Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: In My Father’s Shadow, by Chris Welles Feder

In My Father’s Shadow: A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles, by Chris Welles Feder. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 2009. Hardcover. $24.95. 304pp. ISBN 978-1565125995.

Orson Welles, as Walter Kerr wrote in 1951, “is once supposed to have arrived somewhere for a lecture engagement only to be confronted with a dismally small audience and no one on hand to introduce him. He is thereupon supposed to have introduced himself as Orson Welles, producer, director, scenarist, magician, editor and actor, concluding with the remark that ‘It’s a pity there are so many of me, and so few of you.'” I kept thinking of that legendary anecdote while reading In My Father’s Shadow: A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles, a beautifully written, disturbing, and painfully sad memoir by Welles’s eldest daughter, Chris Welles Feder. Like the audience in that anecdote, she had a privileged seat at his virtuosic performance of his kaleidoscopic personality, even as she felt herself dismally small by comparison and constantly weighed down by his enormous shadow. Her book reflects her piercing awareness that of the many dazzling incarnations of Orson Welles, the one role he most rarely and inadequately filled was that of father.

Welles’s powerful personality always seemed in danger of crushing his eldest child psychologically, whether through overwhelming influence or neglect. These twin poles of peril are unfortunately familiar for the child of a celebrity, but this book is no Daddy Dearest, for Chris has always loved her father and admired his talents and the better angels of his nature. As much as she regrets his maddeningly intermittent approach to parenting, she appreciates his beneficent philosophical influence on her development, especially through his liberal social viewpoint, in contrast to the narrow-minded, bigoted attitudes of her mother’s side of the family (including her Chicago businessman grandfather, who tried to persuade the young Orson to take his job offer as a stockbroker, recalling that Welles “was so damned polite about telling me to go to hell”). But even if Chris has come to forgive her father for his failings, the book aches with raw pain over his neglect, a constant questioning of why he simply couldn’t have been there for her more often. In My Father’s Shadow, which reveals a side of Welles we’ve never seen before and fills in many gaps in his life story, is intensely revealing of his limitations as a man but still suffused with love and desperate attempts at understanding.

I became friendly with Chris, who has spent her career in educational publishing, and her husband, Irwin Feder, a retired professor of English, at the 2005 Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland and its massive Welles retrospective organized by Stefan Drössler, the curator of the Munich Film Museum. I provided a favorable quote about this book and am mentioned in it in a complimentary way, though somewhat inaccurately. Chris reports that I “confided one night over dinner that [I] had not been well received by the movie director [I] had so admired from afar.” In fact, in the fifteen years during which I was fortunate to know and work with Welles, I had a complex relationship with him, finding him sometimes bullying and harsh but many times friendly and confiding. This experience, which I chronicle in my 2006 memoir What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career, is not dissimilar from Chris’s own reminiscences of his schizoid dealings with her. I regret that I hurt her feelings when Welles’s longtime associate Richard Wilson and I were staging the 1985 public memorial to her father at the Directors Guild Theater in Hollywood and didn’t think of inviting her, since she kept such a low profile in those days. Chris laments that she was always regarded as a lost “footnote” to her father’s life story until she made the decision in 1988 to begin talking about him in public.

Welles usually maintained a sense of privacy about his complicated and often messy personal life, especially while dividing his time in later years between his third wife (Paola Mori) and his mistress/collaborator (Oja Kodar), a precarious balancing act that (as his and Paola’s daughter Beatrice has said) fell apart not long before his death, contributing to problems with Beatrice that still bedevil his legacy today. Until now, none of his blood relatives had ever written a memoir about him, although Christopher privately published an insightful book of poems, The Movie Director, in 2002, about a fictionalized figure closely resembling the man she had described, at age fifteen, as “my charming but thoroughly irresponsible father.” As part of her gradual process of coming out from under his shadow into the public eye, she has used her writing skills to work out the mysteries of “a man on his own private island . . . this child-man who was my father.”

