My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles [NOOK Book]

Overview


Based on long-lost recordings, a set of riveting and revealing conversations with America’s great cultural provocateur

There have long been rumors of a lost cache of tapes containing private conversations between Orson Welles and his friend the director Henry Jaglom, recorded over regular lunches in the years before Welles died. The tapes, gathering dust in a garage, did indeed exist, and this book reveals for the first time what they contain....

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My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles

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Overview


Based on long-lost recordings, a set of riveting and revealing conversations with America’s great cultural provocateur

There have long been rumors of a lost cache of tapes containing private conversations between Orson Welles and his friend the director Henry Jaglom, recorded over regular lunches in the years before Welles died. The tapes, gathering dust in a garage, did indeed exist, and this book reveals for the first time what they contain.

Here is Welles as he has never been seen before: talking intimately, disclosing personal secrets, reflecting on the highs and lows of his astonishing career, the people he knew—FDR, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Laurence Olivier, David Selznick, Rita Hayworth, and more—and the many disappointments of his last years. This is the great director unplugged, free to be irreverent and worse—sexist, homophobic, racist, or none of the above— because he was nothing if not a fabulator and provocateur. Ranging from politics to literature to the shortcomings of his friends and the many films he was still eager to launch, Welles is at once cynical and romantic, sentimental and raunchy, but never boring and always wickedly funny.

Edited by Peter Biskind, America’s foremost film historian, My Lunches with Orson reveals one of the giants of the twentieth century, a man struggling with reversals, bitter and angry, desperate for one last triumph, but crackling with wit and a restless intelligence. This is as close as we will get to the real Welles—if such a creature ever existed.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Welles was obviously uninhibited by the invisible tape recorder. The book is a trove of classic-era Hollywood gossip, but if it were only that, it would be, at best, candy. Instead, it’s a treasure, both as a portrait of the artist and as a copious record of his ideas—it is, in fact, a key source for understanding Welles, the director and the man."

The New Yorker

"If you love old movies, My Lunches with Orson is like being handed a big tin of macadamia nuts — you just keep devouring it."

NPR

"Riveting...This is Welles riffing uninhibitedly on his life and times, lurching from mischief to melancholy...I defy anyone not to feel moved by the narrative arc of greatness laid low by its own luminosity."

Financial Times

"Enthralling...loaded with hilarious digressions and old showbiz tales related by Welles with hugely articulate relish."

The Hollywood Reporter

"My Lunches with Orson offers the experience of sitting in on a particular historical-c ultural moment. Read with your Netflix on hand, as Welles’s wealth of knowledge inspires re-viewings of both his own films and those of his favorite actors like Buster Keaton and Carole Lombard."

The Christian Science Monitor

"A wonderfully fluid peek into Welles’s mind. Rich with acerbic observations about cinema, theater, filmmakers, actors, politics and the essence of storytelling, My Lunches With Orson might be the elephantine storyteller’s last great work."

Indiewire

"What makes My Lunches With Orson appealing is the piquancy of the much younger, skinnier [Jaglom] taking on the Sisyphean job of reviving the Falstaffian outcast."

The New York Times Book Review

"If it wasn’t bad enough that I—and every other director—have to compete historically with Orson as a filmmaker, now we have to compete with him as a pure storyteller and a true raconteur, a man whose breadth of knowledge and experience may never be equaled again in this industry. The good news is that his declamations on every subject are alternatively penetrating, illuminating, shocking, rude, funny, true, or all of the above. I read this in one sitting; I can’t imagine anyone doing otherwise."

Steven Soderbergh, director of Side Effects

"It’s time to add another line of adjectives to our descriptions of Orson Welles. In this remarkable collection of conversations, we come upon Welles the conversationalist provocateur who can’t open his mouth without saying something outrageously funny, fiercely opinionated, and always off-center about the men and women he claims to have known, played with, worked for, slept with, been courted and betrayed by, and admired or detested (often simultaneously) during his half century in show business. I laughed so hard I had an asthma attack."

David Nasaw, author of The Patriarch

"We don’t often get close to a legend, but here we have lunch with one week by week, in the last years of his life. Welles’s conversations with Henry Jaglom glitter with memory, intelligence, and malice, and above all offer a magnificent act of self-impersonation: Orson Welles playing Orson Welles."

