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Remembering Orson Welles

As professional storytellers, we were duly awed by Rudy’s handling of The Grapefruit Incident, which begins, so casually, at Yale.

Ironically, the dean was the father of the boy who, nine years later, was to hurl a grapefruit at me in a Boston theater and almost kill me.

Then the story is dropped. Pages pass. Years pass. Then the grapefruit motif is reintroduced. Rudy and his band have played for the dean; afterward, when they are given ice cream, Rudy asks, “Is this all we’re having….”

Apparently one of [the dean’s] sons noticed my rather uncivil question…and resolved that some day he would avenge this slight. What he actually did later at a Boston theater might have put him in the electric chair and me in my grave but fortunately his aim was bad. But of that more later.

Orson thought this masterful. Appetites whetted, we read on until the now inevitable rendezvous of hero and grapefruit in a Boston theater where, as Rudy is singing, “Oh, Give Me Something to Remember You By,” “a large yellow grapefruit came hurtling from the balcony. With a tremendous crash it struck the drummer’s cymbal…” but “if it had struck the gooseneck of my sax squarely where it curves into the mouth it might have driven it back through the vertebra in the back of my neck.” Of this passage, the ecstatic Orson whispered, “Conrad”—what might have been if Lord Jim had remained on watch.

Finally, in a scene reminiscent of Saint Simon’s last evocation of the duchess of Burgundy, Vallée tells us how he had got the Chairman of the Board himself to come see his house and its rooms of memorabilia. Frank Sinatra dutifully toured room after room of artifacts relating to the master. Although an offending journalist gave “the impression that most of the pictures portrayed my likeness, actually, one third of the pictures are of neutral subjects or of personalities other than myself.” Even so, “as Frank Sinatra rather snidely put it as we left this particular corridor, ‘You would never guess who lived here.’ ” 2

In literary matters, Orson was encyclopedic, with an actor’s memory for poetry. I have known few American writers who have had much or, indeed, any enthusiasm for literature. Writers who teach tend to prefer literary theory to literature and tenure to all else. Writers who do not teach prefer the contemplation of Careers to art of any kind. On the other hand, those actors who do read are often most learned, even passionate, when it comes to literature. I think that this unusual taste comes from a thorough grounding in Shakespeare combined with all that time waiting around on movie sets.

When we had finished with politics and literature and the broiled fish, Orson told me a hilarious story of a sexual intrigue in Yugoslavia during the shooting of Kafka’s The Trial. How was Orson to maneuver a willing young woman away from her escort in a bar that was connected by a dark and creaking staircase to Orson’s room, and then….? Each detail of this labyrinthine tale was lovingly recounted right up until the final victory in the wrong bed or room—or something. Orson was a superb dramatizer. As an actor, he was limited by his unique physical presence and that great booming conman’s voice. But when it came to storytelling, he was as exciting at a corner table, talking, as he was on the screen itself in a work all his own. But the tragedy of Welles (“How,” I can hear him say, eyes theatrically narrowed to slits in that great round pudding of a face, “do you define tragedy?”) is that more time was spent evoking movies at corner tables than in a studio. Yet he was always seriously at work on a number of projects that he was forever trying to get the financing for.

This time I’ve written a political script. Rather your kind of thing.” He puffed on a cigar. He looked like Harry Lime. “You know Paul Newman. Can you put in a word with him? Because if I don’t have one of the Six Bankable Boys, there’s no financing. What one has to go through.” He patted his stomach as if it were his dog. He looked like Falstaff. “They always ask me, aren’t you glad, cher maître, that the old studio system is finished, that there are no more vulgar furriers controlling your films? and I say, my God, how I miss them! Even Harry Cohn. When you make fifty-two pictures a year on an assembly-line basis there is always room for an Orson Welles film. But now there is no room anywhere.” He smoothed the dog’s fur as if it were his stomach. Then he chuckled, “I have made an art form of the interview. The French are the best interviewers, despite their addiction to the triad, like all Cartesians.” I took this well: triad=trinity, but versus, I would have thought, Descartes.

Orson was now in full flow. “They also have the gift of the unexpected letdown. The ultimate Zinger. ‘There are only three great directors in the history of the film,’ they will announce. I smile shyly.” Orson smiles. Cotton was right. Though he doesn’t seem to be sucking in his cheeks, the corners of his mouth are drawn not up but down. “There is D.W. Griffith. I roll my eyes toward Heaven in an ecstasy of agreement. There is Orson Welles. I lower my lids, all modesty—little me? Then,” his voice drops, basso profundissimo, “there is—Nicholas Ray!” Orson erupts in laughter. We meditate on the interview as art form as well as necessity for Orson, “because I don’t lecture any more.”

