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The Time Ernest Hemingway Hit Orson Welles With a Chair

The Time Ernest Hemingway Hit Orson Welles With a Chair: Fred Brommet

Fred Brommet

One of the things you must understand about Orson Welles is that he was a remarkable storyteller: in person, on-screen, at your dinner table, late at night, onstage, over a long lunch, in his living room, and anywhere else he happened to be. His life, work, faults, brilliance, towering achievements, and epic failures were all amazing stories that Orson told masterfully.

The initial inspiration for The Other Side of the Wind, actually came from one of those stories— one that Orson liked to tell about the day he had a fist-fight with Ernest Hemingway.

It was May 1937: before War of the Worlds, before Citizen Kane, and more than thirty years before he shot the first frame of The Other Side of the Wind.

Hired to narrate Hemingway’s script for The Spanish Earth, a pro-leftist Spanish Civil War documentary made by Joris Ivens, Orson entered a Manhattan recording studio and encountered the legendary author.

On the day the two men met, Welles was only 22 but had already achieved more than most artists dream of accomplishing in a lifetime. He was a Broadway wunderkind with his own theater company and his own radio show. As a radio performer he was making more than $1,000 a week during the Depression and was the voice of the title character on the wildly popular radio detective show The Shadow, meaning he was heard in millions of living rooms each week.

It was a juncture in his life when Welles was so busy that he allegedly hired an ambulance (sirens blaring to avoid traffic) to get him from radio gigs to the theater on time. It wasn’t illegal and he was Orson Welles, so why not?

By the time he met Hemingway, Welles had staged an all-black Macbeth set in nineteenth- century Haiti and was working on a fascist themed, modern-dress Julius Caesar. Within a year he’d appear on the cover of Time magazine. Then that Halloween there was the broadcast of The War of the Worlds, and if anyone hadn’t heard of Orson Welles by November 1938, they were either living in a cave or dead.

Now famous, he went to Hollywood, where by the age of 26 he’d co-written, directed, and starred in his first full-length film: Citizen Kane. It was a time, said one friend, where “anything seemed possible” when you were working with Orson.

Anything was possible. Everything was possible. And the day he met Hemingway, Orson was on the cusp of exploding as an artist and a star.

Hemingway

Hemingway

Hemingway, meanwhile, was 37 and had already written A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises. He’d driven an ambulance in World War I, where he’d been injured by mortar fire and witnessed violent death firsthand while still in his early 20s. Hemingway knew life in the most physical sense. He was a man’s man who stalked big game, reeled in gigantic marlins, and chased adventure to such an extreme that years later he survived two plane crashes in the same day while hunting in Africa. It fit perfectly with the image he cultivated — one crash simply wasn’t enough. It had been a life consciously marked by death and violence, things that were in his blood and affirmed his existence.

They didn’t know it, but Welles and Hemingway shared more than artistry and big personalities. Both men had a deep love for Spain and the art of bullfighting, and each was friendly with legendary torero Antonio Ordóñez. But in May 1937, their shared passions were of no consequence. What mattered was what Orson did after entering the studio.

Having reworked Shakespeare, Welles likely didn’t think twice about trying to improve Hemingway’s script. Orson claimed he’d tried only to make it more Hemingwayesque, cutting the words back to their essence and letting images on-screen speak for themselves. Perhaps they could do away with lines such as “Here are the faces of men who are close to death” and just show the faces themselves.

Shocked by Welles’s audacity, Hemingway immediately went after the softest spot he could find and used Orson’s theater background to infer that he was gay and didn’t know a thing about war or other manly pursuits. More than a decade later, Hemingway would tell John Huston that every time Welles said “infantry” it “was like a cocksucker swallowing.”

Not yet fat, young Orson Welles was still a big man, tall and sturdy, with large feet. Despite his size, however, Welles wasn’t prone to violence. But, having dealt with bullies since his youth, he knew just how to retaliate. If the hairy-chested author wanted a faggot, Orson would give him one. So, great actor that he was, Welles camped it up and drove Hemingway over the edge.

“Mister Hemingway,” Welles lisped in the swishiest voice he could muster, “how strong you are and how big you are!”

The counterpunch hit Hemingway exactly where Orson intended, and the novelist exploded, allegedly picking up a chair and attacking Welles, who grabbed a chair of his own. The aftermath, as Orson described it, was a cartoonish sound booth brawl played out while bloody images of the Spanish Civil War flickered behind them.

Eventually, however, both men concluded that the fight was insane, collapsed to the floor in laughter, and shared a bottle of whiskey. Thus began a friendship that lasted until Hemingway shot himself in the head on July 2, 1961.

Welles told this tale time and again: the epic day that two of the great creative geniuses of the twentieth century duked it out while men died for freedom on the screen in the background. And when The Spanish Earth premiered that August, the narration had been rerecorded by Hemingway himself.

While visiting writer Peter Viertel in Klosters, Switzerland in 1958, Welles mentioned that he’d been working on a script about a ridiculously masculine novelist who has lost his creative powers and is now trailed across Spain by a collection of sycophantic biographers, worshipful grad students, and others who reassure him of his greatness.

