Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane

BOOK: Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane
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DEDICATION

F
OR
B
ERTRAND
T
AVERNIER

EPIGRAPH

Everyone will always owe him everything.

—J
EAN
-L
UC
G
ODARD

CONTENTS

Dedication

Epigraph

I. BEFORE THE BEGINNING

CHAPTER 1
      
The Backstory to 1905

CHAPTER 2
      
1905–1915

II. ROSEBUDS

CHAPTER 3
      
1915–1921

CHAPTER 4
      
1922–1926

CHAPTER 5
      
1926–1929

CHAPTER 6
      
1929–1931

CHAPTER 7
      
1931–1932

CHAPTER 8
      
1932–1933

CHAPTER 9
      
1933–1934

III. TOMORROW AND TOMORROW AND TOMORROW

CHAPTER 10
    
1934–1935

CHAPTER 11
    
1936

CHAPTER 12
    
1936–1937

CHAPTER 13
    
1937–1938

CHAPTER 14
    
January–August 1938

CHAPTER 15
    
September–December 1938

CHAPTER 16
    
December 1938–July 1939

IV. SEVENTY YEARS IN A MAN’S LIFE

CHAPTER 17
    
July–December 1939

CHAPTER 18
    
November–December 1939

CHAPTER 19
    
February–May 1940

CHAPTER 20
    
June 1940

V. AFTER THE END

CHAPTER 21
    
October 10, 1985

Sources and Acknowledgments

Notes

Index

Photographs

About the Author

Also by Patrick McGilligan

Credits

Copyright

About The Publisher

I

BEFORE THE BEGINNING

CHAPTER 1

The Backstory to 1905

The deep backstory of the most celebrated film ever made begins in the winter of 1871 at a boardinghouse in the fictional town of New Salem, Colorado. As the handwritten line of an unpublished reminiscence drifts by onscreen, the camera reveals “the white of a great field of snow,” according to the screenplay, and “in the same position as the last word” of the manuscript “appears the tiny figure of
CHARLES FOSTER KANE
, aged five.” The scene was shot on Stage 4 at RKO in Hollywood, and the snow was actually a carpet of crushed cornflakes. The artificiality worried the filmmaker, who knew that audiences familiar with cold winters might expect to see puffs of vapor when the characters breathed. But the young boy’s action diverts our attention. “He throws a snowball at the camera. It sails towards us and out of scene.”

Smack in the middle of the evocative “Snow Picture” passage in Bernard Herrmann’s score—a “lovely, very lyrical” musical phrase, in Peter Bogdanovich’s words—the filmmaker cuts the music abruptly just as five-year-old Charlie Kane’s snowball slams into the house.

“Typical radio device. We used to do that all the time,” Orson Welles explained to Bogdanovich.

The winters in Wisconsin could be as frigid as those in Colorado. But the white carpet had melted in the southeastern part of the state by May 6, 1915. The customary spring storms that pounded Wisconsin’s fifth-largest city had turned its streets into muddy rivers. It was a Thursday, and the rain had vanished for the weekend. Kenosha woke up to a morning cool, cloudy, and dry.

Anyone interested in the ongoing annihilation in the Dardanelles, the retreat in Hungary, or the ultimatums in Japan would have to turn to the inside pages of the
Kenosha News.
The front page was taken up with the boom in factory manpower; improvements on the north shore road; plans for the eightieth founders’ festival, including a baseball match pitting a local team against the Chicago Cubs; and the grand opening of a downtown beauty parlor promising facials, manicures, and electrolysis.

The southernmost Wisconsin city on the shore of Lake Michigan, Kenosha was no longer a Podunk. With a swelling population of twenty-six thousand, the city looked toward a bright future. Its size and attractions could never compare with those of other cities hugging the same Great Lake shoreline: Chicago, sixty-five miles south; or Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city, forty miles north. But life was good in Kenosha. That spring, a forty-nine-pound sack of Gold Medal flour cost $1.95. A tailored woolen suit went for $16.50. A Ford roadster sold for $458, which included delivery and a $50 rebate.

