ORSON WELLES’ DAUGHTER WRITES MEMOIR ABOUT HER FATHER
FROM THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
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 Ms. Feder said 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.”
Ms. Feder, author of the popular Brain Quest series for young people, may be one of the reasons ORSON 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 her late parent and found the words.
In 2002, she privately published THE MOVIE DIRECTOR – a collection of poems.
She now has written the memoir IN MY FATHER’S SHADOW, which has just been released by ALGONQUIN BOOKS.
“I wanted to write a book that would give Orson Welles a human face,” remarked Ms. Feder, who was 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 her eyes, but she more resembles her mother and ORSON’S first wife, actor VIRGINIA NICOLSON. CHRIS WELLES FEDER’S features are refined, her voice light, her diction even and untheatrical. Her true inheritance from her father, she claimed, is a love of the arts and an appreciation for people of different backgrounds and cultures.
Her book is new to followers of ORSON WELLES – who married three times and had three daughters – if only because she is the first blood relative to write about him.
In her memoir, ORSON 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.
Growing up, Ms. Feder was awed by her father, wondering just where she fit into 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, or, in England, bring her for a day in the country with VIVIEN LEIGH, LAURENCE OLIVIER, KATHARINE HEPBURN and SPENCER TRACY.
“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.”
“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 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.’ ”
Ms. Feder writes about her famous stepmother RITA HAYWORTH, remembers her brief times on the sets of his movies and confirms a rumoured liaison ORSON had with actor GERALDINE FITZGERALD that nearly ended Ms. Feder’s life before it began.
Another Welles biographer, Joseph McBride, said that IN MY FATHER’S SHADOW offers the most detailed portrait ever of ORSON’S marriage to VIRGINIA, so marginalized that at least two Welles books spell her name Nicholson. The two were both actors who met as teenagers, worked together in an early, unreleased Welles movie HEARTS OF AGE and married in 1934, before either had turned 20.
The newlyweds shared a New York apartment and began a marriage that turned troubled and nearly tragic. In 1937, VIRGINIA became pregnant with
CHRIS and she and ORSON moved to a farmhouse outside the city. ORSON was a rising star on radio and in the theatre. He was working nonstop on a production of JULIUS CAESAR.
ORSON worried enough about his pregnant wife to suggest she keep company with GERALDINE FITZGERALD, whom he would soon cast for the theatre in HEARTBREAK HOUSE.
Ms. Fitzgerald, who later starred in such film classics as WUTHERING HEIGHTS and DARK VICTORY, was apparently closer to ORSON than his wife realized. She discovered letters from Ms. Fitzgerald that revealed that she and ORSON were having an affair. As VIRGINIA 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,” Ms. Feder wrote.
ORSON and VIRGINIA NICOLSON divorced in 1940, a breakup that lead to a Wellesian moment of comic irony. VIRGINIA’S second husband was writer CHARLES LEDERER, the nephew of MARION DAVIES, the long time mistress of WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST.
He was the man who helped inspire the title character of CITIZEN KANE, a film the newspaper tycoon tried hard to destroy. Ms. Feder was not only technically related to her father’s famous enemy, she even visited the San Simeon castle that ORSON renamed XANADU in his film.
Some of Ms. Feder’s most personal experiences with her father came through his movies. She and ORSON watched THE THIRD MAN together and she made him proud by telling him she found his character villainous, yet worthy of pity. She is still moved to tears by watching CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT and his portrayal of FALSTAFF, especially the climatic scene when the aging merrymaker is rejected by his former friend, the newly crowned HENRY V.
“I think that my father, especially as he grew older, felt that many people betrayed him and let him down and didn’t help him when he needed help, whether it was financial help – trying to raise money for his films, or whether it was breaking promises,” Ms. Feder said of ORSON, who for much of his life made low budget films or started projects he never finished.
She worried incessantly about letting her father down. Determined to impress him, she begged to be in one of his movies and was granted a small part – Macduff’s son – in his 1948 production of MacBETH. It was the most unpampered of film sets. She wrote about a scene in which she is chased by a would be killer and stabbed. She remembers her father shouting at the actor who played the assassin that he was being too gentle.
“I got pounded on the back but not so hard that I couldn’t take it and finally my father/director was satisfied. I scrambled to my feet and looked up at him expectantly, but all ready he was turning away and talking with his assistant. At that moment, the fun and excitement I had felt at being in Daddy’s movie drained out of me.”
She said that she wanted to write an honest book, a term she acknowledges her father may have disliked. He was a great confabulator, she stated with affection, more beholden to complicated truths than plain facts.
“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,” commented Ms. Feder, who recalled her father’s 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.”