A Daughter remembers ORSON WELLES: A talk with Chris Welles Feder on her new book, IN MY FATHER’S SHADOW – Part One
Chris Welles Feder's wonderful new book about her life and times with Orson Welles, In My Father's Shadow has just been released by Agonquin Books. Chris Welles began her book tour in San Francisco with a showing of The Lady From Shanghai at the Rafael Theatre on November 2, and earlier that day Alex Fraser and I met with Chris in the lobby of the Orchard Garden Hotel in San Francisco, at the corner of Grant and Bush Streets, only a few blocks from where her father had shot key scenes from The Lady From Shanghai (at Grant and Pine street) in 1946. Part one of our talk appears below and will soon be followed by part two.
You can see pictures of Chris with her father and Rita Hayworth taken by Life Magazine photographer Peter Stackpole HERE.
You can also read Alex Fraser's review of In My Father's Shadow at Epinions Here.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What prompted you to start writing In My Father’s Shadow?
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: There are many books that have been written on my father, biographies and critical studies and so on, but none of them have captured the Orson Welles that I knew. Also many of the people who wrote about my father either never met him, or they didn’t meet him until the last 15 years of his life. So I felt I had a story to tell from the unique perspective of being his daughter. I think I’m probably one of the few people still alive who knew him when he was in his vigorous youth and he was at the top of his game. So I really wanted to recapture the young Orson Welles before he was beaten down by disappointments, betrayals and not getting the money he needed to make his movies. I wanted that vision to be out there as part of the record. In addition, besides showing a much fuller picture of my father, as I knew him, there were other people in his life who were important but have been given scant attention in the vast Wellesian bibliography, beginning with my mother, Virginia Nicolson Welles. She is always described as a Chicago socialite, which in fact, she wasn’t. But almost nothing is known about my mother, who after all was the first Mrs. Orson Welles.
Then there were other people who were very important in his life that I knew personally. Roger and Hortense Hill, who were like his parents, because he was orphaned when he was quite young. They were probably the closest thing that he had to a family and I wanted the world to know who they were. Also, Oja Kodar who spent the last 20 years of his life with him and was probably the woman that he loved more than any other. I didn’t feel she had been given her due in the other books, so those were just some of the reasons why I wanted to write the book.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What kind of work process did you follow in writing the book?
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: It took me about six years to write the book. I had two or three false starts where I wrote an enormous amount of material, but I realized I was going in the wrong direction and I had to throw it all out. So it took me awhile to find the right direction for the book. The most difficult thing was deciding what I should leave out. Finally, what became my organizing principle was to use only those parts of my life that were directly involved with my father. I could have gone on for pages and pages about living in South Korea or in other places, but what helped me to hone the book, was to keep it just focused on my father, our times together and our relationship. That became my organizing principle.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How much direction did you get from your editor at Algonquin Books, Chuck Adams?
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: Chuck was a very sensitive editor. He respected everything that I had written and hardly made any changes to the manuscript, but he did make some very good cuts. Although what I really liked was he would write questions in the margins that would really get me thinking, such as “what did your mother think about that?” That alerted me to the fact that maybe I needed to cover something a little bit more in-depth. I was truly blessed to have him as an editor. He told me he feels very proud of this book. My whole experience with Algonquin has been just wonderful.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You told me early on when you were looking for a publisher several editors wanted you to write more of a Mommie Dearest kind of a memoir.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: Yes, they wanted me to add all kinds of dirt and there was just no way I was going to do that! I would rather let the manuscript just sit in a drawer and never get published. I was never going to write something defamatory about my father. That was completely out of the question, so I was very lucky that Chuck Adams happed to love the book and he took it, because book publishing being what it is these days, who knows, I may have never found a publisher. It’s very hard, because they are all looking for sensationalism. Plus the minute they know you are intimately connected with the subject, they immediately assume you are going to reveal something shocking. That’s what they expect and if you don’t…
LAWRENCE FRENCH: They turn the book down!
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: Yes and that was what I was up against when I was trying to get it published so I was just very lucky that Chuck Adams liked it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Yet, on the other hand you are very frank in addressing issues like the affair Orson Welles had with Geraldine Fitzgerald which led to your mother’s attempt at suicide and the persistent rumors that Geraldine Fitzgerald’s son, Michael Lindsay-Hogg (born in 1940), might actually be the son of Orson Welles.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: Although we don’t know that for sure. However, when I was growing up Michael was my favorite playmate. We lived right next door to each other in Santa Monica and we saw each other every day. We fought every day and made up every day. I’m no longer in touch with him, although I wish I were, but we went in different directions because I did not want to stay in the world of film and theatre and he of course, did. I even understand he was Knighted by the Queen. I was always very fond of him, so I wish we were still in touch, but we moved into different worlds. I knew a lot of people as a child whom I lost touch with as I went on my merry way in the world.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You’re also very candid about all the problems you had with your mother, Virginia Nicolson. When did she die?