Michael Wood, author of Film: A Very Short Introduction

"When Henry Jaglom sent me the galleys, I was skeptical about their entertainment value. But as soon as I picked them up, I was hooked. Welles was an ornery, sometimes unpleasant genius, but his opinions on just about everything and everyone were unvarnished. You can almost hear the silverware clinking and the waiters delivering lunch as the likes of Richard Burton drop by to pay their respects… For those not fortunate enough to have Hollywood running through their family tree, this book may be the next best thing."

Ralph Gardner Jr., The Wall Street Journal

Library Journal
Toward the end of his life, Orson Welles (1915–85) enjoyed an unlikely friendship with independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom. Editor Biskind (Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film) collects long-lost tapes of Welles and Jaglom's conversations over lunch at Hollywood's Ma Maison restaurant. The wide-ranging talks cover Welles's reflections on food, politics, religion, and his many unrealized projects. The book clearly reflects the man's wit, disdain for the Hollywood studio system, and what one admirer called his "crushing ego." Among the many Hollywood legends Welles disparages here are Charlie Chaplin, Elia Kazan, Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne, Laurence Olivier, Alfred Hitchcock, Humphrey Bogart, actor-producer John Houseman, and MGM producer Irving Thalberg and his wife, actress Norma Shearer. Some of the people Welles admires include his frequent costar Joseph Cotten, Carole Lombard, Erich von Stroheim, Buster Keaton, and Welles's ex-wife Rita Hayworth. VERDICT Some readers will be put off by Welles's sharp-tongued remarks on gays, Jews, and certain ethnic groups, particularly Irish Americans, and his negative view of many Hollywood icons. However, on balance, this is an entertaining, revealing look at a Hollywood legend. Recommended.—Stephen Rees, formerly with Levittown Lib., PA
Kirkus Reviews
Tape recordings made in the three years before Orson Welles' death in 1985 capture the legendary film director's outsized personality. As editor Biskind (Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, 2010, etc.) explains in his introduction, Henry Jaglom talked Welles into acting in his first feature, A Safe Place, in 1971, and they became friends. Jaglom's generation worshipped the creator of Citizen Kane as a groundbreaking auteur who pioneered their sort of personal filmmaking; Welles liked to be worshipped. By the time Jaglom began recording their conversations over lunches at Ma Maison, Welles hadn't made a movie in 10 years, and F Is for Fake (1974) had flopped. Aided by Jaglom, he was trying to get financing for a film version of King Lear or his political script, The Big Brass Ring. But nothing came through, and Welles' income from TV commercials had also dried up; his reputation was at a low point. In conversation, Welles shows himself eager to disprove his critics, as well as to savagely gossip about his bitterly estranged theatrical partner, John Houseman, and to comment unflatteringly on the talents of friends/rivals, from Laurence Oliver and John Huston to Marlon Brando and Peter Bogdanovich. Jaglom, an admirer but not a sycophant, occasionally protests such judgments, but he's unfailingly supportive of a friend they both know is in the twilight of his career. Welles could be mean-spirited and insufferable, but he was also blazingly intelligent. His nailing of Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin as sharing "that particular combination of arrogance and timidity [that] sets my teeth on edge" is characteristic of his sharp wit about every aspect of moviemaking, and he's just as smart about history, music and fine art. You can understand why his friends were so devoted. Like most oral histories, a tad self-indulgent but filled with insights and good dish that movie buffs will relish.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805097269
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/16/2013
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 115,845
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Peter Biskind

Peter Biskind is the acclaimed author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Down and Dirty Pictures, and Star, among other books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, and Rolling Stone. He is the former executive editor of Premiere and the former editor in chief of American Film, and is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. He lives in upstate New York.
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Read an Excerpt


Part One

1983

At lunch at Ma Maison, I encountered Orson standing with difficulty to embrace me after several months with great warmth (or what seems like great warmth, I have never been quite sure), and I am always moved, as I was today. And as always, amazingly for me, I was somewhat at a loss for what to say, and all I came up with was some general pleasantry/banality on the order of, “How is everything?” Orson answered me with, “Oh, I don’t know, do you?” And I, acknowledging that my question had been excessive in scope, reduced it to, “How is everything today?” To which he answered, happy that he had forced greater specificity: “Fine . . . as of this hour.”

