By Carrie Rickey
The Philadelphia Inquirer
BRIDGEWATER, Conn. — Mia Farrow's home in rural Connecticut is the image of its owner: Unadorned and gently weathered on the exterior, light-filled and book-crammed within. Outside, it's a model of Yankee simplicity; inside, Woodstock eclectic, chockablock with keepsakes of her multicultural family and her work with UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.
Now 66, Farrow retains the porcelain skin, iris-blue eyes and ideals of the former convent schoolgirl who dreamed of being a pediatrician in Africa. For much of her adult life, the star of "Rosemary's Baby" and mother of 15 children, 11 of them adopted, has devoted herself to saving the world one child at a time. A decade ago, she expanded the mission: one nation at a time.
Tuesday night, Farrow will receive the Marian Anderson Award at a gala at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center gala, honoring her commitment to initiatives ranging from the eradication of polio in Nigeria to raising awareness of genocide in Darfur. Named for the contralto and humanitarian Anderson, the award in past years has been given to artist/activists such as Oprah Winfrey and Elizabeth Taylor.
In 2006, Farrow asked to accompany Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, to Darfur, the region of Sudan where an estimated 200,000 people have been killed and four million displaced since 2003. He expected a glamour-puss who recoiled from dirt and danger. He found a courageous and dedicated humanitarian soldier who stood up where others cowered.
"She's not just the face of UNICEF," says David Buchbinder, a human rights advocate. "She digs deep into issues."
Her work comes as no surprise to longtime friend Carly Simon, who will sing at Tuesday's event: "Mia's unself-conscious of her looks. She's conscious of her acts."
It doesn't hurt that she's ethereally lovely and has earthy humor to boot.
Farrow greets you at the door of Frog Hollow cradling Maggie, an 8-week-old Goldendoodle with blond curls like her own.
Drawings and toys, among other souvenirs of nine grandchildren visiting for Easter, decorate the rug of the "kids' room" overlooking a lake. Her children range in age from Quincy, 17, to Matthew and Sascha, 41, twins by her second husband, conductor Andre Previn. Frank Sinatra was the first. After she and Previn split, for 12 years she was the partner, the muse and ultimately the dupe of Woody Allen, who took up with her daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.
A trim figure clad in a T-shirt, jeans and clogs, Farrow wears a "hijab" protection amulet around her neck. It was a gift from Halimah, a Darfuri whose village was burned by Janjaweed militiamen. Gunmen tore her baby from her arms, bayoneted the infant to death, and threw three other children down a well. Then, they raped her.
"When I heard her story, my life changed," says Farrow. Acutely aware of the gulf between her comfort and the circumstances of those struggling with disease, she didn't wring her hands — she used them.
"I didn't know I could write op-ed pieces. I didn't know that I could take pictures. I didn't know I could give speeches." But she did.
She created a website, miafarrow.org, which aggregates news and reports from Africa's trouble spots and provides links on how to help.
To document what is lost to genocide, she created the Darfur Archives. She filmed songs dances, and agricultural methods. She recorded stories of the elders. Refugees gave her artifacts rescued from their villages. An elder thanked her "for reminding us to remember."
"If I have any importance it's to amplify the voices of people who need protection," she says, gesturing with an arm circled by more than a dozen colorful bracelets, each with a story like Halimah's.
In the 1990s, Farrow was invited to join UNICEF by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Not long after, the woman christened Maria de Lourdes Villiers Farrow, daughter of director John Farrow and actress Maureen O'Sullivan, boarded a plane to Nigeria. Farrow, who as a child of 9 had contracted polio, wanted to encourage immunization against the disease. She traveled with sons Ronan, 13, and Thaddeus, 12, who had infant polio.
"Islamic extremists in northern Africa believed it was a plot to sterilize them," she recalls. When she gave Thaddeus injections to show that she used shots on her own son, the extremists were unmoved.
"Traveling across Nigeria, it was impossible not to also speak about HIV/AIDS," she recalls. When you hold babies that are about to die, you get a sense of moral outrage. That first stage of activism is an important galvanizer."
On the evidence of "What Falls Away," Farrow's eloquent 1997 memoir, her first stage of activism was in 1973. Stung by the stories of suffering in war-torn Vietnam, Farrow and Previn, parents of twin toddlers, adopted a war orphan, Lark.