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: She died when she was 80 years old and she was born in 1916, so it was 1996. She was a very volatile person. We had a very troubled and difficult relationship, but we did make a sort of reconciliation in her old age. I was determined to make my peace with her, because I thought it was a good thing to do. I think my mother had very mixed feelings about me. She was very ambivalent and never sure whether she liked me, or didn’t like me. Sometimes she did and sometimes she didn’t. I think because my father hurt her very deeply, the child sometimes pays for the sins of the parents. She was just furious with my father and never forgave him, so consequently I think it was difficult for her to relate to me, especially when she saw that I had inherited certain characteristics from my father, which made me even less popular with her.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s also clear that although you spent much more time living with your mother, you preferred your father.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: Oh, I definitely liked my father better; there was no question about that, so that didn’t help, either. What I feel good about is at the end of my mother’s life she became tremendously admiring of my writing. That helped to bring about more of an acceptance of me. She came to see I really had a gift for that. In my own small way, I had been successful, so she admired that, as well. I don’t know how much she ever liked me as a person, but I think she was impressed by my achievements.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: The title of your book speaks to another significant difficulty you had, coming out of your father’s famous shadow.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: Yes, and it was very hard to come out of his shadow. I think it’s a universal problem, where we all have to struggle to establish our own identity separate from our parents. That’s part of maturing and growing up. But imagine how much more difficult it is when your parent is the world famous Orson Welles? How do you separate from that and become your own person? I think every child of a very well known person faces that dilemma. Some children are completely crushed by it. My half sister, Rebecca was someone who didn’t come out of the shadow because she had a double whammy to deal with. She was the child of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth! I think that was just overpowering for her and as a result, she lived a very marginal life. So it is very tough when you have a world famous parent and you somehow try to become your own person. I hope my book will not only be revealing about Orson Welles, but will also be uplifting about how you can overcome that sort of early life, so you don’t end up in the back ward or on drugs or whatever. I still miss Rebecca. She died in 2004 at the age of 60, because she had this terribly aggressive cancer that carried her off very quickly. She was such a sweet presence in my life.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: There is a wonderful series of photos taken by the Life magazine photographer Peter Stackpole that show the joyous times you had at Rita Hayworth’s house with Miss Hayworth, your father and your newly born sister, Rebecca Welles.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: Yes, those were such very wonderful times. I spent many happy weekends with Rita Hayworth and my father. At the time, Rita was my favorite person in the world. She was the most delightful, charming and unaffected person. Everybody saw her as this big love goddess, but off-screen she was just a delight to be with. Rita loved to read the funny papers in the morning and then she would chase me around the garden with the garden hose and then we would all horse around at the pool. She was just a lot of fun. Off screen she never wore make-up, she just went around in dungarees and was a truly lovely person.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Of course those visits came to an end after Rita Hayworth divorced your father, but you did get to visit Rita Hayworth in Mexico while she was shooting The Lady From Shanghai.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: That happened when I was nine years old. I flew down to Acapulco and I was there while Rita and my father were filming. A lot of it was done on Errol Flynn’s yacht, the Zaca, although when I first arrived in Acapulco, I couldn’t recognize Rita, because her lovely auburn tresses had disappeared and instead she had this short bleached blonde hair. I said, “Rita what happened to your beautiful hair?” She said, “Well, in this movie I’m doing with Orsie,” (that’s what Rita called Orson), “I have to be this cold, evil person, so Orsie cut off my hair, to make me look different.” Well I had a hard time imaging that Rita could be cold and evil and I think the public, who adored her and saw her as a love goddess, shared my reaction. She had just played in Glida, and one of her famous remarks was “men go to bed with Gilda but in the morning they wake up with me.” I don’t think they ever forgave my father for cutting off her hair and for turning her into a murderess. So the public didn’t like her new look. Who knows, maybe that’s why The Lady From Shanghai was not the popular success that my father wanted. It was his dream to make a box-office hit. He thought if only he could make a box-office hit, maybe he would be more accepted in Hollywood, yet it seems that everything he did turned into art. He was like King Midas, who turned everything he touched to gold. Whatever my father made it somehow ended up being very arty, or different and strange, so very often the public didn’t really understand it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In 1988 shortly after your father died, you first started to talk publicly about Orson Welles, even if it was only in a small way. Then in 2002 your book of poems, The Movie Director came out in a private edition of 150 copies. Was The Movie Director part of the process that led you to write In My Father’s Shadow?
