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Mother of them all.

Mia Farrow's life has been marred by childhood illness, divorce, scandal and tragedy. At 57, she is now more concerned with the world's children than her career as an actress. Ann McFerran visits Farrow and six of her 13 children at Frog Hollow, their home in Connecticut.

The season of dazzling blue winter skies and birthday celebrations is upon Frog Hollow, Mia Farrow's rambling old farmhouse in deepest rural Connecticut, where she lives with the youngest six of her international family of 13 children. Cakes are being iced; presents secreted away; cards inscribed and painted.

Goodwill ambassador: Mia Farrow
Silver helium Happy Birthday balloons have been left to bob in various stages of deflation between dozens of hanging wicker baskets ('So useful for gathering everything from Lego to chicken's eggs,' says Farrow). Each of her children, whether natural or adopted, was born between December and March.

The afternoon of our visit is the eve of Farrow's own birthday - and the excitement is mounting. In the large, comfortable, open-plan family room where cats and dogs snooze on fireside cushions or dusty window ledges, Farrow's adopted Indian son, Thaddeus, who has been disabled by polio, instructs us 'to keep Mom busy'. With that he scoots his wheelchair around the corner to forage for his homemade card with a pop-up heart, on which he has neatly written 'I love you Mom'

Meanwhile, his three younger siblings, Quincy, Frankie and Isaiah, are piling out of the school bus, running through the gate encircled with fairy lights, and up the garden path. Quincy, an eight-year-old with huge chocolate eyes and a halo of pigtails, can contain herself no longer. 'Mom, Mom, all you have to do is not touch my pink bathrobe because that's where... Oh!' She claps her hands over her mouth while her mother smiles beatifically. Tomorrow all of Farrow's children (apart from Soon-Yi) will be there: the twins, Matthew and Sascha, 32, and Fletcher, 30 (all by Andr� Previn) and Seamus, 14 (by Woody Allen). Then there are the adopted children: Malone, 16, who is American; Lark, 28, Daisy, 29, and Frankie-Minh, 10, who are Vietnamese; Moses, 24, who is Korean; Isaiah, 10, and Quincy, eight, who are African Americans; and Thaddeus, 14, who is Indian.

Standing in this idyllic house full of animals, cooing doves, oriental carpets and homely children's clutter, with its white picket fence and wooden veranda complete with rocking-chairs, Farrow is dressed in jeans, a chunky cable-knit grey sweater and men's trainers ('by far the best,' she insists). She still exudes that air of waif-like vulnerability, a fairy princess in exile. But an older fairy princess. It's hard to believe that tomorrow Mia Farrow will be 57. As she stares out on to the frozen lake surrounded by little rowing boats, it's even harder to believe she has led such a sensational life: Hollywood princess; child bride to Frank Sinatra; Sixties flower child; the Other Woman in Andr� and Dory Previn's marriage; mother to 14 children (one died two years ago); Woody Allen's muse; and then a key player in one of the nastiest custody cases ever.

Since the Allen-Farrow court case in 1992, she has renamed the two children most involved: Satchel is now called Seamus, and Dylan was renamed Eliza for four years, and then became Malone. Farrow has also adopted three other children: Isaiah, who was born in LA addicted to crack cocaine, and is now a shy but personable 10-year-old; Frankie-Minh, the family giggler, who is blind; and the extrovert Quincy, who mysteriously couldn't move her arms at four weeks old when she was adopted, but who is now entertaining us all by brilliantly impersonating everybody, including her mother.

Ask Farrow about her trials and tribulations with Woody Allen, and you'll get a cool response, although she will allude to them indirectly. 'For years Seamus was very frightened of people,' she says. 'He still doesn't trust many people but he's progressed hugely. As for me, I am still continually trusting, although I have no reason to trust anybody. I just can't help trusting people.'

Acrimonious: Farrow and Woody Allen with their family
Today Mia Farrow is older, wiser and more guarded with the press than ever before. Leaning back in her rocking-chair on the porch as she watches her children playing on the Jungle Gym, she says, 'I haven't found anything that seems more important than them right now. I've worked since I was 18 but that doesn't tempt me at the moment. It's so beautiful here, with the kids. Maybe when they're older... I don't have a plan. In the meantime, I don't feel time is passing me by. Today my life is my children; I really want to make sure that these kids get though.'

