TATUM O’NEAL – Victim & survivor.

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Tatum O’Neal (1963 – )

After reading Tatum O’Neal’s 2004 autobiography titled A Paper Life, a curious thought came to me. If it had been, say, Darwin Porter who wrote her story, how much of it would be believed and how much would be attributed to his vivid imagination and his notorious reputation for muck-raking and embellishing the truth? Tatum’s story is an indictment of life in the spotlight, of attaining fame too soon, but above all of having the misfortune to be born to lousy parents. And make no mistake about it, Joanna Moore and Ryan O’Neal, as parents, were bloody hopeless!

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the stunning Joanna Moore

Tatum accepts that she has made a lot of mistakes in her life, but it is not difficult to trace the root cause for her rebelliousness and wanton behaviour to a lack of affection, understanding and basic discipline in her younger days. Indeed, her appalling father’s treatment of her has barely altered from her infancy to today, despite her numerous attempts to mend the rift between them, to call a truce. As he made it clear to her many, many times, ‘I just don’t like you, Tatum.’ How does any child deal with that kind of rejection?

The following are revelations from her book concerning her upbringing, her parents’ inadequacies, her husband’s shortcomings – and her own. The more autobiographies and biographies I read about Hollywood and the movie industry in general, the more inclined I am to not write off everything the likes of Porter have written. One could be excused for thinking that he may well have revealed the following, but that is not the case. These are some of Tatum’s own recollections:

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Barbara Parkins

Ryan hit it big when the sixties TV series Peyton Place made him one of the most recognizable faces in the world. His publicized affair with co-star Barbara Parkins wrecked his marriage to Joanna Moore. A few months after their divorce he married Leigh Taylor-Young who had replaced Mia Farrow in the series. He had already ditched Miss Parkins and Leigh was several months pregnant with their son Patrick.

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Ryan & Leigh Taylor-Young 1967

After divorcing Ryan, Joanna’s drinking problem escalated. She often left three year-old Tatum and her two-year old brother Griffin in the house alone for hours at a time. Once she went out and forgot she had locked them in the bathroom. Tatum and her mother would occasionally reunite over the next thirty or more years, but invariably Joanna would disappear on one of her binges within a few days.

At the age of six Tatum was sexually molested by one of her father’s cronies and employees. She ran from her bedroom before he could finish what he had started. When her father learned of it he fired the man (for three weeks), before re-instating him and accusing his daughter of being responsible for the assault! How a father could possibly blame his six year old little girl for being sexually interfered with by a man he liked and trusted staggers the imagination.

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Tatum and her dad in Paper Moon

Tatum was nine when she began shooting Paper Moon (1973). At ten years of age she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, the youngest ever winner to that time. She was on the screen for 66 minutes and 58 seconds, the longest screen-time of any winner of a supporting Oscar in history. Almost unbelievably, neither of her parents attended the Academy Awards with her that night. Tatum attended with her grandparents. Nobody knew where her mother was and her father was in England and ‘too busy’ to fly back. The fact was, he was jealous and furious because he had not been nominated himself. And how did he congratulate his daughter?  He punched her in the face!

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Oscars night for 10 year-old Tatum

By the time Tatum was eleven, Ryan had introduced her to marijuana, Quaaludes and cocaine. Anjelica Huston, her father’s girlfriend at the time, was officially designated as the ‘joint-roller’ because she had a flair for it. There were always women around while Tatum lived at her father’s home. She could hear him having sex with them and doing drugs. One of the girls he brought home was 18 year-old Melanie Griffith who had just come off a four-year relationship with actor Don Johnson, an intimate liaison that had begun when she was a ripe old fourteen. Tatum assumed Melanie was to be her ‘sitter’, but that soon changed when she walked in on her father and Miss Griffith having sex in his bedroom.

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Anjelica Huston and Ryan

In 1976, when Ryan took Tatum and Melanie to Europe with him to make A Bridge Too Far (1977), he slipped his 13 year-old daughter a packet of drugs at the Amsterdam Airport. ‘Here, Tatum, stick this in your boot’, he told her. They then did a tour of the city’s red-light district. Later his re-instated paedophile buddy slipped her some hash. At the Plaza Athenee in Paris Melanie and Tatum met Maria Schneider and they all adjourned to a room. When Tatum awoke from a ‘hash haze’ she saw the two women (and a guy she did not recognize) having a threesome. They invited her to join them – and she did, even though one of the women was clearly menstruating!

