The legendary American actor-writer-director Orson Welles was born 100 years ago today. That’s as good a reason as any to contemplate how a meeting might have gone between the controversial creator of Citizen Kane and the author of The Grapes of Wrath. Despite different backgrounds, opposite personalities, and divergent careers, John Steinbeck and Orson Welles shared much, including progressive politics, Hollywood troubles, and rocky friendships with the actor Burgess Meredith. It’s hard to imagine their paths never crossed and amusing to consider what they talked about if they had the chance. Opposites attract, particularly when there’s a common enemy like William Randolph Hearst.
Orson Welles was born 100 years ago today. That’s as good a reason as any to contemplate a meeting between the controversial creator of Citizen Kane and the author of The Grapes of Wrath.
Steinbeck’s 1939 novel and Welles’s 1941 film both caused serious problems for their creators, arousing public opinion against powerful interests and incurring the wrath of powerful men like Hearst, the California media mogul portrayed by Welles in Citizen Kane. Burgess Meredith, the puckish actor who played George in the 1938 film Of Mice and Men, was a member of Welles’s theater company in New York and became a close friend of Welles and Steinbeck as a result of artistic collaboration. It’s possible Meredith suggested that Welles read Steinbeck’s short story “With Your Wings,” written (perhaps at Meredith’s urging) for radio broadcast in the 1940s.
Steinbeck’s 1939 novel and Welles’s 1941 film caused serious problems for their creators, arousing public opinion and incurring the wrath of men like William Randolph Hearst.
For years John Steinbeck, Orson Welles, and Burgess Meredith moved in New York and Hollywood entertainment circles dominated by parties, personalities, and adultery-and-divorce gossip (all three had multiple wives). In later life, Welles and Steinbeck fell out with Meredith, though for different reasons. Until that happened, however, both writers were close to Meredith, whose sunny side attracted moody men like Steinbeck and Welles. Movies and politics, fame and fortune, Meredith and Hearst: Orson Welles and John Steinbeck, lubricated and relaxed if chemistry clicked, would have plenty to talk about over drinks or at a party.
John Steinbeck, Orson Welles, and Biography
Robert DeMott, an enterprising scholar who thinks creatively along these lines, piqued my curiosity about a possible connection by suggesting that Burgess Meredith could have been Welles’s conduit for the radio broadcast of “With Your Wings.” In response to my question about the cloudy origin of Steinbeck’s story, Bob said Meredith knew both men well and was a member of the theater company that performed Welles’s sensational production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in Haiti and staged in Harlem, which made headlines and caught the attention of the Hollywood film establishment. History moved fast from there.
Meredith was a member of the theater company that performed Welles’s version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in Haiti and staged in Harlem, which made national headlines and caught Hollywood’s attention.
Meredith’s memoir, published 60 years later, recalls the excitement surrounding the production and relates incidents in the actor’s fraught friendships with Welles and Steinbeck. Unfortunately, So Far, So Good is weak on details and reveals nothing about Welles and Steinbeck having met. Nor does Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles, a film-focused account of Welles’s rapid rise and fall following the notoriety of Citizen Kane. But Brady’s perceptive portrait of a precocious, tormented genius suggests why Welles’s view of celebrity differed dramatically from Steinbeck’s, despite shared experience of publicized dalliances and divorces, film-studio mistreatment, and persecution by opponents in government and press.
Welles’s view of celebrity differed dramatically from Steinbeck’s, despite shared experience of publicized dalliances and divorces, film-studio mistreatment, and persecution by opponents in government and press.
Both men were autodidacts who read insatiably and relished the sound of words from an early age. Unlike Steinbeck, Welles was also an extroverted autocrat with an ability to project his voice, promote his talent, and write very quickly. Ireland was important to each, but for reasons that underscored their contrasting characters and careers. Welles, an ambitious Midwesterner, started acting on the Irish stage at 18. Steinbeck, a late-blooming Californian with Irish grandparents, visited Ireland only once, late in life, and was disappointed when he did. As New Deal Democrats, both produced patriotic propaganda for the U.S. war effort, Steinbeck in print and Welles on air. Each attracted the attention of the FBI anyway.
Unlike Steinbeck, Welles was also an extroverted autocrat with the ability to project his voice, promote his talent, and write very quickly.
They hated William Randolph Hearst, the powerful publisher who created yellow journalism and built the crazy castle caricatured, along with Hearst’s actress-lover Marion Davies, in Citizen Kane. As Brady’s biography demonstrates, Welles never really recovered from the aftermath of his attack on Hearst. The monied interests skewered by Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath were almost as hurtful, at least at first, but Steinbeck’s career didn’t suffer permanent damage, despite a dry spell during the 1940s when he churned out stories and scripts mangled by studio rewrite-men and directors. He never forgave Alfred Hitchcock for the racial stereotyping and sentimentality the English director inserted into Steinbeck’s World War II movie Lifeboat.
