Authors: Chris Welles Feder
In My Father’s Shadow
A Daughter Remembers
In My Father’s Shadow
A Daughter Remembers
Post Office Box 2225
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27515-2225
a division of
225 Varick Street
New York, New York 10014
© 2009 by Chris Welles Feder. All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America.
Published simultaneously in Canada by Thomas Allen & Son Limited.
Design by Jacky Woolsey.
For permission to reprint photographs in this book, grateful acknowledgment is made to the parties mentioned on page 283, which constitutes an extension of the copyright page. All other photographs are from the collection of the author.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Feder, Chris Welles.
In my father’s shadow : a daughter remembers Orson Welles / Chris Welles Feder. — 1st ed.
1. Welles, Orson, 1915–1985. 2. Motion picture producers and directors — United States — Biography. 3. Actors — United States — Biography. 4. Feder, Chris Welles. 5. Daughters — United States — Biography. I. Title.
791.4302'33092 — dc22
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
for my dearest Irwin,
the one and only
A great figure of myth like Don Quixote,
even like Falstaff, is a silhouette against the sky of all time.
These are people who have more life in them than
any human being ever had
HE BOOK YOU ARE
about to read is not another biography of Orson Welles. It owes nothing to scholarly research and everything to firsthand knowledge. It is an intimate memoir in which I give you the essence of Orson Welles, my father, as I knew him from my earliest childhood until the day he died.
This is the story of our times together and our times apart. It is also the story of the great impact my father had on me from an early age and how much I owe to him. To make it all come alive, I have told much of the narrative in dialogue. While I may not have remembered them word for word, all the conversations I have recreated here took place in real life. Nothing you are about to read has been invented.
In these pages, you will meet one of the most extraordinary men of our time — through the eyes of his daughter, Christopher.
10, 1985. Orson Welles was found slumped over his typewriter. Sometime during the night, his heart had stopped. He had died not in Las Vegas, where he maintained a home for the third Mrs. Orson Welles, but in Los Angeles, where he had been living openly with his Croatian companion, Oja Kodar.
All that day, after I heard the news, nothing seemed real to me. I felt lightheaded, as though I had walked into a soap bubble. How could my father have died when he was only seventy years old? It was true he had not been well for some time, but I had never expected to lose him so young, so soon. So suddenly.
Nor could I believe my father was dead when I had only to turn on the television and there he was, vibrantly alive. All day I sat in a daze of disbelief, watching the networks resurrect him. There was the middle-aged Orson Welles whose button nose twitched and whose great belly shook when he let loose with a thunderous laugh on the
Merv Griffin Show
. In another clip, he had changed from an amiable Santa Claus into a tall, flamboyant youth who looked vaguely like Oscar Wilde, a lock of dark hair falling in his eyes. It was unnerving to see him at every age in his masks and disguises, these versions of Orson Welles for public consumption, so different from the father I had known. Only the deep, resonant voice was unmistakably his. It was the voice of melting chocolate, rich and velvety, the voice that promised to always love his “darling girl.”
It was late at night when I finally turned off the television. For hours I lay beside my gently snoring husband, my mind shut down, my heart closed, everything in me still refusing to measure my loss. At last I fell into a fitful sleep. Then something woke me in the pitch black room, my heart pounding. The illuminated hands of the bedside clock pointed to four in the morning.
It was the hour when nothing moved and New York City slept. I listened for the faint rumble of a car, but even the lone drunk who usually ranted up and down Fifth Avenue had been swallowed up in the silence. Soon it would be first light, and I shivered, for suddenly I knew I had been shielding myself all day, but I no longer could. The soap bubble burst, and I began to cry.
later my husband, Irwin, and I were flying to Los Angeles for the funeral being arranged by my stepmother, Paola, and my half sister Beatrice. Although Paola and my father had been living separately for almost two decades, she had nonetheless remained his legal wife. She and Beatrice were making all the decisions about the funeral, my father’s cremation and his final resting place, not consulting either me or my half sister Rebecca, my father’s child by Rita Hayworth. It was a sign of how disconnected we were.
I had already heard from Beatrice that the funeral was going to be “a very simple affair because Daddy left no money for funerals or anything else.” Also, Paola was insisting the funeral would be open only to the immediate family and a few close friends. “Mommy swears she’ll stay home in Las Vegas and won’t come to the funeral if any Hollywood types are going to be there,” Beatrice told me. That excluded Oja Kodar, whom I had been hoping to meet. How sad that battle lines had been drawn between “the family” and Oja, the woman my father had loved above all others.
At least, I hoped, the funeral would be an occasion to reconnect with my stepmother and two half sisters. Although Becky and I had remained in touch through the years, we had not seen each other since her student days at the University of Puget Sound. At that time she wanted to become a character actress, a career she did not pursue. Now she was in her early forties. As for Paola and Beatrice, we had last been together in Hong Kong when Paola was still a newlywed and Beatrice a mere child of three. Years had passed with no communication. Then, after Paola settled in Las Vegas in the 1970s in the home my father claimed as his legal residence, she and I had begun calling each other and exchanging gifts at Christmas.
The plane was beginning its gradual descent into Los Angeles when it struck me. “Do you realize,” I exclaimed to Irwin who was fastening his seat belt, “for the first time in our lives, my two half sisters and I will be in the same room. Isn’t that weird?” Irwin nodded sympathetically. “And you know what else is weird?”
“Try to stop thinking about how weird it all is.” Irwin put his hand over
mine. It felt so pleasantly warm and dry, his hand covering mine like a safe house in a thunderstorm. “Here, look at this,” he said, handing me the newspaper he had been reading, “another obituary to add to your collection, and once again you’re listed among his survivors as his son, Christopher.”
That should keep the hounds of the press at bay
(“Daddy, why did you call me ‘Christopher’?”
“I liked the sound of it — Christopher Welles. Your name has a marvelous ring to it, don’t you think?”
“But I’m a girl, Daddy.”
“So you are, and a very beautiful one, too.”
“But Daddy, girls aren’t called Christopher.”
“That’s right. You’re the only girl in the world who is, and that makes you unique as well as beautiful.”
“Different from everyone else.”
“But Daddy, I don’t want to be different. The kids at school tease me about having a boy’s name.”
“When you’re older, they’ll envy you. Wait and see, darling girl. The day will come when you’ll love your name and thank your old father for having christened you while you were still in your mother’s womb.” He paused to relight and puff away on his cigar, his eyes twinkling at me through the cloud of horrible-smelling smoke. “Do you know what I did right after you were born?”
“I sent out telegrams to everyone we know.
CHRISTOPHER SHE IS HERE.
All my life I had been repeating the story of the telegram — how in just four words, a marvel of economy, my father had said it all. Yet it occurred to me now, as our plane touched down on the runway, that I had never seen even one of those legendary telegrams announcing my birth.