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From the Time Capsule: Lunch Conversations With Orson Welles

Welles in May 1985, five months before he died. (Photo: Michael O’Neill)

In the early eighties, Orson Welles was a fixture at L.A.’s Ma Maison, where Wolfgang Puck was the chef before he moved on to Spago. Nearing 70, and 40-plus years removed from Citizen Kane, which he made when he was just 25, Welles was fat and famously difficult, no longer a viable star but still a sort of Hollywood royalty—a very certain sort. The younger director Henry Jaglom was one of many aspiring auteurs who admired him but possibly the only one who taped their conversations. These took place in 1983 over lunch at the restaurant.

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1.

Orson Welles: All right, what are we gonna eat?

Henry Jaglom: I’m going to try the chicken salad.

O.W.: No, you aren’t! You don’t like it with all those capers.

H.J.: I’m going to ask them to scrape the capers away.

O.W.: They’re so busy, this would be a great day to send a dish back to the chef.

The waiter arrives.

Waiter: Would you wish the salad with grapefruit and orange?

O.W.: That’s a terrible idea. It’s awful—typically German.

H.J.: They ruined the chicken salad when they started using that mustard. It’s a whole different chicken salad.

O.W.: They have a new chef.

Waiter: Roast pork?

O.W.: Oh my God. On a hot day, roast pork? I can’t eat pork. But I’ll order it, just to smell pork.

The waiter departs.

H.J.: Isn’t it terrible about Tennessee Williams? Did you hear how he died?

O.W.: Only that he died last night. How did he die?

H.J.: There was a special kind of pipe that he used to inhale something.

O.W.: Some dope? Or maybe a roast-beef sandwich. I’d like to be somebody who died alone in a hotel room—just keel over, the way people used to.

Ken Tynan had the funniest story about Tennessee he never printed. He and Tennessee went to Cuba together as guests of Castro. And they were in the massimo leader’s office, and there are several other people there, people close to El Jefe, including Che Guevara. Tynan spoke a little fractured Spanish, and ­Castro spoke quite good English, and they were deep in conversation. But ­Tennessee had gotten a little bored. He was sitting off, by himself. And he motioned over to Guevara and said (in a southern accent), “Would you mind ­running out and getting me a couple of tamales?”

H.J.: Do you think Tynan made it up?

O.W.: Tynan wasn’t a fantasist. Tennessee certainly said it to somebody. But I’ve suspected that he improved it, maybe, by making it Guevara.

Agent Swifty Lazar enters.

Swifty Lazar: Just wanted to say “Hello.”

O.W.: You look wonderful.

S.L.: I feel good. Orson, you take care of yourself.

O.W.: What, do you think I look badly?

S.L.: No, you look great.

Lazar exits.

O.W.: I don’t like people to say, “Take care of yourself.” He hasn’t changed in 30 years. Lives in a hotel. Orders a whole lot of towels, and when he goes from the bathroom to his bed, he lays down a path of towels.

H.J.: He’s that nuts about germs?

O.W.: I’ve seen it. With my own eyes.

H.J.: What does he think he’ll get through his feet?

O.W.: Hookworm. From the Ritz, you know? Mania.

H.J.: By the way, I was just reading ­Garson Kanin’s book on Tracy and Hepburn.

O.W.: Hoo boy! I sat in makeup during Kane, and she was next to me, being made up for A Bill of Divorcement. And she was describing how she was fucked by Howard Hughes, using all the four-letter words. Most people didn’t talk like that then. Except Carole Lombard. It came naturally to her. She couldn’t talk any other way. With Katie, though, who spoke in this high-class, girl’s-finishing-school accent, you thought that she had made a decision to talk that way. Grace Kelly also slept around, in the dressing room when nobody was looking, but she never said anything. Katie was different. She was a free woman when she was young. Very much what the girls are now. I was never a fan of Tracy.

H.J.: You didn’t find him charming as hell?

O.W.: No, no charm. To me, he was just a hateful, hateful man. I think Katie just doesn’t like me. She doesn’t like the way I look. Don’t you know there’s such a thing as physical dislike? Europeans know that about other Europeans. If I don’t like somebody’s looks, I don’t like them. See, I believe that it is not true that different races and nations are alike. I’m ­profoundly convinced that that’s a total lie. I think people are different. Sardinians, for example, have stubby little fingers. ­Bosnians have short necks.

H.J.: Orson, that’s ridiculous.

O.W.: Measure them. Measure them!
I never could stand looking at Bette Davis, so I don’t want to see her act, you see. I hate Woody Allen physically, I dislike that kind of man.