Then why,” I asked, “did you ask me to ask Carson to get you back on The Tonight Show so that you could get more lecture dates when you’ve given up lecturing?” He looked at me in true surprise. “Surely, I told you I’ve stopped lecturing because I can’t walk from the airport terminal to the gate.” You can use a wheel-chair, I said. “But that would be the end of me as an actor. Word would spread I was terminally ill. Besides there is no wheelchair large enough unless I bring my own which would make a truly bad impression.”

Orson never knew that I knew how, the previous week, Orson’s driver had delivered him to the restaurant’s parking lot, only to find that Orson was so tightly wedged in the front seat that the car had to be taken apart so that he could get out.

If not Newman, there’s Nicholson or Beatty. Warren has consented to give me an audience. But Nicholson would be better. The story’s called The Big Brass Ring, about a senator who’s just been defeated by Reagan for president—two years from now, of course. Really right down your alley….”

Three years after our last lunch, Orson died at the age of seventy. He had not been able to get one of the Bankable Boys to agree to do The Big Brass Ring and so it is now just one more cloudy trophy to provoke one’s imagination. What would Welles’s Don Quixote have been like if he had been able to finish it? But then it is pleasurable to imagine what he might have done with any theme because he was, literally, a magician, fascinated by legerdemain, tricks of eye, forgeries, labyrinths, mirrors reflecting mirrors. He was a master of finding new ways of seeing things that others saw not at all.

Happily, I now know something about The Big Brass Ring, which was published obscurely in 1987 as “an original screenplay by Orson Welles with Oja Kodar.” Wellesian mysteries begin to swirl. Who is Oja Kodar? The dust jacket identifies her as Welles’s “companion and collaborator (as actress and screenwriter, among other capacities) over the last twenty years of his life. She is a Yugoslav sculptor who has had one-woman shows in both Europe and the US. The lead actress in F for Fake [which I’ve never seen] and The Other Side of the Wind [unreleased], she collaborated on the scripts of both films as well as many other Welles projects”…all unmade.

Orson never mentioned her. But then, come to think of it, except for bizarre dreamlike adventures, he never spoke of his private life. In all the years I knew him, I never set foot in any place where he was living, or met his wife, Paola Mori, who died a year after he did. I invited Orson several times to the house where I lived within megaphone distance of the Rudy Vallée shrine and he always accepted, with delight. Then the phone calls would start. “I know that it is the height of rudeness to ask who will be there, so my rudeness is of the loftiest sort. Who will be there?” I would tell him and he’d be pleased to see so many old friends; finally, an hour before the party began, he’d ring. “I have an early call tomorrow. For a commercial. Dog food, I think it is this time. No, I do not eat from the can on camera but I celebrate the contents. Yes, I have fallen so low.”

Further mysteries: there is an afterword published to the script by Jonathan Rosenbaum, who tells us that Welles left two estates, “one of them controlled by his wife Paola Mori and daughter Beatrice,…the other controlled by Kodar.” Now the two estates appear to be in equilibrium; hence, “the publication of The Big Brass Ring represents a major step forward in the clarification of the invisible Orson Welles, even though it comprises only a piece of the iceberg (or jigsaw puzzle, if one prefers).” I prefer jigsaw puzzle. And now, for me, an essential piece is at hand: the screenplay, which is purest Welles. He is plainly at the top of his glittering form, which was as deeply literary as it was visual.

What, precisely, is “purest Welles”? Although every line sounds like Welles, we are told that he based some of the story on an autobiographical sketch by Kodar. Thus, they collaborated. But the germ of the story, one of Welles’s few “originals” (a word in this context never to be let out of quotes), was first expressed by Welles in a conversation with the film director Henry Jaglom. Welles said that there was a story that “he’d been thinking about for years, about an old political adviser to Roosevelt who was homosexual, and whose lover had gotten crippled in the Spanish Civil War fighting the fascists. Now he was in an African kingdom, advising the murderous leader—and back in the US, a young senator who’d been his protégé was going to run against Reagan in 1984, as the Democratic nominee.” So far so Wellesian. The fascination with politics, particularly the New Deal; with homosexuality to the extent that it involves masks and revelation; and, finally, with the relationship between the teacher and the taught.

The action is swift. A series of images—fading campaign posters: the defeated presidential candidate, Pellarin, walks through a restaurant where he is recognized and cheered: he is a combination of Texas Good-Old-Boy and Harvard Law School. The wife, Diana, is edgy, long-suffering, rich. Then we are aboard a yacht. Pellarin is bored. Diana plays backgammon with a woman friend. Pellarin goes into their bedroom and finds a girl—a manicurist—stealing his wife’s emerald necklace. To his own amazement, he tells her, “Keep it.” With this Gidean acte gratuit the story takes off. When a shipwide search for the necklace begins, Pellarin realizes that it will be found on the girl; so he makes her give him the jewels; then he promises her that he will turn them over to a fence at the next port, which is Tangiers.