Recently she has decided to extend her caring nature and exploit what she calls her 'notoriety' by becoming a celebrity spokesman for Unicef. 'I've been the subject of gossip, as has my family,' she says. 'I've been notorious for nothing and for everything. Rather than filling up space in newspapers and wasting people's time, I might as well put all the interest in me to good use, by doing something for the world's children, for Unicef.'

Farrow began working for Unicef 16 months ago, as part of its campaign to eradicate polio by 2005. We first met in January 2001 on her first Unicef trip to Nigeria. She was accompanied by Seamus - who was a real hit with the African women - and rose to the challenge with a good grace and impressive stamina. She appeared to relish the drama of it all. Nothing was too much trouble; no Nigerian child was ever left short-changed, and in the evening, over a drink, she told great stories.

She also talked passionately about Thaddeus, who had been abandoned on the streets of Calcutta. When Farrow first heard about the little boy seven years ago, 'he was very weak in an Indian orphanage, and being picked on and beaten by the other children. I said, "What can I do?" It was as simple as that.' Within weeks the boy was being carried through JFK Airport by a social worker. 'He was scarred all over his body, with open wounds on his butt and his knees from dragging himself around, and the tops of his toes were raw.

After we got him back to Frog Hollow he would scream and pull my hair and work himself into a frenzy.' The boy was especially dark skinned, like most of India's large untouchable population, who suffer horrendous brutality and cruel discrimination, particularly when disabled. Thaddeus could have been any age from five to eight. 'He needed to be a baby again and play with toys on the floor,' says Farrow. 'I got him a little skateboard. He must have had terrible anger.'

Farrow has told Thaddeus how he was abandoned by his beggar mother at Calcutta's railway station, but he has no memory of that time, perhaps because he prefers to forget. He says he doesn't like wearing shorts because he dislikes children teasing him about his skinny polio-afflicted leg. 'It makes me feel insecure in myself,' he says, rolling up his trouser leg to show me.

Sixteen months ago, Thaddeus and Farrow went to the United Nations where the boy started a clock to count down towards the end of polio in 2005, with Kofi Annan. 'God, is that man sexy,' giggles Farrow. 'A real rock star!' Then she adds more seriously, 'It was a bittersweet moment for Thaddeus who has lived with polio in an extreme form. Every day is an achievement for him. I look at all these children and know that what I'm doing is right. I can't have any false pride.'

Today Thaddeus is a calm, charming young man, with impeccable manners, who's just celebrated his 14th birthday, although he's probably older. He coaches younger children at baseball and acts as his mother's helper: he's her laundry monitor. 'There's so much of it,' he groans.

'He's a great help,' says Farrow. 'The children all have their daily chores: making their beds, keeping their rooms tidy. I have someone to help me clean the house four days a week. Apart from that, it's just me. It's exhausting!'

Some might say that Farrow has been her own one- woman branch of the United Nations since she welcomed Daisy and Lark from a Vietnamese orphanage 28 years ago. Others wonder at her need to adopt so many children from difficult backgrounds, with various disabilities, from different countries. 'Who says that?' she snaps. 'I live in a country where we take certain things for granted like having a roof over your head and an education. When you understand that doesn't exist for so many other people, you can't go to sleep at night without asking, "What can I do?" For me the answer is simple. I give my home and my time and I share my days with these children.

'I think that since September 11 people understand my family better. Since I had polio myself I've seen the world as in a state of crisis. If you're lucky enough to have a lifeboat, do you not pull in as many souls as you can?'

Farrow admits that her drive to pull lost souls into her 'lifeboat' may owe something to that time when her 'magical' Beverly Hills childhood was destroyed when she contracted polio. She was one of seven children. Her father, John Farrow, a brilliant director and writer, was also an alcoholic and a womaniser; her mother, Maureen O'Sullivan, played Jane in the Tarzan films of the Thirties. On Mia's ninth birthday party, her legs folded beneath her as she tried to kick a ball. Next morning she awoke to hear her family praying that she wouldn't die. 'Later, I was taken to hospital. Iron lungs lined the corridor. I had no idea if I would ever go home again.'

