This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles
Edited and introduced by Peter Siskind
2013, Metropolitan Books
320 pg. Hardback: $28.00;
Softcover: $16.00; Kindle: $12.74
Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts
by Todd Tarbox
2014, Bear Manor Media
328 pg. Softcover: $21 .95;
12 Phone: 580-252-3547
by Rob Farr © 2014
(From Radio Recall, Issue Date)
Two new and very different books are of interest to Orson Welles aficionados, both compiled from taped conversations with the great director/writer/actor/raconteur. The approach of the two volumes couldn't be more different, even though the recordings were made during the same time period, roughly 1982-85, the final three years of Welles' life.
My Lunches with Orson, published last summer by Metropolitan Books, received widespread mainstream press largely because the book reproduced at length Welles' witty and savage takedowns of many of the celebrities he knew from his days in New York and Hollywood. Even the provenance of the book was not without controversy, as different camps weighed in on whether the recordings made by friend and independent director Henry Jaglom were taped with Welles' knowledge and consent. There is certainly no evidence in the book that suggests any awareness on Welles' part.
Reviewers had a field day quoting unguarded Wellesian take-downs of Lawrence Olivier ("very-I mean seriously-stupid"), Spencer Tracy ("a hateful, hateful man"), Charlie Chaplin ("deeply dumb in many ways") and Greta Garbo ("a big-boned cow").
But beyond the gossipy snark, My Lunches with Orson paints a sad portrait of an old man so consumed with crippling self-pity and self-doubt that he invariably sabotages whatever opportunities to work come his way. In one telling vignette, an HBO executive who Jaglom invited to lunch essentially offers Welles' carte blanche to make whatever television film he wants. Welles refuses to discuss the matter with the poor woman once he decides that she is too stupid to understand his ideas and tells her as much. When Welles complains bitterly and at length that all offers of work have ceased, Jaglom gently reminds him that he never returns his agent's frequent calls.
The more recently published Orson Welles and Roger Hill by Hill's grandson Todd Tarbox, shows a completely different side of Welles. Hill was Welles' headmaster, teacher and mentor at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock Illinois. The relationship between the two continued throughout Welles' life. Even though Hill was Welles' senior by twenty years, the teacher outlived the student by another five. This volume allows us to appreciate the full scope of Welles' intellect, in part because with Hill, Welles was speaking to an intellectual equal. Jaglom, no doubt, fell into the category of "Hollywood friend".
This is a volume that Welles admirers will treasure. Written as a scripted three-act play, Tarbox uses the recorded phone conversations that Welles and Hill conducted over a three-year period to sketch a portrait of two men who shared a strong love of theater, literature and history. Tarbox's stage and lighting directions add little to 13 the book, but the conceit that we are watching a two-man play never distracts from the personalities front and center. It is unlikely ever to be staged, but it would make a hell of an entertaining recorded book if the right actors could be found to inhabit the two roles.
In the course of the interviews, Hill makes the distinction between ORSON WELLES! and Orson Welles. This is the more relaxed, contemplative, lower-case Welles. Readers looking for salacious Hollywood gossip will be disappointed. Even when Welles recalls the final years of John Barrymore, it is with admiration and fondness for a former genius of the theater. Lovers of golden-age radio will appreciate Welles' cherished memories of the medium: "Radio is what I love most of all. The excitement of could happen in live radio, where everything that could go wrong did go wrong ... I wouldn't want to return to those frenetic twenty hour working days, but I miss them because they are so irredeemably gone.
The Welles in this book is more optimistic than Jaglom's. The great director has no illusions about - the uphill climb he is facing as he tries to secure adequate financing and the all-important right of final cut. But as he tells his mentor, "Disappointments continue to affect my confidence, but never my resolve."
Although Hill and Welles made these recordings with the idea of using them in planned memoirs, sadly neither came to fruition. Anyone looking for a straight chronological history of Welles' life and career will be better served looking elsewhere. The first two volumes of Simon Callow's biographical trilogy are highly recommended, especially his coverage of Welles' radio years in Vol. 1.
Whenever the two agree to explore a later aspect of Welles' career, they invariably return to tales of their beloved Todd School or become happily sidetracked into discussing Shakespeare. For both men, their years at Todd were clearly the happiest of their lives. This is not a weakness of the book, for within these conversations we meet the real Orson Welles, and he is a much warmer, wittier companion than the bitter old man Jaglom took to lunch.