During Welles’s lifetime, little was heard in the media about his relationships with any of his three daughters, Christopher (b. 1938), Rebecca (b. 1944, d. 2004), and Beatrice (b. 1956). Each suffered from different forms of his chaotic parenting. The first time they were together was at their father’s funeral. As Chris writes in The Movie Director, Welles could see himself and his daughters reflected in Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy: “In place of yourself, you had offered an act of magic:/ first we all become Cordelia. Then we all disappear.” Rebecca, about whom the least is still known, is discussed in two affecting documentaries, Searching for Orson and Prodigal Sons, that deal in part with the illegitimate son she gave up for adoption, Marc McKerrow (aka Marc Welles), Orson’s only grandchild. Rebecca wrote in her diary, “I will always count it as a great loss that I never got to know Father, but it is just as great a loss that he never got to know me.” Nor did she ever get to know Marc, who saw his mother only in her coffin; the curse of parental neglect reaches from generation to generation. In My Father’s Shadow is the first book on Welles to mention the longstanding rumors that he had at least one illegitimate son, the film, television, and stage director Sir Michael Lindsay-Hogg, whose mother was the Irish actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, one of Welles’s mistresses in the 1930s and ’40s.

Christopher is the daughter of Welles’s first wife, Virginia Nicolson, a socialite who had a brief acting career and an equally brief marriage to the mercurial young Orson. Their relationship came to a sudden end, as this book reveals, when Virginia visited a hotel room Welles was keeping in New York City and found a cache of love letters from other women, including Fitzgerald. Even though Virginia was pregnant with Christopher, she tried to throw herself out a window but couldn’t get it to open. The fact that Virginia’s last name is often misspelled (as Nicholson) in writings on Welles is a sign of how deeply she and her daughter vanished into obscurity, making them tantalizingly vague figures in biographies of Welles. You could get cryptic glimpses of Christopher, at age nine, acting in her father’s 1948 film of Macbeth, oddly cast as the murdered boy child of Macduff. Welles assumed his first-born would be a boy, and when she asked him about her name, he replied, “Your name has a marvelous ring to it, don’t you think? .  . You’re the only girl in the world who is [named Christopher], and that makes you unique as well as beautiful.” Chris became the only girl to attend the Todd School for Boys, the progressive Illinois boarding school run by Roger (Skipper) Hill, Orson’s surrogate father.

Because of her father’s deeply unorthodox personality, Chris had to put up with many unusual aspects of her upbringing. Her mother told her, “Orson is a genius, Chrissie, and you can’t expect a genius to behave like an ordinary father” — a miserable refrain she heard from many people throughout her childhood. Her father would swoop into her life for brief periods of excitement and affection but then would disappear just as abruptly, sometimes for years on end. If she was able to hang out with him on the Mexican location of The Lady from Shanghai, she had to pester him to give her a small part, and he filmed a perfunctory scene under duress and then cut it from the picture. When Welles told the murderer in Macbeth, “You’re handling her much too gingerly. You’ve got to make it look like you’re killing her!,” the actor protested, “But, Orson, I don’t want to hurt your kid.” “Forget she’s my kid and remember you’re a murderer, not Margaret O’Brien touching a hot stove!” Welles thundered. “Now hit Christopher hard this time. Take two!” Chris felt a “chill” over this piece of direction and “got pounded on the back but not so hard that I couldn’t take it.” The truly painful part came when her father didn’t say anything in approval of her performance, and “the fun and excitement I had felt at being in Daddy’s movie drained out of me.” Chris spent the happiest times of her childhood playing with Welles’s second wife, Rita Hayworth, whom she portrays as kind and childlike. but when Rita’s marriage with Welles collapsed, Chris found herself exiled from that source of companionship as well.

