My Best Story: My Last Lunch with Orson

One afternoon in the fall of 1985, during our weekly or every-other-weekly lunch at Ma Maison, Orson Welles told me attacks were beginning to come in, in response to a slew of books that had recently been published about him, especially Barbara Leaming’s wonderfully supportive—and to his mind, largely accurate—biography. He still hadn’t read it, wasn’t going to, he said, because he knew he’d be mad, as she’d used several of his best stories.

“She really shouldn’t have; I was saving them to use myself someday. I told her that,” he scowled. But it was one of his fake scowls, and I knew the success of the book, about to go into its second printing, had cheered him up a great deal. He felt that someone had finally set the record straight on so many things. He was happy about it, even though he was used to the attacks: “I wouldn’t know who I was if the press didn’t rip me apart. You know, once they decide they’re for or against you, it never really changes. Hope and Crosby they always loved. Me and Sinatra they decided against early on, and they never let up.”

But all in all, Orson was happy that afternoon, with several new irons in the fire. He was about to perform a one-man magic show he’d been preparing. A black-and-white film version of King Lear, which we’d been trying to finance for years, seemed more likely due to the sudden interest of Gordon Getty.

Also, there was the possibility of new financing for a long-worked-on project called The Dreamers, based on an Isak Dinesen novella. I talked to him enthusiastically about that, but his face clouded over, and he cautioned me to remember the lesson of the lunch we’d had more than a year before with a producer who’d just won the Oscar for Best Picture.

At the end of that lunch, the producer smiled and said: “You’ve got yourself a deal. I’ll have the paperwork arranged by next week!” This was for a wonderful original script I’d urged out of Orson, little by little over a three-year period. Called The Big Brass Ring, it was about America at the end of the 20th century, and I felt it would be a wonderful bookend to Citizen Kane’s focus on the early part of the century—and to his career.

After the producer left our table, I excitedly suggested to Orson we open a bottle of the Cristal champagne he liked so much, but he insisted we wait. I protested that the deal looked done. I knew this producer very well, and he was definitely now in a position to deliver on his promise, so we should celebrate. “He said next week,” I reminded him. Orson smiled somewhat sadly and said, “If you knew how many ‘next weeks’ there have been over the past 20 years…”

Orson, of course, was right. We never heard from that producer. I couldn’t even get him on the phone. Like the magician Orson played in my first film, A Safe Place, he simply disappeared.

Nonetheless, things were looking up. The week before, my film Always...but Not Forever had opened to excellent reviews, and my photo was on the cover of L.A. Weekly. Orson ostentatiously held up a copy and insisted on reading the review out loud right there in the restaurant. He did it grandly, with great emphasis and flourish, and we laughed so noisily people stared.

He was very excited to hear me report that Oja Kodar—his companion in recent years—was such a strong presence in the rough cut I was putting together of Someone to Love, the film in which I’d recently directed him. I told him I was enjoying the editing process as never before and how much I loved his stuff in it, how he seemed in the movie to sum up everything he knew about life and love, men and women, theater and film—what a tour de force his performance was. He smiled and said: “Don’t forget, we can always shoot more if necessary. It will match. It just takes a bit of red cloth and putting the background well out of focus. We can shoot it at my house.” He was beaming.

Orson worried about the fact that Ma Maison would be closing in a year and a half. “What will we do then? Where will we eat? Where will we meet and scheme our schemes?” he laughed. Kiki, his little black poodle sitting in the seat next to him, growled, and he fed her a small cookie, complaining as he had so often before at our lunches that if she kept on crying, he’d never take her out again. She quieted down, and he patted her.

He told me Paul Masson wanted him back “to endorse their ghastly wine again” but only on a one-year contract and at less money than before. He would turn them down, he said, but slowly, seeing how good he could make the deal first. “Just in case,” he said. “You never know.” Meanwhile, he was hoping his one-man show—he had some wonderful new ideas for it but wanted to show them to me instead of talking about it—would help him “pay the bills.” He laughed and reminded me of our old Love Boat affair.

A couple of years earlier, Orson had been offered a guest spot on an episode of TV’s Love Boat, a common practice at the time for long-retired movie stars of a certain age. For one day’s work, they’d offered him something like $40,000.

Orson was desperate for cash just then, as he often was. To shoot some extra scenes in one of the several movies he was forever putting together at his own expense, he frequently did unappealing acting jobs. “To support my habit,” he’d jokingly say, but I felt they always took something out of him. Love Boat seemed a new low to me, though I didn’t say anything. Not having an agent or a lawyer at the time—“Everything bad that has ever happened to me has been caused by agents or lawyers,” Orson frequently insisted—he asked me to see if I could improve the deal. “Pretend you’re my manager,” he said with a twinkle.

