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Child of Fortune, Take 2

By Lloyd Grove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Lavina Currier Writer/director of the upcoming film "Passion in the Desert." (Mark Finkenstaedt/The Post)
THE PLAINS, Va.—At her magnificent estate here in Fauquier County, a spread worthy of an heiress, Lavinia Currier sits in the wet grass cradling a motherless fawn. The day before, her young son had been hiking through a forest on the 1,000-acre property, came upon the marooned infant and scooped it up.

"I think he was born three days ago," Currier says as she coaxes the nipple of a baby bottle filled with warm milk into the animal's mouth. The fawn repays her by soiling her shirt and slacks – an insult Currier bears serenely. "I'm worried about him because he shouldn't be having this diarrhea, and I did call the vet this morning. Actually, had my son not picked him up, I think the mother would have come back. But once he was picked up, she probably passed the place and was gone. She either lost him or forgot about him or whatever."

It is tempting to conflate this poignant episode, along with the 41-year-old Currier's work as a filmmaker (her idiosyncratic first feature about a French soldier and a leopard, "Passion in the Desert," opens in Washington Friday) with her own haunting personal history. Her fabulously wealthy parents – philanthropist Stephen Currier, the 36-year-old scion of a banking fortune who became a civil rights activist, and Audrey Bruce Currier, the 33-year-old granddaughter of Andrew W. Mellon – vanished without a trace in a chartered plane when Lavinia was 9.

Her charmed little orb – and that of her sister Andrea, then 10 years old, and brother Michael, then 5 – immediately spun off its axis and wobbled into the chaos of an indifferent universe (which was never indifferent to their money, however). Eventually, with the ballast of a massive bank account, their world recovered its equilibrium. Currier's siblings have managed to live quietly, if grandly – away, for the most part, from prying eyes.

Not Lavinia, however. In one of her more outlandish acts – but certainly not the only one – she hacked off her blond hair with a penknife on the banks of the Nile after catching a river fever, and then wandered the Sahara alone in this afflicted condition – "feeling quite sick in an otherworldly kind of way," she says – until she arrived months later, barefoot and in rags, at the Tunisian palace of her scandalized great aunt, the Baroness D'Erlanger.

In other words, Currier has sought out the sort of adventures that are usually to be found in romance novels and television miniseries – or, for that matter, epic movies.

Defining Moment

"We were brought up in the typical way of the period, where there were a lot of people around – a lot of nannies and whatnots – so in a sense, we weren't close to our parents, because they were traveling a lot," Currier says, reluctantly discussing the defining moment of her childhood in a pinched, guarded voice. "I was in school in New York. My sister was, too. My brother was in the Caribbean, waiting for them."

The Curriers had eloped in 1955 – sufficient rebellion against the old order to be dropped from the Social Register. Audrey – the daughter of diplomat David Bruce and Ailsa Mellon Bruce, the legendary capitalist's daughter – was a diffident woman who loved horses and long walks in the country. Stephen, from a slightly lower rank of the upper crust, was an extravagant personality – both a conspicuous consumer of the good life and an impassioned liberal idealist.

"He liked being rich," recalls Leslie Dunbar, who was executive director of the Southern Regional Council, one of the civil rights groups that benefited from the largess of Currier's Taconic Foundation. "He was a very reserved man, but on occasion he could drop that reserve in the most stunning way. He did not suffer fools gladly."

Dunbar recalls an episode at the White House in 1963. "Stephen picked me up at the airport in his chauffeur-driven car – a Rolls-Royce, I think – to attend a meeting of civil rights leaders with President Kennedy. He was seated directly opposite the president at that long table in the Cabinet Room, and when it came time for him to say something, Stephen talked about how the civil rights people needed money from the government. And then, staring straight across the table at Kennedy, he added: 'And they need money from the private sector, too!' I believe he was upset that old Joe Kennedy had promised to give money to the cause and then never did. It was one rich man talking to another."

It was the night of Jan. 17, 1967, when the Curriers took off for St. Thomas from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to meet Michael for a 10-day cruise aboard their sailing yacht Sandoval. About 30 minutes into the flight, the pilot radioed for permission to fly over the island of Culebra, then a Navy installation, but was instructed to go around it. No one ever heard from the plane again. No bodies or wreckage were recovered – it was as though the aircraft and its passengers had simply vaporized.