The worst moments of her childhood were the times her father would promise to send a car to pick her up so they could have lunch together, and then the car would not arrive. Chris would wait forlornly, all dressed up, for hours as darkness fell, finally weeping at the realization that he had let her down once again. On a deeper level, she couldn’t shake the feeling that, for all his kindness and affection when they were together, and despite the fact that he talked to her as if she were “a younger version of himself,” he never quite felt proud of her potential and accomplishments. She constantly refers to wanting to find ways of making him proud of what she was doing and somehow always falling short (except when she unexpectedly won his praise for writing a children’s textbook on spelling, a subject he could never master). She was chagrined that her father urged her not to become an actress but to get married and have children. But he was not as narrow-minded in this regard as her stepfather, the reactionary Englishman Jack Pringle, who thought the limit of her talents was to become a secretary and cruelly told her, “You are a very ordinary person, and the sooner you accept that, the better off you will be.” Eventually she persuaded her father to bring her to Paris to live with him and to pay for her education at the Sorbonne, but her mother, who seems to have thoroughly despised Welles, gave her an ultimatum to choose between them, and Chris, worn down into submission, told her father she had to stop seeing him for a while. He took this in Lear-like fashion, as one of the constant betrayals he felt from people close to him, even though it was a lifelong pattern with Welles to test people’s loyalty, fearing what he often would wind up provoking.

Chris, in her maturity, finally came to the sober realization that the image she cherished of her father was that of “a marvelous being who had lived entirely in my imagination.” In later years, they would see each other for adult conversations over lunch or dinner whenever he was staying at a New York hotel, and they would talk on the phone as well, but he refused to come to dinner at her house, and it was years before he would agree to meet her husband, whom he treated like a “houseboy.” After Chris’s misunderstanding with her father over her “betrayal,” a new kind of distance had crept into their relationship. He had turned from “the relaxed, fun-loving Daddy I had known as a schoolgirl” into “the polite father who talked to me as though he were being interviewed on television.” Even more disconcerting was her realization that when she would watch him regaling television talk show hosts with his expansive anecdotes, like a modern-day Dr. Samuel Johnson, he seemed more at ease than he was with her.

Although I was surprised to learn from meeting Chris and reading this book (which includes many quotations from letters from her father) that their relationship had been far more extensive than we had known — a sign that Welles, in his own clumsy way, was making an effort at fatherhood, especially in his later years — the conclusion is inescapable that Welles simply was unsuited for that role in life. When Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper was having dinner with Welles, Rita, and Rebecca in the mid-forties, Hopper watched Welles fuming as a burned chicken was put on his plate after a two-hour wait. “What a bore — this domesticity!” he bellowed. That seemed to be his bottom line on the subject, but for reasons of comfort and security he seemed to need to make sporadic and futile attempts at being a family man. He succeeded for a longer time with Paola and Beatrice, though Beatrice clearly continues to have her own issues with him, as her constant attempts to thwart the release of his unfinished films and put up obstacles to the rerelease or restoration of other films seem to indicate (over and above her attempts to wring money out of film companies as his heir, a legal position that pointedly excludes Chris and also ignored the impecunious Rebecca). Chris’s book maintains a tactful silence about this major problem with her father’s legacy, but at Locarno she admitted she was “appalled” that her sister was interfering with the release of their father’s work: “I believe my father’s work should be shown at every opportunity, even his unfinished work. Everything should be shown because everything is valuable.”

What was Welles’s problem with being a father, aside from the inexcusable (if accurate) alibi of being a self-centered “genius”? His troubled relationships with his own parents, which have been chronicled by numerous writers, surely explain his own inadequacies in this realm. Chris adds an important clue when she quotes a close friend of his mother, Beatrice Ives Welles, describing her as “a cool, self-centered woman who had little tolerance for children in their natural state.” Welles told me that his parents were both reserved and distant toward him, the opposite of smothering parents. Once, when little Orson rebelled against taking music lessons and threatened to jump off a hotel balcony in Paris, his mother simply told his hysterical piano teacher, “Well, if he wants to jump, let him jump,” correctly calculating that it would dissuade him from such histrionics. Welles’s lifelong guilt over betraying his father, Richard, by refusing to see him at the end of his life because of his heavy drinking (Welles wrote in 1982 that as a boy he was “convinced — as I am now — that I had killed my father”) is given fuller explanation here, with comments from both Welles and Roger Hill. Welles says, “So I promised, not because I agreed with [Hill and his wife, Hortense, who urged him to keep his distance] — I didn’t think my father’s drinking was a terrible thing — but because I wanted to please them.”

