Woody Allen’s Secret Teen Lover Speaks: Sex, Power and a Conflicted Muse Who Inspired ‘Manhattan’
In 1976, 16-year-old model Babi Christina Engelhardt embarked on a hidden eight-year affair with the 41–year-old filmmaker that mirrors one of his most famous movies. Now, amid the #MeToo reckoning and Allen’s personal scandals, she looks back with mixed emotions on their relationship and its unequal dynamic.
Sixteen, emerald-eyed, blond, an aspiring model with a confident streak and a painful past: Babi Christina Engelhardt had just caught Woody Allen’s gaze at legendary New York City power restaurant Elaine’s. It was October 1976, and when Engelhardt returned from the ladies’ room, she dropped a note on his table with her phone number. It brazenly read: “Since you’ve signed enough autographs, here’s mine!”
Soon, Allen rang, inviting her to his Fifth Avenue penthouse. The already-famous 41-year-old director, still hot off Sleeper and who’d release Annie Hall the following spring, never asked her age. But she told him she was still in high school, living with her family in rural New Jersey as she pursued her modeling ambitions in Manhattan. Within weeks, they’d become physically intimate at his place. She wouldn’t turn 17, legal in New York, until that December.
The pair embarked on, by her account, a clandestine romance of eight years, the claustrophobic, controlling and yet dreamy dimensions of which she’s still processing more than four decades later. For her, the recent re-examination of gender power dynamics initiated by the #MeToo movement (and Allen’s personal scandals, including a claim of sexual abuse by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow) has turned what had been a melancholic if still sweet memory into something much more uncomfortable. Like others among her generation — she just turned 59 on Dec. 4 — Engelhardt is resistant to attempts to have the life she led then be judged by what she considers today’s newly established norms. “It’s almost as if I’m now expected to trash him,” she says.
Time, though, has transfigured what she’s long viewed as a secret, unspoken monument to their then-still-ongoing relationship: 1979’s Manhattan, in which 17-year-old Tracy (Oscar-nominated Mariel Hemingway) enthusiastically beds Allen’s 42-year-old character Isaac “Ike” Davis. The film has always “reminded me why I thought he was so interesting — his wit is magnetic,” Engelhardt says. “It was why I liked him and why I’m still impressed with him as an artist. How he played with characters in his movies, and how he played with me.”