Orson Welles: The stories of his lives By Peter Conrad

His parents' deaths freed Orson Welles to lie constantly about his past - but who cares? For Matthew Sweet, his whole career was a glorious hoax
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The Independent Culture

When Ken Tynan was still in short trousers, Orson Welles was his principal pin-up. He offered an encomium to his hero on the pages of the school magazine, hailing him as "a major prophet, with the hopes of a generation clinging to his heels". He compiled a dinner-party wish-list that included Jesus Christ, Picasso, Joyce, Cézanne and D H Lawrence, and put Welles at the top of the table.

In a letter to his best friend, he related an anecdote in which "the master" rolls up in a two-horse town to give a lecture, and is dismayed to discover that only a handful of people have turned up to hear him speak: "Ladies and gentlemen," Welles announces, "I will tell you the highlights of my life. I am a director of plays, a producer of plays, and an actor on the legitimate stage. I am a writer, a producer, and an actor in motion pictures. I write, direct, and act on the radio. I am a magician. I also paint and sketch, and I am a book-publisher. I am a violinist, and I am a pianist." (A dramatic pause here, to give time for the slackjawed lickspittles to watch the parade pass by.) "Isn't it a pity that there are so many of me and so few of you?" Like so many of the narratives that adhered to Welles, it may never have happened.

The critical biographer of Welles has one great advantage: every performance that the man ever gave, every word he wrote, was a form of memoir. Even when acting in other people's pictures - from Carol Reed's The Third Man to Michael Winner's I'll Never Forget What's 'is Name - he reshaped and polished his lines until he saw himself reflected in them. His work is as full as mirrors as the crazy house in The Lady from Shanghai, or the hallway through which Charles Foster Kane lurches to his death. So there's no need for Peter Conrad's new critical study to issue an embarrassed cough before it draws its comparisons between Welles's art and life. Welles was Kane, Quixote, Harry Lime and Kurtz. He was Falstaff, Macbeth, Othello, all of the Ambersons and a one-man Martian invasion. He would have been Prince Hamlet, too, had he not eaten all the pies.

Peter Conrad is that rare thing, a British academic with a sharp, stimulating prose style and an infectious enthusiasm for the complexities of his subject. He has nerve, too, having gaily thrown away scholarly apparatus - an act which may well prevent this new book from counting towards his institution's total of research points. He has dispensed with footnotes. (They would have doubled the length, as well as removing the tantalising possibility that every story related might be apocryphal.) He has declined to supply a bibliography. (If your subject's personae include Peter Pan, Prospero, Mercury, Kubla Khan and Faust, what exactly would you leave out?) Though such textual anchors might have prevented him from the odd error - his bizarre assertion that the Kennedy assassination took place in 1964, for instance - they would also have added useless weight. This is a book for devouring on the bus on the way home from the cinema.

Fortunately, he has not produced a conventional biography. A whole corral of people have already submitted Welles to that process: Barbara Leaming believed every word he said, and wrote it down; Simon Callow gushed at his feet and ignored his capacity for failure; David Thomson declared that he was "magnificent and a poor bastard"; Pauline Kael, in a hard little essay in The Citizen Kane Book, took a chisel to his reputation. Conrad celebrates the contradictions and untruths that some of these commentators have bust their guts attempting to eradicate. His interest is not in cracking the carapace of myth that accrued around Welles, but in examining how, Quixote-like, he was both sustained and imprisoned by this armour.

The facts relating to the deaths of Welles's parents, for instance, are allocated a couple of sentences: Beatrice Welles was felled by hepatitis in 1924, Richard Head Welles by drink in 1930. (Beatrice, unnamed by Conrad, does not even merit her own entry in the index.) The lies spun by their son about how he came to acquire his orphan status merit much more detailed coverage. Conrad notes that Welles told John Houseman, a co-conspirator in the Mercury Theatre, that his father had killed himself in a Chicago hotel - even going to the bother of pointing out the side entrance from which the lifeless body had been conveyed to the morgue. In a memoir written in 1982, Welles trowelled on more fanciful detail. His father's suicide, he claimed, was due to the effects of smoking: he set himself alight with a branded cigar. The name of the brand was Dick Welles. No such cigar, of course, ever existed.

When Welles first blew into Hollywood in 1939, he was given the nickname of "Little Orson Annie", and his parentless status - which allowed his reinvention to proceed, free of corrective familial influence - was perhaps his greatest gift. Imagine how the stories in the New York Post would have looked, if, the day after the Martian invasion, some hack had produced a Wisconsin matriarch who could reveal that her son had never trained as a bullfighter in Spain or directed a production of The Tempest in London, and what's more, he was a very naughty boy. There being no one to contradict Welles's own creation myths, his peers and acolytes simply added more outlandish details about his past, his character, his eating habits. The long years which he spent whoring with the Muppets and on chat-shows and sherry ads, grubbing for funds to complete dozens of unfinished projects, only encouraged them.

In most biographies, the admission that the subject had concocted a dramatic suicide for his father would seed juicy little paragraphs in the newspapers. But how could Welles's status be damaged or undermined by the exposure of such veniality? It seems as churlish to complain about the mendacities and discontinuities in Welles's accounts of himself as it does to object to the errors of narrative logic in Robinson Crusoe. The only serious attack on his reputation was made by Pauline Kael's 1971 essay, "Raising Kane", in which she told the story of how Welles had connived to rob Herman J Mankiewicz of his writing credit on Citizen Kane. It was an attempt to expose Welles as a tyrant and a phoney - as if Citizen Kane hadn't done that already. Does anyone care whether he was faithful to his wives, or nice to his siblings? Does anyone really wish he had told the truth about himself, when his whole career was a glorious kind of hoax?

In 1951, Welles came to London to play Othello, and Ken Tynan filed a damning review of his performance. His childhood hero, he wrote, had "the courage of his restrictions". Citizen Kane had become "Citizen Coon". Amazingly, Tynan then bounded round to Welles's dressing room, in order to discuss a business proposal. (Welles was hungry for funds to complete his film of Othello; the Café de Paris nightclub was offering a big cheque if he would agree to perform some of his conjuring tricks on the premises.)

Tynan's wife, Elaine Dundy, recalled the encounter: "Orson, after listening to the proposal, rose to his full height, rolled his head on his massive shoulders to glance at me apologetically, turned to Ken and pointed to the door. He uttered one word with a bellow that shook everything in the room made of glass. 'Out!' he roared." Doubtless he wanted to be alone with himselves. Peter Conrad's book offers a chance to remain behind with him, enjoying the effects of cigar-smoke and mirrors, watching the reflections multiply.