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Archive for Sunday, November 29, 2009

Distant shadow: Daughter’s memoir scrutinizes Orson Welles

November 29, 2009

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No posters or photographs of Orson Welles hang in the living room of his eldest daughter, Chris Welles Feder. His memory is preserved, imperfectly, through a shelf of books that Feder says have yet to capture her father's many-sided life.

"There are some excellent studies about him, but I feel that the Orson Welles I knew doesn't really exist in these books because many of the people who wrote them never got closer than a long distance phone call," she says.

Feder, author of the popular "Brain Quest" series for young people, may be one of the reasons Welles' story remains incomplete. She has talked to few of his biographers and acknowledges that she has had a hard time reconciling the genius of "Citizen Kane" with her dynamic, but distant father, who died in 1985.

But in recent years, she has reached her "great goal" of peace with Welles and found the words. In 2002, she privately published "The Movie Director," a collection of poems. She now has written a memoir, "In My Father's Shadow," just released by Algonquin Books, the darkened cover showing a gray, bearded Welles, hand holding a cigar before his mouth like an old king pointing a sword.

"I wanted to write a book that would give Orson Welles a human face," says the 71-year-old Feder, interviewed on a rainy afternoon at her apartment in downtown Manhattan. "I wanted to show him with all his warts and holes, but also with the qualities that don't come through in the other books."

Her father's spirit flickers in Feder's eyes, but she more resembles her mother and Welles' first wife, actress Virginia Nicolson. Feder's features are refined, her voice light, her diction even and untheatrical. Her true inheritance from her father, she says, is a love of the arts and an appreciation for people of different backgrounds and cultures.

Feder's book is new to followers of Welles - who married three times and had three daughters - if only because she is the first blood relative to write about him. In Feder's memoir, Welles is a performer even in real life, a maker of bold entrances and sudden exits, a composite of his most famous characters - as imperious as Charles Foster Kane, as unknowable as Harry Lime of "The Third Man," as wounded as Falstaff in "Chimes of Midnight."

"I learned quite a bit of intimate stuff about Orson and what he was like as a father," says director Peter Bogdanovich, a friend of Welles' who wrote often about him. "None of it surprised me; it all reminded me of the man I knew. He could be the doting father and he could disappear. He could be a doting friend and he could disappear. But he'd eventually turn up."

Fitting in

Growing up, Feder was awed by her father, wondering just where she fit in his life. They rarely lived under the same roof, and didn't see each other for years at a time. But when together, he would call her "darling girl," draw sketches of them, guide her through a church in Rome, the Prado museum in Madrid, Spain, or, in England, bring her for a day in the country with Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

"When he was with me he was always 'delighted' to see me and he was very warm and loving. But, of course, times would pass when I didn't see him," she says.

"He was not an uncaring man. He was not a cold man at all. When you want to have a creative life, it's very difficult sometimes to also fit in a personal life. ... When my mother was divorcing my father, she was flying to Rio (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and she was stopped at the airport and asked by a reporter, 'Why are you divorcing him?' She said, 'Orson doesn't have time to be married."'

Feder writes about her famous stepmother, Rita Hayworth, remembers her brief times on the sets of his movies and confirms a rumored liaison Welles had with actress Geraldine Fitzgerald that nearly ended Feder's life before it began.

Another Welles biographer, Joseph McBride, says that "In My Father's Shadow" offers the most detailed portrait ever of Welles' marriage to Nicolson, so marginalized that at least two Welles books spell her name "Nicholson." The two were fellow actors who met as teenagers, worked together in an early, unreleased Welles movie, "Hearts of Age" and eloped, in 1934, before either had turned 20.

The newlyweds shared a Manhattan apartment and began a marriage that turned troubled and nearly tragic. In 1937, Virginia became pregnant with Chris and she and Welles moved to a farmhouse outside the city. Welles was a rising star on radio and in the theater, and was working nonstop on a stage production of "Julius Caesar."

Welles worried enough about his pregnant wife to suggest she keep company with Fitzgerald, whom he would soon cast for the theater in "Heartbreak House." Fitzgerald, who later starred in such film classics as "Wuthering Heights" and "Dark Victory," was apparently closer to Welles than his wife realized. She discovered letters from the actress that revealed they were having an affair. As Virginia Welles explained years later to her daughter, she tried to throw herself out of a hotel window, but couldn't get it open.

"I was seeing my pregnant mother falling like a rag doll from an open window, then hitting the sidewalk, lying limp and still, both of us lost in a widening pool of blood," Feder writes.

Great confabulator

Welles and Nicolson divorced in 1940, a breakup that lead to a Wellesian moment of comic irony. Virginia Nicolson's second husband was writer Charles Lederer, the nephew of Marion Davies, the longtime mistress of William Randolph Hearst, who helped inspire the title character of "Citizen Kane," a film the newspaper tycoon tried hard to destroy. Feder was not only technically related to her father's famous enemy, she even visited the San Simeon castle that Welles renamed "Xanadu" in his film.

Feder says she wanted to write an "honest" book, a term she acknowledges her father may have disliked. He was a great "confabulator," she says, with affection, more beholden to complicated truths than plain facts. In "This Is Orson Welles," an interview book, the director berated Bogdanovich for doing so much research, concerned he would cripple the creative spirit.

"He'd probably be embarrassed (by 'In My Father's Shadow')," Bogdanovich says. "He was very private and didn't like anything written about him. But I found the book very touching and I was particularly happy that she seemed to understand Orson in a way I wish everybody did, that for all his faults there was nobody like him."

"I know that while he was alive, all of us who were intimately connected with him were under strict orders never to talk to the press, never to say anything about him," says Feder, who recalls Welles' response when he learned biographer Barbara Leaming wanted to interview her.

"Oh, Barbara, you'll love Barbara. She's charming. By all means talk to her, absolutely, tell her anything you want. Just don't tell her the truth."'

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