Then tonight, two hours ago as I twirled the television dial, I was astonished to find myself watching the opening newsreel segment of Citizen Kane. I have just finished watching him grow old with makeup and acting skill on a body in its twenties, in a film designed by his mind in its twenties, and the film—and he in it—are so affecting and so near-perfect that the idea of watching anything else after seemed incomprehensible. I wonder, Was there nothing for him to do with the rest of his life after making it, is that his secret and does he know it? Citizen Kane his “rosebud”?

—HENRY JAGLOM, Journal Entry, April 2, 1978


1. “Everybody should be bigoted.”

In which Orson turns restaurant reviewer, confesses that he never understood why Katharine Hepburn disliked him, but knew why he disliked Spencer Tracy. He detested the Irish, despite his friendship with John Ford, and liked right-wingers better than left-wingers.


(Jaglom enters, Welles struggles out of his chair to greet him. They embrace, kissing each other on the cheek in the European way.)

Henry Jaglom: (To Kiki) How are you, Kiki?

Orson Welles: Look out—she’ll bite you . . . All right, what are we gonna eat?

HJ: I’m going to try the chicken salad.

OW: No, you aren’t! You don’t like it with all those capers.

HJ: I’m going to ask them to scrape the capers away.

OW: Then let me tell you what they have on their hands in the kitchen.

HJ: It must be nuts in the kitchen. I’ve never seen it this packed.

OW: They’re so busy, this would be a great day to send a dish back to the chef.

HJ: You know, Ma Maison is not my idea of the legendary restaurants of Hollywood. The romance for me was Romanoff’s. And then I got here and there was no Romanoff’s.

OW: Yeah! Romanoff’s only stayed open until forty-three or forty-four. It had a short life. Romanoff’s and Ciro’s were the two restaurants that we did all the romancing in, and they both closed. Everybody was photographed with the wrong person coming out, you know? Romanoff’s is a parking lot now, and when it was going broke, Sinatra came with sixteen violins and sang every night for three weeks for free, to try and help the business. We all went every night. It was sensational. Don the Beachcombers was another great place to take the wrong girl because it was dark. Nobody could see anybody.

HJ: What about Chasen’s?

OW: Chasen’s was a barbecue place, originally. I was one of the original backers of Chasen’s—and Romanoff’s.

HJ: You owned Romanoff’s?

OW: Yes, and he never gave me anything. Nor did Chasen. I was a founder of both those restaurants. Me and a lot of suckers. We didn’t expect anything from Romanoff because he was a crook. And Dave Chasen somehow forgot the original barbecue backers when his became a big restaurant.

Ma Maison was started in 1973, and continues. I wouldn’t go for a long time because of the unlisted phone number. It irritated me so. It’s a snobbish business not having a phone number. Somebody gave the number out on television, just to be bitchy. I don’t envy these guys, though. It’s a tough, tough business to run a restaurant.

Waiter: Going to have a little lunch today? We have scallops, if you want, Mr. Welles. Plain, or we have them prepared with a petite legume.

OW: No, it would have to be plain. Let’s see what other choices I have.

W: Just in case, no more crab salad.

OW: No more crab salad. Wish you hadn’t mentioned it. I wouldn’t have known what I wasn’t gonna get!

W: Would you wish the salad with grapefruit and orange?

OW: That’s a terrible idea. A weird mixture. It’s awful—typically German. We’re having the chicken salad without . . . without capers.

HJ: They ruined the chicken salad when they started using that mustard. It’s a whole different chicken salad.

OW: They have a new chef.

W: And roast pork?

OW: Oh, my God. On a hot day, roast pork? I can’t eat pork. My diet. But I’ll order it, just to smell pork. Bassanio says to Shylock: “If it please you to dine with us.” And Shylock says: “Yes, to smell pork; to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into. I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.”

HJ: Isn’t there something about the devil taking the shape of a pig in the Bible? Or did Shakespeare invent that?

OW: No, Jesus did put a whole group of devils into the Gadarene swine. Shakespeare was just trying to give Shylock a reason for not eating with them.

HJ: I would like the grilled chicken.

W: Okay.