At Tangiers Pellarin books a flight to the African country where his old mentor, Kimball Menaker, is advising the local Idi Amin. At the airport, he is ambushed by Cela Brandini, a superb portrait of the dread Oriana Fallaci in the terminal throes of requited self-love. “I am Cela Brandini,” she declares with all the authority of a bush afire. “Of course you are,” he says, mildly. Brandini: “And I have never asked you for an interview.” Pellarin: “Guess I’m just plain lucky.” Now Welles can use his second art form, the interview with tape recorder. Brandini has just interviewed Menaker, a figure that Pellarin must never see again because….The plot of the emerald necklace crosses with that of the search for Menaker, to be played by Welles at his most oracular, not to mention polymathematical.

As they wait in the airport lounge, Brandini plays for him some of Menaker’s dialogue on her recorder, a nice narrative device. Menaker: “A message? Do I wish to send a message to the Senator from Texas? ex-chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee? former vedette of the Hasty Pudding Club Review, our future President, and my former friend?”

Brandini has interviewed Menaker as background for a piece she wants to do on Pellarin. She is aware that Menaker is the skeleton in Pellarin’s closet. Had they been lovers? What glorious scandal! Brandini: “The way he speaks of you—he seems to think he’s your [father].” Pellarin is pleased. She strikes, “And yet, politically—he almost killed you off.” Pellarin demurs: “He didn’t quite do that, you know….He killed himself.” Mysteries within mysteries. A quest. Nothing now is what it seems. Pellarin, pilgrim.

Pellarin finds Menaker in the Batunga Hilton, he is in bed with a sick monkey while two naked black women play backgammon as they keep guard over him. Although the scene is about finding a fence for the emeralds (Menaker is the author of The Criminal Underworld Considered as a Primitive Culture—An Anthropological View: “I’m an authority on everything,” he says), the subtext concerns a woman, Pellarin’s lost love, a Cambodian beauty, last seen by Menaker in Paris.

Pellarin departs with the sick monkey knotted about his neck, hiding the emeralds. He joins the yacht at Barcelona. Brandini is also there. She declaims: “I’m an anarchist.” Pellarin: “I wish you were a veterinarian.” Brandini: “I do not think that monkey has very long to live.” Pellarin: “Neither do I.” Brandini: “Interesting.” Pellarin: “Death? The subject doesn’t capture my imagination.” Brandini: “I know something about it, Pellarin. I’ve seen it in Vietnam, Central America—in Greece.” Pellarin: “I know. There’s a lot of that stuff going around.” Back on the yacht, Pellarin tries to get the monkey off his neck: it falls into the sea, the emeralds clutched in its fist. How is Pellarin to get the money he “owes” to the girl?

Meanwhile, Menaker is out of Africa and again in the clutches of Brandini. A reference is made to Menaker’s Harvard rival, Henry Kissinger, “chief brown-noser to the Rockefellers.” Menaker is concerned about Kissinger because: “He is getting shorter—Have you noticed that? He’s positively dwindling with thwarted ambition: Metternich as the incredible shrinking man. They ought to give poor shrinking Henry one last go at State. As a foreigner, there’s no higher he can go—and who knows how much smaller he can get.” They speak of Menaker’s influence on Pellarin. Menaker sees him triumphant despite their association, not to mention that of Harvard. These are only minor limitations. Brandini: “You’ve spoken of his limitations—What are yours?” Menaker: “I’m an old man, Miss Brandini—and a faggot. I couldn’t use another limitation.”

Pellarin and Menaker meet. Menaker says not to worry about the emeralds: they are false. Diana sold the originals to help get Pellarin elected to Congress. She has worn paste copies ever since. So Pellarin must cash a check in order to give money to the girl for the worthless jewels that she stole and Pellarin lost. This is exquisite Welles. And he brings it off with Wildean panache.

Now the story of the emeralds again crosses the story of the lost love in Paris. Apparently, she is in Madrid. She wants to see Pellarin. Menaker will take him to her. Meanwhile they meditate upon identity. Menaker: “Even the great ones must have sometimes felt uncomfortable in their own skins. Caesar must have dreamt of Alexander, and Napoleon of Caesar.” Pellarin: “Shit, Professor—I couldn’t make their weight.” Menaker: “Then think of poor Dick Nixon—mincing about inside his fortress in the Oval Room, all bristling with bugs—hoping a playback would eventually inform him who he was…. He told us often what he wasn’t, but he never really got it figured out.” Pellarin: “Neither have I…. You sly old son of a bitch, so that’s what you’ve been getting at.” Menaker: “In a perfect world, all of us should be allowed some short vacations from our own identities. Last week you were Bulldog Drummond, gentleman jewel thief. Soon you’ll be hoping to sneak down that rabbit hole again to where it’s always Paris in the spring.” Orson Welles, who was known to all the world as Orson Welles, could never be anyone else in life, but, in art, he could saw a lady in half, pull a rabbit from a hat, arrange shadows on celluloid in such a way as to be any number of entirely other selves.

