What follows is a portion of a work in progress examining the way Orson Welles and his films have been appropriated and recast in poetry and fiction. This section focuses on my own experience of writing an unusual kind of elegy.
Finally, it was time to compose my farewell poem on Orson Welles. He had died on October 10, 1985, and public tributes had circulated for a brief period, including editorials, columns, and essays in the entertainment press and intellectual journals, cartoons of homage, and TV network spots featuring the opening scene of Citizen Kane in which the dying tycoon utters the word “rosebud” as he expires. Welles as actor excelled in giving up the ghost in his films, those he directed like Citizen Kane, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, Macbeth, Chimes at Midnight, Othello, King Lear, and those he graced solely as a performer—The Stranger, Tomorrow is Forever, Black Magic, The Third Man, Three Cases of Murder, A Man for All Seasons. Marlene Dietrich, as a fortuneteller reading her magical cards in Touch of Evil, delivers the death’s head, figuratively speaking, when she tells the doomed Sheriff portrayed by Welles, “Your future is all used up.” That epitaph before the fact haunts much of the posthumous discourse about Welles.
When the mass media swiftly turned their attention elsewhere, poets were obliged by their reputation as the world’s greatest elegists to continue the obsequies. Few did so, but I pledged myself to testify to Welles’s profound corpus of great works on the screen. I knew the conventions; I had written analyses of numerous memorial poems about people, places, and things. The tradition abounds with POV alternatives for speaking well (and ill) of the illustrious deceased. And yet, the key problem of all such testimonials oppressed me: the sense of apprehension, and timidity, at addressing the glorious, or at least worthy, object of one’s reverence. Who was I to approach the casket and declaim about this shape-shifter, this otherworldly being whose now-bloated body had been screened from me by the screens on which I had watched him move and speak? Why write redundant words of praise about his genius? Why not remain mute and let the reigning bards turn their eloquence in his direction?
Who would that be, exactly? Archibald MacLeish, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, Muriel Rukeyser, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Robert Lowell—these had all served their generation as effective elegists, but all had died during the previous decade. Elizabeth Bishop may have been the first significant poet to speak in print, albeit in private, about Welles. In a letter dated September 29, 1936 she offered apologies to Marianne Moore for not including her in a group of friends on a New York outing: “I must tell you that we were going to the theatre that evening; we wanted to ask you to go with us, but it was a play just opening that we knew nothing about and hated to ask you to take the risk. It was so fortunate that we did not . . . because it was very bad, hardly endurable—Horse Eats Hat.” Welles and Edwin Denby had adapted this farce by Eugène Labiche in order to “giggle and make giggle” as Byron said of his work on Don Juan. It was the furthest thing from the somber plays of Nobel Prize-winning Eugene O’Neill they could contrive. Simon Callow reports that the play, directed by Welles, was “full of corny jokes, dadaist riffs, and schoolboy double entendres.” Bishop does not report in later letters that she saw any of Welles’s films. None impacted her, in any case, nor, for the most part, her generation of poets for whom Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers remained the more compelling muse figures, yielding to Marilyn Monroe at generation’s end. (MM is still the most frequent subject of poems about the movies.)
Following upon Welles’s first successes in the theater, months before the Invasion from Mars radio broadcast, TIME magazine placed his photo on the cover of their May 9, 1938 issue. He is disguised behind a large beard and his face is wrinkled into the grotesque visage of Captain Shotover from George Bernard Shaw’s play Heartbreak House. Welles loved to disguise himself as old men, a fact that bears on my comments further on. He was 22 years + 3 days old at the time, and you could not have chosen a more awesome archetype of the enfant terrible, already a major figure in New York theater and nationwide radio, with his sights clearly set on the cinema. The headnote for the Time article was “Marvelous Boy.”
Two points need to be made. First, “marvelous Boy” is the telling phrase Wordsworth chose for Thomas Chatterton, poet and suicide at age 17, in his troubled and troubling poem “Resolution and Independence.” Wordsworth’s friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge had previously written a full-dress elegy on this self-thwarted genius, who had disguised his archaic-sounding poems as the work of a fictive 15th-century poet, Thomas Rowley. In “Monody on the Death of Chatterton” the 18-year-old Coleridge plumbed the depths of self-pity in strained locutions as he brought to adolescent consciousness the corpse of Chatterton--as Henry Wallis would do in his famous painting in the next century.
Fated to heave sad Disappointment’s sigh,
To feel the Hope now rais’d, and now deprest,
To feel the burnings of an injured breast,
From all thy Fate’s deep sorrow keen
In vain, O Youth, I turn th’affrighted eye;
For powerful Fancy evernigh
The hateful picture forces on my sight.
Chatterton had conspired to deceive the public and earn fame by putting on a mask, and his presumption appealed to the early Romantics. “I thought of Chatterton, the marvelous Boy, / The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride.” Wordsworth’s lament has the effect of a curse as well as a fragment of praise. It is the fate of many ambitious artists to become re-embodied in art works, often as victims. Wordsworth is thinking of himself, and Coleridge, and other aspiring authors likely to be denounced and cast aside by the cultural establishment for daring to re-invent themselves as young heroes of the imagination, immortal bards, “Prophets of Nature.” Time was cautioning the insurgent young Orson even as it was celebrating him.
