My Lunches with Orson

Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles

Peter Biskind

Metropolitan Books

Part One

1983

At lunch at Ma Maison, I encountered Orson standing with difficulty to embrace me after several months with great warmth (or what seems like great warmth, I have never been quite sure), and I am always moved, as I was today. And as always, amazingly for me, I was somewhat at a loss for what to say, and all I came up with was some general pleasantry/banality on the order of, “How is everything?” Orson answered me with, “Oh, I don’t know, do you?” And I, acknowledging that my question had been excessive in scope, reduced it to, “How is everything today?” To which he answered, happy that he had forced greater specificity: “Fine . . . as of this hour.”

Then tonight, two hours ago as I twirled the television dial, I was astonished to find myself watching the opening newsreel segment of Citizen Kane. I have just finished watching him grow old with makeup and acting skill on a body in its twenties, in a film designed by his mind in its twenties, and the film—and he in it—are so affecting and so near-perfect that the idea of watching anything else after seemed incomprehensible. I wonder, Was there nothing for him to do with the rest of his life after making it, is that his secret and does he know it? Citizen Kane his “rosebud”?

—HENRY JAGLOM, Journal Entry, April 2, 1978


1. “Everybody should be bigoted.”

In which Orson turns restaurant reviewer, confesses that he never understood why Katharine Hepburn disliked him, but knew why he disliked Spencer Tracy. He detested the Irish, despite his friendship with John Ford, and liked right-wingers better than left-wingers.


(Jaglom enters, Welles struggles out of his chair to greet him. They embrace, kissing each other on the cheek in the European way.)

Henry Jaglom: (To Kiki) How are you, Kiki?

Orson Welles: Look out—she’ll bite you . . . All right, what are we gonna eat?

HJ: I’m going to try the chicken salad.

OW: No, you aren’t! You don’t like it with all those capers.

HJ: I’m going to ask them to scrape the capers away.

OW: Then let me tell you what they have on their hands in the kitchen.

HJ: It must be nuts in the kitchen. I’ve never seen it this packed.

OW: They’re so busy, this would be a great day to send a dish back to the chef.

HJ: You know, Ma Maison is not my idea of the legendary restaurants of Hollywood. The romance for me was Romanoff’s. And then I got here and there was no Romanoff’s.

OW: Yeah! Romanoff’s only stayed open until forty-three or forty-four. It had a short life. Romanoff’s and Ciro’s were the two restaurants that we did all the romancing in, and they both closed. Everybody was photographed with the wrong person coming out, you know? Romanoff’s is a parking lot now, and when it was going broke, Sinatra came with sixteen violins and sang every night for three weeks for free, to try and help the business. We all went every night. It was sensational. Don the Beachcombers was another great place to take the wrong girl because it was dark. Nobody could see anybody.

HJ: What about Chasen’s?

OW: Chasen’s was a barbecue place, originally. I was one of the original backers of Chasen’s—and Romanoff’s.

HJ: You owned Romanoff’s?

OW: Yes, and he never gave me anything. Nor did Chasen. I was a founder of both those restaurants. Me and a lot of suckers. We didn’t expect anything from Romanoff because he was a crook. And Dave Chasen somehow forgot the original barbecue backers when his became a big restaurant.

Ma Maison was started in 1973, and continues. I wouldn’t go for a long time because of the unlisted phone number. It irritated me so. It’s a snobbish business not having a phone number. Somebody gave the number out on television, just to be bitchy. I don’t envy these guys, though. It’s a tough, tough business to run a restaurant.

Waiter: Going to have a little lunch today? We have scallops, if you want, Mr. Welles. Plain, or we have them prepared with a petite legume.

OW: No, it would have to be plain. Let’s see what other choices I have.

W: Just in case, no more crab salad.

OW: No more crab salad. Wish you hadn’t mentioned it. I wouldn’t have known what I wasn’t gonna get!

W: Would you wish the salad with grapefruit and orange?

OW: That’s a terrible idea. A weird mixture. It’s awful—typically German. We’re having the chicken salad without . . . without capers.

HJ: They ruined the chicken salad when they started using that mustard. It’s a whole different chicken salad.

OW: They have a new chef.

W: And roast pork?

OW: Oh, my God. On a hot day, roast pork? I can’t eat pork. My diet. But I’ll order it, just to smell pork. Bassanio says to Shylock: “If it please you to dine with us.” And Shylock says: “Yes, to smell pork; to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into. I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.”

HJ: Isn’t there something about the devil taking the shape of a pig in the Bible? Or did Shakespeare invent that?