H.J.: I’ve never understood why. Have you met him?

O.W.: Oh, yes. I can hardly bear to talk to him. He has the Chaplin disease. That particular combination of arrogance and timidity sets my teeth on edge.

H.J.: He’s not arrogant; he’s shy.

O.W.: He is arrogant. Like all people with timid personalities, his arrogance is ­unlimited. Anybody who speaks quietly and shrivels up in company is unbelievably ­arrogant. He acts shy, but he’s not. He’s scared. He hates himself, and he loves himself, a very tense situation. It’s people like me who have to carry on and pretend to be modest. To me, it’s the most embarrassing thing in the world—a man who presents himself at his worst to get laughs, in order to free himself from his hang-ups. Everything he does on the screen is therapeutic.

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2.

Waiter: Gentlemen, bon appétit. How is everything?

O.W.: We’re talking, thank you. [Waiter leaves.] I wish they wouldn’t do that. If I ever own a restaurant, I will never allow the waiters to ask if the diners like their dishes. Particularly when they’re talking.

H.J.: What is wrong with your food?

O.W.: It’s not what I had yesterday.

H.J.: You want to try to explain this to the waiter?

O.W.: No, no, no. One complaint per table is all, unless you want them to spit in the food. Let me tell you a story about George Jean Nathan, America’s great drama critic. Nathan was the tightest man who ever lived, even tighter than Charles Chaplin. And he lived for 40 years in the Hotel Royalton, which is across from the Algonquin. He never tipped anybody in the Royalton, not even when they brought the breakfast, and not at Christmastime. After about ten years of never getting tipped, the room-service waiter peed slightly in his tea. Everybody in New York knew it but him. The waiters hurried across the street and told the waiters at Algonquin, who were waiting to see when it would finally dawn on him what he was drinking! And as the years went by, there got to be more and more urine and less and less tea. And it was a great pleasure for us in the theater to look at a leading critic and know that he was full of piss. And I, with my own ears, heard him at the ‘21’ complaining, saying, “Why can’t I get tea here as good as it is at the Royalton?” That’s when I fell on the floor, you know.

H.J.: They keep writing in the papers that, ever since Wolfgang Puck left, this place has gone downhill.

O.W.: I don’t like Wolfgang. He’s a little shit. I think he’s a terrible little man.

H.J.: Warren Beatty was just saying that TV has changed movies, because for most of us, once you’re in a movie theater, you commit, whether you like it or not. You want to see what they’ve done, while at home …

O.W.: I’m the opposite. It’s a question of age. In my real moviegoing days, which were the thirties, you didn’t stand in line. You strolled down the street and sallied into the theater at any hour of the day or night. Like you’d go in to have a drink at a bar. Every movie theater was partially empty. We never asked what time the movie began. We used to go after we went to the theater.

H.J.: You didn’t feel you had to see a movie from the start?

O.W.: No. We’d leave when we’d realize, “This is where we came in.” Everybody said that. I loved movies for that reason. They didn’t cost that much, so if you didn’t like one, it was, “Let’s do something else. Go to another movie.” And that’s what made it habitual to such an extent that walking out of a movie was what for people now is like turning off the television set.

H.J.: Were things really better in the old days?

O.W.: It’s terrible for older people to say that, because they always say things were better, but they really were. What was so good about it was just the quantity of movies that were made. If you were Darryl Zanuck, and you were producing 80 moving pictures under your direct supervision, how much attention could you pay to any one picture? Somebody was gonna slip something in that’s good.

I got along well with even the worst of the old moguls. They were all easier to deal with than these college-­educated, market-conscious people. I never really suffered from the “bad old boys.” I’ve only suffered from lawyers and agents. Wasn’t it Norman Mailer who said that the great new art form in ­Hollywood is the deal? Everybody’s energy goes into the deal. Forty-five years I have been doing business with agents, as a performer and a director. As a producer, sitting on the other side of the desk, I have never once had an agent go out on a limb for his client and fight for him. I’ve never heard one say, “No, just a minute! This is the actor you should use.” They will always say, “You don’t like him? I’ve got somebody else.” They’re totally spineless.

H.J.: In the old days, all those big deals were made on a handshake. With no contract. And they were all honored.

O.W.: In common with all Protestant or Jewish cultures, America was developed on the idea that your word is your bond. Otherwise, the frontier could never have been opened, ’cause it was lawless. A man’s word had to mean something. My theory is that everything went to hell with Prohibition, because it was a law nobody could obey. So the whole concept of the rule of law was corrupted at that moment. Then came Vietnam, and marijuana, which clearly shouldn’t be illegal, but is. If you go to jail for ten years in Texas when you light up a joint, who are you? You’re a lawbreaker. It’s just like Prohibition was. When people accept breaking the law as normal, something happens to the whole society. You see?

