the last word. But the author is strangely not that interested in what others think; his last word is almost an insult to his readers. The work’s final sentence says it all: “Rather than live on in the hearts and mind of the public, I prefer to live on in my apartment.” If that’s true, why did Woody Allen bother writing a book at all?