In My Father’s Shadow notes
I’ve never had a big interest in Orson Welles’s personal life, and he himself told his daughter Christopher that 'an artist's work is the important thing, not the way he lived his life.' Nevertheless, this is a fascinating and beautifully written book that sheds a lot of light on many aspects of Welles that were hidden before, although I suspect that Chris Welles Feder may have been one of the major sources for Barbra Leaming’s Welles book, as this new book offers variations on some stories that were also present in that book. But we should be grateful to Christopher for telling her full story to us in her own words.
The early chapters, that take place at the height of Welles's marriage to Rita Hayworth, are fairy-tale like, and her father is presented as the benevolent ruler of a magic kingdom, with Rita as his queen. Her description of their home in Santa Monica and especially of the pool in the back yard (with an island in the middle of it!), is awe-inspiring to imagine. But even in these scenes as described by Chris, one can sense Welles’s rapidly growing boredom with domesticity, no matter how gilded. However, her descriptions of their Santa Monica paradise, including her own little beach, are wonderfully evocative. Obviously, Santa Monica was to Chris what Grand Detour, IL was to her father: one of those Edens you get kicked out of. Once they do, moving to Hollywood, the Welles/Hayworth marriage breaks up and Chris begins to see less and less of her father. Chris's mindset during this part of the book reminded me a bit of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, where the young girl adores her irresponsible dreamer of a father even though he is rarely around. Of course, Chris is privileged, and her parents a success, while the kids in “Brooklyn” are underprivileged, and their father an abject failure.
We also get a more fleshed-out portrait of Virginia Nicolson then we’ve ever been given before. This is not insignificant, since Virginia was not only a member of the radio Mercury, including playing Cossette in Les Miserables (one of Welles's greatest radio acheivements), but is also mentioned in all of the Welles biographies, and is a major character in Welles’s own screenplay for The Cradle Will Rock, where, interestingly enough, she is depicted in one scene as having a dalliance with a 'young Brando type', probably as revenge for all of Welles's own sexual indiscretions. However, the portrait in Chris’s book is even less positive then that, and one gets the sense that Chris was closer to, and had more affection for, her nanny then she had for her mother. One senses this especially at the scenes at San Simeon, where 'Welles's kid' (as Ben Hecht called her) and her nanny are banished from Hearst's sight most of the time, eating their lonely dinners together quietly, while Virginia and her second husband, Charlie Lederer (Marion Davies' nephew) are royally entertained at Hearst's court.
When Virginia's marriage to Lederer collapses, Chris gets sent to the Todd School in Woodstock, IL for awhile, and here she finds out a lot about her wonderful, mysterious father, as Skipper and Hortense Hill offer some fascinating insight into Orson Welles’s strange adolescence, and the Hill’s own ambivalent attitude toward the young Welles, which was a curious mixture of fear and pity (Skipper described him as an old gentleman trapped inside a hurt little boy). One can imagine how difficult it would have been for The Hills to know what to make of the little monster of precocity that young Orson was. Furthermore, reading the descriptions of Welles’s own 'cool and self-centered' mother Beatrice, one is reminded of Truffaut’s statement (in his foreword to the Bazin book) that-
'His mother fostered his precociousness by making him act at being precocious. This probably gave him a taste for acting.'
-a taste for acting and performing that never left him, and served him well throughout life, including his seduction of the Hills into giving him special privileges at Todd. One gets the sense that Orson Welles was always acting, but his ‘act’ as father was something he could sustain for only short periods of time without getting bored. Sad to think that a daughter would have to anxiously try and prove her worthiness of attention (by trying some yucky oysters at the Brown Derby at her father's insistence, for example), but one thing that is common in all Welles biographies is the sense that his many friendships and relationships were like a giant Dickens novel, with a constantly revolving door of side characters randomly flying in and out of his story, including his own family members.
Skipper and Hortense (“Granny”) also provide good insight into the bitter custody battle between Welles’s father Richard and Dadda Bernstein. Dick is described by Skipper as dull, and pathetic when drunk. But Orson gave his father much more love then he deserved, and never stopped trying to mythologize him. According to Skipper, Welles never forgave Bernstein for breaking up his parents’ marriage. His attitude toward Bernstein seems to have been the same love/hate attitude that he had toward John Houseman and others. Contemptuous but tolerant of his older suitor’s infatuation. To evade Dadda's insistence that he go to college, and perhaps to leave such a shaky and uncertain domestic situation, Welles embarked on a tour of Ireland at age 16, the start of a lifelong passion for travel. As he later tells Christopher, "the best education is to travel and live in foreign countries." Throughout the book, The Hills can always be counted on to explain all things with the plain, common-sense wisdom of good Midwestern folk, like the Greek-chorus of townspeople in The Magnificent Ambersons.
