Imagine it: You’re a young, first-time movie director—even though you’re a confident one—and the man standing before you as he opens the door to his room at the Plaza Hotel is the imperious, belligerent man many people think has made the greatest film in the history of cinema. What’s more, he looks like “a huge grape,” since he is rather orotund and dressed in purple silk pajamas.
“What do you want?” Orson Welles barked.
Henry Jaglom was there to ask Welles to act in his film A Safe Place, even though he knew Welles’ stipulations: He refused to act in films by first-time directors, and he wouldn’t even talk to directors who didn’t have scripts ready. Jaglom was guilty on both counts. “I’ll sit here, but I won’t listen,” Welles told Jaglom.
“I knew I had this incredibly difficult man on my hands,” Jaglom recalls. He didn’t exactly know what he wanted Welles’ role to be, just that he desperately wanted Welles in the film. Jaglom was aware that Welles had a fascination with magicians, so the part became a magician, a “lapsed rabbi wandering around Europe trying to make animals in the zoo disappear.” Welles wanted to know if the rabbi succeeds. “If you want to know, you’ll have to play the part,” Jaglom responded. “And he looked at me out of the corner of his eye and he said, ‘Can I wear a cape?’ ”
A Safe Place was released in 1971, with Welles in a starring role. Starting in 1978, when they ran into each other in Hollywood, and continuing until Welles’ death in 1985, Welles and Jaglom routinely had lunch together at Ma Maison, a scene-y Hollywood restaurant where Wolfgang Puck was the chef for six years (the kind of obnoxious place so cool it didn’t even have a published phone number).
Welles and Jaglom were something of an odd couple. Welles entertained Jaglom with his impish gossip about old Hollywood and his quite sage advice; Jaglom injected Welles with a verve and enthusiasm he needed as the stalwart old man’s filmmaking prospects steadily declined. Welles allowed Jaglom to record their conversations as long as he couldn’t see the tape recorder, so Jaglom kept the recorder in a bag he brought to his lunches with Welles.
After Welles’ death, Jaglom’s tapes became something of a legend among in-the-know film writers and historians; many people assumed they were lost. The truth is more mundane: Jaglom, a prolific filmmaker, kept working and rebuffed several writers’ requests to listen to the tapes, all the while keeping them in a suitcase in his office.
The tapes were neglected until Peter Biskind, who had known Jaglom since 1990, published Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America in 2010. Jaglom is a fan of Star and told Biskind how much he liked it. “I don’t know if he came up with the idea of me doing the Welles book or I did,” Biskind says, but he encouraged Jaglom to get his conversations with Welles transcribed. Then they would decide if the transcripts merited a book.
My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles is one of the most unexpectedly moving and laugh-out-loud funny books to be published this year. Those who recall Welles as the pitchman in those old ubiquitous Paul Masson ads, promising with his faux gravitas that he would drink “no wine before its time,” are in for a revealing, and pleasant, surprise. Welles comes across as witty, barbed, impish and affectionate. He could also be mean. He revels in being ornery. He could go on at monologue length about how awful his rivals are (Welles kept a steady roster of both contemporary and old Hollywood bêtes noires) but he is also unguarded and occasionally, candidly desperate to make money.
In My Lunches with Orson, he is, in short, the contradictory person we would expect of an actor who drank in Shakespeare so consummately, though we never fully saw the complex shadings of his character in public (despite his frequent appearances on talk shows in his later years). “He put so much effort into constructing his own myths that you rarely got to see the ‘real’ Orson Welles,” Biskind says. This book fills the gap.
A raft of biographies have attempted to depict the complete Welles, but that’s a tall order. Being in conversation with Welles “was often surreal and always cryptic,” Gore Vidal is quoted saying in the introduction to My Lunches With Orson. “Either you picked up on it or you were left out.” Jaglom says even he has wondered why he and Welles got along so well. “We were both artists who were very adamant, and we weren’t that concerned with commercial success,” he offers, adding that “we made each other laugh all the time. I could get him out of his sadness, and I could offer him youthful hopefulness.”
The fact that Jaglom hid his tape recorder allowed Welles to feel less self-conscious. He only gave himself away once, Jaglom says, in 1984. “Is it on?” Welles asked. He was talking at that moment about John Houseman, the actor who had been Welles’ great friend in the past but was his bitter rival as their lives came to a close. Being recorded by Jaglom “was a very handy way for him to get his truth out,” Jaglom says. “He had been reviled by so many people for so many things, and he wanted to set the record straight, and this is the way I think he thought he would do it.”
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.