OW: No, Jesus did put a whole group of devils into the Gadarene swine. Shakespeare was just trying to give Shylock a reason for not eating with them.

HJ: I would like the grilled chicken.

W: Okay.

OW: And a cup of capers.

W: Capers?

HJ: No, no—that’s his joke.

OW: So I’ll have a soft-shell crab. Alas, he breads it. I wish he didn’t, but he does. I’ll eat it anyway. Est-que vous avez l’aspirine? Have you any aspirin?

W: Of course. Here you are, Monsieur Welles.

HJ: Do you have some pain or something?

OW: I have all kinds of rheumatic pains today. The knees. I always say it’s my back, because I get more sympathy. But I’ve got a bad right knee, which is what makes me limp and walk badly. The weather must be changing. I never believed that, until I became arthritic. I just started to ache the last half hour. I think it’s gonna rain or something. Aspirin is great stuff. I have no stomach problems, and no allergy to it.

(Waiter exits.)

HJ: Isn’t that terrible, the Tennessee Williams thing? Did you hear how he died?

OW: Only that he died last night. How did he die?

HJ: There was a special kind of pipe that he used to inhale something. And it stopped him from being able to swallow or breathe, or . . .

OW: Some dope? Or maybe a roast beef sandwich.

HJ: “Natural causes.” Then they went to “unknown causes.” So mysterious.

OW: I’d like to be somebody who died alone in a hotel room—just keel over, the way people used to.

Ken Tynan had the funniest story he never printed. He and Tennessee went to Cuba together as guests of [Fidel] Castro. And they were in the massimo leader’s office, and there are several other people there, people close to El Jefe, including Che Guevara. Tynan spoke a little fractured Spanish, and Castro spoke quite good English, and they were deep in conversation. But Tennessee had gotten a little bored. He was sitting off, kind of by himself. And he motioned over to Guevara, and said (in a Southern accent), “Would you mind running out and getting me a couple of tamales?”

HJ: Do you think Tynan made it up?

OW: Tynan wasn’t a fantasist. Tennessee certainly said it to somebody. But I’ve suspected that he improved it, maybe, by making it Guevara.

Did I ever tell you about the play of his I lost, like a fool, to [Elia] Kazan? Eddie Dowling, who used to be a producer on Broadway, sent me a play by a writer called Tennessee Williams. I didn’t even read it. I said, “I can’t do this; I just can’t consider a play now.” It was called The Glass Menagerie.

HJ: The Glass Menagerie—my God.

OW: If I had done The Glass Menagerie, I would have done all those others. A big dumb mistake.

HJ: A pity . . . By the way, I was just reading Garson Kanin’s book on Tracy and Hepburn.

OW: I blurbed that book. I thought if I wrote something, I’d finally make it with Katie! But instead, I found out it was the worst thing I could have done!

HJ: I must say, reading it, I didn’t understand why she was so upset about it.

OW: I think it was that he said she and Tracy lived together that—

HJ: A lot of people knew that.

OW: Particularly since she laid around the town like nobody’s business.

HJ: Hepburn?

OW: Hoo boy! I sat in makeup during Kane, and she was next to me, being made up for A Bill of Divorcement. And she was describing how she was fucked by Howard Hughes, using all the four-letter words. Most people didn’t talk like that then. Except Carole Lombard. It came naturally to her. She couldn’t talk any other way. With Katie, though, who spoke in this high-class girl’s finishing-school accent, you thought that she had made a decision to talk that way. Grace Kelly also slept around, in the dressing room when nobody was looking, but she never said anything. Katie was different. She was a free woman when she was young. Very much what the girls are now.

HJ: I wonder what she’s got against you. Did you ever do anything to Tracy, or say anything about him?

OW: I was never a fan of his. When I was a young man, I got up and made a fuss at Captain Outrageous—uh, Courageous.

HJ: Well, you see, that probably got back to Hepburn at some point, and that’s why she doesn’t like you.

OW: Come on. Nobody knew who I was when I did that. I was nineteen years old. I stood up in the Paramount Theater and said, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” when he was doing the Portuguese accent. With the curled hair! The usher told me to get out because I was making such fun of his performance.

HJ: Did you bark?

OW: No, I was imitating his accent as he went along.

HJ: The single lapse in his career.

OW: That was not the only one. He had several. I’m having a hard time trying to think of a great Tracy performance. Well, he was gigantic in Judgment at Nuremberg, although it is not a great picture, but I couldn’t stand him in those romantic things with Hepburn.

HJ: You didn’t find him charming as hell?