Among its many virtues, In My Father’s Shadow is also a memoir of the remarkable Hills, a couple who took in the troubled boy after his mother’s death and became Chris’s surrogate parents after her mother (portrayed scathingly in the book) dumped her on them for a time. Roger, the man Welles always called his best friend, was an innovative and daring educator who nurtured his protégé’s theatrical and other talents and modestly refused to take credit for the critical role he played in his development. The Hills continued to watch over Orson into his adulthood, mostly from afar, and were not uncritical of him, chastising him when he needed it, in the way that any truly responsible parent should do. Hortense once said, “If only you could have known him back then, Chris. Your dad was such a sweet boy before fame spoiled him.” Roger “never failed to correct her” by responding, “Now, Horty, you know damned well he was a ham and phony even then.” This kind of ironically backhanded expression of affection was cherished by Welles, as can be seen in his delightful documentary film on the Hills, A Conversation with Roger Hill (aka Orson Welles Talks with Roger Hill), which so far has only been seen publicly at the Locarno festival. Welles and Hill displayed the same kind of teasing badinage when we did an evening on Welles’s theater work as part of the American Film Institute’s “Working with Welles” tribute in 1978-79. At one point, when Welles was pontificating, Roger Hill said, “Oh, shut up, Orson,” to the audience’s, and Welles’s, amusement. In his documentary, Welles has the rare modesty to keep himself off-camera, to let all the spotlight shine on his surrogate parents; the film is as enraptured a portrait as that in Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons of Richard Bennett’s Major Amberson, to whom Roger Hill bore an uncanny resemblance.

So what did Chris Welles Feder gain from being the child of a great man, other than heartache and abandonment? Her dogged attempts to win her father’s love by achieving something on her own helped her find her own way as a writer and educator, roles that echoed parts of her father’s personality that he never fully developed. Among other things, In My Father’s Shadow is a poignant account of a girl and woman struggling to carve out her own personality and triumphantly succeeding, despite great odds, unlike many children of Hollywood figures who wind up being crushed into oblivion by their parents’ shadows. She writes, “In our often fleeting times together, Orson Welles did more to shape my character, values, and aspirations than Virginia and Jack Pringle could have accomplished in a lifetime.” Unlike the Pringles, who took her to live under the apartheid regime in South Africa and tried to infect her with its virulent racial bigotry, Welles taught her tolerance: “I realize you have to live in South Africa for the time being — there’s nothing we can do about that, but I hope you’ll remember you did not always live in that benighted country. My God, after living with Skipper and Hortense, the prejudices of white South Africans should be abhorrent to you. Even if you’re forbidden to speak to the Africans working in your house, I hope you’ll remember they are human beings, just like you, and always treat them with respect.” Chris never forgot such lessons, which stemmed from her father’s lifelong advocacy of human rights. And her exposure to her father’s films, which deepened in later years as she began studying them at Welles retrospectives, ironically brought him closer to her than he had ever been in life.

Perhaps the story in In My Father’s Shadow that best sums up the bittersweet legacy of being Orson Welles’s daughter is the one about Chris’s birthday present from him in 1945. Her mother told her to listen to his radio show This Is My Best, and he announced, “My eldest daughter, Christopher, is seven years old today, and like most ladies and gentlemen of her age, Christopher likes her father to tell her a story. Well, I don’t know of a better one than ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ . . .” That was her favorite story; she had sung “Some Day My Prince Will Come” to her errant prince of a father. The tribute over the airwaves from her father enthralled her, and as she writes, “Whenever being without my father began to hurt too much, I would come and sit quietly in my room, close my eyes and remember.”

Note: All images above courtesy of Chris Welles Feder and Algonquin Books except the Macbeth image, © 1948 Paramount Pictures Corp. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Joseph McBride is the author of three books on Orson Welles, Orson Welles (1972; revised and expanded, 1996); Orson Welles: Actor and Director (1977); and What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career (2006). He spent six years playing a film critic in Welles’s still-unfinished film The Other Side of the Wind.