In My Father's Shadow: a Daughter Remembers Orson Welles by Chris Welles Feder: review
By Linda Christmas
The opening of this book is haunting. It contains a description of Orson Welles’s funeral. This was supposed to be a simple service for close family members, but when it was discovered that Welles left no money, it shrank to a dismal affair in a destitute part of LA. The funeral parlour, from the outside, looked like a “hot-sheets motel” and inside offered a small “crummy” room with plastic covered sofas, and no flowers. The speeches were unplanned and meandering.
Welles’s eldest daughter, Chris, says it reminded her of Mozart being dumped in a pauper’s grave. Worse, it was a cremation that Welles said he did not want.
What had he done to deserve this? The book’s opening pages stink of revenge. Welles’s last partner, with whom he lived for 20 years, was at home in Croatia when he died and had no hand in the preparations for the funeral, nor was she invited. His third wife, Paola Mori, to whom he was still married, took charge and tossed his body into oblivion.
His three children by different wives were there, but they hardly knew each other. Early on in the book you get the message: Welles might have been a genius but he messed up his personal life and those of the people close to him. In fact, he messed up his professional life, too. He was a child prodigy, a star of the Dublin stage at 17, a fine film actor (Citizen Kane, The Third Man, Othello, Jane Eyre) and a maverick film producer, but most of his success happened early in his life. For much of the rest he ploughed his huge earnings into his own projects, many of which failed. He died at the age of 70, in 1985.
Chris (christened Christopher because Orson liked the sound of the name) was besotted with her father. One of her teachers told her that the feelings she had for him were unnatural. She claims to remember everything he told her and every moment of everything they did together. This enables her to construct dialogues with her father and enables us to see how desperately she clung to the magic moments he brought to her life. These were plentiful in her early years and then dwindled until years passed without seeing him.
She was there when Welles, billed as Orson the Magnificent, sawed Rita Hayworth in half in August 1943. It was a show for the benefit of servicemen who were about to be shipped to the Pacific. After the show’s opening night Columbia pictures forced Rita Hayworth to withdraw. Marlene Dietrich took her place. Welles married Hayworth a month later and was bewildered to discover that in real life she was not a screen goddess. She was merely a rather dumb Brooklyn girl with a Spanish mother and an Irish father. Chris adored her and preferred her company to that of her embittered mother, Virginia Nicholson, who, it seems to me, did her as much harm as her absent father. Nicholson and her various partners did not much like the precocious and puffed-up girl and did their best to trample her spirit and squash her ambitions and keep her away from her father.
That makes it easy to see why Chris is so generous in her view of Welles’s other women, particularly the last whom she met only after her father died. Chris says that Oja Kodar, with whom he spent the last 20 years, was the only woman who didn’t bore him. She was far more intelligent than his other women and understood that his work was his life.
Orson Welles told his daughter that when making films about villains (which are more interesting than heroes) it was important that the audience retain some sympathy for the villain. Welles wasn’t a true villain, merely a lousy husband and father, and I ended up feeling sorry for him: more sorry for him than I did for his daughter. That’s probably because she seems to have had an exciting childhood, a decent enough career and a happy second marriage. And maybe it’s also because we have had a surfeit of sour sagas of what it is like growing up in the shadow of neglectful celebrity parents. Basking in the glow is never enough.