OW: No, no charm. To me, he was just a hateful, hateful man. Tracy hated me, but he hated everybody. Once I picked him up in London, in a bar, to take him out to Nutley Abbey, which was Larry [Olivier] and Vivien [Leigh]’s place in the country. Everybody came up to me and asked for autographs and didn’t notice him at all. I was the Third Man, for God’s sake, and he had white hair. What did he expect? And then he sat there at the table saying, “Everybody looks at you, and nobody looks at me.” All day long, he was just raging. Because he was the big movie star, you know. When he was on the set it was, “Why is that actor distracting everyone while I’m talking?”

But I don’t think that’s it, really. I think Katie just doesn’t like me. She doesn’t like the way I look. Don’t you know there’s such a thing as physical dislike? Europeans know that about other Europeans. If I don’t like somebody’s looks, I don’t like them. See, I believe that it is not true that different races and nations are alike. I’m profoundly convinced that that’s a total lie. I think people are different. Sardinians, for example, have stubby little fingers. Bosnians have short necks.

HJ: Orson, that’s ridiculous.

OW: Measure them. Measure them! I never could stand looking at Bette Davis, so I don’t want to see her act, you see. I hate Woody Allen physically, I dislike that kind of man.

HJ: I’ve never understood why. Have you met him?

OW: Oh, yes. I can hardly bear to talk to him. He has the Chaplin disease. That particular combination of arrogance and timidity sets my teeth on edge.

HJ: He’s not arrogant; he’s shy.

OW: He is arrogant. Like all people with timid personalities, his arrogance is unlimited. Anybody who speaks quietly and shrivels up in company is unbelievably arrogant. He acts shy, but he’s not. He’s scared. He hates himself, and he loves himself, a very tense situation. It’s people like me who have to carry on and pretend to be modest.

HJ: Does he take himself very seriously?

OW: Very seriously. I think his movies show it. To me it’s the most embarrassing thing in the world—a man who presents himself at his worst to get laughs, in order to free himself from his hang-ups. Everything he does on the screen is therapeutic.

HJ: That’s why you don’t like [Bob] Fosse either—All That Jazz.

OW: Yes, that’s right. I don’t like that kind of therapeutic movie. I’m pretty catholic in my taste, but there are some things I can’t stand.

HJ: I love Woody’s movies. That we disagree on. We disagree on actors too. I can never get over what you said about Brando.

OW: It’s that neck. Which is like a huge sausage, a shoe made of flesh.

HJ: People say Brando isn’t very bright.

OW: Well, most great actors aren’t. Larry [Olivier] is very—I mean, seriously—stupid. I believe that intelligence is a handicap in an actor. Because it means that you’re not naturally emotive, but rather cerebral. The cerebral fellow can be a great actor, but it’s harder. Of performing artists, actors and musicians are about equally bright. I’m very fond of musicians. Not so much of singers. All singers think about is their throats, you know? You go through twenty years of that, what have you got to say? They’re prisoners of their vocal cords. So singers are the bottom; actors are at the top. There are exceptions. Leo Slezak, the father of Walter Slezak the actor, made the best theater joke of all time, you know? He was the greatest Wagnerian tenor of his era. And the king—the uncrowned king—of Vienna. He was singing Lohengrin—if you’re a Wagnerian, you know that he enters standing on a swan that floats on the river, onto the stage. He gets off, sings, and at the end of his last aria, is supposed to get back on the swan boat and float off. But one night the swan just went off by itself before he could get on it. Without missing a beat, he turned to the audience and ad libbed, “What time does the next swan leave?”

HJ: How can those people have such charm without any intelligence? I’ve never understood that.

OW: Well, it’s like talent without intelligence. It happens.

HJ: If Tracy was hateful, none of that comes across in the work.

OW: To me it does. I hate him so. Because he’s one of those bitchy Irishmen.

HJ: One of those what?

OW: One of those bitchy Irishmen.

HJ: I can’t believe you said that.

OW: I’m a racist, you know. Here’s the Hungarian recipe for making an omelet. First, steal two eggs. [Alexander] Korda told me that.

HJ: But you liked Korda.

OW: I love Hungarians to the point of sex! I almost get a hard-on when I hear a Hungarian accent, I’m so crazy about them.

HJ: I don’t understand why you’re saying that about the Irish.

OW: I know them; you don’t. They hate themselves. I lived for years in Ireland. The majority of intelligent Irishmen dislike Irishmen, and they’re right.

HJ: All these groups dislike themselves. Jews dislike themselves.

OW: Nothing like Irishmen.

HJ: That doesn’t make them right, Orson, and you know that. And I don’t accept this prejudice from you. I know that you don’t really have it.

