Growing Up With Orson Welles As Her Father

The name Orson Welles has the power to jog millions of memories. His radio work sent the nation into a panic. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Chris Welles Feder about her new book, In My Father's Shadow, an account of her life growing up as the daughter of Orson Welles.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The name Orson Welles has the power to jog millions of memories. His radio work sent the nation into a panic.

(Soundbite of radio show)

Mr. ORSON WELLES (Filmmaker): This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that "The War of the Worlds" has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. A Mercury Theater's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and say boo. Starting now, we couldn't soak all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the next best thing: We annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it and that both institutions are still open for business.

HANSEN: Orson Welles was a thorn in the side of the movie establishment, but his films are classics.

(Soundbite of film, "Citizen Kane")

Mr. WELLES: Rosebud.

HANSEN: And then there was his deep, resonant voice.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Mr. WELLES: We will sell no wine before it's time.

HANSEN: Chris Welles Feder describes Orson Welles' voice as melting chocolate. Chris is his daughter and has written a new memoir called "In My Father's Shadow," and she joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Ms. CHRIS WELLES FEDER (Author, "In My Father's Shadow"): Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

HANSEN: It's nice to have you. Your full first name is Christopher. Why were you given a boy's name?

Ms. FEDER: My father liked the name - that was the simple answer. And he decided even before I was born that I was going to be called Christopher because he thought Christopher Welles was a very musical name.

HANSEN: So, it didn't matter that you were a girl.

Ms. FEDER: It really didn't matter, no.

HANSEN: Yeah. What was he like, then, as a father to you? Was he distant or was he close?

Ms. FEDER: His mind was elsewhere. I mean, he was very preoccupied with his work. And so although he was always delighted to see me and would give me a big bear hug, before too long he would be off in his corner scribbling away on a movie script or smoking a cigar and reflecting on his next project. He really lived for his work.

HANSEN: Do you think he had one version of himself that was for public consumption and then another version of himself that he exposed to family and loved ones?

Ms. FEDER: That's a very good question because I think my father basically invented himself. At a certain point, maybe in his 40s, he had recreated himself. He told all these incredible stories about himself and his past and so on. They were vastly entertaining, but there was very little truth in any of them.

And so, at this point, it was hard to know, because he was the same person on the television talk shows as he was in private. You know, I think he'd become his own creation in a way. There was always a speck of truth in everything that my father said, but the trick was to find it.

HANSEN: I see.

Ms. FEDER: Because there was so much confabulation surrounding the few morsels of truth. It's as though the truth by itself wasn't entertaining enough. So, I think that was really - his wish was to entertain you.

HANSEN: How big a role would you say he played in your life?

Ms. FEDER: Oh, he played a monumental role. He was in many ways my inspiration. I modeled myself as much as I could on his values. And I would say that the times that we spent together had enormous resonance for me. And it wasn't so much the quantity of time as the quality of time that mattered.

HANSEN: How would you characterize his values - the ones that you learned from him?

Ms. FEDER: I guess all of us have some degree of prejudice, but he was perhaps the least prejudiced person I've ever known. He was very fair and evenhanded and even towards people who were not especially kind or just with him. He always tried to be evenhanded and to see the other point of view.

HANSEN: Yeah, those were lessons that were, I mean, really taught from real life, 'cause there was a time when your father, you know, the studios really didn't think his films were worth much. Even "Touch of Evil," they took the score that he wanted and put another score in. So, he got pretty disrespected in Hollywood for a while.

Ms. FEDER: Well, that's certainly true. And I think the obvious reason for that is that my father was making art films and Hollywood wanted entertainment. And so there was a very basic incompatibility there. And he tried desperately to make a movie that would be a box office hit. And he just wasn't able to do it. I mean, it was like King Midas, you know, everything he touched turned to gold. Well, it was like everything my father touched became art. And that really wasn't what Hollywood wanted. And I think that was at the base of his lack of acceptance there.

HANSEN: He died in October 1985. So, 24 years, why did you want to write a memoir now?

Ms. FEDER: That's also a good question. I have lived an intensely private life, and I think I decided to finally come out of hiding because there are so many books out there about him and none of them really reveal the Orson Welles that I knew.

HANSEN: Can you concisely describe the Orson Welles that you want us to know?

Ms. FEDER: Well, you know, it took me a whole book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEDER: It took me a whole book to really, because he's such a complex, fascinating, spellbinding person. And, of course, I knew him at different times in his life. I can't really sum him up in a few words. He's too complex.

HANSEN: And still mysterious, I bet.

Ms. FEDER: And mysterious and contradictory. You know, I just tried to make this mosaic in my book so that by the time you read the whole book, I hope you'll have a more accurate picture of this extraordinary man.

HANSEN: Do you ever accidentally come across one of his films on television?

Ms. FEDER: Oh, not accidentally. I usually look at the listings and I make sure to watch if it's going to be on television.

HANSEN: Chris Welles Feder's new memoir is called "In the Shadow of My Father: A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles," and she joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you very much.

Ms. FEDER: Thank you.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.