Richard Burton comes to the table.

Richard Burton: Orson, how good to see you. It’s been too long. You’re looking fine. Elizabeth is with me. She so much wants to meet you. Can I bring her over to your table?

O.W.: No. As you can see, I’m in the middle of my lunch. I’ll stop by on my way out.

Burton exits.

H.J.: Orson, you’re behaving like an asshole. That was so rude.

O.W.: Do not kick me under the table. I hate that. I don’t need you as my ­conscience, my Jewish Jiminy Cricket. Especially do not kick my boots. You know they protect my ankles. Richard Burton had great talent. He’s ruined his great gifts. He’s become a joke with a celebrity wife. Now he just works for money, does the worst shit. And I wasn’t rude. To quote Carl Laemmle, “I gave him an evasive answer. I told him, ‘Go fuck yourself.’ ”

H.J.: So you’re saying he sold out, and you didn’t.

O.W.: In his time, Sam Goldwyn was considered a classy producer because he never deliberately did anything that wasn’t his idea of the best quality goods. I respected him for that. He was an honest merchant. He may have made a bad ­picture, but he didn’t know it was a bad picture. And he was funny. He actually once said to me, in that high voice of his, “Orson, for you I’d write a blanket check.” He said, “With Warner Brothers, a verbal commitment isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

Gregg Toland, who shot so many ­Goldwyn pictures, told me that in Russia, if you didn’t see every actor’s face brilliantly, they had to go back and reshoot it. Sam was the same way. Whenever there wasn’t a bright light on a star’s face for 30 ­seconds, he went nuts: “I’m paying for that face! I want to see the actor!” Long shots, all right, but no shadows.

H.J.: Did anyone else offer you movies besides Goldwyn?

O.W.: Mayer offered me his studio! He was madly in love with me, because I wouldn’t have anything to do with him, you know? Twice he brought me over—spent all day wooing me. He called me “Orse.” Whenever he sent for me, he burst into tears, and once he fainted. To get his way. It was fake, ­absolutely fake. The deal was, I’d have the studio, but I’d have to stop acting, directing, and writing—making pictures. But Mayer was self-­righteous, smarmy, waving the American flag, doing deals with the Purple Gang in Detroit—

H.J.: The Purple Gang in Detroit?

O.W.: Before the unions, it was all Mafia. But no one called it the Mafia. Just said “the mob.”

H.J.: Did you know any of them? Meyer Lansky?

O.W.: Very well. He was probably the No. 1 gangster in America. I knew them all. You had to. If you lived, as I did, on Broadway during that period, if you lived in nightclubs, you could not not know them. I liked screwing the chorus girls, and I liked meeting all the different people who would come in, and I liked staying up until five in the morning, and they used to love to go to nightclubs. They would come and sit at your table.

H.J.: How do you think Lee Strasberg did with Hyman Roth in Godfather II?

O.W.: Much better than the real thing. Meyer Lansky was a boring man. Hyman Roth is who he should have been! They all should have been like that, and none of them were. The Godfather was the glorification of a bunch of bums who never existed. The best of them were the kind of people you’d expect to drive a beer truck. They had no class. The classy gangster is a Hollywood invention. But Thalberg was the biggest single villain in the history of Hollywood. Before him, a producer made the least contribution, by necessity. The producer didn’t direct, he didn’t act, he didn’t write—so, therefore, all he could do was either (a) mess it up, which he didn’t do very often, or (b) tenderly caress it. Support it. Producers would only go to the set to see that you were on budget, and that you didn’t burn down the scenery.

H.J.: Didn’t the other studio heads interfere with their directors?

O.W.: None of the old hustlers did that much harm. But once you got the educated producer, he has a desk, he’s gotta have a function, he’s gotta do something. He’s not running the studio and counting the money—he’s gotta be creative. That was Thalberg. The director became the fellow whose only job was to say “Action” and “Cut.” Suddenly you were “just a director” on a “Thalberg production.” A role had been created in the world. Just as there used to be no conductor of symphonies.

H.J.: F. Scott Fitzgerald must have been impressed by him, to make him the model for The Last Tycoon.