Lavinia and her siblings – the beneficiaries of a fortune estimated 31 years ago at $700 million and at multiples of that sum today – were placed in the care of virtual strangers, a Yale Law School professor and his wife. Why this happened is not clear. Their grandfather David Bruce, by that time married to the former Evangeline Bell, had no interest in children, Currier says. Nobody else among the Mellons, Bruces or Curriers seemed prepared to jump into the breach. But even today, Currier is at a loss to explain why no blood relatives took them in.

"It's a good question. I ask myself that same question," she says.

John and Claire Simon, designated in the wills as the legal guardians, had been close friends of Stephen and Audrey. But they were ill-equipped to console and raise three bereaved children they barely knew.

"We tried to be as present and parental as we could, and keep as many continuities as we could," says Simon, who essentially assumed the Curriers' lifestyle, moving his wife, son and the Currier kids into Stephen and Audrey's luxurious duplex on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue while an even more spectacular apartment was being renovated several blocks south. There was also the burden of running Kinloch, the Curriers' breathtaking 2,000-acre Virginia estate, with dozens of employees to supervise and animals to feed.

Lavinia and her siblings were closely watched. "We had to be concerned about publicity and the possibility of kidnapping," Simon says. "We hired some bodyguards. We had to have certain kinds of protection."

This was, by all accounts, a bleak period in Currier's life, and she doesn't dwell on it. "I don't mean to minimize it," she offers tersely, "but I feel like life goes on." With her elusive blue eyes, she projects a shyness and modesty that are wildly at odds with the stupendous dimensions of her everyday life: the personal staff to ease her way, the 15,000-acre spread in Hawaii, another 17,000 acres in Colorado – not the stuff of a stunted ego. In the same vein, she tries to be matter-of-fact about her golden roots.

"I don't mean to be disingenuous about it, but I just feel like it's one's family history," she says. "My ancestors were Irish immigrants. And I guess the Bruces were more sort of Scottish clan chieftains, but you don't have to go very far back in America to find the potato farmer." (Or, for that matter, the embarrassing relation. Richard Mellon Scaife, the famed right-wing foundation baron and Pittsburgh press lord, is a distant relative whom she has never met. "He's really a crazy person," she says.)

Currier continues: "There are so many so very wealthy people around now that I think we're really not that distinguished. But maybe the distinction is coming from a family that's been wealthy for several generations and has had a prominence at a time when that kind of wealth meant power. Andrew Mellon could have bought out the U.S. budget in 1926. Whereas even a Bill Gates, I guess he could buy a few B-52s."

Fabulous wealth "is a responsibility," she says. "It's an opportunity obviously. I guess from the legacy of my parents, we've always been taught to be philanthropically minded. And in my case, it's expressed itself through conservation and environmental causes."

Currier's childhood experiences inspired her to write and direct a 52-minute movie, "Heart of the Garden," a dark fairy tale of "paradise lost," as she describes it, that was filmed at Kinloch, across the road from Roland and Netherlands, the adjoining farms where she lives with her son, daughter and husband, former Democratic political consultant Joel McCleary. The film was shown on the Arts & Entertainment cable channel in 1984.

"It was a fable about children who live on a farm, and their parents die, and they essentially live with people who farm the land and take care of them," Currier says. "It was set in a kind of fairy tale way, so there was sort of a wicked woman who comes in and disturbs this paradise. She's a vagrant, and she upsets the whole world."

The movie, unabashedly autobiographical in a way that "Passion in the Desert" is not, contains countless direct references to the tragedy, and makes use of farmhands, professional actors, cellist Yo-Yo Ma (a Harvard chum of Currier's who contributes some dirgelike Kreisler passages) and even a cameo by her younger brother, Michael. In one Dickensian scene, two black-suited, gray-haired men spout incomprehensible legalisms at a tomboyish rich girl and her little brother. "Children, this is Mr. Seymour. I am Mr. Witless from the bank," one of the pompous old birds introduces himself.

"The film was really an exorcism of all that history," Currier says. "In a sense, you take the power out of the story by telling it."

