INTERVIEW: In My Father's Shadow: An Interview with Chris Welles Feder:
A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles
“Ignore your children and they will be obsessed with you for life.”—Alain de Botton
From the moment I saw In My Father’s Shadow: A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles in the Algonquin Books fall catalog, I knew that I must read the book and speak to author Chris Welles Feder. As the daughter of actor Lionel Stander (a contemporary of Welles), I wanted to learn how Feder managed to survive with—and more often, without—a famous, larger-than-life father.
Watching Daddy paint a hand puppet.
Credit: © Chris Welles Feder
A few days before she took off for California to start her book tour, I reached Feder by phone in her New York City home. The voice that greeted me was so youthful, I found it hard to believe it was coming from a 71-year-old. I started off by asking why she wrote In My Father’s Shadow.
“There are many books out there: biographies, scholarly tomes, even an encyclopedia of Orson Welles,” she answered. “But in none of them did I recognize the Orson Welles that I knew from my earliest childhood. I wanted to give him a human face, an intimate portrait as his daughter—the only one by a family member. Most of the other authors met him after he returned to the United States in 1970. But I am one of the few still alive who knew him at the vigorous time of his life, when he was at the top of his game.” (Welles died in 1985, at age 70.)
“I hope my book will clear up many misunderstandings and misperceptions,” Feder continued, “but also make clear some of the wonderful things about my father that aren’t as widely known.”
For example: “He was a man of great principles, who fought for what he knew was right. He fought for African-American culture at a time when the United States was racist. He directed a production of “Macbeth” in Harlem with an African-American cast, which was seen as revolutionary.” That was the 1936 Voodoo Macbeth, produced by John Houseman for the WPA’s Federal Negro Theater Project. And in spring 1941 Welles directed his and Houseman’s production of Richard Wright’s Native Son. “Putting it on Broadway was quite a bold act in its day.”
Why is Feder bringing out her memoir now? (And it’s not because of the imminent release of the film, “Me and Orson Welles,” which she was not involved with but is “very curious” to see.)
Chris Welles Feder/ Photo by Gregory Downer
“I’ve led an intensely private life,” she said. “It’s only since my father’s death that I’ve come out in public. The 2005 Orson Welles retrospective in Locarno got me to decide that I had to publish this book and say some things publicly in his defense.”
A writer her entire adult life, Feder traveled the world for Encyclopedia Britannica before becoming an author of the Brain Quest series of educational games. “But this was the most challenging thing I ever wrote. It was truly a labor of love. I also think it was good that I waited until I was mature, because I wanted to tell the story of my relationship with my father,” she said. “You have to get some distance to write with objectivity and understanding. I don’t think I could have written this book when I was younger.”
Feder, whom Welles named Christopher because he liked the sound of it, also wants to set the record straight about the important people in her father’s life “who are either thinly described or barely mentioned.” First off: her mother, Virginia Nicolson. Also Roger (‘Skipper’) and Hortense (‘Granny’) Hill, “who were really like his parents.” They ran a boys’ boarding school in Illinois, where Welles was sent at age 9 after his mother died. Feder lived with Skipper and Granny for nearly two years and attended their school while Virginia was “between marriages.”
“The Hills were very important to me,” Feder said. “As long as they lived, they never stopped trying to run interference” between her increasingly distant father, ever-colder mother and later, her domineering second stepfather.
Another person who gets short shrift in accounts of Welles is Croatian artist Oja Kodar, “whom my father loved more than any other woman in his life.” Twenty-six years his junior (i.e., three years younger than Feder), Kodar acted in several of Welles’s later, unfinished movies and lived with him during his last 20 years. Meanwhile he remained married to Italian third wife Paola Mori (who starred in his 1955 film “Mr. Arkadin”) and took great pains to keep Kodar hidden from his family. Feder didn’t meet her till after he died.
“In my book you get to know these people quite well, whereas in the vast Wellesian bibliography, my mother was only mentioned as a Chicago socialite, which she wasn’t.” Feder also paints a lively, loving picture of her first stepmother, Rita Hayworth, who married Welles in 1943 and divorced him some four years later. However, second stepmother Paola and half-sister Beatrice (born in 1955, six months after the wedding) are enigmas.
Horsing around the pool with Rita Hayworth and "Orsie," 1945
Credit: Peter Stackpole/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. © 1983 Time, Inc.