Gamely playing the role, I got involved in a rather long series of phone negotiations in which I, surprisingly, was able to up the Love Boat deal to $75,000. Orson was delighted; I was a bit horrified, though I kept it to myself.

Several weeks later, two or three days before he was set to film it, Orson rang me around 3 a.m. “You’re going to hate me, Henry,” he said. I asked him why. “I’ve decided what I want on my tombstone, and I want you to promise me it will be done.”

“Jesus, Orson, don’t be morbid,” I said, biting at the bait.

“No, promise me, Henry. This is really important to me.”

“Oh, God, okay,” I said. “What is it?”

“Write it down,” he insisted. “Do you have a pencil?”

“Yes. For God’s sake, Orson, what is it?”

“On my tombstone, I want written: ‘He never did Love Boat!’ ”

Back to our lunch at Ma Maison. Orson made me have dessert by dramatically reading the menu out loud, then allowed himself a plate full of lime sherbet—and relished it. The lunch had been a typical few hours with my friend: lots of stories, some sadness and some hopefulness, much gossip, a few schemes and many warm, knowing smiles. As always. But for some reason, I didn’t have my little tape recorder in my bag that day, the one that was forever recording our lunches. He had suggested two years earlier I hide it from him so it wouldn’t make him self-conscious but keep it on at all times. He said it would help “down the road, when I write my autobiography.”

“When will that be?” I said.

“When I’m too old to make movies.”

He asked after my mother. He knew that in a few days she was to go into the hospital in New York for an exploratory operation to discover whether she had something serious. He’d signed a copy of Leaming’s book to her: “From your honorary nephew, Orson,” and I told him how much pleasure it had given her. He liked that. But then he suddenly sighed and said, “Time is passing.” He said it lightly, sadly but lightly, and that was that. I didn’t give it a second thought.

Five days later, when I woke up, there was a message on my answering machine that had clearly been left sometime the night before. I pushed the button: “This is your friend,” said his wonderful, booming voice. “Don’t forget to call your mother first thing; find out what the results of her operation are, then call and tell me right away!” I called her. Happily, everything was fine, and just as I was about to call and tell him, the phone rang. It was Judith Wolinsky, my producer: There was a rumor that Orson was dead. The press was calling our office. There was pandemonium.

I phoned him on his private number. Freddy, his driver of many years, answered, said how sorry he was, but, yes, it was true. He had found him on the bedroom floor at 10 that morning and couldn’t rouse him. He then called the paramedics. He apologized for calling them, as if he had violated one last trust, that he still somehow felt he was expected to honor the Great Man, even now.

Orson was dead.

All day long, people went on TV and eulogized him. I kept wanting to call and tell him, “You won’t believe what that one said, how so-and-so held forth, what you-know-who came up with.”

One by one, each of those powerful and famous people who wouldn’t help him when they could now stepped forward to praise him, celebrate his genius, mourn his passing. I got furious, gave a few angry interviews of my own then drove to my office and turned on my editing machine. There was Orson, filling the screen, saying, “You are born alone, you live alone, and you die alone.” He paused for a moment, then added, “Only through love and friendship can you create the illusion that you are not entirely alone.” I suddenly realized this would be his very last appearance in front of the audience he had been wooing and battling for more than 50 years.

“You have your ending now,” his character, an older director, says to my character, a young director who has been struggling to finish his film.

“Why?” my character asks his, wanting it to continue, never wanting it to stop.

“Because,” he finishes with a smile, “this is The End

At that, he blew me a kiss, then shouted to the cameraman, “Cut!”

The cast and crew applauded him wildly. My cinematographer, intimidated, snapped off the camera, even though he wasn’t supposed to unless I said, “Cut.” I asked him, angrily, “What are you doing?” He replied, as if my question made no sense, “It’s Orson Welles! Orson Welles told me to cut!” His logic was unassailable.

I flipped the huge camera’s switch right back on myself, but Orson didn’t see me do it. The camera rolled as he pulled out an enormous, somehow fully lit cigar from somewhere and puffed on it. The cast and crew kept applauding him, and he burst into laughter, a beautiful, gigantic, all-embracing laugh that just roared and roared.

Right then, I knew this would now become my new ending: Orson, finally, having one terrific last laugh at it all.

And he never did Love Boat.

Henry Jaglom has written and directed 14 films. His 15th, Irene in Time, is set for release in early 2009.

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