Woody Allen autobiography

When it comes to travel, where’s Woody? “Definitely not on one of those first rockets to outer space,” he writes in his new memoir.

Woody Allen autobiography
Woody writes again. (Photo courtesy: Arcade Publishing)

Writer, director, and actor Woody Allen has filmed on location many times and in doing so has made the settings co-stars in many of his movies.

Some like To Rome With Love, which featured scenes from the Coliseum, Spanish Steps, Vatican, and Via Veneto, are very obvious. Manhattan, of course, was big at the box office, and New York got top billing in New York Stories, A Rainy Day in New York, Manhattan Murder Mystery, and, by location, Bullets over Broadway, and Broadway Danny Rose.

Allen is the ultimate New Yorker, and while many of his other films are also set in the Big Apple, he goes away from Gotham for titles such as Hollywood Ending, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Midnight in Paris. Match Point was an homage to London; and Blue Jasmine took moviegoers to San Francisco.

Allen’s autobiography, Apropos of Nothing, takes readers on a subtle tour of his travels and places of significance for the award-winning (but not award loving – he skipped accepting his Oscar for Annie Hall) director and movie star, who claims, in the book he is not an intellectual, despite what many presume.

“That’s the thing about my alleged intelligence: my total lack of curiosity. I have no desire to see the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall, or the Grand Canyon. I don’t want to visit the pyramids or stroll through the Forbidden City. And I definitely don’t want to be on one of those first rockets to outer space,” Allen writes.

At the same time, Allen says friends describe him as a chronically dissatisfied person. “I’d always rather be where I am not at the time. Let’s say it’s a beautiful fall Sunday and I’m walking on the Upper East Side, maybe in Central Park and it’s just lovely. So, I’m thinking, ‘My god wouldn’t it be great to be in Paris right now? Or Venice?’”

He’s Always Been in a New York State of Mind

Allen describes, at age 11, developing the practice of taking the subway to “his beloved city across the river” and spending his allowance on a day in Manhattan.

“That was unheard of for a kid that age…but I loved walking on Park and Fifth Avenue into Central Park. It was the Manhattan of the Hollywood movies I grew up escaping to,” Allen writes.

Manhattan would become his home and many of his meals were taken at the now-shuttered Elaine’s, the dark, worn celebrity hangout he used in his films Manhattan and Celebrity.

A younger Allen writes he didn’t like being extracted from New York City, even when he was in a relationship with actress Mia Farrow.

“Summers she would take the children to the country and I’d be a summer bachelor remaining in Manhattan. I visited on July Fourth, gritted my teeth for the weekend amidst the mosquitos and humidity and bees and ants,” Allen recalls and bemoaned despite wearing long slacks, long-sleeved shirts and a hat, he ended up with Lyme disease.

He was sent to summer camp as a kid, but that didn’t go well, either. “I rode the train upstate, sized up the situation immediately, and called for my dad to come to get me.”

Despite describing summer in New York as “hot, muggy, sticky, humid and dull,” Allen was at home in “The City,” specifically his apartment at 930 Fifth Avenue for years.

Woody Allen
Woody Allen loves to be at home…or does he? (Photo courtesy: Arcade Publishing)

“It could have been a film set. I put in large floor-to-ceiling glass windows and my views of the city were truly stupendous. I saw fabulous sunsets and bolts of lightning sometimes stretching from the George Washington Bridge to the Battery,” writes Allen, who described Spring in Central Park as “blossoms and petals unfolding and the air smelling of nostalgia…it’s too beautiful to handle.”

Allen tried to emerge one other time by purchasing a dream beach house right on the Atlantic in Southampton, which he spent two years and a fortune fixing up. “Finally, ready to move in, I went out there on a beautiful fall Saturday morning. I walked the beach; the stars came out. I fell asleep to the gentle sound of the waves lapping on the shore. The following day I drove back to Manhattan, sold the place, and never returned.”

He recounts similar feelings of isolation during a short stay at Martha’s Vineyard on what he described as “an exquisite fall day.”

New York Still Has Allen’s Home and Heart

Allen now lives in a townhome that has special significance: it’s on a tree-lined block right across the street from where his character “Alvy” in the Academy Award-winning Annie Hall was portrayed to have resided.

“It’s the most beautiful block on the Upper East Side. I tell myself I actually own a piece of this legendry island. Then I think of the taxes on the property and my arthritis sets in.”

Allen writes about dining at Rao’s, “the great Italian restaurant that needs no introduction,” but could take a cold-calling tourist 14 months to get a table at the one-room eatery in East Harlem.

Allen refers to the Carlisle Hotel, recounts dinners with actresses Louise Lasser at Lutece, Ruth Gordon at the Russian Tea Room and playing jazz at Michael’s Pub with Cary Grant looking on. “For health purposes, I am careful not to eat anything pleasurable,” he jokes.

Allen is serious when he writes that his most pleasurable night in New York was making the Broadway rounds with journalist Leonard Lyons.

“He took me to Sardi’s, to the Oak Room of The Plaza, to Toots Shor’s, then to the Waldorf, and Lindy’s. At times when I am lying in bed…I think nostalgically of that night. This was the city before middle-class New Yorkers fled and turned Times Square over to the tourists…and before the bike infestation. New York is a walking town.”