The fear of infection in the Fifties was so great that she saw her parents only twice a week through thick glass. One night she heard a child screaming as she died on her ward. 'Three weeks later, when I returned home, the house was empty and being repainted, the furniture re-upholstered. The lawn had been reseeded. Even the dog had been given away.' It was as if there had been a death in the family; no one was there to welcome her home. 'Everyone was afraid of me; even my mother, who'd taken my brothers and sisters to our summer house in Malibu. I felt like a leper. When I went back to school other kids wouldn't play with me.'

The world is full of artists and high achievers who experience exclusion or rejection at an early age. Does she think that her subsequent high-profile life owes something to that time in the Californian playground when no one would play with her? 'Who's to say?' Farrow replies frostily. 'My worst fear of all was that I had given polio to someone I cared about and they would die because of me. Having polio at nine made me feel like a pariah, which gave me an early sense of responsibility and compassionate empathy.'

Farrow says that an astrologer once described a person born on her birthday (February 9, 1945) as 'floaty'. She shrugs as though this might explain everything. She may once have been floaty, but today I think she is just the opposite: funny, sharp, smart, often inscrutable, manipulative even, and determined to put her celebrity and unusual empathy for children to good social use. 'Maybe there's something wrong with me,' she laughs, 'but I actually prefer the company of children.'

Theories abound as to why: her handsome, womanising father; her beautiful and somewhat distant mother; the brother who died when she was 19; the succession of father-figure lovers who turned out to be rather unkind. Farrow will have none of this talk. 'We can only speculate,' she says, looking as though this is the last thing she wants to do. After Allen, she hates therapists and loathes any kind of psychoanalytic introspection. She has complained about how there were three of them in their relationship: the third being his therapist. For years, Allen and all the children were in almost daily therapy. Now she says therapists can be 'bad people'.

Over the years Farrow seems to have coped with life's vicissitudes by continually reinventing herself, renaming her children and adopting more orphans, unusually drastic measures to wipe life's slate clean. Yet spending a long afternoon with her, it can feel at times as if she and her family are in retreat from an unkind world.

But what a world it was. From almost every inch of the farmhouse walls Farrow's past stares down at you, a roll call of the famous: Farrow with Bill and Hillary Clinton, next to a handwritten letter from the former US president; Farrow and Seamus with Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and his wife, Graca Machel ('You know how we say cheese when we're photographed?' giggles Farrow. 'Mandela would say 'Whiskey!'); Frank Sinatra; Farrow photographed by Richard Avedon around the time of Rosemary's Baby. The glaring omission is Woody Allen, with whom she made 13 films, including Hannah and Her Sisters, which revealed Farrow as a remarkable actress.

Mostly it seems that his presence has been successfully exorcised; at times, however, it's all a bit odd. In the downstairs lavatory, on each side of the washbasin, hang two sets of photographs. One is of Farrow in India in the Sixties, lined up with the Beatles and the Maharishi, the fashionable Indian guru of his day. Farrow is wearing floppy Sixties gear, and her hair is shorn. On the other side, over a rail of finely embroidered linen towels, hangs a collage of slightly camp pictures of Madonna, wearing a livid red dress and dangling on her knee a gorgeous boy with huge eyes and silky ash-blond hair, next to which she has scrawled, 'To Satchel Farrow, my one and only true love.'

She wrote this to Seamus when he was about four years old. (At Allen's suggestion, he was originally named Satchel after the baseball pitcher Leeroy Satchel Paige.) Unbeknown to Farrow it was also around this time that Allen began his affair with her 21-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi. In 1992, when Seamus was four, Farrow and Woody's partnership exploded when she discovered Polaroids that he had taken of a naked Soon-Yi. Later she also accused him of abusing their eight- year-old adopted daughter, Dylan; he retaliated by taking her to court, accusing her of being mentally deranged and an unfit mother, and applying for custody of three of the children. The court turned him down.

The colours of the Indian picture have faded into a reddish sepia glow, along with Farrow's memories of that time. It was taken in 1967, she was 22 years old, and she'd hitched up with the Maharishi's ashram at the foot of the Himalayas on a journey of self-discovery. She relates how her sister Prudence excelled at meditation (she's now studying for a PhD in Hinduism at Berkeley). She also inspired the Beatles song Dear Prudence. Farrow found the whole experience frustrating.

