“MY LAST LUNCH WITH ORSON” by Henry Jaglom
One afternoon in the fall of 1985 during our regular weekly or every-other-weekly lunch at Ma Maison, Orson told me that the 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 had used several of his best stories which “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 that the success of the book, as it was about to go into its second printing, had cheered him up a great deal. He felt that finally someone had set the record straight on so many things that had been incorrectly written about him over the years. He was happy about that, even though he seemed to be used to these attacks, “I wouldn’t know who I was if the press didn’t rip me apart. You know, once they decide they’re for you 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 that he had been preparing. A black-and-white film version of “KING LEAR,” which we had been trying to get financed for years, seemed suddenly more likely due to the recent interest of Gordon Getty. Also there was the possibility of a new financing source 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 had had more than a year before with a producer who had just won the Oscar for Best Picture. At the end of that lunch, the producer had smiled and said to us: “It’s a deal. You’ve got yourself a deal. I’ll have all the paperwork arranged by next week!” This was for a wonderful original script that I had 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 kind of wonderful bookend to “CITIZEN KANE’s” focus on the early part of the century – and to his career.
After the producer had left our table I excitedly suggested to Orson that we open a bottle of the Crystal champagne that he liked so much, but he insisted we wait. I protested that the deal really looked done, I knew this particular 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 sadly at me and said: “If you knew how many ‘next weeks’ there have been over the past twenty years…”
Orson, of course, was right. We never heard from that producer again. 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 this lunch my film “ALWAYS-BUT NOT FOREVER” had opened to excellent reviews and my photo was on the cover of this week’s L.A. Weekly. Orson ostentatiously held up a copy and insisted on reading the wonderful review out loud to me right there in the restaurant. He did it grandly, with great emphasis and flourish, and we laughed so noisily that 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 my next film, “SOMEONE TO LOVE,” the film in which I had recently directed him. I told him that 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, theatre and film – what a tour-de-force I thought 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 in a year and a half Ma Maison would be closing and “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 to her as he so often had before at our lunches that if she kept on crying he’d never take her out again. She quieted down and he patted her approvingly.
He told me that Paul Masson wanted him back “to endorse their ghastly wine again,” but only on a one-year contract this time and at lesser 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 that his one-man show – he had some wonderful new ideas for it but wanted to show me them 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 had offered him something like $40,000, if I remember the figure correctly. 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 these unappealing acting jobs “to support my habit,” he would jokingly say, but I felt they always took something out of him. And now “Love Boat,” which seemed a new low to me, though I didn’t say anything of course. 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 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 3a.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 that 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 to me, then allowed himself to have 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 with me in my bag that day, the one that was always recording our lunches. He had suggested two years earlier that I hide it from him so it wouldn’t make him self-conscious but keep it on at all times, said it would help him a lot “down the road, when I write my autobiography.”
“When will that be?” I asked him.
“When I’m too old to make movies.”
He asked after my mother. He knew she was to go into the hospital in New York for an exploratory operation in a few days to discover whether she had something serious or not. He had signed a copy of Leaming’s book about him to her: “From your honorary nephew, Orson,” and I told him how much pleasure it had given her, and 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 really 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 some time during 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 that, 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 so 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 to me for calling them, as if he had violated one last trust for privacy that he still somehow felt he was expected to honor the Great Man, even now.
Orson was dead.
All day long people got on TV and eulogized him. I kept wanting to call him 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 that this would be his very last appearance in front of the audience that he had been wooing and battling for over 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 finished, with a smile, “this is The End.”
He blew me a kiss, then shouted to the cameraman:
The cast and crew applauded him, wildly.
My cinematographer, intimidated, quickly snapped the camera off, even though he wasn’t supposed to unless I, the director, 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 that this would now become my new ending:
Orson, finally, having one terrific last laugh at it all.
And he never did “Love Boat.”
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