OW: And a cup of capers.

W: Capers?

HJ: No, no—that’s his joke.

OW: So I’ll have a soft-shell crab. Alas, he breads it. I wish he didn’t, but he does. I’ll eat it anyway. Est-que vous avez l’aspirine? Have you any aspirin?

W: Of course. Here you are, Monsieur Welles.

HJ: Do you have some pain or something?

OW: I have all kinds of rheumatic pains today. The knees. I always say it’s my back, because I get more sympathy. But I’ve got a bad right knee, which is what makes me limp and walk badly. The weather must be changing. I never believed that, until I became arthritic. I just started to ache the last half hour. I think it’s gonna rain or something. Aspirin is great stuff. I have no stomach problems, and no allergy to it.

(Waiter exits.)

HJ: Isn’t that terrible, the Tennessee Williams thing? Did you hear how he died?

OW: Only that he died last night. How did he die?

HJ: There was a special kind of pipe that he used to inhale something. And it stopped him from being able to swallow or breathe, or . . .

OW: Some dope? Or maybe a roast beef sandwich.

HJ: “Natural causes.” Then they went to “unknown causes.” So mysterious.

OW: I’d like to be somebody who died alone in a hotel room—just keel over, the way people used to.

Ken Tynan had the funniest story he never printed. He and Tennessee went to Cuba together as guests of [Fidel] Castro. And they were in the massimo leader’s office, and there are several other people there, people close to El Jefe, including Che Guevara. Tynan spoke a little fractured Spanish, and Castro spoke quite good English, and they were deep in conversation. But Tennessee had gotten a little bored. He was sitting off, kind of by himself. And he motioned over to Guevara, and said (in a Southern accent), “Would you mind running out and getting me a couple of tamales?”

HJ: Do you think Tynan made it up?

OW: Tynan wasn’t a fantasist. Tennessee certainly said it to somebody. But I’ve suspected that he improved it, maybe, by making it Guevara.

Did I ever tell you about the play of his I lost, like a fool, to [Elia] Kazan? Eddie Dowling, who used to be a producer on Broadway, sent me a play by a writer called Tennessee Williams. I didn’t even read it. I said, “I can’t do this; I just can’t consider a play now.” It was called The Glass Menagerie.

HJ: The Glass Menagerie—my God.

OW: If I had done The Glass Menagerie, I would have done all those others. A big dumb mistake.

HJ: A pity . . . By the way, I was just reading Garson Kanin’s book on Tracy and Hepburn.

OW: I blurbed that book. I thought if I wrote something, I’d finally make it with Katie! But instead, I found out it was the worst thing I could have done!

HJ: I must say, reading it, I didn’t understand why she was so upset about it.

OW: I think it was that he said she and Tracy lived together that—

HJ: A lot of people knew that.

OW: Particularly since she laid around the town like nobody’s business.

HJ: Hepburn?

OW: Hoo boy! I sat in makeup during Kane, and she was next to me, being made up for A Bill of Divorcement. And she was describing how she was fucked by Howard Hughes, using all the four-letter words. Most people didn’t talk like that then. Except Carole Lombard. It came naturally to her. She couldn’t talk any other way. With Katie, though, who spoke in this high-class girl’s finishing-school accent, you thought that she had made a decision to talk that way. Grace Kelly also slept around, in the dressing room when nobody was looking, but she never said anything. Katie was different. She was a free woman when she was young. Very much what the girls are now.

HJ: I wonder what she’s got against you. Did you ever do anything to Tracy, or say anything about him?

OW: I was never a fan of his. When I was a young man, I got up and made a fuss at Captain Outrageous—uh, Courageous.

HJ: Well, you see, that probably got back to Hepburn at some point, and that’s why she doesn’t like you.

OW: Come on. Nobody knew who I was when I did that. I was nineteen years old. I stood up in the Paramount Theater and said, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” when he was doing the Portuguese accent. With the curled hair! The usher told me to get out because I was making such fun of his performance.

HJ: Did you bark?

OW: No, I was imitating his accent as he went along.

HJ: The single lapse in his career.

OW: That was not the only one. He had several. I’m having a hard time trying to think of a great Tracy performance. Well, he was gigantic in Judgment at Nuremberg, although it is not a great picture, but I couldn’t stand him in those romantic things with Hepburn.

