Luck and Circumstance: A Coming of Age in Hollywood, New York and Points Beyond Michael Lindsay-Hogg

Knopf, pp.288, 17.99

In a large upstairs room of the YWCA building behind Tottenham Court Road, a group of actors were nervously waiting for the arrival of the director. There was the powerful whiff of a good cigar, the faint scent of expensive cologne and Orson Welles arrived. He had been in Paris cutting his film of Kafka’s The Trial and now here he was; a huge man, beautifully dressed in a dark suit and floppy tie, full of good humour, apologising for having missed a week of rehearsal.

The room exploded with his laughter, an explosion so loud you feared for the windows, and everyone relaxed. He had prepared a version of the two parts of Shakespeare’s King Henry IV and he was going to play Falstaff. Most of the cast were young, and amongst them was a teenager who had been at Oxford. His name was Michael Lindsay-Hogg. He was a beautiful boy.

Unassailably heterosexual, there was nevertheless a kind of femininity about his looks; he was overweight, his shoulders were narrow and his hips broad; but the dark eyes that were smudged onto the plump, downy cheeks were alive with humour and intelligence. In the pub at lunch one of the actors said he had thought Lindsay-Hogg must be Welles’s son. ‘Yes, many people have thought that,’ the boy replied with equanimity, puffing on a fat Havana cigar.

Fifty-two years later that boy has written a beautiful book which might well have been called ‘The Quest for Welles’. For the spine of the narrative is Lindsay-Hogg’s search to discover who his father really was. His putative father, who gave him his name, was Edward Lindsay-Hogg, a tall, rangy Englishman with not much money but with graceful manners and impeccable antecedents. Asked to fill in his profession on Michael’s birth certificate he had written simply ‘Gentleman’.

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He was kind to young Michael, and when he crossed the road with the seven-year-old boy he held his hand. Michael remembered that all his life, and writes movingly of the death of the man whom he had been told was his father; a man who believed that Michael was his son. By the time of his death Edward had been long divorced from Michael’s mother. She had remarried, and now Michael had a stepfather, Stuart Scheftel, whom everyone called ‘Boy’.

The writing is scrupulously spare, without the least hint of sentimentality, and occasionally very sharp. Michael skewers the mean-spiritedness of the director Peter Bogdanovich, with whom he had once set up a summer theatre festival and who, after three enormous box-office successes, boasts of his closeness to Orson Welles but does not hand the phone to Michael when Orson calls. Shortly after this, Bogdanovich’s career takes a nosedive.

There are amusing anecdotes of life in Ireland, California and New York. His mother found a rigidly Catholic Irish nurse for little Michael. Putting him to bed one night she said before she turned out the light:

‘Don’t worry, you’ll be all right.’
   ‘All right about what?’ I asked, terror starting to bubble. ‘Who won’t be all  right?’
   She pushed the hair off my forehead and said,‘You’ll go to Heaven, but your mother and father will go to Hell.’
   ‘To Hell! Why?’
   ‘Because they’re divorced. Now say your prayers.’

   
The only naked bodies the boy had ever seen in his prepubescence were women’s. He was puzzled by his penis, but rationalised that as he grew up it would fall off and he would be the same as everyone else. His mother arranged for a friend to take a shower with Michael. ‘Soaping ourselves together, I looked with curiosity at his penis and asked, “Does General Eisenhower have one too?” ’

Michael’s mother, Geraldine Fitzgerald, was an American actress who appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1944. Her roots were in Ireland, where her family still lived, and where she would always keep a home. But her work was in America, and in 1938 she joined Orson Welles’s fledgling Mercury Theatre which was to take New York by storm.

Welles’s career had begun in Dublin, and Ireland would always be in his heart. It was a bond between the young actress and the even younger Welles. When he played old Captain Shotover, heavily made-up, in Shaw’s Heartbreak House he was 23 and Geraldine as Ellie Dunn was two years older. She adored him, and he her. It is impossible not to believe that they were lovers. But she denied it.

Welles is everywhere in the book, like Harry Lime, now in the shadows, now glimpsed in a restaurant, now meeting Michael by accident. The latter’s career as a director blossoms: he directs Brideshead Revisited, and Whose Life is it Anyway? with his beloved girlfriend Jean Marsh. He knows the Rolling Stones and is friends with the Beatles — he even likes Yoko Ono — and directs their last live performance, Let It Be, on the roof of the Apple offices in Soho to the astonishment of shoppers in the street below.

He also becomes intimate with Gloria Vanderbilt, a beautiful heiress whose callipygian charm would serve her well in the photographs that marketed her own brand of jeans. It is she who finally reveals the truth that Geraldine had told her long before: ‘Orson was your father.’
 

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, History, Non-fiction, Orson welles