'I wanted enlightenment instantly, but I didn't really get it. I was far too distracted; I had the attention span of a flea,' she giggles. 'My marriage to Frank Sinatra [30 years her senior] was in a catastrophic condition. I was overly famous, given my limited capacity for anything. I should have gone back to school but I hated being stared at. I was very shy and young and open; I went to India trying to get away from the mess of my life in search of something spiritual.' One day, as Farrow was meditating beside the Maharishi, she was alarmed to find his hairy arms around her. Her sister felt she should be pleased to be embraced by such a holy man, but Farrow upped and left.

Enigmatic beauty: the young Mia
In the years between these two photographs Farrow went to England and took up with the fashionable composer, Andr� Previn (much to the distress of his wife of 10 years, Dory, who suffered a breakdown after their marriage collapsed). She married him and gave birth to Sascha, Matthew and Fletcher), adopted three more (Daisy, Lark and Soon-Yi), played with the Royal Shakespeare Company and became depressed and lonely living in a big damp house in Surrey while Previn toured the world. When their marriage broke up after nine years, she returned to New York and was introduced to Woody Allen by Michael Caine. Throughout their 12 years of rather quirky co-habitation, she continued to adopt children.

Her autobiography, What Falls Away, describes all this, and particularly her years with Allen, in riveting detail. It's very credible, yet, as Farrow tells it, revenge and regret clearly figure in her actions. Why did she have to include every sordid detail behind the accusations of child abuse in her often ghastly domestic life with Allen: his overdiligent rubbing of sun cream on Dylan's bottom; the times he brought the child to bed and let her suck his thumb? It makes you wonder whose interest it is in to have all this on record. 'It was my note in a bottle for my kids and their kids,' she says. 'It was to put the record straight about a lot of muck which was swirling around and what I perceived to be untrue. It was also for myself and for my sanity. Now I wish I hadn't written so much about Woody Allen.'

Despite her need for some sense of public and private vindication, she says she felt profoundly uneasy about involving her children. 'I experienced the same creeping fear I'd had as a child with polio. That I had unknowingly brought danger to my family and contaminated those I loved most.'

Seamus, a child genius, has refused to see his father since 1996; and the family have disowned Soon-Yi. 'I've tried contacting her but she no longer responds, so I've given up,' says Farrow, explaining why she says she now has 12 rather than 13 children. 'We no longer count her as part of our family. When the younger children are older I'll explain to them that they have another sister.'

Today Farrow says she has no lover, but her life is full of good friends. The phone rings throughout the afternoon, and in one call she bemoans 'another near-miss, near-perfect relationship'. Often - like so many highly competent, attractive single mothers of a certain age - she seems to be improvising her life for the sake of her children. But throughout all her most difficult times, Farrow's identity as a caring mother has remained constant. Even Allen attested that 'Mia has a talent for mothering, the way that some people have a green thumb for gardening, or an ear for music.' But is this heavily domestic life enough for the actress who's worked with the greatest talents of her day?

'I made dozens of movies years ago,' she says, looking tired. 'Recently I did a movie in LA called Purpose which hasn't come out yet. It would be nice to be offered some really good work but I haven't found that project yet. I'll work when I need to and hopefully I'll do something great. Sometimes I think that if I didn't have the kids then I'd be free to travel, but in the balance this is what I want to do most.'

Today, she has a little more time because her friend Casey has just started helping with the twice-daily 90-minute drive to Simon's Rock College of Bard, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where Seamus is in his third year at university. Next year he may become one of the youngest postgraduate students ever. 'I hope he'll study for years and years,' says Farrow as this sweet, bookish boy arrives home. He looks older than a year ago, and has a new haircut. 'Mom cut it,' smiles Seamus. 'I cut everyone's hair - my own too,' adds Farrow.

It's time to cook dinner before the family all troop off to see 16-year-old Malone in her school play. We drive away, past the red letterbox with the green frog on top, past the Blind Child road sign, a memento of Tam, Farrow's blind Vietnamese daughter who died of heart failure.

On the following day I phone Frog Hollow and hear the merry din of the birthday brunch in full swing. I wish Farrow a happy birthday, and ask the age of her house. 'Just put old,' she shouts. 'Very old, like its owner.' Mia Farrow may be getting older, but in the guise of good fairy working for the world's unlucky children, she may also discover the secret of living happily ever after.