HJ: You didn’t find him charming as hell?

OW: No, no charm. To me, he was just a hateful, hateful man. Tracy hated me, but he hated everybody. Once I picked him up in London, in a bar, to take him out to Nutley Abbey, which was Larry [Olivier] and Vivien [Leigh]’s place in the country. Everybody came up to me and asked for autographs and didn’t notice him at all. I was the Third Man, for God’s sake, and he had white hair. What did he expect? And then he sat there at the table saying, “Everybody looks at you, and nobody looks at me.” All day long, he was just raging. Because he was the big movie star, you know. When he was on the set it was, “Why is that actor distracting everyone while I’m talking?”

But I don’t think that’s it, really. I think Katie just doesn’t like me. She doesn’t like the way I look. Don’t you know there’s such a thing as physical dislike? Europeans know that about other Europeans. If I don’t like somebody’s looks, I don’t like them. See, I believe that it is not true that different races and nations are alike. I’m profoundly convinced that that’s a total lie. I think people are different. Sardinians, for example, have stubby little fingers. Bosnians have short necks.

HJ: Orson, that’s ridiculous.

OW: Measure them. Measure them! I never could stand looking at Bette Davis, so I don’t want to see her act, you see. I hate Woody Allen physically, I dislike that kind of man.

HJ: I’ve never understood why. Have you met him?

OW: Oh, yes. I can hardly bear to talk to him. He has the Chaplin disease. That particular combination of arrogance and timidity sets my teeth on edge.

HJ: He’s not arrogant; he’s shy.

OW: He is arrogant. Like all people with timid personalities, his arrogance is unlimited. Anybody who speaks quietly and shrivels up in company is unbelievably arrogant. He acts shy, but he’s not. He’s scared. He hates himself, and he loves himself, a very tense situation. It’s people like me who have to carry on and pretend to be modest.

HJ: Does he take himself very seriously?

OW: Very seriously. I think his movies show it. To me it’s the most embarrassing thing in the world—a man who presents himself at his worst to get laughs, in order to free himself from his hang-ups. Everything he does on the screen is therapeutic.

HJ: That’s why you don’t like [Bob] Fosse either—All That Jazz.

OW: Yes, that’s right. I don’t like that kind of therapeutic movie. I’m pretty catholic in my taste, but there are some things I can’t stand.

HJ: I love Woody’s movies. That we disagree on. We disagree on actors too. I can never get over what you said about Brando.

OW: It’s that neck. Which is like a huge sausage, a shoe made of flesh.

HJ: People say Brando isn’t very bright.

OW: Well, most great actors aren’t. Larry [Olivier] is very—I mean, seriously—stupid. I believe that intelligence is a handicap in an actor. Because it means that you’re not naturally emotive, but rather cerebral. The cerebral fellow can be a great actor, but it’s harder. Of performing artists, actors and musicians are about equally bright. I’m very fond of musicians. Not so much of singers. All singers think about is their throats, you know? You go through twenty years of that, what have you got to say? They’re prisoners of their vocal cords. So singers are the bottom; actors are at the top. There are exceptions. Leo Slezak, the father of Walter Slezak the actor, made the best theater joke of all time, you know? He was the greatest Wagnerian tenor of his era. And the king—the uncrowned king—of Vienna. He was singing Lohengrin—if you’re a Wagnerian, you know that he enters standing on a swan that floats on the river, onto the stage. He gets off, sings, and at the end of his last aria, is supposed to get back on the swan boat and float off. But one night the swan just went off by itself before he could get on it. Without missing a beat, he turned to the audience and ad libbed, “What time does the next swan leave?”

HJ: How can those people have such charm without any intelligence? I’ve never understood that.

OW: Well, it’s like talent without intelligence. It happens.

HJ: If Tracy was hateful, none of that comes across in the work.

OW: To me it does. I hate him so. Because he’s one of those bitchy Irishmen.

HJ: One of those what?

OW: One of those bitchy Irishmen.

HJ: I can’t believe you said that.

OW: I’m a racist, you know. Here’s the Hungarian recipe for making an omelet. First, steal two eggs. [Alexander] Korda told me that.

HJ: But you liked Korda.