“We all grew up with different mothers, in different parts of the world. We hardly knew each other,” explained Feder. “I was there when Becky was born [in 1944] and I kept up with her as a teenager.” (She died in 2004.) “But the first time I saw Beatrice was when she was three. The next time was at my father’s funeral, when she was in her early thirties. So I’ve had almost no contact with her. It’s so strange because you’re biologically related, but you don’t know each other at all.”
As Charles Foster Kane, 26-year-old Welles raised a toast to “love on my terms. Those are the only terms that anybody ever knows—his own.” But for all the love he professed for his “clever, darling girl,” Feder writes, “Orson Welles could not be my daddy for more than a moment here and there. That was all I could expect of him. Moments that dazzled and then vanished like fireflies on a summer night."
The year after he died, “in a rare moment of empathy,” Virginia wrote to her daughter, "He loved you when you were in front of him, but he forgot you when you were out of sight. Just like everyone else in his life."
Orson directing the dancing girls in a scene from Citizen Kane (1941)
Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Virginia and her second husband, screenwriter Charlie Lederer, had won a suit against Welles for more child support, which “never materialized.” Nevertheless, he and Lederer became friends—even more remarkable considering that Lederer’s aunt was William Randolph Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies, lampooned as a drunken floozy in “Citizen Kane,” which Hearst nearly managed to suppress.
Feder’s description of weekends at San Simeon, Hearst’s 240,000-acre estate, reads like a fairy tale. Upon arrival her mother and Lederer went to a guest villa, while Feder and her nanny were sent to “the tower.” The walls of Feder’s cylindrical bedroom were hung with a mural of The Massacre of the Innocents, depicting “Roman soldiers hacking off babies’ heads, blood spurting from mutilated bodies.” Unsurprisingly, she spent every possible moment outside.
From California, Feder was sent to Illinois to live with the Hills. Then she was off to Rome for a few months, where her mother and new husband Jackie, a British war hero, were living—and so was Welles, who gave her magical tours of the city. From there she went to live in Johannesburg with Virginia and Jackie, followed by finishing school in Switzerland. Visits with her father in Europe became less frequent, and even when they were together he’d often disappear and turn her over to a “secretary.” After a 1951 trip to St. Moritz, Feder didn’t see him for two years. “I felt the whole world knew he had abandoned me,” she writes.
There was more abandonment in store: after meeting Welles in Hong Kong on one occasion, she didn’t see him for another eight years. Their relationship improved after she moved to New York in the late 1960s, with some notable hiccups. One was a disingenuous letter he wrote in 1970 about posing with Becky for a Jim Beam print ad.
Feder writes, “The implication behind my father’s jocular tone that his ‘greedy’ daughters had driven him to violate his conscience and prostitute his talent deeply offended me. Never in my life had I asked him for money, nor would I dream of doing so. Since the age of 17, as he well knew, I had been supporting myself with no help from anyone.”
During a rare visit with my father in 1980, I asked him whether he knew Welles. “Orson Welles is a whore!” Dad exploded. “He’d do anything for money.” I didn’t know then that my father had come up with the last bit of financing that enabled “Native Son” to open in 1941. Nor that he and the associate producer wound up owning 48% of the show.
This was news to Feder, who responded, “I think there was a tremendous amount of envy and jealousy of my father, which colored people’s perception of him. His last years were very, very tough because he had such a difficult time finding creative backing for his projects. People were always delighted to give him an award, but nobody would cough up the money to help him with his creative life.” Referring to the Paul Masson TV commercials he did (see one from 1977 here): “that takes a toll on you, to ‘sell no wine before its time,’ when you really want to get backing for your adaptation of ‘King Lear.’”
How was Feder able to forgive her father?
With Daddy in Saint Moritz, Switzerland, Christmas 1951
Credit: © Chris Welles Feder
“It took me my whole life to be understanding and accepting. That’s why it was good to wait to start writing this book till I was in my sixties,” she explained. “You can’t write a memoir when you’re raw, because it all comes out wrong.”
While he was alive, said Feder, “I was constantly hoping I could bring about a more normal everyday relationship with him. He wasn’t the father that I wanted him to be, but he had such a positive influence on me. I chose to lead a creative life largely because of him. I’m very proud to be his daughter because I respect his values and principles, and what he stood for.”
Visiting Daddy, Becky, and Pookles on South Carmelina Drive
Credit: © Chris Welles Feder
Most of all, she writes, “There was a shining innocence about Orson Welles that the world could not tarnish. And that was what I loved in him and why, in the end, I was always able to push aside anger and hurt.”
In one of their last phone conversations, Welles said to her, “They may turn their backs on me now, but you wait and see, darling girl. They’re gonna love me when I’m dead!”
He was right.