The glimpses Chris gives us of Apartheid in 50's South Africa, where she moves with her mother and her mother's third husband, a British military veteran, make a disturbing contrast with Welles’s various crusades for civil rights for black people in America. It also shows how “chameleon-like” Virginia was in conforming to her third husband‘s racist views, and yet how profound and powerful Welles’s liberal influence remained on Chris, despite him having exerted it only on rare occasions. The South Africa years show Chris missing her father terribly, bearing the burden at school of being "Orson Welles’s daughter”, without Orson Welles. To compensate, she creates in her mind a rose-colored image of her father, to the point of becoming besotted and infatuated with him herself, a’la Dadda Bernstein and Houseman. Her description of their brief reunions together in such European capitals as Rome, Barcelona, Paris, and especially St. Moritz are described with a tremendous sense of pent-up joy, but also have an almost perversely romantic tone to them, like the quasi-incestuous missing scenes in Ambersons. They also bring to mind Marlene Dietrich’s statement that being with Welles made her feel "like a plant that had just been watered." The most striking of all these reunion scenes, however, is the luncheon at the estate of Lawrence Olivier and Vivian Leigh that Welles takes her to near London, with Danny Kaye, Spencer Tracy, and Katherine Hepburn. In theatrical terms, almost like a summit meeting at Mount Olympus.
Sadly, their relationship becomes badly damaged by Chris’s eventual refusal to see her father, owing to what she claims was a cruel ultimatum on the part of Virginia. Chris's 'fatal' phone call to her father seems reminiscent of young Orson refusing to see his father Richard at roughly the same age, but then, for some reason, something seems missing here, as if Chris is either fictionalizing part of the story or not telling the whole story. Roger Hill's memiors at Lilly say simply that the estrangement between Chris and her father was caused mainly by her father’s failure to make child support payments, which is not implausible. Clearly this is the most painful part of Chris’s story, and not surprisingly, their relationship would never be quite the same again. Ironically, this seems to have a positive effect in some ways, as Chris begins to take her first independent steps away from her father’s influence. However, this comes while staying with her maternal grandparents, the Nicholsons, in Chicago. They are the antithesis of the Hills, living some fifty miles away in Woodstock. The Nicolsons are, if anything, even more narrow-minded and reactionary then her mother and British stepfather in South Africa, and dismiss Orson Welles as just another unreliable, theatrical fruitcake. Her father's influence still remains heavy with Chris, but now gets looked at more soberly, no longer through rose-colored glasses.
By the time she does see him again four years later, in a Hong-Kong reunion arranged by Granny Hill, she finds that she has been all but replaced in her father’s affections by his third wife Paola Mori and their 3-year-old daughter Beatrice. The Freudian complexity of Chris's relationship with her father is illuminated in still more depth once Paola and Beatrice enter the scene. Chris and Paola clearly feel threatened by each other, and in another weird irony, Paola, only seven years older then Chris, had begun her relationship with Welles while playing his daughter in the film, Mr. Arkadin. When Chris and her father are traveling alone together in a limo on the way to the film set, he tells her in a low voice that she looks very beautiful in a way that makes her feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. But he also gives her a fatherly scolding for not remembering people from her school in South Africa when a former classmate invites them to lunch and shows them old pictures in a school album. "But I remember all my times with you" she thinks, but refrains from saying.
The reunion in Hong Kong, on the set of Ferry to Hong Kong, one of the lousy commercial projects Welles was forced to act in in order to raise money for his own films, comes right after Chris has lived with her new husband in the post-war hellhole of South Korea, an experience that gives her much valueable perspective on life, but that her father takes no interest in. She begins to sense that, although her father is happy to see her, his personality has already begun to change drastically, from the fun-loving, magical mentor and teacher, into a sadly grounded and defeated has-been, increasingly aware of the 'criminal waste of his talents', growing alarmingly overweight, and tired of the charade of having to act like a “celebrity” in order to function as an artist. This is a change she describes with amazing, poignant eloquence on pages 193-4:
"For the first time, I was finding it difficult to reach him, as though he had erected a barricade of preoccupations and sorrows between himself and everyone else...After awhile, I felt that, although I happened to be the one sitting across from him, another being could have slipped into my skin and it wouldn't have made any difference. This was not the father I had been missing so acutely, but a world-famous personality who had graciously consented to spend a few moments with me, recounting the same witty anecdotes he had told only weeks before on British television."
After this, she doesn't see him again for another eight years, and one gets the impression that Chris has become almost more of a side character to Orson rather then a daughter. He takes only a fleeting, superficial interest in her, and very little interest in her two marriages, not attending either wedding. Over these years, however, she does come into her own, carving out a respectable career as an educational writer for the Encyclopedia Britannica and the children's game Brain Quest. And in the 70’s, with Orson's health declining, she does manage to get some occasional visits and luncheons with him, although as her second husband said, Orson talked AT them instead of TO them, and it was “like visiting a king holding audience at his court, deciding when we should enter his presence, and when we should take our leave”. Still, Chris is grief-stricken at her father's death in 1985, and justifiably outraged at the paltry funeral arrangements made by Paola and Beatrice, who by that time according to Chris, had also long been replaced in Welles‘s affections by yet another woman, Oja Kodar.
It's a sad and bittersweet story that Chris tells, but it ends on a positive note, as Chris, unlike the young girl in Brooklyn, is able in a sense to be with her father, and take solace in his artistic dreams, as she forms an appreciation for Orson Welles's enormous body of work in many different media. She also becomes a sought-after fixture at various Welles events around the world, including the massive Welles festival at Locarno, Switzerland in 2005, where she reflects how much she has become a 'stand-in' for her father. She even becomes good friends with Oja Kodar, the final and perhaps most important woman of Welles's life, and offers a remarkably beautiful description of Oja's home on the Adriatic, the "Villa Welles", that makes you wish you could get an invitation too. Overrall, a compelling and illuminating read, and a very welcome chance to read about what happened to some of these side characters when they stepped out of the giant Dickens novel that was Orson Welles's life.