OW: I love Hungarians to the point of sex! I almost get a hard-on when I hear a Hungarian accent, I’m so crazy about them.

HJ: I don’t understand why you’re saying that about the Irish.

OW: I know them; you don’t. They hate themselves. I lived for years in Ireland. The majority of intelligent Irishmen dislike Irishmen, and they’re right.

HJ: All these groups dislike themselves. Jews dislike themselves.

OW: Nothing like Irishmen.

HJ: That doesn’t make them right, Orson, and you know that. And I don’t accept this prejudice from you. I know that you don’t really have it.

OW: I do have it. I do have it. Particularly against Irish-Americans. I much prefer Irishmen from Ireland. If I have to have an Irishman, I’ll take one of those. And Irishmen in England are quite good. All the great Irish writers mostly left and went to England, except for [George William] Russell and [William Butler] Yeats. Yeats makes me shiver. I was in Dublin at the time when he was still—

HJ: I didn’t realize he was still around in the thirties.

OW: Yeah. He was at every party, and you could see him walking in the park. And Lady Gregory. All those people were still around—the famous Gaelic nationalists. I got to know them all. And you know, some of my best friends are Irishmen.

HJ: Oh, God!

OW: But when I look at Tracy, I see that everything that’s hateful about him is Irish. Everything that’s mean. Every Irishman will tell you that. Seven hundred years of bitter oppression changed their character, gave them that passive meanness and cunning. All I can say is what Micheál Mac Liammóir said when we were making Othello, and I asked him, “Describe the Irish in one word.” He said, “Malice.” Look, I love Ireland, I love Irish literature, I love everything they do, you know. But the Irish-Americans have invented an imitation Ireland which is unspeakable. The wearin’ o’ the green. Oh, my God, to vomit!

HJ: That’s boring and silly, and—

OW: No, it’s to vomit. Not boring and silly. Don’t argue with me. You’re such a liberal! Of course there’s no proof. It’s the way I feel! You don’t want me to feel that, but I do! I think everybody should be bigoted. I don’t think you’re human if you don’t acknowledge some prejudice.

HJ: Yes. But acknowledging some prejudice and really having full-out hate, like you have against the Irish—

OW: Well, not so much that I’m rude to them or would bar them from my house. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a perception of their character. Or of the majority of them.

HJ: Okay. But if that’s true, then all it means is that there’s cultural conditioning.

OW: Well, of course there is!

HJ: So when they come to America, that changes them.

OW: Yes, they become a new and terrible race. Which is called “Irish-Americans.” They’re fine in Australia; they’re fine in England; they do well in Latin America. It’s in New York and Boston that they became so frightful. You know, the old Kennedy was a real Irish-American. That’s what I mean.

HJ: But his kids weren’t?

OW: No. They escaped it. You can see the Irish ancestry, but their character wasn’t Irish. Their life wasn’t based on malice. You know, if you’re here in America long enough, you lose the faults and the virtues of your original culture. The Italians will lose the sense of family when they finally get to the next generation. They won’t hang together, the way they still do now.

HJ: It’s like in Israel, where there’s no art now. All these Jews, they thought they were gonna have a renaissance, and suddenly, they’re producing a great air force, but no artists. All those incredible virtues of the centuries—

OW: They left all that in Europe. Who needs it? They get to Israel, and they sort of go into retirement.

HJ: Their theater is boring; their film is boring. Painting and sculpture—

OW: Boring. You know, the only time they make good music is when Zubin Mehta, a Hindu, comes to conduct.

HJ: It’s amazing. When the Jews were in Poland, every pianist in the world—

OW: Every fiddler who ever lived was Jewish. It was a total Russian-Jewish, Polish-Jewish monopoly. Now they’re all Japanese and Orientals. [Arthur] Rubinstein is gone.

HJ: Last year.

OW: I knew Rubinstein for forty years, very well. I told you his greatest line. I was with him at a concert in Albert Hall, and I had no seat, so I listened to the concert sitting in the wings. He finished. Wild applause. And as he walked into the wings to mop his face off, he said to me, “You know, they applauded just as loudly last Thursday, when I played well.”

HJ: Dying at ninety-five is not bad. He had a full life.

OW: Did he ever.