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Melanie Griffith 1975                                                                         Maria Schneider

That same year Tatum and her friend Carrie were involved in a rollover on Ventura Freeway while they were driving up to Big Sur. Both girls were flung onto the road (no seatbelts) and bounced among the traffic. Miraculously, neither was seriously injured, although Tatum’s fourth-degree road-burns turned septic and she spent six weeks in hospital. Her mother visited only once. Her father also visited once, with his latest girlfriend in tow. Her grandmother, wrote Tatum, ‘took the position that I’d gotten what I deserved for calling attention to my lack of parental supervision and embarrassing my family’.

At the tender age of fourteen Tatum was temporarily staying with her mother who had promised (yet again) to stay sober. She did so for about two days. During that time they encountered Warren Beatty. He promptly asked for Tatum’s phone number! ‘He was one of the most notorious lady-killers in Hollywood’, she recalled, ‘but my mother gave me some surprising advice. She said: ‘Go for it. You might get hurt, but if you’re willing to take that chance, you could probably learn a lot from him.’ What does a 14 year-old girl do with advice like that from her mother? Nothing eventuated, but no thanks to Mum.

Throughout her formative years, Tatum was forever endeavouring to find some glimmer of parental affection from either her violent father or her drunken mother, but it simply was not forthcoming. Ryan bashed all of his children and was especially dangerous when he was high or intoxicated. He was also consumed by a competitive streak that obsessed him. Whether it be tennis, racquet-ball, pool or any competitive activity – he just had to win. And if he lost (or even looked like losing) he would strike out with whatever object was in his hands. If he was empty-handed he would punch. Male or female, child or adult, it made no difference.

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Marriage to tennis star John McEnroe

Tatum met tennis star John McEnroe in October 1984. They fell in love. He had just made tennis history by winning 82 of his 85 matches that year, a staggering achievement. But his success had come at a cost. He was exhausted, burnt out. He needed a break and decided on a 12 month hiatus from the game. Despite his marriage to Tatum, however, he grew restless and made his comeback after just 6 months. It was a mistake. McEnroe was not yet ready and he began to lose matches he would normally have won. Worse, he blamed Tatum and his family for ‘dragging me down’, for ‘not giving me the support I need’. It was totally unfair. His wife adored him and backed him right down the line, but he was not called ‘McBrat’ for nothing. He had always blamed others for his shortcomings – umpires, opponents’ tactics, hostile crowds, whatever. Now he blamed Tatum and it destroyed their marriage.

After the break-up, and the one-sided court battle for custody of the children that followed, Tatum went off the rails completely. McEnroe’s battery of hot-shot lawyers crucified her. The pre-nuptial agreement he and his equally belligerent father had browbeaten her into signing on the eve of their marriage, took pretty much everything but her own personal savings. In the end, McEnroe reluctantly agreed to give her a residence plus her jewellery, but only if she agreed to joint-custody. Tired of the battle, she conceded. With no-one to turn to, she drifted back into drugs and, for the only time in her life, into a promiscuous life-style.

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Tatum and her children

Her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away in Tatum’s arms in 1997. Around that time she learned that her father had been diagnosed with Leukaemia. For the umpteenth time she tried to become part of his life. In an attempt to mend the fences she went to see him, offering to help him through his ordeal in any way she could. Ryan flew into a rage and punched her yet again. She left his home vowing never to return.

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Since then she and McEnroe have reached a tentative agreement about custody. By her 40th birthday Tatum had begun to enjoy the family she loves and which loves her. Today she is 54 and still battling substance abuse. In 2008 she was arrested for buying crack in New York near her apartment. After years of estrangement, Tatum and her father appeared together in 2011 on a documentary titled Ryan & Tatum: The O’Neals. In May 2015 she revealed: ‘I definitely have been dating mostly women recently. They’re gentle and also more intelligent than the men that I’ve met recently. I don’t have a steady right now, but I look forward to it.’ A romance has since evolved with actress Rosie O’Donnell. Sources reported in September 2015 that they were very much in love.

4 Comments

  1. NO! Not saying farewell, Alan. Have had so much “stuff” re. her funeral and after.
    Thank you for your condolences. I, too, have appreciated our conversations, and have
    learned from your insights. Sheila

  2. Well, who’s worse; John Phillips or Ryan O’Neal; a tossup?

    Different subject: Your posts have been a divergence for me.
    Mother was 101, Nov.. 23; died 7 days later, Nov. 30. She had
    24 hr. care, in Florida home, with the two most loving people [last 5 or 6 yrs.]
    Our family visited early in November, arranged hospice. Funeral Dec 5; caregivers inc.
    Duluth, Mn,. “[famous” for birthplace of Bob Dylan.] It was our family home.
    Post funeral; much to settle.

    Bye, Sheila

    • Please, accept my sincerest condolences, Sheila. If you are saying farewell, please believe me when I say it has been my great pleasure to have conversed with you over the past three years or so, and I wish you only good things ahead. Take care. Alan.

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