Allen stays in the boundaries of Gotham even when shooting films. “Sweet and Lowdown” was the movie we had to make look like we shot all over the country except I never left Manhattan.

Go West, Young Filmmaker

Allen highlighted the cultural differences between New York and Hollywood in his Oscar-winning film Annie Hall.

That narrative began when he was a very young stand-up comic who’d learned NBC was flying developing writers to Los Angeles. “Until then I had never flown. In those days, all planes had propellers and couldn’t make the trip non-stop,” Allen writes.

He got the impression that Los Angeles seemed exciting by listening to Bob Hope monologues. “Hollywood and Vine, Mulholland Drive, the La Brea Tar Pits…this is where it all happens – the movies, the homes with swimming pools, Bogart and Bacall, Sunset Boulevard.”

Allen’s initial existence was less than glamorous, though – he unwillingly shared a room with an old comedy writer in a hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. He wasn’t keen on sharing a room and in his book Allen reveals one of his cardinal rules of life: “never be anyone’s house guest,” an axiom he regrets ignoring when Mariel Hemingway invited him on a trip to join her famous family in Ketchum, Idaho.

“Ernest Hemingway was a hero of mine…so on a freezing November day, with the snow swirling over the blizzard-covered hills…I found myself sitting down for dinner with this outdoorsy family eating quail Mariel’s father had shot that morning – the same man he’d have to share a bathroom with.

“I booked an early exit and needed a private plane because there were to direct flights to Ketchum and with connecting flight and rigamarole I am not a happy traveler.”

Surprising Spots

Allen is not often equated with America’s “Second City,” but he does write, in a passing way, about a visit to Chicago to perform at Mister Kelly’s and the Astor Tower Hotel high above Lake Shore Drive. But New York always remained his home…and launchpad.

“I remember how impressed Dick Cavett was when we were wolfing down chili at P.J. Clarke’s in New York one night and I said, ‘Gee I’d better split. Gotta get up early tomorrow and go to Budapest,’” recalls Allen, who traveled there to shoot Love and Death. “Exotic city. Full of Russian soldiers at that time. The country was occupied.”

He shot Irrational Man in Newport. “Summer in Newport is as delightful a spot as one could imagine. I can see why all the turn-of-the-century nabobs chose Newport to park their yachts.”

However, Match Point, originally set in The Hamptons, was moved to London when financial backing for the film came from England.

“Various countries started calling and inviting me to make films. London was a treat. Barcelona was a dream. It was all fine provided the host city was one I could live in decently for the four months it took to film there. If I’d gotten an offer from say, Thiruvananthapuram, it’d be a definite pass.”

Allen’s visits to London over the years included fish dinners at Wheelers and poker games at a joint called the Pair of Shoes.

He writes that he loved his summers on the Thames, recalls enjoying strolls on Kings Road, and even being introduced to Queen Elizabeth at a gala in a theater. “Some bugger who was all mouth and no trousers from Buckingham Palace came to try and teach me protocols addressing royalty,” he reveals.  

Allen has dined at the White House, too, but he likely preferred his opportunities to play baseball with big leaguers in a charity event at Dodger Stadium and playing jazz in a parade at Preservation Hall in New Orleans. But he was smitten with Spain, too, where he was presented the Prince of Asturias Award.

“I had a great summer in Barcelona and had the pleasure of eating at Ca L’Isidre as many times as humanly possible, and that alone made the experience a joy,” he writes. He also lunched with playwright Arthur Miller in Oviedo, which he remembers as a lovely, small town with London-like weather.”

Barcelona flag
Barcelona was blissful while also shooting in Oviedo. (Photo courtesy: Harrison Shiels)

Eternal City Admiration

Allen’s most enduring memory of Rome is getting a surprise phone call in his hotel room from Federico Fellini, an Italian acclaimed director he admired and said is his film idol. “I was leaving Rome early so we had a long talk on the phone.

When I left there, I vowed to call and see him the next time I came into town, but by then he had died, perhaps sensing I was serious.”

It was Sicily in which Allen filmed Mighty Aphrodite. “In the background was Mount Etna. I was told not to worry unless the volcano smoked. It smoked. I worried,” Allen admitted.

Mount Etna
When Mount Etna smoked, Woody worried. (Photo courtesy: Harrison Shiels)

City of Light Lights Up Allen

Paris gets plenty of play in Allen’s book. He got to Paris early in his career after a visit to the Du Cap Hotel in the South of France.  

“It was love at first sight. I loved everything about that city and still do. For a fleeting moment it crossed my mind to live and work there,” he recalls.

In terms of temporary lodging over the years, Allen cites stays at the Plaza Athenee, Ritz, and Bristol Hotel (which he describes as “delightful”), plus dining at Maxim’s and a yearly Christmas Eve ritual of dinner at the quintessential French restaurant La Tour d’Argent.

“I strolled the Champs-Elysees knocking back Romanee-Conti and the Place de la Concorde lit up at night was so beautiful. While shooting Midnight in Paris Allen was invited to Elysee Palace to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy and ended up casting his wife Carla Bruni for a stint in the film.

Read more of Michael Patrick’s work at The Travel Tattler, or contact him at [email protected]

Michael Patrick Shiels

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