Second point. One of the likely readers of that issue of Time was F. Scott Fitzgerald, as he languished in Hollywood, tormented by nostalgia for his lost status as the Rising Sun of the Roaring Twenties. As Welles swiftly ascended like Apollo, Fitzgerald was entering middle age, laboring in 1938 as a rewrite man on dismal scripts unworthy of his talent. In his bitterness he published a short story, “Pat Hobby and Orson Welles,” in response to the news that Welles had negotiated a two-picture contract with RKO, with full control of each film down to the final cut. Pat Hobby, whom Fitzgerald regularly exhibited in issues of Esquire, is Fitzgerald’s comic double, a hack screenwriter working, or not working, at MGM Studios, who feels down to his toes the humiliation of the third-rate as he imagines being driven out of his profession by this marvelous boy sporting a beard to enhance his dignity. As Fitzgerald makes clear in the essays published posthumously as The Crack-Up, nothing, nothing, could replace for him the glory of those early years of upward mobility during the Jazz Age. In his droll story of Pat Hobby being mistaken on the studio lot for Orson Welles, because both are wearing a beard, Hobby dissolves into the same melancholy and jealousy that forced Coleridge’s “sad Disappointment’s sigh.” At story’s end Hobby, an embodiment of the superseded author, emerges as both a pathetic spectacle of ruin and, in the final antic scene, a trickster enjoying a momentary triumph.
Contemplating this convergence of themes and figures, I stumbled upon the solution to the question of how to write my elegy for Orson Welles. I would compose a soliloquy in the spirit of fan fiction, borrowing Pat Hobby to front for me as a mourner of the great writer/director/actor. I would constrain the lyric impulse that might make my poem presumptuous—yet still forge a connection to the location and ambition I shared with the actors in this imaginary drama. I grew up in Culver City, home of MGM. On my paper route I had peddled William Randolph Hearst’s signature newspaper, the Los Angeles Herald-Express, in bars on Washington Boulevard including The Retake Room where Fitzgerald drank his way toward debility while trying to finish his novel based on the boy-genius producer at MGM, Irving Thalberg. Like Pat Hobby I had no masterpiece in my vita; he would be my stand-in and shadow. What if he had lived fifty years on, watching Welles’s exile from Hollywood just as he had (in my imagination) grown up watching his own spurned creator decline and fall dead in 1940 of a heart attack? I found the voice I needed in Fitzgerald’s pitch-perfect sequence of slang-filled stories about Pat Hobby, a raffish survivor. So here is the ensuing scenario of envy and identification, my full-throated lament for the makers.
First published in Literature/Film Quarterly in 1988; reprinted in Cold Reading (Copper Beech Press, 1995)
I DOUBLED FOR ORSON WELLES
My creator, the boy wonder
who penned This Side of Paradise
so young it brings sappy tears
to my old jaundiced eyes. . .
at least he never lived to see
how Orson outsmarted himself,
watch Hollywood’s toughest ham
mug his way through fluff
even I could have improved.
Like me, he idled “between pictures”
most of his posthumous career,
like my author, too, shoring up
self-respect a whole decade
with my adventures, or worse,
while glamorizing Kid Thalberg
for his boffo comeback role.
Previews of fading attraction—that’s us,
my maker patching me into
the continuity of the golden age
like the “good man for structure” he was.
I was good enough to survive
thanks to Benzedrine and the races,
good enough to pass, once,
for an American original—
but that insert was a lousy joke
Scott made at my expense,
one of his many jokes on me
who all during deathwatch at the morgue
kept sober reciting his sentences
and touched his wrinkled hands
in the Wordsworth Room, waiting
for the next take or process shot
to lift this ungreyed extra
like Dracula out of his sleep.
He was put to bed with a shovel
and I lived half a century on.
If living is what it was.
The studio gates forever shut,
I drowned my sorrows in The Retake Room,
sponging from East Coast literati
with memoirs of my great original.
I made a pitch to young Orson
but he had his own Gatsby in the can—
a swell picture it was, too—
and roller-coastered out of sight.
Do you need to hear the rest?
A script so full of coincidence,
pathos, bravado, double-cross—
a hack job credits to credits.
And those young squirt producers!
Buttered and served up by the Times
as saviors of the industry,
those overdressed callboys
led him such a dog’s life. . .
Once after some goofy rushes of
The V.I.P.s we talked of Scott;
I said “The poor son of a bitch.”
Orson gazed off, soul-scratching,
and said, “The poor son of a bitch.”
Hollywood made and unmade me.
I learned my craft from The Great
Train Robbery, and I’ve seen all
the classics down to F for Fake—
my heart broke during that flick!
“It’s about you!” I told Orson
at a watering hole on Sunset.
“They’re all about me,” he intoned.
“What happened to heroes?” I shot back.
“Show me a hero,” he smiled hugely,
“and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
I could never script the story I lived;
Orson did, writing behind me,
and that gave us cheer to the end.
No, I didn’t visit his corpse;
I was afraid, if I tottered in,
swollen so fat on medication,
gnarled with disappointments,
I might shock the souvenir hunters.
Like a scene I once wrote for the B’s,
the living dead lurching into view,
the bit players flailing their arms,
gasping out a ghostly name—
“Orson,” they’d cry, “Orson, Orson!”
Laurence Goldstein is Professor of English at the University of Michigan and the author of four books of poetry as well as The American Poet at the Movies: A Literary History (1995) and Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essential Poems of the City (2014).