I am grateful to the critic and scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum for a good many reasons, and most recently I find that I owe him for steering me in the direction of this splendid book, a far less hyped correlative and corrective to the Henry Jaglom/Peter Biskind offering My Lunches With Orson, which I considered on this blog a couple of weeks ago.
The eleven-year-old Welles was enrolled at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois in 1926. Roger Hill, twenty years Welles' senior, was an instructor there; he later inherited the position of headmaster, which had been that of his father, Noble Hill. Roger Hill was one of Welles' earliest mentors and a lifelong friend and supporter, and, according to the introduction to this book by Tarbox, a grandson of Hill's, Hill and Welles began recording their phone and in-person conversations in the early '80s in the hopes that the tapes would aid in their respective memoirs. The first recording in the Tarbox book is from November 25, 1982; the final one is from October 9, 1985, the evening before Welles' death. This is the same period in which the conversations that make up My Lunches With Orson were recorded. But while there is a certain amount of crossover, there is absolutely no redundancy here. While I'm not going to address the controversy concerning whether or not Jaglom is entirely truthful when he says his conversations with Welles had been recorded with Welles' prior consent, the Welles in My Lunches, sometimes truculent, spiteful, perverse, given to venting resentments, etc., is a particular kind of private Welles who coexists with an Orson who is very aware of the fact that he is giving a performance for a younger admirer. Is the Welles in the Hill conversations on his best behavior because he clearly knows that these conversations are in some sense intended for posterity? I would say yes and no, and I would also say that the Welles that emerges in Tarbox's book is the truer Welles. And yes, it is a Welles that is more noble than the one constructed via Biskind and Jaglom.
That Welles lets his better angels speak through him via Hill has to do with, you'll see if you read the book, which you definitely should, his ease with Hill. The two go back a very long way, and we can infer that Hill knows Welles' quirks and foibles like almost no other, and that he forgives them all because he really loves Orson, and Orson really loves him back. There's not as much filmmaking talk in this book as there is in My Lunches; there's quite a bit of fond reminiscing about places and events and people that may not have a too-privileged place in the philosophy of those who are exclusively concerned with Welles the cineaste. But these topics are not brought up in the service of a facile nostalgia; everything touched upon in these conversations of course deeply informed Welles the artist, a deeply sophisticated man and a product of a very American culture that I sometimes fear vanished about thirty or forty years ago.
As the title implies, the book is structured as a play. Rather than lay out transcriptions of the conversation, Tarbox provides settings and stage directions and incorporates flashbacks in which the players, Welles and Hill, read from correspondance or other texts. This may strike some readers as an overly sentimental, even quaint device, and it does lead down some awkward alleys, particularly during one conversation in which Welles admits he's speaking from a phone extension in his loo. At other junctures, however, the conceit of a stage presentation works pretty beautifully, as in an exchange in which Welles and Hill discuss a small civil-rights crusade that Welles spearheaded via his radio show in 1946:
ROGER: Your finest hour, actually many hours, on your [radio show segment] Almanac was championing a black soldier who, returning to his hometown somewhere in the South, was beaten by a mob. What was his name?
ORSON: Isaac Woodard. He wasn’t beaten by a mob, but by a policeman. Woodard was on a bus, not too far from his home in South Carolina. As a stop, he took too much time in the “colored” men’s room to satisfy the bus driver. A heated exchange followed, prompting the bus driver to call a cop, who, without provocation, beat the nejesus out of Woodard with a billy club, which blinded him. I immediately inveighed against this mindless madness, and, over the next several months, as the case unfolded, I continued to seethe over the air.
ROGER: Didn’t the NAACP contact you?
ORSON: Yes, the NAACP brought Woodard’s plight to my attention.
ROGER: Now it comes back. Wasn’t he a decorated war hero?
ORSON: He served overseas for over a year and was decorated with a battle star.
[Scrim: Thirty-one-year-old Orson in an ABC radio studio reading his July 28 1946 commentary.]
Wash your hands, Officer X. Wash them well. Scrub and scour. We will blast out your name. We’ll give the world your given name, Officer X. Yes, and your so-called Christian name. Officer X—after I have found you out, I’ll never lose you. If they try you, I’m going to watch the trial. If they jail you, I’m going to wait for your first day of freedom. You won’t be free of me…You can’t get rid of me…Who am I? A masked avenger from the comic books? No, sir. Merely an inquisitive citizen of America.
ORSON: Week after week, I updated my audience on the progress of the case. I was threatened with lawsuits if I didn’t cease and desist. The threats only heightened my resolve to make America aware of the bitter fruits of this man’s service to his country. A lot of people from the South and North wrote and asked what business it was of mine to involve myself in this case.
[Scrim: Thirty-one-year-old Orson at the ABC microphone reading his Woodard script.]
God judge me if this isn’t the most pressing business I have. The blind soldier fought for me in this war. The least I can do now is fight for him. I have eyes. He hasn’t. I have a voice on the radio. He hasn’t. I was born a white man and until a colored man is a full citizen like me I haven’t the leisure to enjoy the freedom that this colored man risked his life to maintain for me. I don’t own what I have until he owns an equal share of it. Until someone beats me, and blinds me, I am in his debt. And so I come to this microphone not as a radio dramatist (although it pays better), not as a commentator (although it’s safe to be simply that). I come, in that boy’s name, and in the name of all who in this land of ours have no voice of their own. I come with a call to action.
ROGER: What became of the case?
ORSON: The Department of Justice filed charges against the rogue cop.
ROGER: Didn’t the NAACP credit you as the prime mover in causing the government to act?
ORSON: There were a number of us on the side of the angels. I was just the one with a microphone and a weekly national audience. Our broadcasts led to a benefit in New York on Woodard’s behalf. Billie Holiday, Milton Berle, Cab Calloway, and many others joined me on stage and performed for an impassioned audience of over 30,000, demanding justice for one black man and for all of black America.
ROGER: Was justice served?
ORSON: Sadly, no. Though the Justice Department took the case to trial, an all-white jury acquitted the cop. I’ll never forget a line from the defense attorney’s closing argument to the jury, “If you rule against my client, then let South Carolina secede again.”
This is moving, still vital stuff, I'd reckon. And it speaks multitudes of both men, multitudes that are maybe willfully ignored in Biskind/Jaglom, whose book starts by taking too-giddy pleasure in Welles' deliberately impishly provocative pronouncement to Jaglom that "everybody should be bigoted." Peter and Henry should be ashamed of themselves.
The Tarbox book is also generously illustrated, not just with photos but with reproduced pages from Welles' scripts, including more than a few from the Shakespeare staging adaptations on which Hill and Welles collaborated. You can buy the book via Amazon here. And you should also read Jonathan R.'s thoughts on the book, here.