Married to actress Deborah Kerr, Viertel was close friends with both Hemingway and John Huston, having fictionalized the latter as an adventure-seeking filmmaker in his novel White Hunter Black Heart, an account of making The African Queen on location in Uganda and the Congo.

Welles, Bogdanovich, and Huston / Photograph by Larry Jackson

Welles, Bogdanovich, and Huston / Photograph by Larry Jackson

As Welles described how his character is suffering the plight of middle-aged artists who “get to be like Hemingway, nothing but people writing about you,” and his ensuing obsession with a young male toreador, Viertel asked Orson if the movie was about Hemingway or himself.

“It’s about both of us,” Welles said with a deep, wheezy laugh. With a few exceptions, Welles would spend the rest of his life insisting the film wasn’t autobiographical, including in an interview in 1962, a year after Hemingway died.

“I will play the part,” Orson said. “But don’t look for a self-portrait in it.”

Welles explained that unlike Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, he didn’t believe that genius disappeared with age.

“At the end of his life, Hemingway always tried to prove that he was still young. Fitzgerald, even before he turned 40, was rotted with the same anguish,” said the 47-year-old Welles. “That attitude is death. It’s not something that bothers me.”

His film, Welles told the reporter, was ultimately “about death, the portrait of decadence, a ruin.”

He was calling it The Sacred Beasts.

Documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (the eventual creators of Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter) were at Cannes in 1966 when they were told Orson Welles wanted to meet them at a bar about 20 minutes from town. When the pair arrived, Orson said he was impressed by their work and asked where they’d be going after the festival.

“Back to New York,” they said.

“Why don’t you come spend a week with me in Madrid?” Welles said, and received the only response people gave when he asked that question.

“We spent day after day with him,” Albert Maysles said. “And on the first or second day, he began talking about a movie we’d make together about people who go to bullfights. So we picked up our cameras and started filming him.”

The result was Orson Welles in Spain, a 10-minute documentary in three segments. In the first, Orson speaks Spanish as he walks toward a bullfight arena. Part two, shot in the stadium, shows a jowly, clean-shaven Welles describing the ritual of the corrida, which he considers “a tragedy in three acts,” with noble bulls as heroes who await “their death in the afternoon.” The tragedy, Orson explains, is based on the pure, innocent virtue of the bulls, who are truly the sacred beasts.

A longtime lover of bullfighting, Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that he’d been a matador in his late teens while he lived in Seville and briefly made good money writing pulp novels, which allowed him to buy his own bulls and get in the ring a few times, billed as “El Americano.” Working as “a pro,” Welles said, he was “scared to death…but having the time of [his] life” inside the ring.

By 1966, his feelings had changed. Bullfighting now seemed a voyeuristic act, as he told Michael Parkinson in 1974, where fans were “living and dying second hand” through the toreadors.

The third section [of the documentary] shows Welles in a light-filled outdoor restaurant in the atrium of a Madrid hotel, where he’s addressing a group of Americans who have been described as potential investors or producers but whom Maysles recalls as being curious hotel guests. It’s an apt description of a group that resembles a collection of midwestern attorneys and their wives, in town for a conference, who realize Orson Welles is at their hotel. So they stand, drinks in hand, as Welles lays out the fi lm, its protagonist, and the novel manner in which he intends to shoot it.

Calling it a picture “about the love of death,” Welles describes the main character, who is no longer a novelist but is instead a “pseudo-Hemingway, a movie director, a fellow that you can hardly see through the bush of hair on his chest.”

The plot, he explains, contains “a confrontation between my hero, an aging American romantic who is having trouble supporting himself, and an anti-romantic young man of the ‘new generation’ who ends up subscribing to romanticism and defending the bullfight.”

Then he drops the bomb.

“We’re going to shoot it without a script,” Welles says, excitement lighting up his face. “I’ve written the script, I know the whole story. I know everything that happens…. [But] what I’m going to do is get the actors in every situation, tell them what has happened up to this moment, who they are, and I believe they will find what is true and inevitable from what I’ve said…”

Then a man in horn-rimmed glasses asks a question worthy of any producer: “Have you ever done that with other films?”

“Nobody’s ever done it,” Welles responds proudly.

orson welles cover

Later, Welles says, the shoot will be short. Eight weeks — at most. In the years since his confrontation with Hemingway, Welles converted a brief encounter into the seed of a story that morphed into The Sacred Beasts and, then, The Other Side of the Wind, which he began shooting in August 1970.

By then he’d changed the bullfighting angle into a symbolic piece of backdrop and changed the locus from Spain to Hollywood. Compressing the action into a single day, he used a 70th birthday party for the main character that would end with his death. The day he chose was July 2, the date on which Hemingway took his own life.

Imbuing it with brilliance, magic, mystery, chaos, and the search for identity that seems to be at the heart of nearly all his movies, Welles embarked on directing a film whose making would prove to be one of the greatest Orson Welles stories of them all.


The above is an excerpt from Orson Welles’ Last Movie by Josh Karp. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

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