Menaker leads Pellarin to “The Old, Dark House.” A feria is in progress; fireworks. Only Pellarin goes inside the house: “The scene is strange, almost surreal…. (The action must be given in synopsis…. The climax of this sequence is strongly erotic: to spell out its specific details would be to risk pornography)…. A man searching and searching—up and down, from floor to floor, from room to room of an empty house, comes to discover (in a lightning flash of fireworks breaking through a shuttered window) that all along there has been someone watching him:—naked, in a shadowed chair.” This is much the same scene that Orson told me at our last lunch as having happened to him. Did it? Or was he trying out the scene on me? She is found; they speak in French; make love; then she vanishes. Although the film was to be shot in black and white, Orson intended the fireworks to be in color; at the scene’s end, “The colored lights fall into darkness.”

Pellarin faces Menaker in the street. Menaker never delivered the letter that Pellarin had written asking the girl to marry him. Menaker did not deliver it because he wants Pellarin to go to glory. Pellarin: “Screw Pennsylvania Avenue.” Menaker: “Boysie—There’s nowhere else for you to go.” Later, the ubiquitous Brandini strikes. She tells Pellarin that “during his sexual fantasizing about you—Dr. Menaker would masturbate into a handkerchief…. Then, when it was stiff with his dried semen, he mailed it to his crippled friend, as…I don’t know what: a sentimental souvenir.” I must say that even at the lively fun-court of Tiberius and of his heir, Caligula, neither Suetonius nor I ever came up with anything quite so—dare I use so punitive a word?—icky. But Orson needed an emotional trigger for a nightmare flight through the city and an encounter with a blind beggar who menaces Pellarin and whom he kills. Let it come down. The police suspect; but cover for him.

Pellarin reenters the world. A speech must be given in Brussels. Menaker is on the train, which Brandini satisfactorily misses—“dressed as usual: semi-safari with a strong hint of battle fatigues.” They sing, jointly, Menaker’s “hit number from the Hasty Pudding Show of nineteen twenty-nine.” Then Orson adds, with his usual flourish: “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

In a statement to Henry Jaglom (May 20, 1982), Orson wrote of Pellarin,

He is a great man—like all great men he is never satisfied that he has chosen the right path in life. Even being President, he feels, may somehow not be right. He is a man who has within him the devil of self-destruction that lives in every genius…. There is this foolish, romantic side of us all…. That is what the circumstances of the film are about—the theft of the necklace, the situation with the monkey, etc. All these idiotic events that one’s romantic nature leads one into.

But of course Orson is describing Menaker not Pellarin, and, again of course, Orson is describing his own “romantic nature” which led him down so many odd roads, to our enduring delight if not always his.

I have a recurring fantasy that if one were to dial the telephone number of someone in the past, one would hear again a familiar voice, and time would instantly rewind from now to then. I still have Orson’s telephone number in my book (213-851-8458). Do I dare ring him and talk to him back in 1982, where he is busy trying to convince Jack Nicholson to play Pellarin for two not four million dollars? Should I tell him that he’ll not get the picture made? No. That would be too harsh. I’ll pretend that I have somehow got a copy of it, and that I think it marvelous though perhaps the handkerchief was, from so prudish a master, a bit much? Even incredible.

Incredible?” The voice booms in my ear. “How could it be incredible when I stole it from Othello? But now I have a real treat for you. Standing here is your neighbor…. Rudy! Overcome ‘that quiet reserve or shyness.’ Sing.”

From out of the past, I hear, “My time is your time,” in that reedy highly imitable voice. The afterlife’s only a dial tone away. “What makes you think that this is the afterlife?” Orson chuckles. “This is a recording.” Stop story here.

Letters

Rosebud August 17, 1989

  1. 2

    Rudy Vallée scholars will search in vain for the adverb “snidely” in Let the Chips Fall….I have taken the liberty of using an earlier version of the Sinatra visit as recorded in My Time is Your Time (1962). Even though Rudy Vallée always wrote the same book, he was given to subtle changes, particularly in his use or omission of adverbs, reminiscent in their mastery of the grace notes in Bach. A synoptic edition of Vallée’s three memoirs is long overdue as well as a meticulous concordance.

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