How Mariel Hemingway Overcame Her Family’s Tragic Legacy

Bobbi Brown

Oscar-nominated actress Mariel Hemingway rose to fame at 16 playing Woody Allen’s girlfriend in the movie Manhattan. As the granddaughter of legendary writer Ernest Hemingway, Mariel was from one of this country’s most famous families — but it was also a family plagued by mental illness, addiction, and tragedy. In two new memoirs out this month, Mariel pulls back the curtain and shares what life was really like for her growing up. She holds nothing back in her book Out Came the Sun, and to reach a younger audience, Mariel wrote a version for teens called Invisible Girl.

Mariel recounts being surrounded by a family that was spinning out of control from the start. Her parents spent most evenings drinking, descending into inevitable fighting. After they had retreated to separate bedrooms, Mariel used to clean up the mess — the spilled wine and broken glasses. When her parents both suffered illnesses, she became their caretaker—starting at age 11. Her eldest sister, Muffet, began to show signs of bipolar disease and schizophrenia as a teen. Her unpredictable older sister Margaux escaped to New York to become a model.

Mariel went on to become an actress, and traded one crazy group for another. In her books, she talks about being chased around a couch by director Bob Fosse, having writer Woody Allen pressure her to go to Paris with him, and actor Eric Roberts spitting in her face on set after she rejected his advances. Mariel spent years terrified of the alcoholism and depression that plagued her family, especially after Margaux overdosed at 42.

Mariel with her older sister, Margaux. (Photo: Instagram)

The good news is this: Despite all the insanity in her life, Mariel transformed her own. Through spirituality, alternative therapies, yoga, exercise, and healthy food, she created a happier life for herself. She is also a passionate advocate for mental health care. At 53, Mariel has two daughters, Dree and Langley, and has found love with her partner, Bobby Williams. She hopes her books will inspire others who are battling difficult issues in their families and in their lives.

Bobbi Brown: I’ve always known you as this happy, light, bright-eyed, gorgeous, special, yoga-loving mom. I knew there were definitely some interesting family stories, but reading your books, my God — you have been through so much. How did you find the courage to write these two very powerful memoirs?

Mariel Hemingway: I did a documentary two years ago called Running From Crazy. It has a lot to do with my story, but there’s more about my sister, suicides, and all that stuff. So I started to speak in front of groups and tell my story. I started to realize how passionate people are about their own stories — and how scared they are to tell them. I realized that nobody has a different story; we just have variations on a theme. We all have something that’s affected us in a way that’s made us sad or confused us as kids. I’m starting to come to the realization that my purpose is to help other people be OK with the idea that we’re not perfect, we’re not all balanced, we’re not all happy, shiny people all the time.

You told your story in two books, one for adults and one for teens. Why did you decide to do it that way?

The credit goes to publisher Judith Regan. She was like, “I think we should help young people.” I was so excited because I’ve always wanted to reach out to that age group, because that was when I was the most scared. That was when life made the least sense to me. When I was young, as much as I loved being in Idaho and my life was all about nature, so many things didn’t make any sense to me. I didn’t know that they weren’t normal and there were people out there that you could probably talk to. There were just so many questions I had that I couldn’t get answers to. I’m really excited for the young-adult book, Invisible Girl, to reach an audience that really doesn’t get spoken to when it comes to being that age.

Very early on you became the caretaker of your family. You were the stable one, dealing with your parents’ alcoholism, fighting, and illnesses and your oldest sister’s mental illness. How did you cope with that ? You had to act as an adult as a kid.

Exactly. Here’s the thing — I didn’t know any different. It was like, “Why wouldn’t you do that?” I was so in love with my mom, this crazy woman who was basically so mean to everybody but me. Everybody was scared of my mom because she was hardcore. She was depressed her whole life, but I didn’t know that. I was in love with my mom because she was my mom. And so I didn’t see that there was an option. Of course I was going to take care of my mom. Of course I didn’t want her to die. It was constant, the negotiation of trying to care for somebody and be their sounding board, and look like you’re being loyal to both parents. It was hard!

That’s a huge burden for someone who is so young. And then you got thrust into this adult world at 14, with a role in the movie Lipstick, which must have been pretty intense.

I couldn’t believe that my sister Margaux, who really kind of resented me from the moment I came out, asked the producers, “Why don’t you use my little sister, because it’ll be easier to act with her?” So, right there, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’ I never thought I was going to be an actress. I just thought I’d go to L.A. and buy cool clothes. The other strange thing is that I make this movie, and my sister apparently is raped in it. I don’t really pay attention to the story. I just know that it’s scary and it kind of freaks me out. But then the movie comes out, my father takes me to a showing of it in midtown Manhattan, and the audience is full-on screaming at the screen, where my sister is blowing the guy up. I came out of the film and I’m so upset with my dad. I didn’t realize that I was raped in it too until I watched it. I was like, “How could you put me in this?” There was this constant inability for my parents to just be really open about anything. But of course, I take full responsibility for that because I also didn’t pay attention. I just wanted things to be OK. I don’t actually blame my parents for anything. All the stories in the book are always me needing to find my voice. Nobody was going to speak up for me except me.