The city theaters were booked for Mother’s Day, which was coming up on Sunday. The respectable Rhode Opera House, the largest theater in Kenosha, seating nearly one thousand, advertised the Western
M’Liss
starring Barbara Tennant. The New Majestic would show Thomas H. Ince’s version of Ferenc Molnár’s
The Devil
, a satire about a charming, debonair Devil who delights in fostering infidelity. This five-reeler was just the kind of sordid entertainment the
Kenosha News
complained about in its May 6 editorial, deriding moving pictures as “the people’s book” for impressionable youth who were abandoning healthful reading in favor of screen fare that glamorized sinful behavior.

The city’s only female public official, a member of the Kenosha School Board, led the ongoing civic crusade against these sordid moving pictures. In the early hours of May 6, she could be found in her home on the second floor of the two-story wood-frame house at 463½ Park Avenue in Library Park, a fashionable downtown area known for its massive churches, imposing brick mansions, and public commons, crowned by the Gilbert M. Simmons Memorial Library.

That wood-frame house on Park Avenue was neither architecturally distinguished nor luxurious, however, and, as the “½” in her address suggested, the school board official and her family were merely leasing the home’s upper floor. Although she and her husband were among Kenosha’s most prominent and admired citizens—appearing regularly in the newspaper’s society items—the couple prided themselves on their ties to ordinary people. The first female voted into a citywide office in Kenosha, she was not only a community activist and passionate suffragist, but an accomplished pianist and recitalist too. Her equally civic-minded husband, a founder of one of the city’s large metal and brass factories, was also an inventor who held a dozen patents.

Although the husband traveled frequently, he was at home on May 6, waiting with a cigar to celebrate the birth of the couple’s second child. The first child, a son born ten years earlier, was sequestered in his room under the eye of the family’s Irish live-in servant. The expectant mother’s attending physician, like many of Kenosha’s doctors, had earned his medical degree in Chicago from the homeopathic Hahnemann Medical College.

Another doctor in this unfolding saga, a family friend, was not in the house at the time of the baby’s delivery. Dr. Maurice A. Bernstein was an orthopedic surgeon, not an obstetrician, but in later years—after he outlived the school board official and her businessman-inventor husband—he would emerge as the chief chronicler of the boy’s birth, and other milestones of his early life.

Over the years Orson Welles took a lot of ribbing about having been born in Kenosha. He had to spell the humble city’s name for interviewers in the great metropolises of the world: New York, Los Angeles, Dublin, Paris, London, Rome, Madrid. At times he mocked and disparaged Kenosha, and he had his reasons. But he was also shaped by his roots, and no matter where he roamed he insisted in interviews that he was a proud “Middle Westerner.”

“I am almost belligerently Midwestern,” he wrote on one occasion, “and always a confirmed ‘badger.’ ” The badger was Wisconsin’s state animal and mascot.

According to Dr. Bernstein, when the baby was born, his mother noticed that his first cries mingled with the sound of factory whistles. The baby’s birth certificate notes the time as 7
A
.
M
., when local workers began their typical ten-hour shifts—so this, at least, is plausible. “The sounds of factory whistles are significant,” Bernstein quoted Mrs. Welles as saying. “They herald my baby into the world.” Her husband’s company employed hundreds of laborers, and Mrs. Welles sympathized with the workers.

Dr. Bernstein said later that the newborn entered the world with “a considerable growth of black hair on its head” and peculiarly slanted eyes that made him look Eskimo or Chinese. Since Bernstein lived in the neighborhood, he well may have seen the infant within hours or days of the birth. Bernstein said he noticed “a strange soberness in its countenance . . . when it looked into your face you felt uneasy as it if looked right through your soul.” Jotting notes years later for a book that he would never finish, Bernstein wrote that the child “looked as if it wakened from the sleep of a former existence.”

Perhaps more than anyone else, Dr. Bernstein was responsible for the idea that the boy was a wonder, special from birth. But even Orson Welles felt the doctor “gilded the lily rather thickly” in his mythmaking. Bernstein himself realized he was prone to exaggerate, and he could be very amusing on the subject. Writing to an RKO studio publicist in 1940, Bernstein claimed that within a day after his birth the baby “spoke his first words, and unlike other children who say the commonplace things like ‘Papa’ and ‘Mamma’ he said, ‘I am a genius.’ On May 8th, 9th, and 10th, 1915, little was heard about him in the press,” the doctor continued, “but on May 15th he seduced his first woman.”

BOOK: Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane
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