OW: I do have it. I do have it. Particularly against Irish-Americans. I much prefer Irishmen from Ireland. If I have to have an Irishman, I’ll take one of those. And Irishmen in England are quite good. All the great Irish writers mostly left and went to England, except for [George William] Russell and [William Butler] Yeats. Yeats makes me shiver. I was in Dublin at the time when he was still—

HJ: I didn’t realize he was still around in the thirties.

OW: Yeah. He was at every party, and you could see him walking in the park. And Lady Gregory. All those people were still around—the famous Gaelic nationalists. I got to know them all. And you know, some of my best friends are Irishmen.

HJ: Oh, God!

OW: But when I look at Tracy, I see that everything that’s hateful about him is Irish. Everything that’s mean. Every Irishman will tell you that. Seven hundred years of bitter oppression changed their character, gave them that passive meanness and cunning. All I can say is what Micheál Mac Liammóir said when we were making Othello, and I asked him, “Describe the Irish in one word.” He said, “Malice.” Look, I love Ireland, I love Irish literature, I love everything they do, you know. But the Irish-Americans have invented an imitation Ireland which is unspeakable. The wearin’ o’ the green. Oh, my God, to vomit!

HJ: That’s boring and silly, and—

OW: No, it’s to vomit. Not boring and silly. Don’t argue with me. You’re such a liberal! Of course there’s no proof. It’s the way I feel! You don’t want me to feel that, but I do! I think everybody should be bigoted. I don’t think you’re human if you don’t acknowledge some prejudice.

HJ: Yes. But acknowledging some prejudice and really having full-out hate, like you have against the Irish—

OW: Well, not so much that I’m rude to them or would bar them from my house. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a perception of their character. Or of the majority of them.

HJ: Okay. But if that’s true, then all it means is that there’s cultural conditioning.

OW: Well, of course there is!

HJ: So when they come to America, that changes them.

OW: Yes, they become a new and terrible race. Which is called “Irish-Americans.” They’re fine in Australia; they’re fine in England; they do well in Latin America. It’s in New York and Boston that they became so frightful. You know, the old Kennedy was a real Irish-American. That’s what I mean.

HJ: But his kids weren’t?

OW: No. They escaped it. You can see the Irish ancestry, but their character wasn’t Irish. Their life wasn’t based on malice. You know, if you’re here in America long enough, you lose the faults and the virtues of your original culture. The Italians will lose the sense of family when they finally get to the next generation. They won’t hang together, the way they still do now.

HJ: It’s like in Israel, where there’s no art now. All these Jews, they thought they were gonna have a renaissance, and suddenly, they’re producing a great air force, but no artists. All those incredible virtues of the centuries—

OW: They left all that in Europe. Who needs it? They get to Israel, and they sort of go into retirement.

HJ: Their theater is boring; their film is boring. Painting and sculpture—

OW: Boring. You know, the only time they make good music is when Zubin Mehta, a Hindu, comes to conduct.

HJ: It’s amazing. When the Jews were in Poland, every pianist in the world—

OW: Every fiddler who ever lived was Jewish. It was a total Russian-Jewish, Polish-Jewish monopoly. Now they’re all Japanese and Orientals. [Arthur] Rubinstein is gone.

HJ: Last year.

OW: I knew Rubinstein for forty years, very well. I told you his greatest line. I was with him at a concert in Albert Hall, and I had no seat, so I listened to the concert sitting in the wings. He finished. Wild applause. And as he walked into the wings to mop his face off, he said to me, “You know, they applauded just as loudly last Thursday, when I played well.”

HJ: Dying at ninety-five is not bad. He had a full life.

OW: Did he ever.

HJ: It’s true, all that, then? That he fucked everybody?

OW: He was the greatest cocksman of the nineteenth century. Of the twentieth century. The greatest charmer, linguist, socialite, raconteur. Never practiced. He always used to say, “You know, I’m not nearly as good a pianist technically, as many of my rivals, because I am too lazy to practice. I just don’t like to. [Vladimir] Horowitz can do more than I can. He sits there and works. I like to enjoy life. I play clinkers all the time.” But, he says, “I play it better with the clinkers.”

HJ: And Horowitz hates his life, and for fifteen years hasn’t been able to play or even move.

OW: Rubinstein walked through life as though it was one big party.

HJ: And then ended it with this young girl. Didn’t he leave his wife after forty-five years when he was ninety to run off with a thirty-one-year-old woman?

OW: Like Casals. Who suddenly, at the age of eighty-seven or something, came up with a Lolita.

HJ: Getting back to the Irish, some are liberals, like Robert Ryan. He was a brave man, politically and socially. Tell me Robert Ryan was not a decent man.

