By Ron Arias
March 10, 1986 12:00 PM

At 79, film director John Huston hasn’t lost his knack for surprise. Not only has Prizzi’s Honor, his 36th feature film, earned eight Oscar nominations (including one for Huston as Best Director), but the crusty, emphysema-suffering gent has now set rumor mills grinding with tales of another marriage. His bride, say filmtown gossips, is Maricela Hernández, Huston’s 28-year-old Mexican-born housekeeper-nursemaid and dutiful Eliza Doolittle to his grandfatherly Professor Higgins.

Notions of a Huston-Hernández union certainly seemed feasible since the director, already a veteran of five failed marriages, was obviously a man who slid into wedlock as easily as some folks slip on ice. But this time the gossips are wrong, insists Huston. “At my age that’s the ultimate absurdity. I’m past all that, long past it. I sometimes hear I’m a living legend, so this is decorating the legend, gilding the lily. I am quite unworthy. Five was my absolute limit.”

Such denials haven’t proved soothing to Celeste “Cici” Huston, the director’s most recent missus. The socialite daughter of a car-leasing tycoon, Cici, now 46, had hired Hernández before her own three-year marriage to Huston, and says, “Their relationship started while we were all living together. He was lizarding around with her, giggling all the time. She was my closest friend, the only friend I could really trust.”

As Cici tells it, Hernández was a dirt-poor teenager from Tijuana when she first came to babysit for Cici’s son by a previous marriage. “I helped her mother and everyone else in her family get their papers. I got them all jobs,” says Cici, venting vitriol at her maid’s alleged disloyalty. “She’s a devious little Mexican girl, a survivor.” Still, Huston’s tie to Hernández is “not a romance, believe me,” insists Cici. “She’s a good nurse. She’s good to him. He’s the father she never had.”

Huston and Hernández live most of the time in his simple jungle hideaway south of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. At the moment, though, they are staying in a two-bedroom rented apartment in London where Huston is appearing in an hour-long TV film, directed by his son Danny, 23, whose mother, Zoë Sallis, was one of Huston’s long-ago non-wives. In the film Mr. Corbett’s Ghost Huston plays a cameo role as a soul collector, “an emissary of evil whose job it is to send people to the devil.” History, he notes, is repeating itself since he, too, first directed his father, Walter, in the 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon, in which the elder Huston was the sea captain. In mid-March, after the London shoot, Huston plans to return to California where he will “probably” attend the Oscars ceremony. He’s especially hopeful that awards will go to his film and to his daughter Anjelica for Best Supporting Actress. “It was a joy seeing the talent come out that I knew was there since she was a little girl,” he says. “We had one real actor in the family [father Walter] and hope to have another.”

As Huston speaks, he takes frequent whiffs from an oxygen cylinder at his side to ease his emphysema. Maricela Hernández, smiling and affectionate, tends to his nursing needs and meals. Huston denies he ever had bypass heart surgery, as had been reported, yet some years ago surgery on an aneurysm forced him to give up heavy cigar and cigarette smoking. Despite occasional outbursts of a smoker’s cough, the tall (just over 6′), slightly stooped figure appears as affable and garrulous as ever.

For much of his life, of course, those very traits have made Huston as successful a romancer as he was a rascal. Third wife Evelyn Keyes still recalls a party she once attended with her ever-active husband. Finding a blonde on his lap, she pulled the interloper away by her hair and pointed toward Enrica Soma, the soon-to-be-fourth Mrs. Huston, who was standing nearby. “I’m his wife, and that’s his mistress over there,” said Keyes. “And you are one too many.”

The divorce from Cici, Huston says now, was “the end of the marriages. I’d made my contribution to upholding the institution. I had one successful marriage. I won’t say which one, which will make everyone happy—except one or two who know I don’t mean them.” Referring to Cici as a “crocodile,” a tag she herself views as affection, Huston says, “She’s a case.” “An absurd, horrible person,” echoes Hernández, who at just 5′ is dwarfed by her rangy, grizzled charge. As if to set the record straight, she recounts their first arrangement years ago: “John said, ‘Come with me, live with me, learn with me.’ I said, ‘Thank you very much. I will.’ ” Proudly displaying a gold ring on her wedding finger, yet insisting it is only “a symbol of life” given to her by him, Hernández says they vowed long ago “to be perfectly honest and loyal to one another until death,” adding bluntly, “We were never lovers, ever.”

Born in Mexico City, the fourth of nine children, Hernández says that her father died when she was 5. Her mother moved the family to the border city of Tijuana, where Hernández eventually crossed into California illegally and began dishwashing, raking leaves and waiting tables to make a living. The change to life with Huston has allowed her to travel, take art classes in Italy and be creative. “He’s been trying to make a lady out of me,” she says. “He spoils me in every conceivable way…And as for how we conduct ourselves, all of that other talk is garbage.”

John Foreman, producer of Prizzi’s Honor and three other Huston films, agrees. “I’m not aware of any wedding with Maricela,” Foreman says, describing her simply as another cog in the factory that “produces” John Huston. “She’s part of the operation that keeps him going,” he explains. “I consider myself part of that, and all of his kids [four] are involved in the operation. We don’t see her as a servant at all—unless we’re all servants to him.”

Huston, meanwhile, goes on insisting that Hernández is neither servant nor lover but merely a loving helpmate. “You can speculate on this to your heart’s desire,” he chuckles. “She’s not at all jealous when I chase after whores or come in reeling with two or three women. My last marriage took all the romance out of me.” And, it seems, all the good humor out of mate No. 5 as well. Says Cici sardonically, “I do my own housekeeping now.”