When Simon Callow set out to write a biography of Welles, he thought it might take four years. A quarter of a century and three volumes later, he’s still not finished
Saturday 28 November 2015
Iunderstood from the beginning, though I had just one medium-sized, single-volume biography of Charles Laughton under my belt, that any account of Orson Welles would have to be big. His life was so complex, his achievements so multifarious, his personality so unfathomable, the myths so pervasive, that I was sure that if I was to understand him I would have to cast my net very wide, at the same time as going deep down under the surface; one volume, I knew, could never do him justice.
Multi-volume biographies are by no means encouraged in the trade. When Nick Hern, who initially commissioned the book, and I went to see the much-admired American publisher Aaron Asher, I told him I wanted to write it in three volumes. The first, I said, would end with Citizen Kane (1941), the second with Chimes at Midnight (1965), and the third, dealing with his unfulfilled last two decades, would be a novel. The great man looked at me pityingly. “If you are very lucky,” he said, “you will be allowed to write the book in two volumes – neither of which will be a novel.” Then he pointed to Michael Holroyd’s Bernard Shaw: first volume bestseller; second volume very successful; third volume poor sales; fourth volume remaindered almost the moment it appeared. I accepted his wisdom and set to: volume one up to Kane; volume two the rest. That was the summer of 1989. Welles had only been dead four years, I had just turned 40.
I was determined that, unlike the Laughton book – for which I had simply seen all the films, read all the available published sources and interviewed a few easily accessible people – the Welles biography would be a work of serious scholarship. It was originally planned to be an account of his extraordinary and little-known work in the theatre. Tearing through my modest advance in a matter of weeks, I crossed the US plundering archives, libraries and museums, obsessively photocopying and microfiching, peering at blurred and fuzzy documents which took long and painful months to decipher; I went through the European collections, I tracked down obscure doctoral theses, again painstakingly photocopied – no internet, no email, back then, of course.
Across two continents I interviewed everybody who had ever worked with him in the theatre – actors, writers, producers, designers, lighting designers, understudies, stage managers, secretaries. This proved to be an emotional business. There was hilarity, but often there were tears – of regret, of tenderness, very often of frustration. Welles had stirred people up deeply: they had invested in him and he had often squandered their investment. The highway to Welles frequently proved to be a boulevard of broken dreams. In some few cases there was outright hatred and contempt; always, without exception, the memory of the man was vivid. Like him or loathe him, once you had encountered Orson Welles, you could never forget him.
More and more as I spoke to his old muckers, they said I shouldn’t waste my time on just one aspect of his work: I should write a full biography. Nothing written about Welles, they said, had captured the man they knew. It was at that point, in perfect innocence, that Nick and I went to meet Asher. I reckoned the two volumes would take three, maybe four years at most. I started to rethink that immediately. I now had to take on board every film, every radio show, every documentary; yet more archives, yet more photocopying, yet more interviews. For a while, I more or less took up residence at Indiana University in Bloomington, where the greatest Welles collection is to be found. Having started with little paper filing boxes, I began buying great metal cabinets – soon I was up to six. I had made a vow that I would visit every place of significance in his life, which took me to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he was born; Chicago, where he was brought up; Ireland, where he had his first job in the theatre; Spain, France, Italy, where he had done so much of his work.
Once news of my undertaking got out, I quickly became part of the loose-knit but vast community of Wellesians, all of whom were remarkably generous and freely shared their work and thoughts. Jonathan Rosenbaum, editor of This Is Orson Welles, an indispensable digest of the interviews Welles did with Peter Bogdanovich in preparation for the autobiography he never wrote; François Thomas, a diligent and inspired sleuth who, with Jean-Pierre Berthomé, has intrepidly tracked down the true facts of Welles’s working methods, dispelling some of the myths; Jim Naremore, shrewdest of all the Wellesian commentators; Richard France, historian of Welles’s theatre work.
Early on, I was invited to the Venice Biennale for a symposium on Welles. Eager to know who was speaking, I opened the agenda on arrival to discover that I was. I rapidly put together a speech in which I spoke in very simple terms of Welles as an actor: his particular gifts, vocal, physical, mental. My address was greeted with numbed amazement. Welles was at the time in the grip of the semioticians: everything was polyvalent, polysemous, above all polysyllabic. Welles’s mistress and collaborator Oja Kodar was sitting near me, intently taking notes throughout. I peered over at her notepad – she had been doing some rather suggestive doodles.
