My Lunches With Orson

Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles

by Peter Biskind

My Lunches With Orson

Hardcover, 306 pages, Metropolitan Books, List Price: $28 | purchase

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Book Summary

Based on long-lost recordings, a set of revealing conversations between the film historian author and the iconic cultural provocateur unstintingly reflects on topics ranging from politics and literature to the shortcomings of his friends and the many films Welles wanted to make.

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Excerpt: My Lunches With Orson

Part One

1983

At lunch at Ma Maison, I encountered Orson standing with difficulty to embrace me after several months with great warmth (or what seems like great warmth, I have never been quite sure), and I am always moved, as I was today. And as always, amazingly for me, I was somewhat at a loss for what to say, and all I came up with was some general pleasantry/banality on the order of, "How is everything?" Orson answered me with, "Oh, I don't know, do you?" And I, acknowledging that my question had been excessive in scope, reduced it to, "How is everything today?" To which he answered, happy that he had forced greater specificity: "Fine ... as of this hour."

Then tonight, two hours ago as I twirled the television dial, I was astonished to find myself watching the opening newsreel segment of Citizen Kane. I have just finished watching him grow old with makeup and acting skill on a body in its twenties, in a film designed by his mind in its twenties, and the film—and he in it—are so affecting and so near-perfect that the idea of watching anything else after seemed incomprehensible. I wonder, Was there nothing for him to do with the rest of his life after making it, is that his secret and does he know it? Citizen Kane his "rosebud"?

—HENRY JAGLOM, Journal Entry, April 2, 1978


1. "Everybody should be bigoted."

In which Orson turns restaurant reviewer, confesses that he never understood why Katharine Hepburn disliked him, but knew why he disliked Spencer Tracy. He detested the Irish, despite his friendship with John Ford, and liked right-wingers better than left-wingers.


(Jaglom enters, Welles struggles out of his chair to greet him. They embrace, kissing each other on the cheek in the European way.)

Henry Jaglom: (To Kiki) How are you, Kiki?

Orson Welles: Look out — she'll bite you ... All right, what are we gonna eat?

HJ: I'm going to try the chicken salad.

OW: No, you aren't! You don't like it with all those capers.

HJ: I'm going to ask them to scrape the capers away.

OW: Then let me tell you what they have on their hands in the kitchen.

HJ: It must be nuts in the kitchen. I've never seen it this packed.

OW: They're so busy, this would be a great day to send a dish back to the chef.

HJ: You know, Ma Maison is not my idea of the legendary restaurants of Hollywood. The romance for me was Romanoff's. And then I got here and there was no Romanoff's.

OW: Yeah! Romanoff's only stayed open until forty-three or forty-four. It had a short life. Romanoff's and Ciro's were the two restaurants that we did all the romancing in, and they both closed. Everybody was photographed with the wrong person coming out, you know? Romanoff's is a parking lot now, and when it was going broke, Sinatra came with sixteen violins and sang every night for three weeks for free, to try and help the business. We all went every night. It was sensational. Don the Beachcombers was another great place to take the wrong girl because it was dark. Nobody could see anybody.

HJ: What about Chasen's?

OW: Chasen's was a barbecue place, originally. I was one of the original backers of Chasen's — and Romanoff's.

HJ: You owned Romanoff's?

OW: Yes, and he never gave me anything. Nor did Chasen. I was a founder of both those restaurants. Me and a lot of suckers. We didn't expect anything from Romanoff because he was a crook. And Dave Chasen somehow forgot the original barbecue backers when his became a big restaurant.

Ma Maison was started in 1973, and continues. I wouldn't go for a long time because of the unlisted phone number. It irritated me so. It's a snobbish business not having a phone number. Somebody gave the number out on television, just to be bitchy. I don't envy these guys, though. It's a tough, tough business to run a restaurant.

Waiter: Going to have a little lunch today? We have scallops, if you want, Mr. Welles. Plain, or we have them prepared with a petite legume.

OW: No, it would have to be plain. Let's see what other choices I have.

W: Just in case, no more crab salad.

OW: No more crab salad. Wish you hadn't mentioned it. I wouldn't have known what I wasn't gonna get!

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

OW: That's a terrible idea. A weird mixture. It's awful — typically German. We're having the chicken salad without ... without capers.

HJ: They ruined the chicken salad when they started using that mustard. It's a whole different chicken salad.

OW: They have a new chef.

W: And roast pork?

OW: Oh, my God. On a hot day, roast pork? I can't eat pork. My diet. But I'll order it, just to smell pork. Bassanio says to Shylock: "If it please you to dine with us." And Shylock says: "Yes, to smell pork; to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into. I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you."

HJ: Isn't there something about the devil taking the shape of a pig in the Bible? Or did Shakespeare invent that?

OW: No, Jesus did put a whole group of devils into the Gadarene swine. Shakespeare was just trying to give Shylock a reason for not eating with them.

HJ: I would like the grilled chicken.

W: Okay.

OW: And a cup of capers.

W: Capers?

HJ: No, no — that's his joke.

OW: So I'll have a soft-shell crab. Alas, he breads it. I wish he didn't, but he does. I'll eat it anyway. Est-que vous avez l'aspirine? Have you any aspirin?

W: Of course. Here you are, Monsieur Welles.

HJ: Do you have some pain or something?

OW: I have all kinds of rheumatic pains today. The knees. I always say it's my back, because I get more sympathy. But I've got a bad right knee, which is what makes me limp and walk badly. The weather must be changing. I never believed that, until I became arthritic. I just started to ache the last half hour. I think it's gonna rain or something. Aspirin is great stuff. I have no stomach problems, and no allergy to it.

(Waiter exits.)

HJ: Isn't that terrible, the Tennessee Williams thing? Did you hear how he died?

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

HJ: There was a special kind of pipe that he used to inhale something. And it stopped him from being able to swallow or breathe, or ...

OW: Some dope? Or maybe a roast beef sandwich.

HJ: "Natural causes." Then they went to "unknown causes." So mysterious.

OW: 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 he never printed. He and Tennessee went to Cuba together as guests of [Fidel] 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, kind of 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?"

HJ: Do you think Tynan made it up?

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

Did I ever tell you about the play of his I lost, like a fool, to [Elia] Kazan? Eddie Dowling, who used to be a producer on Broadway, sent me a play by a writer called Tennessee Williams. I didn't even read it. I said, "I can't do this; I just can't consider a play now." It was called The Glass Menagerie.

HJ: The Glass Menagerie — my God.

OW: If I had done The Glass Menagerie, I would have done all those others. A big dumb mistake.

From My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles by Peter Biskind. Copyright 2013 by Peter Biskind. Excerpted by permission of Metropolitan Books.

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