Welles never really recovered from the aftermath of his attack on Hearst. The monied interests skewered in The Grapes of Wrath were almost as hurtful to Steinbeck, who survived the dry spell that followed.
Hitchcock was a likely topic of any conversation Steinbeck had with Welles, whose obsessive anxiety about other directors’ treatment of his ideas shadowed him until he died. John Huston’s name probably came up as well. Both men were guests at Huston’s estate in Scotland, though Steinbeck’s enjoyment of the genial Irish director’s hospitality was free from the competitiveness that characterized Welles’s relations with most movie people. Henry Fonda read poetry at Steinbeck’s well-attended funeral in 1968. Welles’s death in 1985 attracted less devoted attention.
Hitchcock was a likely topic of any conversation Steinbeck had with Welles, whose obsessive anxiety about other directors’ treatment of his ideas shadowed him until he died.
Welles and Steinbeck also enjoyed the hospitality of Burgess Meredith, whose country place not far from Manhattan was a convenient getaway for exhausted celebrities and uninhibited conversation. Steinbeck and Welles experienced Broadway fatigue at about the same time (Steinbeck with Pipe Dream and Burning Bright). Both loved music and liked to head downtown to hear jazz and to drink, the two great social equalizers of their period in New York. Eddie Condon’s jazz club in the Village is another appealing venue for an imagined conversation between the two men, perhaps about how badly it hurt to fail on Broadway while others were succeeding.
Henry Fonda, Burgess Meredith, and Memory
Like Burgess Meredith, Henry Fonda offers little of substance about Welles or Steinbeck in Fonda: My Life. But when asked for an opinion about a Steinbeck-Welles connection, Steinbeck’s biographer Jay Parini said it was safe to assume Steinbeck and Welles not only met but probably got along: “I’d be amazed if they didn’t meet, and I’d be very amazed if they didn’t find something to like in each other.” Responding to the same question for this blog post, another expert source quoted a conversation that occurred between Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, the actor-director who worked hard to restore Welles’s reputation. Ironically, the quoted conversation confirms that—unlike Henry Fonda—Orson Welles actually read The Grapes of Wrath:
WELLES: I hated [John Ford’s film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath].
BOGDANOVICH: Well, it’s better than the book.
WELLES: Oh no, the book is much better.
WELLES: At the time I saw The Grapes of Wrath, if you told me I’d ever have a good word to say for Ford again . . . I hated him so. I would have hit him if I’d seen him afterwards. He made a movie about mother love. You know, a sentimental, stupid, sloppy movie. Beautifully photographed, and all the beautiful photography was done by a 2nd unit cameraman without Ford or Toland, as I found out. I complimented Toland on those great shots of those things, and he said, “I didn’t make it. I didn’t do it, and Jack Ford wasn’t there either.”
BOGDANOVICH: I didn’t know that.
WELLES: And all that stuff they did with that awful actress that everybody loves, Jane Darwell, that awful Jane Darwell, and all those terrible creeps walking around being cute. God, I hated that picture!
Welles’s dim view of John Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath sounded pitch-perfect when I read it, and it led me to Henry Fonda, whose role as Tom Joad launched Fonda’s career and friendship with John Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s name comes up frequently in Fonda’s memoir, which includes details about Steinbeck’s funeral that differ from Steinbeck biographies. But Fonda’s version of the phone call he got from his agent about the casting of The Grapes of Wrath struck me as oddly off-key:
It was a joyous moment [for Fonda] when Leland Hayward telephoned . . .
“Ever hear of The Grapes of Wrath?” the agent asked.
“Sure have,” Fonda answered readily. “It’s about the farmers who were driven out of Oklahoma by the dust storms and made their way to California . . . “
“I didn’t ask you for a book report,” Hayward said, stopping the enthusiastic actor. “I just want you to know Zanuck bought it for Fox.”
I was intrigued by a recent remark from Richard Astro, an American scholar of prodigious memory, that Fonda admitted he never read The Grapes of Wrath when interviewed for Dick’s groundbreaking study of John Steinbeck. Clearly, Welles not only read Steinbeck’s book but understood the author’s deep meaning—another tempting topic of imagined conversation between the two men, along with the mystery of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane. Like Welles, Steinbeck was misunderstood, even by friends such as Fonda, and he suffered for his art. Not long before he died he advised a struggling writer, “Your only weapon is your work.” Welles had every reason to agree.
My source for the Welles-Bogdanovich exchange added the following tidbit from an era when actors like Burgess Meredith and Henry Fonda were attacked for being liberals and writers like Orson Welles and John Steinbeck were accused of being socialists or worse: “It’s interesting that Ayn Rand, in one of her private letters, lumped John Steinbeck and Orson Welles together as ‘Marxist propagandists.’” As a non-admirer of Ayn Rand, I consider her unintended tribute to Steinbeck and Welles, even if the pair never met, cause for celebration. Happy birthday, Orson. Unlike us, Citizen Kane will never die.