 

Mariel Hemingway filming Manhattan with Woody Allen. (Photo: Getty)

As an actress you also had to deal with a lot of very high-powered men in Hollywood — Woody Allen, Bob Fosse, Eric Roberts. You literally had to chase them off you. How did you handle that?

I think that’s not a new issue in Hollywood. I think every actress has to chase off [men]. I don’t know if they literally get chased around couches like I did with Bob Fosse. I laugh about it now. Nobody put me in danger. I don’t hate any of these people. In my mind, I was doing a job and I was showing up to play a character. I didn’t know that any of this came with other stuff. And consequently, I think, I didn’t thrive. I’m not saying you need to do that, but I was never going to be that girl. I was like, ‘I’ll play the character. I’ll be Woody Allen’s girlfriend. I’ll play this Playmate.’ But the sophistication that it takes actually being that person, was not me. I was a kid from Idaho. I was really pretty naive for such a long time, which I think in many ways is kind of a blessing. I think it kind of protects me in a way, but it was a challenge.

You also talk in the book about an unhealthy relationship with food when you were younger, but now you are big advocate for healthy living. How did you turn that obsession into something positive?

I think it’s being a woman especially in the modern world where we’re all trying to look a certain way. Also it’s part of being in a business that defines people by the way that they look. But all that said, I have a family of addicts. Everybody was addicted to something. When my mother got sick, I started to think that food had something to do with it. I became so obsessed with ways of eating — whether it was macrobiotic, vegan, fruitarian or drinking coffee all the time — such extremes. I think those extremes put my brain in imbalance, because I was either on too much caffeine or too much — even it was fruit — it was too much sugar. It wasn’t a balanced diet. I turned it into a positive, but it took me a lot of years. I was obsessed because that was my addiction. That was what I did to deal with whatever I couldn’t handle emotionally.

I’ve tried them all too. I think it’s a common issue for a lot of women.

I think it’s so common! Then I think you come to this place, and I don’t know whether it’s age or wisdom, but you finally realize what balance is about. It’s walking this middle ground, but that middle ground looks different for everybody. I know how to eat in a way that works for me, and it took me too many years to figure that out — into my forties to figure that out.

So what does work?   

I’m pretty Paleo-based, if you want to call it something. I’m no longer vegan. I was vegan for 16 years. All my vegan friends got mad at me when I quit being vegan, because that’s like the new religion. I get it. Part of me thinks it’s such a responsible and good thing to do, but my body didn’t like it. I had no energy. So then I thought, what can I do? How can I eat meat and still be ethical and still be a kind person and have compassion? So I don’t eat abused animals. If we eat chicken, we know where it comes from.

Do you drink?

I don’t drink. I never really have. I just watched it be so destructive. I don’t judge anybody who drinks. I think a good wine is incredible, but I don’t know that I know how to do it anything like that moderately. So I’m just like, why challenge myself?

 

Mariel Hemingway and her partner, Bobby Williams. (Photo: Instagram)

So what is Brainwave Optimization? I’ve never heard of it before and I know it’s something you credit with really helping you.

Brainwave Optimization changed my life. My partner, Bobby Williams, introduced me to it. It balances the hemispheres of the brain through sound. It got rid of my depression for sure. What I love about it is that it’s your brain hearing itself in real time, and it interprets those brain waves into almost like musical sounds. Your brain hears it and goes, ‘Oh wait! That doesn’t sound quite balanced.’ So it balances itself. It takes a little bit of time. It’s extraordinary. I don’t know why it works, but for me, it was a miracle. I want it to be a part of our arsenal of things that we can do to help be healthy and balance body, mind, and spirit. Finding our mental wellbeing is about everything we do. I meditate every day, twice a day. I think if you learn to do TM (Transcendental Meditation), it changes your life. There are many different modalities that help the brain balance.

 

Mariel Hemingway with her two daughters, Dree and Langley. (Photo: Instagram)

I think it’s amazing that you’ve found what really works for you. You’ve created this whole happy life for yourself that’s so different from what you knew. You have this strong partner, and of course your two beautiful daughters. 

They’re all amazing. My daughters are just so incredible. Dree is like this amazing supermodel. She wears all fabulous clothes, and I feel very dorky next to her. Langley is amazing. I love them. They are so fun.  They’re my best friends now. It’s great to go from being a parent to all of a sudden, you have these two really cool friends.

Thank you so much for sharing your story, Mariel. Your books will inspire a lot of people. You are one courageous and brave woman.

Thanks so much, Bobbi.