Discovering the secret of Rosebud

Godfrey Hodgson acclaims an actor's empathetic biography of the greatest showman of his age Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu Simon Callow Jonathan Cape £20

"As for the chronological story of Orson, the thing which is definitely known," wrote his guardian, Dadda Bernstein, who was also his mother's lover, "is the fact that he arrived in Kenosha on the 6th of May 1915. On the 7th of May he spoke his first words: `I am a genius'. On May 8th, 9th and 10th little was heard about him in the press, but on May 15th he seduced his first woman.

"After that things happened fast since the Rajah of Geck came through Kenosha in the guise of a Full Brush man and gave Orson a brush which he used as a beard and set out on his theatrical career".

Dadda only exaggerated a little. In 1926, when Welles was 11, the local paper headlined, "CARTOONIST, ACTOR, POET -- AND ONLY 10". It is a pity that the publisher of Simon Callow's magnificent biography do not follow the old style and - Aet. sua in the top right corner - remind us on each page how old our hero was. For the first thing to grasp about the man who produced, directed, starred in and "wrote" Citizen Kane when he was still only 25, is that he was a prodigy, born or at least endowed very early in life with mysterious reservoirs of Promethean talent.

It is an astonishing story. At 16, after a couple of months touring the West of Ireland, with "the regulation donkey", this gangling, utterly self-confident boy, straight from a progressive private school outside Chicago, a sort of Middle Western Dartington Hall, arrives in Dublin, "this maelstrom of sophisticated mullarkey". (Callow not only knows how to research and construct a biography on the heroic scale, he knows how to stud it with glittering phrases.) Hilton Edwards reported to Michael Mac Liammoir, his partner in creating the Gate Theatre: "Something strange has arrived from America. Come and see what you think of it".

"What is it?"

"Tall, young, fat: says he's been with the Guild Theatre in New York. Don't believe a word of it, but he's interesting".

Later Mac Liammoir des-cribed the audition, "It was an astonishing performance, wrong from beginning to end but with all the qualities of fine acting tearing their way through a chaos of inexperience". Welles, at 16, got to play one of the two leading parts in Jew Sss, and that was that.

Not that "he never looked back", if that phrase means that his rise was uninterrupted and inevitable. On the contrary, the young genius was erratic, arrogant and recklessly undiplomatic. Again and again he lurched close to the brink of the cliff, protected by the special providence which, they say, looks after drunks and the United States of America. It was a breathtaking catalogue of triumphs, even if it was punctuated by turkeys.

Welles's first professional part in America was on Broadway as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet with Katherine Cornell, Basil Rathbone and Edith Evans. At 20 he directed a black Macbeth and at 22 a Marxist opera. He was still 22 when the newspapers cried "Bard boffola!" over his modern-dress, fascist- era production of Julius Caesar. And he was only 24 when, on the night of 30 October 1938, he stabbed a finger at the unprotected nerve-ends of an America waiting and watching for war, with the most famous radio broadcast ever aired; his adaptation of H G Wells's The War of the Worlds.

"Good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadows like a gray snake. It's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent!" By now the switchboard was jammed. Pockets of panic formed all over the country. In Indianapolis a woman ran into church, screaming, "New York has been destroyed!" In Harlem, a black congregation fell to its knees. When a hysterical caller asked whether the world was coming to an end, a laconic operator replied, "I'm sorry, we don't have that information here".

This is the road to Xanadu, Welles's name for his cinema replica of William Randolph Hearst's mad palace, San Simeon. Callow is not just that rare phenomenon, an actor who can write. He is a superb biographer. His description of the making of Kane is the great setpiece of the book, and it is masterly. Callow brings to it all his own understanding of how an actor works and how even such a personal film is not the work of one man, but is created by the concerted talents of dozens of men and women, orchestrated by the director.

He sets the scene by explaining the deep trouble Welles was in when he set out to make perhaps the greatest masterpiece of the American cinema. Hollywood was waiting for this arrogant boy-genius to fall on his face. The studio was impatient. William Randolph Hearst was threatening to hurl legal thunderbolts, and was darkly informing the FBI that Welles was a Communist.

Callow untangles the vexed question of authorship, making it plain that while Welles undoubtedly produced, directed and acted in the movie, it was essentially written by Herman Mankiewicz (to whom Welles only grudgingly awarded a joint credit) with significant input from Welles's Mercury Theatre partner, John Houseman (who got no credit) and lesser contributions from Welles. But he also gives a crucial credit to Welles: he points out how much the film owes to the tension between Mankiewicz, who hated Hearst, and Welles, who half-loved him. And he explains in fascinating detail how the film's gleaming visual quality was achieved because of what Welles, who had never directed film before, learned from an exceptionally skilled and thoughtful cameraman, Gregg Toland.

Does Callow plan to write a second volume about life after Citizen Kane? I hope so, because of the pleasure I have had from this book. But there are strong hints that he will not. "It is a melancholy truth that he had by May of 1941, at the age of 26, created a body of work in several media that he would never surpass". Worse: "The remaining forty-five years of Welles's life are a sort of sustained falling apart in which, Lear-like, as his world crumbled further and further around him, and his own behaviour became more and more extravagant, he was vouchsafed extraordinary insights".

Even if it does stand alone, this is an extraordinary book, with extraordinary insights of its own. In it, Callow explores the "terrible burden both for an artist and a human being" of Welles's successful effort to make himself the greatest showman of his age. This is the measured judgement of one man of prodigious talents by another. It is also a parable for the age of celebrity.

Oh, and by the way Callow has unearthed the secret of "Rosebud", Kane's last word, and the "McGuffin", as Alfred Hitchcock would have called it, which drives the film's plot. The last frames of the film reveal that it was a toboggan, symbol of the land of lost content; and the very final one shows the removal men who have come to pack up Xanadu. Well, did you know that at the Todd School, at the beginning of his last year, Welles was given a sled, and that, on leaving, he handed it over to another boy who was starting his last year at school?

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own