But her 42-year-old sister, Andrea – a preservation and environmental activist who today runs Kinloch and owns much of the surrounding land as well as a good deal of The Plains – found the movie wrenching. "After all, there are actors in it portraying our parents," she says. "It was sort of putting the camera back on the past. I'm interested in the present and the future. I would not want to see it again."

"It's interesting how children absorb things and don't talk about them," Lavinia Currier says. "Children process things in a very interesting way, not always rationally and logically. I've been surprised by my own children – how something that I think is very terrible and dramatic, and they'll go, 'Oh. He died?' They sort of gloss it over, they're almost humorous about it. And then later you see how it affects them."

So how did Currier's childhood affect her?

"It made me self-reliant and maybe a little stubborn," she replies. "It gave me a feeling for questions of existential or religious significance. And maybe the fact that I am an artist comes from that experience."

Staggering Risk

It seems also to have granted her the visionary zeal, iron temperament and sheer hubris necessary to attempt something that most Hollywood professionals would have considered insane: taking $5 million of her own money and seven years of her life, dozens of cast and crew members and three adult leopards – the most lethal movie stars imaginable – into the Jordanian desert in 1995 to endure weeks of blinding snow or 120-degree heat, depending on the season, plus exotic illnesses and bad food (usually hummus and cheese on pita bread, garnished with desert sand) – all to make a peculiar film based on a little-known Honore de Balzac novella.

When no movie bonding company would go near the project because of its staggering risk, Currier paid a premium for liability insurance from Lloyd's. She hired the well-regarded Russian cinematographer Alexei Rodionov to work the camera, and persuaded a marquee name – French movie star Michel Piccoli, the Gallic Sean Connery – to portray an artist sent by Napoleon to memorialize Egypt's wonders. And she found Englishman Ben Daniels to play the central human role of a young French captain, a rare actor willing to work closely with large predatory cats known for being perilously unpredictable.

"I never met anyone like Lavinia," Daniels says. "We went through some serious [expletive] in the film. Sometimes it just wasn't happening – even the ramifications of getting the crew into the desert and making lunch and having the leopards there, which might or might not attack you, but she always kept her head."

"When she decides that she wants to do something, she has a determination that's unparalleled," says leopard trainer Rick Glassey, who supervised the animals in Petra, Jordan, and later for some scenes in Moab, Utah. "One time Lavinia and I were arguing, really having an passionate discussion about a scene. I couldn't tell, but I guess she wasn't feeling all that well. Because after we both left, I found her passed out in the hallway on the way to her hotel room."

All this – with no guarantee that a single paying moviegoer would ever see the result.

But Currier's extraordinary background has also given her extraordinary contacts: everyone from the Dalai Lama, who since the early 1980s has personally guided her study of Tibetan Buddhism, to Hollywood icon Paul Newman, a longtime friend of the family.

"I knew her grandparents, the Warburgs – our next-door neighbors in Westport," says Newman, referring to Stephen Currier's mother, Mary, who divorced Richard Currier, Stephen's father, and married financier Eddie Warburg in the 1940s. "When Lavinia asked me to see the movie last year, I did it as a courtesy.

"I must say, I was familiar with the Balzac story, and I didn't see how anybody could make a film of it," Newman continues. The unsettling tale, set during Napoleon's 1798 Egyptian campaign, concerns a soldier who is captured by nomads, makes his escape, loses himself in the desert and is saved by a female leopard with which he then develops an erotic and ill-starred intimacy.

"It's an impossible premise," Newman says. "So I didn't expect very much when I went to the screening. And then I just had my socks blown off. You have to be a visionary to make a movie like that. You really have to have cojones to even try it. And she accomplished it and expanded on it in a way that only a true storyteller can do."

Newman became a one-man sales force for "Passion." He talked up the movie to anyone who might help find a commercial distributor, and laid on screenings for industry leaders, including his agent, Sam Cohn of the entertainment powerhouse International Creative Management, who promptly signed on as Currier's agent, too, and director Robert Altman, another Cohn client.

"I was just knocked out by it," Altman says about the movie. "I personally wouldn't undertake a thing like this. I don't know another filmmaker alive today who would – with all of us overpriced and overrated filmmakers who are really just dallying in pissant commercialism. I am quite sure her film will get overlooked."

