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?

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