When she saw the desperate conditions in the Saigon orphanage, Farrow wrote every person and corporation she could think of. Before long, crates of Fisher-Price toys and Johnson & Johnson baby formula were on Air France planes to Saigon.
"That was the turning point," says Simon.
Farrow remembers otherwise. "I don't know how conscious it was. I think if you see something that needs doing and you can — you do it."
Farrow's second African trip took her to Angola, still regrouping from civil war. "Our plane did a corkscrew landing to avoid getting fired upon. We found a country riddled with land mines and proxy wars. I met a man who pointed to my belt and said, "I had one like that. I had to eat it."
"After Angola, I became more scrappy in my advocacy.
"I met the man who ate his belt. I saw the oil companies doing business. Why were the profits from Angola's resources not going to its citizens?" Her son Ronan asked Farrow to use his savings to buy a share in each of the oil companies doing business there. "He wrote their chairmen: 'Can't the resources of Angola go to its people?'"
(Ronan, born Satchel, the biological son of Woody Allen, at 15 received a bachelor's degree from Bard College and at 22 a law degree from Yale University. He is the Obama administration's adviser on humanitarian affairs, focusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan.)
Farrow's mission clarified in 2004, when reports of genocide began coming out of Darfur. She began reading everything she could about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 perished. "We weren't reading about Rwanda in 1994 because it was happening at the same time that Nicole Simpson was murdered."
"My country and my church failed to protect the people of Rwanda," she says. "When I read of Darfur, I couldn't stand by and watch.
"I did everything in my power to get UNICEF to send me." What she saw there, Farrow says, holding Halimah's amulet, "rearranged me." Villages reduced to piles of ash. Hundreds of thousands of refugees. Women afraid to leave prison camps to gather firewood because they feared rape by militiamen.
She was spurred to write opinion pieces, many with Ronan, exploring the connection between China's oil interests in Africa and the slaughters in Darfur. "UNICEF lets me speak for myself so long as I don't label myself as speaking for it," she explains.
She jokes that she is able to do what she does because "my OCD focuses my ADD."
Simon opines, "You have to be weak in order to become strong. You have to have something to overcome. Mia had polio. Lying in bed, she got very determined."
There's another adversity Farrow overcame, says Simon: "Woody crumbled the family and she had to put it back together." In her memoir, Farrow writes that when she learned of Allen's betrayal, she experienced "the same creeping fear I'd had as a child after the polio: That ... I might have contaminated those I loved the most."
Today she is philosophical. Among Farrow's films her favorites are "the rose movies" — "Rosemary's Baby," "Broadway Danny Rose, and "Purple Rose of Cairo," the latter two directed by Allen. "I can separate my feelings about the movies from what I know now," she says. "I was working with one of America's great filmmakers." Since she began her work in Africa, she continues to make a movie a year, most recently Todd Solondz's "The Dark Horse."
She is, unexpectedly, a stitch. "I think I'm intense but I do have a good time," says the raconteur.
She talks about her obsession with reality TV and tells of her time at the ashram when the Beatles showed up to study with the Maharishi and wrote most of "The White Album." She does a spot-on impersonation of John Lennon: "Whenever I meditate, there's a brass band in me head."
She does not tell the one about Sinatra offering to break Allen's legs.
The voracious reader watches Oprah, loves "American Idol," and is fascinated with "Jon and Kate Plus Eight": "As an actor, to watch people in unguarded situations! Wow."
In her mid-60s, this is what she knows. That impatience is a virtue. That where homework is concerned, "Gotta do it, but don't ask me for help with math." That it's OK to change tracks in life.
An inspiration is Miep Gies, the woman who risked her life by hiding Anne Frank and family from the Nazis. Farrow asked Gies, who died last year, what made her do it.
"What else could I do?" Gies responded.
It reminded Farrow of a Rwandan friend who survived the genocide. "She calculated that 95 percent of people will pick up a machete and kill. ... Three percent run away."
At first, Farrow was sick at those numbers. Then she considered the other 2 percent "who show us the way."
Like Gies, she's part of the 2 percent solution.