Here is the beginning of the autobiography that Welles abandoned after the first chapter, remarking that he found it extremely difficult to write about himself and much preferred to write about all the fascinating people he had known, beginning, as you will see, with his father and mother. The following excerpt appeared in the original English in the 1983 December/January issue of Paris Vogue under the title "My Father Wore Black Spats." An editorial footnote identifies it as "the first unedited chapter of an autobiography that Orson Welles is currently writing." I am posting now the first section, "My Father Wore Black Spats," and I will continue with the next one, entitled "A Brief Career as a Musical Prodigy" in my next post.
My Father Wore Black Spats
(by Orson Welles)
His shoes were made for him in London and his hats in Paris. When he traveled by train he carried his own bed linen and a small Persian prayer rug for his feet. His cigars, from a private selection in Havana, traveled first to England, where they were allowed to "breathe" in bond for two years before going on to join him wherever he might be. His cigarettes, of Virginia tobacco "straight cut," were beautifully made with an untreated paper so that when he ws not quite sober enough to remember to keep puffing, they went quietly out like one of his cigars. Thus he lived to a great age before setting himself on fire. This happened in a mid-Western village in a small hotel which he had purchased with a view to enjoying, for a month or so each autumn, the simple pleasures of rural America. For the rest of the year he mainly commuted between his houses in Jamaica and Peking -- these being the last of the pleasant places on earth where dozens of skilled domestic servants were available and cheap.
What he liked best, I think, were the sea crossings: the long freedom from lands in which he felt himself increasingly diminished. There was no more welcoming spot for my father than the bar of a nice, old-fashioned ocean liner: the creaking of leather in the cradling seas, the cards he played so masterfully, and a captive audience for his stories.
As for the spats, they were appreciated by the sort of gentleman who never traveled without his valet, and who had yet to acknowledge that the motor car had already purged the streets of the nuisances of the horse. Spats were mauve, dove gray and even white. That the spats of my father were black should explain why -- although his chosen way of life might strike a modern reader as a touch on the flamboyant side -- he would be pained to learn that he could never give such an impression. He hoped to be mistaken for one of those he most admired: some sober figure in the world of high finance, and not the idle, hedonistic London clubman he despised, -- and so closely resembled.
The country hotel, in a horse and buggy village called Grand Detour, was his final self-indulgence. He did nothing to modernize it besides erecting an improved version of the classic smokehouse for ham and sausage, wild turkey, Eastern oysters and Western trout. In a separate bake house beaten biscuits and corn bread were produced in the early mornings by a black specialist imported from the south.
There was venison, wild duck, and much other game in season. The terrapin came live to us from Maryland, and the wild rice from an Indian reservation where my father claimed to have been inaugurated as an honorary brave. But under his management this was not a welcoming hostelry. As far as possible, guests came by invitation only: a few writers my Godfather George Ade, for instance, Booth Tarkington, and some old sports from Broadway. The wooden-legged dragon who kept the gates went by the name of Olie (Rattlesnake Oil) Emery, in semi-retirement after a long career as a feathered red-skin in middle-Western medicine shows; and on the stormiest nights the weariest of lost travelers were seldom accommodated.
We'd just returned from China, and there was a nice Christmassy fall of snow on the ground the night of the fire. To my great regret I was not present, having been packed off to boarding school for what was to be the last of my three years of formal education. The few old cronies my father had invited were yet to arrive, and most of the hotel staff had been given the night off to go to Dixon, six miles away, for the movie show.
I used to hate the Dixon movies. In the exciting spots the film invariably got stuck in the projector; and in the back rows the male teen-agers made rowdy noises during the love scenes. Dixon just then was Ronald Reagan's town. We never met. He moved in slightly older circles (as he does today). But he would have been a member of the boys' choir in the movie house. I believe it was in Dixon that our President formed his basic image of that peculiarly innocent America to which he would like us all to return. Dixon had the kind of main street we used to see in a Hollywood studio, with hitching posts, barber poles and a wooden Indian in front of the cigar store. Norman Rockwell. Grand Detour was Mark Twain. Anyway, that six-mile distance was too much for the Dixon Fire Department which arrived only in time to preside over the smoking ruins of what had been America's most exclusive hotel. There was some concern for old Rattlesnake, but he had been spared, having spent the evening in dalliance with a lady called Easy Emma in a ruined barn down by the river where, some years earlier, John Deere had forged the first steel plow.
At the very last moment my father (the suspected arsonist) emerged from the flames dressed only in his night shirt, carrying in one hand an empty parrot cage and in the other, a framed, hand-tinted photograph of a lady in pink trights (an ex-mistress fondly remembered) named Trixi Friganza.
My mother was the "Trixi" who became his wife: Beatrice Ives well-born, and comfortably wealthy until the day when Grandfather Ives announced that he had somehow managed to lose the last of his coal mines. After this Miss Ives -- already a gifted concert pianist -- went to work as a "typewriter" (as stenographers were then called) to pay for the completion of her musical training. She was a celebrated beauty, a champion rifle shot, a highly imaginative practical joker, a radical and suffragette who held, after her marriage, political office, and even did a little time in jail.
Why did she marry my father?
Much the older of the two, he was, in fact, an Edwardian bon vivant who picked most of his ladies from the musical comedy stage. He had a famous name because of a cigar. The "Dick Welles" cigar was a cheap and popular smoke named for a horse which had won the Kentucky Derby. The horse had been named for my father. Apart from this one doubtful honor, Dick Welles was mildly notorious as a man about town who dabbled in many enterprises including the six-day bicycle race which he brought to America. He had himself cut quite a figure as an international automobile racer. A wagon and carriage works belonged to one of his crazy aunts and here he had built some of America's first cars. Because he was a friend of the novelist Booth Tarkington, it has long been a family assumption that the author had my father in mind when he created the character which I will always think of as the Joseph Cotten role in "The Magnificent Ambersons."
Unlucky in the field of industry, my father invariably recouped his business losses at the gaming tables. He broke the bank at Monte Carlo, and was a bit ashamed of it. In his passport he described himself as an inventor. He actually got a sort of aeroplane off the ground quite shortly after Kitty Hawk. Perhaps the most original of his creations: to this day, it remains the only flying machine specifically designed to keep the motor at all times safely on the ground.
My mother played the kind of music and liked the kind of people he abhorred. She was even, among so many other things, a scholar of East Indian literature. What could he have made of that? Both were great charmers -- that must have been it. A strange marriage all the same. My paternal grandmother put a curse on it.
The ballroom on the top floor of the old woman's house had, at some remote period, been mysteriously converted into an enormous indoor miniature golf course full of wooden hills and nasty little sand traps, still partly covered with rotting green paper. Crowning the highest of the hills there had been erected, at a later date, what was unmistakably an altar. Representing some more recent epoch in Grandmother's spiritual progress, it was no place for Christian sacraments. The feathers of many birds long dead lay all about the golf course, and the altar itself was deeply stained with blood. This dreadful woman -- dwarfish, obese and evil-smelling -- was a practicing witch.
On the occasion of her son's funeral, celebrated in that huge house of hers (where my mother had never been allowed to enter) this hellish creature managed to sandwich some obscure passages into the ordinary protestant serevice, so that the wretched, weak-willed minister was confused enough to read out during the ceremony several of the more bizarre invocations employed by Madame Blavatsky, and great, reeking dollops of Aleister Crowley.
I was in no condition to interfere, being convinced -- as I am now -- that I had killed my father.
(I'll try to wirte about this later.)
TO BE CONTINUED IN MY NEXT POST