HJ: It’s true, all that, then? That he fucked everybody?

OW: He was the greatest cocksman of the nineteenth century. Of the twentieth century. The greatest charmer, linguist, socialite, raconteur. Never practiced. He always used to say, “You know, I’m not nearly as good a pianist technically, as many of my rivals, because I am too lazy to practice. I just don’t like to. [Vladimir] Horowitz can do more than I can. He sits there and works. I like to enjoy life. I play clinkers all the time.” But, he says, “I play it better with the clinkers.”

HJ: And Horowitz hates his life, and for fifteen years hasn’t been able to play or even move.

OW: Rubinstein walked through life as though it was one big party.

HJ: And then ended it with this young girl. Didn’t he leave his wife after forty-five years when he was ninety to run off with a thirty-one-year-old woman?

OW: Like Casals. Who suddenly, at the age of eighty-seven or something, came up with a Lolita.

HJ: Getting back to the Irish, some are liberals, like Robert Ryan. He was a brave man, politically and socially. Tell me Robert Ryan was not a decent man.

OW: He’s a wonderful actor. I don’t think of him as Irish; he just has an Irish name. He must be fourth-generation.

HJ: Now, Ford you liked. He was an Irishman.

OW: We were very good friends, and he always wanted to do a picture with me. He was a pretty mean son-of-a-bitch Irishman. But I loved him anyway.

HJ: When did you first meet him?

OW: When I was shooting Kane, he came to the set on the first day of shooting.

HJ: Just to wish you well?

OW: No, for a reason. He pointed to the assistant director, a fellow called Ed Donahue, who was in the pay of my enemies at RKO, and said, “I see you got snake-in-the-grass Donahue on the picture.” And left. He came to warn me that my assistant was a fink.

HJ: I’ve always heard that Ford was a drunk.

OW: Never when he was working. Not a drop. Just the last day of a picture. And he’d be drunk for weeks. Serious, serious drunk. But for him, drinking was fun. In other words, he wasn’t an alcoholic. Went out with all the boys. Irishmen, get drunk and fight. Everybody gets beat up in the pub, you know? I’ve lived through all that. Went to jail in Ireland for rowdyism. It was a culture where nobody got married until they were thirty-five, because they were always dreaming of emigrating, and they didn’t want to be stuck with the kids, financially. So all these poor virgin ladies sat around waiting to get married, and the guys are all swinging at each other, reverting to the bestiality of the male.

HJ: There was not much fucking around, I would imagine, because it was a Catholic culture?

OW: Oh, my God, yes. By the girls. I could hardly draw a breath when I visited the Aran Islands. I was all of seventeen. And these great, marvelous girls in their white petticoats, they’d grab me. Off the petticoats would go. It was as close to male rape as you could imagine. And all with husbands out in their skin-covered canoes. All day, while I had nothing to do. Then the girls would go and confess it all to the priest, who finally said to me, “I had another confession this morning. When are you leaving?” He was protecting the virtue of his flock. When I told that story, there was tremendous excitement in America from the clergy, who said it could never have happened.

HJ: Wasn’t Ford very reactionary, politically? Like his pals John Wayne and Ward Bond?

OW: Yes, but all those guys loved me, for some reason. And I loved them. I have a beer bottle that was put together on Ford’s yacht, with different Mexican and American beer labels signed by that gang of people, all dedicated to me. Now this was at a time when I was a well-known Hollywood Red.

HJ: And their reactionary positions came from what?

OW: Irish, Irish, Irish. The Irish were taught, “Kill the kikes,” you know. I really loved John Wayne. He had some of the best manners of almost any actor I’ve ever met in Hollywood.

HJ: Did you ever speak to him about politics at all?

OW: Why would I? I’m not like you. I’m not gonna set John Wayne straight. I never had any trouble with extreme right-wingers. I’ve always found them tremendously likeable in every respect, except their politics. They’re usually nicer people than left-wingers.

HJ: Easy for you to say. You were in Europe in the fifties, during the blacklist, when all that shit happened.

OW: Yes, I was lucky. I wasn’t in America during the McCarthy era. I was on every list in the world. Every time they asked for help for whatever cause, I said, “Sign me up.” But in my New York Post column, all during the forties, I was in print attacking Stalinist Russia at a time when everybody thought God was smiling on Stalin. I wanted to explain to HUAC the difference between a Communist and a liberal, so I kept begging, “May I please go to Washington to testify?” But they didn’t dare ask me.

