Early Life

While the universe of film, TV, radio, and music stars glitters with stories of people who made good after childhoods in which they were underrated or underappreciated, their potential not recognized, Orson Welles was early recognized as a comet that would blaze a dazzling trail.

“The word genius was whispered into my ear, the first thing I ever heard while I was still mewling in my crib,” Welles told biographer Barbara Leaming. He began mewling on May 16, 1915, christened George Orson Welles, the child of Dick and Beatrice.

A head wound suffered by the young Orson brought a doctor named Maurice Bernstein into the Welles’ home. The doctor immediately sprouted the opinion that the boy was a prodigy, a genius in the making. He began calling him Pookles and Orson developed the nickname Dadda for Dr. Bernstein as the two of them began a mentor-student relationship.

Dadda initiated a young Orson into a group of adults in Chicago’s music scene, which convened at the home of critic Ned Moore. Orson learned, as young as five or six, to mingle like an adult, and was told that like him mother he’d be a musician.

But he first saw the stage as an actor, playing roles in productions of Samson and Delilah and Madame Butterfly.

The careful cultivation from his mother and from Dadda--who had an all-too-close relationship with Beatrice before and after the latter’s separation from Orson’s father--took a sharp turn in 1924, when Beatrice died of acute atrophy of the liver.

Orson spent several months over the next year traveling the globe with his father.

Eventually, after the initial shock from his mother’s death and a time of adjustment, Orson was enrolled in the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois. There, he dived headlong into acting, writing and directing plays. He played the classic roles of Richard III, Marc Antony, and Cassius, and once, according to Orson Welles by Barbara Leaming, “both Androcles and the Lion.”

At Todd, Orson developed a style as a confident, talented, slightly flamboyant over-achiever, but one who was admired more than he enjoyed many intimate friendships. He was openly fawned over by the school’s headmaster, Roger “Skipper” Hill, and his classmates noticed.

One of them, Hascy Tarbox, told Leaming, “Orson would’ve been better off if he hadn’t had so much adulation, and he’d had to play ball with the rest of the world.”

However easy life really was on Welles, it was about to get tougher. At the age of fifteen, he lost his second parent, when his father died in a hotel fire.
While Welles had traveled with his father after the death of his mother, this time he went it alone, striking out for Ireland. There, he made it to Dublin’s Gate Theatre, where he auditioned for Hilton Edwards and Micheal MacLiammoir, winning the role of the Duke in Jew Suss.

His character made his entrance into the production disheveled, hair askew, having raped Jew Suss’s daughter. Though it was a small role, it won acclaim for Welles, including a glowing notice from The New York Times. A confident, brash eighteen-year-old, Welles had momentum and every reason to believe he was on the cusp of a stellar acting career.

He nabbed other roles in productions at The Gate, including those in The Dead Ride Fast, The Archdupe, Death Takes a Holiday, and Hamlet.

He returned to Todd and to various drama-oriented projects, but a more formative experience came in Morocco. There, Orson met a curator at a Dutch museum with whom he was able to tag along for a brief stay at the palace of Thami el Glaoui, Pasha of Marrakesh. It was the scene of dancing, music, feasting, and the favors of royal concubines.

However, it was back in the states where Orson made the acquaintance of now-noted playwright Thornton Wilder. Wilder put the young thespian in touch with Guthrie McClintic and Katharine Cornell, who were assembling a cast of characters for a lengthy theatrical tour. One performance of Romeo and Juliet garnered for Orson the praise of the Chicago Tribune: “He reads the Queen Mab speech with merry flourishes, and he plunges into the duel scene with a fine fury of swordsmanship.”

Thus, Welles was poised and ready to break into true stardom.

Leaming, Barbara. Orson Welles New York: Viking. 1983.
Naremoer. The Magic World of Orson Welles Oxford University Press. 1978.


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