- In My Father’s Shadow: A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles
- Algonquin Books, 304 pp.
A Daughter’s View of Orson Welles
In My Father’s Shadow is a memoir by Orson Welles’ eldest daughter, Christopher Welles. Yes, his daughter, Christopher, with his first wife, Virginia Nicholoson. As a little girl, when Chris demanded an explanation for her father naming her Christopher, Orson replied, “I liked the sound of it—Christopher Welles, don’t you think?” He told her that it was unique, even though she was too young to understand what “unique” meant, and said that someday she’d be grateful for that name. He claimed that when she was born, he sent out a telegram to everyone he knew, proudly announcing “CHRISTOPHER SHE IS HERE.” The telegram turned out to be fiction. Orson Welles was a much better storyteller than a father.
There are moments when Chris’s prose is poetic. “I fixed my eyes on the gentle Hills of Hong Kong rising and falling as though they were breathing—the hills wearing diamond necklaces of light.” But sometimes the prose is cliché ridden and adjective happy. “Spectacular views,” “raven black hair,” and hotel rooms that are “elegant, spacious…”
Her writing is richest when she writes in the voice of “the wise child,” where the writing is full of fresh observation, humor, and emotion about her life as the child of a celebrity. For example, Orson had become so famous for his villainous role as Harry Lime in The Third Man that the moment he appeared in public, somebody whipped out an instrument and began playing the theme song. When an organ-grinder began playing the theme while Chris and Orson were crossing Piccadilly Circus, Orson had had it with London. His driver took them way out in the country to picnic in an isolated spot surrounded by hedges. A man on a bicycle saw them, stopped short, and suddenly whipped out his harmonica to play The Third Man theme song.
Like Orson’s three wives and many lovers, Chris was courted, then abandoned. “My darling girl,” he’d always call her, but then not show up for promised visits or he’d take her along to wherever he was working on a movie, then leave her to the care of his secretary while he worked. Often he could be downright cruel. In a restaurant, to make Chris’s palette more adventurous, he made her eat a plate of raw oysters. When Chris confided that she wanted to be an actress, Orson said, “No, darling girl, the thing for you to do is marry a very smart banker, lawyer or stockbroker who will make you pots of money and take excellent care of you.”
Orson also had two other daughters: Rebecca with Rita Heyworth and Beatrice with Paola Mori who Orson also made much of, then completely neglected, both in nurturing and in child support. One of the poignant parts of writing in the voice of the “wise child” is that Chris couldn’t understand that this was her father’s pattern. She kept trying to earn his love, make him proud of her so that he’d want to be a responsible, consistent daddy. Nor could she understand the level of rancor that her mother held toward him. Chris would come home from a visit with Orson, chirping about the gay time they had together, and was shocked and hurt by her mother’s nastiness.
Rita Hayworth, Orson’s second wife, was warm toward Chris, romping with her around the pool like another child. Rita buffered Chris from her father’s complete disinterest and her mother’s bitterness. But after Orson abandoned Rita and their baby, Rita refused to see Chris anymore, which would be understandable to an adult, but never to a child.
Virginia’s second marriage to the America film writer and director, Charles Lederer, also helped soften Virginia. Charles was a kindly stepfather. With his brilliance and humor, he became fast friends with Orson. But when that marriage broke up and her mother married and went to South Africa with Jack Pringle, a vicious, jealous, limited man, Virginia became what he was: a narrow-minded racist, and someone who enjoyed abusing Chris. “You are a very ordinary person,” he told Chris, “and the sooner you accept that, the happier you’ll be.” He decided she wasn’t college material and sent her off to a finishing school in Switzerland instead where she could learn to be a secretary.
What elevates this book above the memoirs of other celebrities’ children is that with all her parental neglect, Chris doesn’t become a drug addict or alcoholic. Instead, her curiosity, intelligence, and persistence, make her a researcher, an educational writer, and a novelist, all with only secretarial training.
Her compassion shines through. When she met Vivien Leigh’s neglected and painfully shy daughter, she wanted to tell her, “…if you had to lose a parent to fame, it’s worse to lose a mother, but what could we children of fame do but make the best of it? We might as well enjoy our parents when we are with them.” And Chris gave Oja Kodar, Orson’s last and truest love, the respect meant for a grieving wife even though Oja and Orson had never married. Oja had not even been invited to Orson’s shoddy funeral where his pine box contained his ashes, although he had specifically requested never to be cremated. This piece of revenge was planned by Paola Mori, his third spurned wife. Also, Chris was appalled at how her parents and stepfather treated the natives in South Africa, never speaking to them except to give them orders, never even making eye contact. In Seoul, she befriended Koreans and absorbed herself in Korean culture instead of isolating herself with the Americans. And her biggest act of compassion was understanding that like herself, Orson was mistreated by his parents, and later lived with the constant frustration of not being given money and control over his films. After all Orson’s lies and rejection, Chris becomes a champion of her father and his work.