O.W.: Writers always fell for his shtick. Writers are so insecure that when he said, “I don’t write, but I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this,” they just lapped it up. By the way, there were better scripts written, on the whole—this is a generalization, but it’s my opinion—even when writers considered that they were slumming by coming out here. Faulkner and everybody. “We’re going out there to get some money.” Still, they did an honest job for that money, because instead of going back to their little place up in the Hollywood Hills to write their scripts, they had to eat with each other every day in the studio commissary, which made for a competitive situation.

H.J.: But Thalberg was also creative. At least from Fitzgerald’s point of view.

O.W.: Well, that’s my definition of ­“villain.” He obviously had this power. He convinced Mayer that without him, his movies wouldn’t have any class. Remember that quote Mayer gave? All the other moguls were “dirty kikes making nickelodeon movies.” He used to say that to me all the time.

H.J.: When Mayer found you, you were very young, and very attractive, very magnetic.

O.W.: That’s why he loved me; he thought I was another Thalberg.

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3.

H.J.: Did the French know about Kane?

O.W.: I thought it had been a big success in Paris. When I arrived there, I found that it had not been. They didn’t know who I was. The first thing they heard about it was the violent attack by Jean-Paul Sartre. Wrote a long piece, 40,000 words on it or something.

H.J.: Well, maybe it politically offended him in some way.

O.W.: No. I think it was because Kane is a comedy.

H.J.: It is?

O.W.: Sure. In the classic sense of the word. Not a fall-in-the-aisles-laughing comedy, but because the tragic trappings are parodied.

H.J.: I never thought of Kane as a ­comedy. It’s profoundly moving.

O.W.: It’s moving, but so can comedies be moving. There is a slight camp to all the great Xanadu business. And Sartre, who has no sense of humor, couldn’t react to it at all.

Waiter: Shall we show you desserts?

O.W.: Don’t bring us a dessert for the next two minutes. But I’d like a café espresso.

Waiter: Décaféiné?

O.W.: Oui, décaféiné—oui.

Waiter leaves.

H.J.: Was it Norma Shearer, Thalberg’s widow, who was killed in that plane crash?

O.W.: No, no. She wasn’t killed in a plane. That was another thing that is amazing. After Thalberg died, Norma Shearer—one of the most minimally ­talented ladies ever to appear on the ­silver screen, and who looked like ­nothing, with one eye crossed over the other—went right on being the queen of Hollywood. Everybody used to say, “Mrs. Thalberg is coming,” “Miss Shearer is arriving,” as though they were talking about Sarah Bernhardt.

H.J.: Or Marie Antoinette.

O.W.: You’re thinking of what’s-her-name—the good one.

H.J.: Gable’s girlfriend—Carole Lombard.

O.W.: His wife. I adored her. She was a very close friend of mine. And I don’t mean to imply that we were ever lovers. Do you know why her plane went down?

H.J.: Why?

O.W.: It was full of big-time American physicists, shot down by the Nazis. She was one of the only civilians on the plane. The plane was filled with bullet holes.

H.J.: It was shot down by who?

O.W.: Nazi agents in America. It’s a real thriller story.

H.J.: That’s preposterous.

O.W.: The people who know it, know it. It was greatly hushed up. The official story was that it ran into the mountain.

H.J.: The agents had antiaircraft guns?

O.W.: No. In those days, the planes couldn’t get up that high. They’d just clear the mountains. The bad guys knew the exact route that the plane had to take. They were standing on a ridge, which was the toughest thing for the plane to get over. One person can shoot a plane down, and if they had five or six people there, they couldn’t miss. Now, I cannot swear it’s true. I’ve been told this by people who swear it’s true, who I happen to believe. But that’s the closest you can get, without having some kind of security clearance.

No one wanted to admit that we had people in the middle of America who could shoot down a plane for the Nazis. Because then everybody would start denouncing anybody with a German grandmother. Which Roosevelt was very worried about. The First World War had only happened some twenty-odd years before. He’d seen the riots against ­Germans. And he was very anxious for nothing like that to be repeated. He was really scared about what would happen to the Japanese if all the rednecks got started.

H.J.: So his idea was to protect them? That’s why he rounded them up and put them in camps?

O.W.: Yes.

H.J.: You knew Roosevelt, right?

O.W.: Yes, I kept him up too late. He liked to stay up and talk, you see. He was free with me. I didn’t need to be ­manipulated. He didn’t need my vote. He used to say, “You and I are the two best actors in America.”

Excerpted from My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, by Peter Biskind, to be published next month by Metropolitan Books. Copyright © 2013 by Peter Biskind. All rights reserved.

*This article originally appeared in the June 24, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Michael O'Neill/New York Magazine; Michael O'Neill/New York Magazine