“Orson has a reputation as somewhat of a—I’m trying to think of a better word than liar—someone who exaggerates and embellishes everything,” says Patrick McGilligan. His newest biography of Orson Welles’ life up to the release of Citizen Kane, Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane, makes the case that, contrary to film buff lore, for the most part Welles told the truth to interviewers like Peter Bogdanovich, friends, and colleagues when he spoke about his Midwestern childhood, his young adult life as a rising actor, and his early years in Hollywood.
McGilligan suspected early in his research that Welles was more truthful than what his reputation portrayed, so he drew on his journalistic background as a reporter for The Boston Globe and The New York Times, and tasked himself with fact-checking both the director’s claims about his own life, and those of his biographers. “Usually if you follow [Welles’] anecdotes, and try to triangulate them with newspaper headlines or dates or other people’s memories, you find that what he said happened actually happened,” says McGilligan.
Instead, McGilligan found the stories and theories of Welles penned by his previous biographers and critics wanting. Barbara Leaming’s biography, Orson Welles: A Biography, and the writing on Welles by older critics like Peter Noble and Pauline Kael meet with a good deal of skepticism in Young Orson. “I’m not saying that all the books were wrong, or inaccurate or skewed, but nobody had taken the time to be very careful about writing a story about his early years that would explain him in a more sympathetic or nuanced fashion,” says McGilligan, who has never been shy about disagreeing with previous accounts of his subjects’ lives and work. His biography of Alfred Hitchcock refuted Donald Spoto’s largely negative portrait of the director, The Dark Side of Genius. Another of his biographies, this one of Clint Eastwood, intended to show a side of the director’s life that wasn’t “inordinately admiring and fawning” like most of the existing literature on the subject, as McGilligan explains. (Eastwood ended up suing McGilligan over the author’s scathing portrait of him, but the suit was, according to McGilligan, resolved without penalty. An updated edition McGilligan’s Eastwood biography, Clint: The Life and Legend, was published earlier this year.)
Researching Welles’ childhood, McGilligan spent long hours scanning local papers from the 1930s on microfilm in the public library in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where the director spent his early youth. There, he discovered that Welles’ parents were not only local celebrities but they had far more of a positive influence over the director’s childhood than other Welles biographers such as Leaming had claimed. Research into Welles’ life right after high school took him to Ireland where he dove into Welles’ acting origins at The Gate theater and the formation of his first stage family, the beginning of the director’s lifetime habit of surrounding and supporting himself with “cronies and friends and collaborators that he was always shrewd about collecting around him as he travels the globe,” McGilligan explains.
In the section on Welles’ early years in Hollywood, McGilligan adds his perspective to old debates such as: to whom should the Citizen Kane script be attributed, Welles or Herman J. Mankiewicz, one of Welles’ frequent collaborators? Welles fans might remember that this was the debate ignited by Pauline Kael’s essay “Raising Kane” which was published in The New Yorker in 1971. McGilligan weighs in by writing that even Welles acknowledged Mankiewicz’s fundamental contribution: he edited a credit sheet that had listed him as the first screenwriter, putting Mankiewicz first. And as far as Rosebud is concerned? Spoiler alert: that was Mankiewicz, who took the name from a racehorse that figured in his past.
This period originated another biographical mischaracterization of Welles that McGilligan would like to correct: that of his outsized love life. There are children attributed to him in the New York Times and on Wikipedia who aren’t his, and the rumors around a lot of his alleged love affairs originated with pillow talk, according to McGilligan. “This is a dedicated artist and entertainer who didn’t sleep because he was trying to figure out what he was going to do for these various projects,” he says.
These corrections to the record are in service of a crucial point McGilligan makes: Welles should be known for his artistry, which tied into his outsized persona, but also transcended it. “If you read about his early years you see he had a true compass,” says McGilligan. “You have to admire his zeal for art and his dedication to doing things his own way and that he would do anything to get there....[Welles] remains a lone star for all artists and entertainers — a guy that’s just determined to get the show on as good as possible, according to his vision as an artist, and if possible make money, and if not go broke and enjoy the hell out of it.”
Alexia Nader is a writer in San Francisco and an editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly.