Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Luck and Circumstance

Father and son: Orson Welles and Michael Lindsay-Hogg.
Luck and Circumstance: A Coming of Age in Hollywood,
New York, and Points Beyond

By Jesse Kornbluth

Orson Welles?

Or Michael Lindsay-Hogg?

When I met Michael in 1985, the possibility that he was the son of the genius who co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in "Citizen Kane" was of very minor interest to me.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg at 18 in 1958.
Orson Welles at the same age in 1933.
Nor --- though I was pretty much addicted to music --- did I care that he was among the pioneers of the rock video, making promo films for the Rolling Stones and The Beatles (he also directed their breaking-up film, "Let It Be") or that he had just come off the triumph of the incendiary "Normal Heart" at the Public Theater. Only one of his credits jumped out at me: the movie of Athol Fugard's play, "Master Harold...and the Boys." That year, I was obsessed with the idea of filming --- as a Western --- J.M. Coetzee's allegorical novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, and I wanted Michael to direct it.

We never got the movie made. But there were dinners that were almost as satisfying, with Michael talking, talking, and the rest of us listening, listening. He was a great storyteller, and although the stories were about famous people, you never thought he was name-dropping, because his mother was Geraldine Fitzgerald, who was so sensational in "Dark Victory" and "Wuthering Heights," and her friends were Hollywood and theater royalty, and, in a rock and roll way, so was Michael.

And now, all these years later, we have his memoir, "Luck and Circumstance: A Coming of Age in Hollywood, New York, and Points Beyond." It's a curious book. On the surface, it's an exploration of Michael's paternity, about which his mother had persistently lied. His father, she insisted, was Edward Lindsay-Hogg, an English baronet who was tall and dark and thin and lived in Ireland. Michael was to ignore all rumors to the contrary. "We [Orson and I] would go out for dinner together," she told her son. "And you know how people can put two and two together and make three."

Well, they did make three, as Michael learns at the end of the book from his mother's friend and his own sometime lover, Gloria Vanderbilt. I spoil nothing by telling you this, for the link is everywhere in the reviews and publicity. But the frame of the book that reviewers are praising obscures its real charm, which is Michael Lindsay-Hogg, talking, talking for 272 pages. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Picture a Brit, cigar in his fingers, a glass half full of some golden liquid, the meal finished, the night getting on. He is slim and elegant now, but he is telling you about his childhood, when his nickname was Pudge Hoag. Then, when he is fourteen, his mother takes him to a play rehearsal. He meets an actor, Roddy McDowell. And the director, Sidney Lumet. "A few days later, I, Michael, was back at school and was again Pudge Hoag, but it didn't matter because I knew where I was going."

The next year, his mother is Goneril in "King Lear," directed by Orson Welles. Again she takes her son to a rehearsal. And here…well, let me quote:

As he passed behind the seat I was sitting in, my left arm over the seat behind me, Orson stopped.

I felt a quick aware tension with him behind me, unmoving in the dark.

A moment. Then, as if to clarify his presence, he laid his right hand on my shoulder and squeezed it, kneading it twice, the second pressure stronger than the first, and then he continued on.

I was not used to being touched by male family members. My stepfather had taught me how to shake hands and look the other person in the eye, but he had not been brought up to be a hugger of males and this was in the middle of the five-year period when I was not to see Edward Lindsay-Hogg at all.

A space break. Then: "I suppose I longed for a father."

Could you listen to that voice a little longer? I could.

Sixteen. Michael leaves school and goes to work at the Shakespeare Festival. A brief bit of Oxford. A few encounters with Welles. ("He finished his main dish and looked down balefully as though the plate, now empty, had somehow deceived him.") And then, at 24, the big break --- directing the English TV show, "Ready Steady Go!" with guests like the Stones, The Who, The Everly Brothers, Otis Redding, James Brown, Paul Simon, The Supremes --- you get the idea. And the occasional phone call: "Mr. Welles wanted to know if you could join him and Marlene Dietrich for dinner at Le Caprice tonight at eight."

The middle of the story is milk and cookies:

With Mick Jagger, I'd suggest, he'd question, I'd clarify, and he'd agree, usually. But with The Beatles, that evening, I found an idea was something to be mauled, like a piece of meat thrown into an animal cage. They'd paw it, chuck parts of it from one to the other, chew on it a bit, spit it out, and then toss the remnant to me, on the other side of the bars.
"Rain." "Paperback Writer." "Hey Jude." "Revolution." He did them all for The Beatles. "Jumpin' Jack Flash" for the Stones. And their concert film, "The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus," which didn't see the light of day for 28 years. And "Brideshead." And, and... Scott Fitzgerald said personality was "an unbroken series of successful gestures." Well, for a few decades there, Michael Lindsay-Hogg defined personality. And has the stories to prove it.

Click to order Luck and Circumstance: A Coming of Age in Hollywood, New York, and Points Beyond.
As for Orson Welles and the lost father theme, it's secondary, for me, to his love for his mother, who worked to keep him in school and married to assure his security. Near the end of her life, she suffers dementia, and Michael weeps for her and for himself:

I never got her. Not when I was a little boy, she was always earning the rent; . . . not when she'd married my stepfather; . . . and now that Boy [his stepfather, Stuart "Boy" Scheftel] is dead, I could have had her. We could have gone to the theater, or for a walk, or out for a meal together, and I could finally be with her, the two of us only. And now I'll never have her, to myself, alone.

Yes and no. Missed her in life, got her here.

It's the rare memoir you finish and think you really know the people because the writer really knows the people. And more, that he's taken their measure, done the necessary tabulation of flaws and weaknesses, and then decided that the "lies and deceptions" miss the point. The point --- and every tell-all memoir that crosses my desk misses this --- is that he loved them. And, in the process, learned to love himself.

Great story. Beautifully told. Would that there were an audio book so you could hear the voice.

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