Nevertheless, Altman and Cohn devised a strategy for the movie: first create a buzz by showing it at a prestigious film festival – last fall's Telluride Film Festival, where it received encouraging notices in the trade press – and then try to drum up business among art film distributors. But in September, before Telluride, it was Newman who closed the deal. At a Manhattan dinner party, Newman approached Michael Lynne, the president of New Line Cinema.

"Paul pulled me aside and said: 'I want to tell you about the most remarkable film I've ever seen. It doesn't have a distributor. Do you think it's something you want to see?' " Lynne recalls. "On that recommendation, I said, 'Absolutely!' And literally the next day, Paul arranged a screening for me, and I agreed with everything he had told me about the movie."

Lynne acquired the world rights for Fine Line Features, an arty division of New Line, and agreed to cover Currier's production costs (dirt cheap by Hollywood standards). The 93-minute film opened a few weeks ago in New York, Los Angeles and Denver to mostly respectful and positive reviews (though one critic called it "silly"), and will begin a limited release this month in about 50 theaters nationwide.

Currier sees a thematic bond between her first and second movies. "They both talk about a sense of paradise lost. In 'Passion in the Desert,' the protagonist kind of falls into this paradise which at first is a hostile world to him. And then, because of his human nature and his inability to totally change that nature, he loses it. And he goes back to the suffering of being a soldier in the desert."

Needlessly, she adds: "It's not an easy kind of a film. It's not structured like the kind of film that gives you a setup in the first 10 minutes, and then in under 90 minutes delivers the climax. It demands something of you."

The Passion

Currier has always been drawn to movies (especially of Fellini and Kubrick) and the natural wild – and "Passion" is perhaps the ultimate synergy of those twin fascinations. She's an accomplished horsewoman who has taken part in the occasional fox hunt. As a teenager she used a Super-8 camera to make a short film about cockfighting. And at Harvard, where she was a member of the Class of 1979, she kept a pet raccoon.

When the academic authorities disapproved her idea for a senior thesis – which was to mix two disparate disciplines, religion and environmental studies – she declined to choose another topic. She simply left without a degree.

She headed for Paris to start a theater company with her close friend Maura Moynihan, the daughter of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). With several other college friends, they took over a decrepit mansion on the Rue de Seine that had once been owned by Isadora Duncan's brother. The house contained an auditorium in which they staged weekly talent shows.

"Sometimes people have extraordinary lives and they don't match up to it, or don't want to match up to it," Moynihan says. "But Lavinia has had an extraordinary life and she is also an extraordinary person."

After Paris, Currier decamped to New York to study theater at the Neighborhood Playhouse with acting guru Sanford Meisner, who died last year. "And discovered after less than a year that I was really no good as an actress," Currier says. "I'm just not. I think I'm just too reticent. But I really became sure that I wanted to direct." She directed plays at, among other venues, New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and learned the ropes of cinema working on several productions of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.

Directing appealed to, among other things, her desire to control her surroundings. "Every director's a control freak in a sense, and you try to manipulate your world for whatever reason. . . . I think sometimes I have to stop myself when I'm with my family and realize that I don't have to direct everything. That you have to kind of drop that persona."

Picking up on the philanthropic impulse of her parents, Currier in the 1980s started the Sacharuna Foundation, a $10 million fund that dispenses grants to organizations that safeguard natural resources. She has also been one of the Dalai Lama's key financial backers – and a member of his inner circle – and has committed millions of dollars to support Tibetan refugees. It was, in fact, His Holiness who steered Currier toward her future husband, Joel McCleary, another activist in the Tibetan cause. During the 1989 celebration of his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, the Tibetan monk took Currier's hand and placed it in McCleary's.

But she sees her main identity as that of a filmmaker, and has been writing her next movie – a "caper-comedy" – with Moynihan.

And will that film, too, deal with the concept of loss?

"Maybe I'll move to other themes and maybe that will be transmuted through the films of the future," Currier says. "But I think people definitely keep basic themes going in their art as they grow older. Hopefully, they become more refined and reflective."

Meanwhile, a few weeks after the abandoned fawn was plucked out of the forest, Currier says he's doing just fine.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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