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: Yes, very much so. I started writing The Movie Director soon after my father died and I was basically writing it for myself. I never wrote it with the idea of publishing it. It was just a very personal book, where I put myself in my father’s skin, which helped me to reach a much deeper understanding of him and all his dilemmas as a creative person. That really helped me make my peace with him. It was my husband who finally persuaded me to try and publish the book, because he thought it should be out there. Then my agent tried really hard to find a publisher for me, but it is almost impossible to get a book of poetry published. The problem was people said, “Is it supposed to be Orson Welles, or isn’t it?” Of course, it is partly fictionalized, so they had a problem with that, and it is not conventional poetry. There had been a tradition for that, but the publishers just didn’t know what to make of it. I think that was the main problem they had with it. I fictionalized it because I thought it was more fun to do it that way and it gave me a lot more freedom as a poet, to just go in any direction I wanted to go in, but publishers didn’t like that.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: If In My Father’s Shadow does well, perhaps The Movie Director will get reprinted.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: That’s what my agent said and it would be my dream for it to be published again. That would be wonderful.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I found it interesting that after reading In My Father’s Shadow you can go back and see a lot of connections to the poems in The Movie Director. For instance, the poems about the three Cordelias seem to be written from the point of view of yourself and your two half sisters, Beatrice and Rebecca.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: Not really. You could read it that way, but I’m in all of them a little bit. Plus a lot of it is invented, because I don’t really know all these things. That is why the book is maddening for some people, because you can’t really tell. It’s like a Chinese box. Some of it is real and some of it is invented. I guess people want to have everything spelled out clearly. It is poetry or it is prose? They don’t like to have things that are all mixed up. It is real or it is invented? Although sometimes in writing fiction you can be more revealing of the truth, than if you set out to write an accurate account of something. So I felt I caught certain aspects of my father in The Movie Director that I couldn’t have done in any other way. But you’re right I had to write The Movie Director before I could write In My Father’s Shadow.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s almost as if your writing about Orson Welles has been an ongoing process.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: No, I think this is it! I have now exhausted the subject. I have nothing more to say about Orson Welles (laughter).
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Some reviews of the book have characterized it as a sad or a rather unfortunate story about your childhood, although I didn’t find it that way at all.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: I’m so glad you said that, because I don’t think it was sad, either. I think I’ve had a very interesting life and I don’t feel at all sorry for myself.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Perhaps the worst thing that happens is when your mother forces you to chose between her or your father. But most children have those kinds of issues to face if their parents are divorced.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: Yes, and I think Peter Bogdanovich has a more accurate take on my book, because he sees that I was pretty even-handed to everybody, even to my rotten stepfather.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What is truly sad is how few films Orson Welles got to make in the last years of his life.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: Yes, that was the thing that plagued him all of his life, not being able to get sufficient funds to realize his creative vision. He was also very ill towards the end of his life, much more than people realized. He lived very hard, and he burnt himself out. He only slept two or three hours a night. He had asthma, which he gave to me (thank you daddy). He had flat feet, he had a heart condition, and when he was young he took all these pills. Diet pills and uppers so he could stay up all night and do his work. In those days they didn’t know how dangerous those pills were. All these pills totally screwed up his metabolism.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Your father did have his guardian, Dr. Bernstein advising him, but perhaps he enabled him to get more pills then he really needed.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: That’s why I don’t think very much of him. I don’t think he was a very good doctor because he permitted my father to take all these uppers and downers and diet pills that really screw you up. It’s even possible that his weight was a result of his metabolism having been upset by all those pills. I don’t know for sure, because I’m not a doctor, it’s just a theory of mine.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s a bit ironic that you lived in apartheid South Africa, because Orson Welles clearly felt that such a prejudicial society was abhorrent.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: Yes, and prejudices can often exist within the same family, because my mother’s parents had every prejudice in the book! They were racist and anti-Semitic, while my father was entirely without prejudice. I always found that to be very inspiring.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Of course, Orson Welles was not only without prejudice, but he was actively fighting for civil rights during the forties, when much of America was still just as segregated as South Africa.