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Summer 2016

Little Mr. Welles

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Javier Marías

A reader from some Central European country once wrote to me and paid me a most unusual and rather troubling compliment. He was several years younger than me and yet he divided artists in general—writers, movie-makers, painters, musicians—into those born before 1914 and those born afterwards. For him, those who arrived in the world before that date were noticeably different and, of course, superior to those who came after. “However,” he added, “there are a few happily anachronistic beings who, even though they were born long after that key date, seem to have been born before. You are one of them.” In that context, I could only thank him, blushing as I did so; but, taken out of context, I found his words rather worrying, especially given that my own father was born in 1914.

Orson Welles was born in 1915, which, in my view, was both lucky and unlucky. Unlucky because it was too late and too modern a year for someone like him—and I’m not referring now to the curious boundary drawn up by my reader, because I think 1914 and 1913 would have been equally wrong and inappropriate in more than one sense. Lucky because it meant he could make films and not work solely in the theater, and could thus bequeath to us his immense talent both as director and actor, but above all because he could be the rather alarming child prodigy he was rather than the child monster he would doubtless have become had he arrived in the world ten or fifteen, let alone twenty-five or thirty years later, in an age when it is now considered an aberration for a child to speak and behave like an adult and equally frowned upon for a real adult to behave and speak like one. Welles should really have been born in the eighteenth century, when children were still treated as adults-in-the-making, and their various childhood stages seen as transitory phases to be got through as quickly as possible and merely as part of a child’s training for adulthood—an unavoidably long period of annoying restrictions that one simply had to put up with. Nowadays, on the other hand, people tend to cultivate childishness, irresponsibility, and feebleness for as long as possible, so much so that a modern-day Orson Welles would have been a detestable anomaly, and would soon have become the object of ridicule on one of those late-night programs on junk TV, or else have had his life cut short by some psychopathic child-murderer who would have taken a special pleasure in dismembering such an overly talented and unbearably knowledgeable child.

For the truth is that, in more than one respect, little Orson was always Mr. Welles. Not that in his childhood he wasn’t already seen as a truly remarkable prodigy, but in the 1910s and 1920s, someone like him—if brought up in a somewhat eccentric, “artistic” family—could survive childhood and adolescence without being re-educated, psychologized, locked up, folkloricized, interned, kidnapped by the State, used as a guinea pig, or quite simply destroyed by neurotics.

His burly physique was the least of it, although it did help to cover up the anomalous gap between his precocious intelligence and his extreme youth, when it was still extreme. He weighed nearly ten pounds at birth, and his early career onstage came to a premature end precisely because of his robust build: after a promising debut as the illegitimate son of Madame Butterfly in a performance by the Chicago Opera, he was lent out on several subsequent occasions to strapping sopranos playing roles in which, at some point, they were called upon to hold a child in their arms, but at the tender age of three Welles was rejected by various sopranos as being too heavy for them to pick him up and sing at the same time.

He owed these musical and operatic contacts to his mother, Beatrice Ives Welles, who was a concert pianist for some years and was pretty much considered to be the obligatory hostess for any celebrity who arrived in Chicago bearing a musical score, and these included such celebrities as Stravinsky and Ravel. Welles also owed much of his extreme precociousness to her, for she deemed it a waste of time—both for him and for her—to read her son fairy stories, and instead read him the poetry of Swinburne, Rossetti, Tennyson, Keats, Tagore, and Whitman before moving on, when Orson was not yet two, to Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. However, she appears to have underestimated her son, for when he found out that these versions were designed for children and were not the originals, he demanded “the real thing.”

Before proceeding with more of what must seem like tall tales, I should just say that according to many witnesses—among them his tutor, Dr. Maurice Bernstein—Orson was “talking remarkably sound sense at the age of two.” Dr. Bernstein’s secretary maintains that, at the age of three, he could already talk like a professor and discourse “on most world subjects.” When Orson was only five, Bernstein took him all the way to New York to hear a concert by Stravinsky; afterwards, a group of the cognoscenti went on to the Waldorf Hotel, where, in the foyer, the boy spoke intelligently and at some length about the evening’s music. Among the aficionados that evening was Agnes Moorhead, whose career as an actress was just getting started, and who did not make any movies until almost twenty years later, when she appeared to great acclaim in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, the first two movies made by that discursive child. Best not ask if young Orson had already, in his imagination, signed her up for those two roles.

When he was eight, an operatic diva entertained Beatrice Welles by singing various arias during a party at their house. Afterwards, seeing a child in the audience, she went over to him, trustingly and maternally, and asked, “Hello, little man, how did you like my singing?” She received an answer worthy of the pitiless Addison DeWitt or Waldo Lydecker, played respectively by George Sanders in All About Eve and by Clifton Webb in Laura: “It was terrible. Technically you still have a lot to learn.”

Obviously, such a child would not be much liked, and yet, remarkably enough, he was not disliked either. Most people who met him were, despite everything, rather favorably impressed. True, some were afraid of him, and everyone considered him a remarkable creature who would clearly go on to do great things in whatever field he chose, in his case the arts. (We should not, however, conceal the fact that the more superstitious inhabitants of his birthplace, Kenosha, Wisconsin, believed him to be a witch in disguise, almost from the moment he was born.) Unlikely though it may seem, while young Orson was repellent, he was not only repellent, perhaps because his pedantry always had about it a touch of humor or rebelliousness or mischief or larkishness or transgression, call it what you will. I mean, for example, that the most Wellesian thing about his response to the diva was not the know-it-all tone, but the impertinence, the lack of respect, the inappropriateness, the sheer cheek, just as when, at the age of ten, he asked if he could give a lecture on art to the students at Washington School in Madison, where he was himself, very briefly, a student. (The director of the school agreed to his request because Welles had already been touted in the local press as an intellectual phenomenon.) One must bear in mind not so much the worryingly pretentious nature of the request, as the fact that he took the opportunity, after a brief and irreproachable trot through the history of art, to attack the teaching methods used by the very school that had allowed him to give the lecture. Numerous witnesses recall that as Welles spoke he became increasingly vitriolic and was clearly enjoying himself. And when the art teacher interrupted him, saying that he was in no position to make such criticisms, Orson Welles cried, “Criticism is the essence of creation! If the public school system needs criticizing, then I will criticize it!” This statement made headlines in the local newspaper and was quoted in Chicago and New York.