HJ: But you’re so forgiving about these kinds of very dangerous—

OW: Forgiving!? Supposing you go to the Amazon, and you live in a village of headhunters. Now, if you’re an anthropologist, you can become very fond of those headhunters, but you’re not gonna argue about head-hunting with them.

HJ: I don’t understand how somebody with liberal feelings would not discuss politics with Wayne or Bond or Adolphe Menjou at a time when they had the power to hurt people, and in fact did a lot of damage.

OW: Well, Menjou was so fighting mad that you couldn’t talk to him. But Noël Coward took care of him wonderfully. Menjou was heading a USO troupe. Noël Coward was heading the equivalent of the USO—whatever it was called in England—you know, entertaining the troops. And they met in Casablanca. And they were eating in the mess. Menjou was talking about how terrible it was in England, that those “nigger” soldiers were fucking all the English girls, and you didn’t know what kind of race it was gonna be: “Isn’t that true, Noël?” And Noël said, “Well, I think it’s perfectly marvelous.” Menjou said, “What?” Noël said, “At last there’ll be a race of Englishmen with good teeth.” No, with Menjou you couldn’t talk. He was a raving maniac.


Copyright © 2013 by Peter Biskind

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Table of Contents


Introduction: How Henry Met Orson by Peter Biskind     1

Part One 1983
 1.“Everybody should be bigoted.”     31
 2.“Thalberg was Satan!”     46
 3.“FDR used to say, ‘You and I are the two best actors in America.’ ”     58
 4.“I fucked around on everyone.”     67
 5.“Such a good Catholic that I wanted to kick her.”     75
 6.“Nobody even glanced at Marilyn.”     81
 7.“The Blue Angel is a big piece of shlock.”     87
 8.“Kane is a comedy.”     96
 9.“There’s no such thing as a friendly biographer.”     101
 10.“The Cannes people are my slaves.”     116
 11.“De Mille invented the fascist salute.”     124
 12.“Comics are frightening people.”     130
 13.“Avez-vous scurf?”     140
 14.“Art Buchwald drove it up Ronnie’s ass and broke it off.”     150

Part Two 1984–1985
 15.“It was my one moment of being a traffic-stopping superstar.”     159
 16.“God save me from my friends.”     168
 17.“I can make a case for all the points of view.”     175
 18.Charles “Laughton couldn’t bear the fact he was a homosexual.”     189
 19.“Gary Cooper turns me right into a girl!”     200
 20.“Jack, it’s Orson fucking Welles.”     208
 21.“Once in our lives, we had a national theater.”     220
 22.“I smell director.”     230
 23.“I’ve felt that cold deathly wind from the tomb.”     238
 24.“Jo Cotten kicked Hedda Hopper in the ass.”     252
 25.“You either admire my work or not.”     259
 26.“I’m in terrible financial trouble.”     264
 27.“Fool the old fellow with the scythe.”     281

Epilogue: Orson’s Last Laugh by Henry Jaglom     287
Appendix     291
New or Unfinished Projects     291
Partial Cast of Characters     293
Acknowledgments     301
Notes     303

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    This is a truly fascinating book. You don't need to be an Orson

    This is a truly fascinating book. You don't need to be an Orson Wells fan to be fascinated by this collection of conversations. Wells talks about his career, the people he has met, and even unrealized projects. It is well put together and a very interesting read.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 23, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    I found this to be a very interesting collection of stories abou

    I found this to be a very interesting collection of stories about the life of Orson Wells, told from his own point of view. The collection covers his career as well as people he encountered over the course of his career.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 4, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    I love Orson Wells movies and so this was a natural book for me

    I love Orson Wells movies and so this was a natural book for me to pick up. I simply loved it. It provides great insight into one of America's greatest film directors of all time voiced in his own words.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 26, 2013

    Such interesting insights, a very good read

    His stories of old hollywood are an absolute delight. The conversations they have regarding obtaining financing for projects can be a little dull. But it is interesting to see how he views himself and then contradicts those views almost immediately with his words.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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