My closest confidants were two extraordinary women: Paula Laurence, Broadway star, diseuse and needle-sharp analyst of the passing scene; and Ann Rogers, Welles’s secretary for 30 years. By coincidence, Ann had been Laughton’s secretary, and, just as she had done with Laughton, she tested my mettle at every point till she was convinced that I was serious and my intentions were honourable. She had already seen off one muck-raking biographer, telling him she wasn’t in the business of dishing the dirt. “Lady,” he had replied, “no dirt no book.” She fed me more and more priceless information, providing me with entries from her diary, memos, photographs, scripts – regularly sending me personal items: “This is the flannel Mr Welles wiped his brow with on the first night of Moby-Dick in London.” Crucially, she gave other survivors of Welles’s private circle permission to talk to me.
As for Paula, she was my Deep Throat, giving me lead after lead. She had known Welles since he was the new kid on the block in New York, and been Helen of Troy to his Dr Faustus in 1937. She had observed him closely, and knew where all the bodies were buried; she had watched him handle and sometimes mishandle his unruly talent with sharp concern. At the first night of his disastrous New YorkKing Lear in 1956, she had sat in the stalls with José Ferrer and wept.
A third consigliere was George Fanto, an amiable Hungarian who had been Welles’s cameraman on It’s All True in Brazil in 1942 and his stage director on a bizarre double bill he wrote for the Paris theatre in 1950. Fanto saw another Welles – a man who was essentially deeply religious, preoccupied by questions of good and evil, a great and gallant leader, a genius and a healer.
There were as many Welleses as interviewees. I stopped trying to make them cohere. Instead I took as my watchword Whitman’s great cry: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” The first book, which I called The Road to Xanadu (1995), was wonderfully enjoyable to write, as phenomenal good luck sped Welles from one high to another, culminating in the release of Citizen Kane, but it was the end of my honeymoon with many Wellesians, who decided that because I didn’t accept the party line – that Welles was the guiltless victim of a terrible and lifelong conspiracy – I was of the enemy camp.
Meanwhile, I knew that it was going to be impossible to tell the story of the rest of his life in just one more volume. He did too much, in too many different media, too many different genres, too many different countries. If I merely recounted his activities chronologically, neither Welles nor his work would be illuminated. I tried to devise what I called a Wellesian approach, where some things would be in extreme closeup, pulling out to an extreme wide shot. I would pan up into certain events, then proceed in a series of jump cuts. Sometimes I believed what I was saying, but eventually I acknowledged to myself – and, with much forelock-tugging, to the publisher – that volume two (Hello Americans, published in 2006) would cover only the five crucial and little understood years after the debacle of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Welles’s banishment from RKO, when he attempted to conquer new worlds – of print journalism, radio comedy and campaigning politics. In these five years he also managed (with difficulty) to direct The Stranger, his only financial success as a director, and the short-lived Broadway musical Around the World (a financial disaster), both in 1946, and The Lady from Shanghai and the 23-day shoot of Macbeth in 1948. It was a staggeringly active and complex period, and needed a book to itself. The rest of his life, I blithely promised, would easily fit into a third volume.
And then, three years ago, I started writing it. I had pooh-poohed all the many wiseacres who told me I was going to have to write a fourth volume, but in January, knowing that the book had to come out this year, the centenary of Welles’s birth, I caved in. If I had carried on, the book would have been hernia-inducingly heavy, and it would have been a gabble. The nearly 20 years covered by the book represent such a rollercoaster that, to prevent the reader from experiencing vertigo, I had to put my foot on the brake, to examine what exactly was going on, but despite numerous diversions and disasters, the story has a kind of inexorable drive towards the film Welles considered, and I consider, his masterpiece: Chimes at Midnight.
Along the way were many roads not taken, roads that might have led to glorious departures, but such is life. Such, certainly, was Welles’s life, a life like no other. He was a man like no other. When I started writing about him, I set out to separate the myth and the man. But by the time he was 30, the man had become the myth. He often behaved in extravagant, bewildering, self-defeating ways, but equally often with magnificent, inspiring generosity. He was funny, terrifying, creative, destructive, kind, cruel, and all on the largest scale. A stubborn lack of self-knowledge condemned him to repeat his errors. His successes and his failures were equally titanic; he created some of the most memorable films and striking theatre of the 20th century. His tiny body of TV work pointed to possibilities for the medium that nobody bothered to take up. He was fearless in his experiments, and he never did any of it for the money, just for the sheer joy of making films. Because of this, he has inspired more directors than any other film-maker, but he leaves no legacy: he really was a one-off. If I had written twice as much about him, I would still find him fascinating. Roll on volume four.
• Simon Callow’s Orson Welles: One-Man Band (vol 3) is published by Jonathan Cape.