Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles
The Big Brass Ring
Although Orson Welles was only ten years my senior, he had been famous for most of my life. I was thirteen when he made his famous Martians-are-coming radio broadcast. Then, three years later, when Welles was twenty-six, there was, suddenly, Citizen Kane. I was particularly susceptible to Citizen Kane because I was brought up among politicians and often saw more of my own father in newsreels than in life, particularly “The March of Time,” whose deep-toned thundering narrator—the voice of history itself—Welles was to evoke in his first film, whose cunning surface is so close to that of newsreel-real life that one felt, literally, at home in a way that one never did in such works of more gorgeous cinematic art as All This and Heaven Too.
Five years later, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, I first beheld the relatively lean Orson Welles. (“Note,” Mercury Player Joseph Cotten once told me, “how Orson either never smiles on camera, or, if he has to, how he sucks in his cheeks so as not to look like a Halloween pumpkin.”) On his arm was Rita Hayworth, his wife. He has it all, I remember thinking in a state of perfect awe untouched by pity. Little did I know—did he know?—that just as I was observing him in triumph, the great career was already going off the rails while the Gilda of all our dreams was being supplanted by the ever more beautiful Dolores del Rio. Well, Rita never had any luck. As for Welles….
As for Welles. First, who—what—was Welles? For the television generation he is remembered as an enormously fat and garrulous man with a booming voice, seen most often on talk shows and in commercials where he somberly assured us that a certain wine would not be sold “before its time,” whatever that meant. But Welles himself was on sale, as it were, long before his time in the sense that he was an astonishing prodigy, as Frank Brady records in Citizen Welles, a long biography which, blessedly, emphasizes the films in detail rather than the set of conflicting humors that made up the man.
Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, May 6, 1915, Welles was much indulged by a well-to-do, somewhat arty family. He was a born actor, artist, writer, magician. At fifteen, he ended his schooling. At sixteen, he was acting, successfully, grown-up parts for Dublin’s Gate Theater. At eighteen, he co-edited and illustrated three Shakespeare plays and a commercial textbook, Everybody’s Shakespeare. At nineteen, he appeared on Broadway as Chorus and Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. At twenty-two, he founded his own acting company, The Mercury Theater, whose greatest success was a modern-dress Julius Caesar with Welles as Brutus. The Mercury Theater then took radio by storm, dramatizing novels and stories, among them H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, done in a realistic radio way, using the medium to report,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.