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: That’s right. I feel my father was a man of great principle who really fought for the things he believed in. I’m hoping my book brings that out, because I don’t think people know how politically involved he was. They know he was an actor and director, but they don’t know how he fought for certain causes, often at his own expense. Like when he championed the case of Isaac Woodard, which led to the cancellation of his radio show. There he really put his principles ahead of his own self-interest. That just impresses the hell out of me. That’s why I’m really hoping that my book will not just correct certain myths and misperceptions about him, but it may also bring out a much fuller picture, showing him not as just a great creative force, but also as a man of principle. I wish we had more people like him around today, given the present political climate.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: As you point out in the book, many authors writing about Orson Welles never actually met him, whether they did extensive research, as Simon Callow did, or whether they did no original research whatsoever, as was the case for David Thomson’s “fictional” biography, Rosebud.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: I try to read every book written about my father but I couldn’t even finish reading Rosebud! And in Road to Xanadu there is Simon Callow’s speculation about my father’s “homosexuality.” I asked Simon about that when he came to interview me at my place in New York. His first volume had already come out, so I said, “Simon, do you have any kind of positive proof that my father was homosexual, or is it all just second hand innuendo?” He had to admit he had no direct first hand evidence. It was all just innuendo. I even asked my mother about it, and she was so funny, she said, “oh, absolutely not!” I said, “Well Simon Callow has just published a book that suggests he was homosexual, and she said, “Oh, well that’s just wishful thinking on his part.” I thought that was so funny! Because Simon is gay, he’d like Orson to be gay too! You can be seen as gay by association, although just because Orson Welles worked with a great many gay people, that didn’t mean he was gay himself.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s also funny how your father somehow sensed that your first husband was gay after he met him.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: Yes, he did. He also had many associates who were gay. But my father was so lacking in prejudice and accepting of people that didn’t bother him at all. When you think of how many incredibly talented people there are in the gay community, we probably wouldn’t have any performing arts at all, if it weren’t for them. All the actors and set designers and musicians.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Your father told many fanciful stories about his childhood. Did he tell them to you as well?
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: Yes, he would tell me many marvelous stories about his parents and his childhood, but I always knew they weren’t completely true. We really only know the bare facts about his childhood, because my father was a great confabulator and although there was always truth in his stories, the challenge was to find the truth within the great confabulation. So I doubt if we will ever know the complete truth. He grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin and when he was just a very little boy his parents separated and he went to Chicago with his mother and his father stayed in Kenosha. I write something about his parents in the book that I got from reliable sources, but my father was not a reliable source regarding his own childhood. I think the reason for that was because he just loved to entertain you. He loved to embroider and embellish these fantastic stories that were spellbinding, except you would never quite know what the real truth was.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Your father left America in 1947 shortly after he finished shooting Macbeth. At the time his career in Hollywood as a director was at a low point, his radio career had ended rather abruptly and he had just divorced Rita Hayworth. Then there was the looming threat the House Un-American Activities Committee poised, along with his tax problems. In retrospect, it must have been a very bad period for your father. Do you think the combination of those events may have driven him to re-locate in Europe?
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: No, I think when he first went to Europe he wasn’t planning to stay there as long as he did. He first went there to act in a movie, Black Magic and then began to work on Othello while he was in Italy. So he was thinking he’d go to Europe, make Black Magic and then follow it with his own movie. Except, while he was in Europe, he began to realize that the kind of art films he wanted to make were not going to be underwritten by Hollywood. He had begun to realize he was going to have to become an independent filmmaker, yet this was before there were any independent filmmakers! His passion for making movies was what really propelled him to go to Europe, thinking he would be free from the conventions of Hollywood, the unions, and all of that, and he would have a freer canvas to express himself. Of course, what he didn’t take into account was the difficulty he was going to have in raising the money to do his work.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: After your father went to Europe he was continually on the move, so there were many long periods when you didn't see him.
CHRIS WELLES FEDER: Yes, I was always trying to have a more normal relationship with him when he was alive. Then, after he died in 1985, that was no longer possible, so I turned toward his great legacy, which was his work and I actually found my father in his work, more than I ever found him in life. There is a beautiful documentary by Nathaniel Kahn who was the illegitimate son of the great architect Louis Kahn, called My Architect. That film had a great resonance for me, because Nathaniel Kahn makes that journey of looking for his father and finally he finds him through his work. In a sense, I had a very similar experience.