OW: He’s a wonderful actor. I don’t think of him as Irish; he just has an Irish name. He must be fourth-generation.

HJ: Now, Ford you liked. He was an Irishman.

OW: We were very good friends, and he always wanted to do a picture with me. He was a pretty mean son-of-a-bitch Irishman. But I loved him anyway.

HJ: When did you first meet him?

OW: When I was shooting Kane, he came to the set on the first day of shooting.

HJ: Just to wish you well?

OW: No, for a reason. He pointed to the assistant director, a fellow called Ed Donahue, who was in the pay of my enemies at RKO, and said, “I see you got snake-in-the-grass Donahue on the picture.” And left. He came to warn me that my assistant was a fink.

HJ: I’ve always heard that Ford was a drunk.

OW: Never when he was working. Not a drop. Just the last day of a picture. And he’d be drunk for weeks. Serious, serious drunk. But for him, drinking was fun. In other words, he wasn’t an alcoholic. Went out with all the boys. Irishmen, get drunk and fight. Everybody gets beat up in the pub, you know? I’ve lived through all that. Went to jail in Ireland for rowdyism. It was a culture where nobody got married until they were thirty-five, because they were always dreaming of emigrating, and they didn’t want to be stuck with the kids, financially. So all these poor virgin ladies sat around waiting to get married, and the guys are all swinging at each other, reverting to the bestiality of the male.

HJ: There was not much fucking around, I would imagine, because it was a Catholic culture?

OW: Oh, my God, yes. By the girls. I could hardly draw a breath when I visited the Aran Islands. I was all of seventeen. And these great, marvelous girls in their white petticoats, they’d grab me. Off the petticoats would go. It was as close to male rape as you could imagine. And all with husbands out in their skin-covered canoes. All day, while I had nothing to do. Then the girls would go and confess it all to the priest, who finally said to me, “I had another confession this morning. When are you leaving?” He was protecting the virtue of his flock. When I told that story, there was tremendous excitement in America from the clergy, who said it could never have happened.

HJ: Wasn’t Ford very reactionary, politically? Like his pals John Wayne and Ward Bond?

OW: Yes, but all those guys loved me, for some reason. And I loved them. I have a beer bottle that was put together on Ford’s yacht, with different Mexican and American beer labels signed by that gang of people, all dedicated to me. Now this was at a time when I was a well-known Hollywood Red.

HJ: And their reactionary positions came from what?

OW: Irish, Irish, Irish. The Irish were taught, “Kill the kikes,” you know. I really loved John Wayne. He had some of the best manners of almost any actor I’ve ever met in Hollywood.

HJ: Did you ever speak to him about politics at all?

OW: Why would I? I’m not like you. I’m not gonna set John Wayne straight. I never had any trouble with extreme right-wingers. I’ve always found them tremendously likeable in every respect, except their politics. They’re usually nicer people than left-wingers.

HJ: Easy for you to say. You were in Europe in the fifties, during the blacklist, when all that shit happened.

OW: Yes, I was lucky. I wasn’t in America during the McCarthy era. I was on every list in the world. Every time they asked for help for whatever cause, I said, “Sign me up.” But in my New York Post column, all during the forties, I was in print attacking Stalinist Russia at a time when everybody thought God was smiling on Stalin. I wanted to explain to HUAC the difference between a Communist and a liberal, so I kept begging, “May I please go to Washington to testify?” But they didn’t dare ask me.

HJ: But you’re so forgiving about these kinds of very dangerous—

OW: Forgiving!? Supposing you go to the Amazon, and you live in a village of headhunters. Now, if you’re an anthropologist, you can become very fond of those headhunters, but you’re not gonna argue about head-hunting with them.

HJ: I don’t understand how somebody with liberal feelings would not discuss politics with Wayne or Bond or Adolphe Menjou at a time when they had the power to hurt people, and in fact did a lot of damage.

OW: Well, Menjou was so fighting mad that you couldn’t talk to him. But Noël Coward took care of him wonderfully. Menjou was heading a USO troupe. Noël Coward was heading the equivalent of the USO—whatever it was called in England—you know, entertaining the troops. And they met in Casablanca. And they were eating in the mess. Menjou was talking about how terrible it was in England, that those “nigger” soldiers were fucking all the English girls, and you didn’t know what kind of race it was gonna be: “Isn’t that true, Noël?” And Noël said, “Well, I think it’s perfectly marvelous.” Menjou said, “What?” Noël said, “At last there’ll be a race of Englishmen with good teeth.” No, with Menjou you couldn’t talk. He was a raving maniac.


Copyright © 2013 by Peter Biskind