He doubtless owed part of his transgressive nature to his father, Richard Welles, with whom he lived for a few years, after the death of Orson’s mother (when Orson was only eight), until Dick Welles himself died, leaving his son almost alone in the world at the age of thirteen. Dick Welles was a very wealthy man whose profession—although it was more like a hobby—was that of inventor. Of his many creations, the most successful, it appears, was a new kind of bicycle lamp, and his least successful was a mechanical dishwasher that smashed every dish to pieces. His real vocations, to which he gave himself heart and soul as soon as he retired (extremely early), were “speculation, travel, wine, women and song.” He had been separated from his wife for some time, and after she died young Orson accompanied his father in the latter’s pursuit of the aforementioned vocations, and for two years they traveled the world together, visiting Paris, London, Singapore, Jamaica, China… In the evenings, Orson would listen to tales of past paternal adventures, while his father poured himself gin after gin. It seems that he did not accompany his father in his drinking, although he could have done, given that he had, with his father’s approval, been drinking wine since he was five and smoked his first cigar when he was eleven. Welles always spoke fondly of his father and stated that his greatest debt to him was the enormous advantage of not being given a conventional or formal education until he was ten, always adding that his father was “much beloved by all his friends.” It is said that, during his lifetime, Dick Welles received three honors very much to his taste: having a restaurant, a racehorse, and a cigar named after him. What more could a man ask?

Accustomed to being accepted easily and naturally by grown-ups as one of them, little Mr. Welles consequently had almost no friends of his own age and found other children rather elementary; and so, paternal and maternal manias apart, the idea of going to a normal school proved neither stimulating nor attractive. Dr. Bernstein wrote that, at three, Orson faked an attack of appendicitis so as to avoid going to a kindergarten, where, in his own disdainful words, he would be stuck with “a lot of kids whose only ambitions are to be Boy Scouts.”

When he was ten, he went to the Todd School, a progressive school for very talented boys. He has passed into the school’s history as the most gifted of all its students. He was happy there and got on very well with some of his teachers, which did not stop him arguing with them about their theories and playing practical jokes on them. He had already acquired a make-up box by then, and on one occasion he painted his face deathly white, then posed at the back of the classroom with a handkerchief strung round his neck, pretending he had hanged himself. So convincing was his performance that the history teacher nearly had a heart attack. When asked why he had played such a trick, Welles answered proudly, “It seemed like a good idea. I was bored with history anyway.”

Nevertheless, he got on magnificently with the people at Todd, especially in comparison with the treatment he had dished out to the psychologists at Washington School in Madison, who had the privilege of observing him for a while. According to one early biographer, Peter Noble, young Orson set about making fun of them, judging their games and analyses to be pompous and stupid. When they said to him, “Tell us what comes into your mind when you hear the word ‘Teddybear’,” he said: “Oscar Wilde’s epigram: A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” The psychologists, led by a certain Dr. Mueller, were not to be put off: “What comes into your mind when we say ‘mother’?” And without batting an eyelid, Welles responded: “Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,” or something of the sort. After three months of tests, the school decided that Mr. Welles, who was ten at the time, was a highly interesting and unusual human being because his personality resulted from “a profound dissociation of ideas.”

Orson Welles appears to have remained exactly the same, with barely any change, from childhood into old age, when he still had certain childish characteristics. It seems that he had always felt impatient to leave childhood, as if, right from the start, he had felt imprisoned in a body incompatible with his mind, and it’s easy to imagine how long the first thirteen years of life must have seemed, until finally, at fourteen, after crossing the ocean yet again, he could go onstage and act in a Shakespeare play at the famous Gate Theatre in Dublin. On the other hand, it would be going too far to conclude that he had no childhood at all, not, at least, as we normally think of childhood. For one thing, and despite his precocious knowledge, he was, it appears, much loved, because he was pleasant and mendacious and almost always charming. According to Dr. Bernstein, young Mr. Welles could win over grown-ups because, despite his peculiarity, he was “always gentle and patient with the absurdities of adults.” On the other hand, as another later biographer, David Thomson, has pointed out, “Welles had been in the business of being betrayed all his life” and used it “as a way of always being right, superior and alone.” And that, surely, is what his best films are about, because no one could know so much about loyalty and betrayal without having experienced them not only in childhood, but also as a child would experience them. Or, which comes to the same thing, not only in infancy, but in an infantile way, and in youth and maturity and old age. It is perhaps in that last age when the ever-infantile feeling of being betrayed becomes more marked and more deep-seated, and more dignifying too perhaps, as illustrated by Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight and Quinlan in Touch of Evil. But that is another story, for which there is no room here, a story about when little Mr. Welles was no longer little, but became much much bigger.

(Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa)

Javier Marías, Spain's foremost contemporary novelist, has had his work translated into more than forty languages; his most recent novel, Thus Bad Begins, received great acclaim in England and will appear in the United States in November 2016. Margaret Jull Costa has been his translator since 1992.

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