recent passing of author and biographer Charles Higham escaped your notice. He left no survivors. I felt a twinge of sadness when I read about his lonely death, and it's mostly about Orson Welles." /> What I learned from biographer Charles Higham - and Orson Welles - Native Intelligence

What I learned from biographer Charles Higham - and Orson Welles

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Joel Bellman, a former radio and newspaper journalist, is communications deputy for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Chances are, the recent passing of author and biographer Charles Higham escaped your notice. He left no survivors. His longtime partner had died two years earlier. And Higham - who'd reportedly broken his hip earlier in a fall - had passed away more than a week before the story of his death finally broke in the Hollywood Reporter.

To the extent that Higham was known at all by the general public, it was for a series of sensational tell-all celebrity biographies notorious for their scandalous, sometimes thinly sourced and often hotly denied allegations of personal peccadilloes, weird sex (lots of it) and general depraved portrayals of his subjects. Critics dismissed them; the entertainment industry reviled them; and ultimately, many readers simply tired of them.

Still, I felt a twinge of sadness when I read about his lonely death. And I thought back to a long-ago interview I conducted with him, and how, though it was our only contact, it taught me one of the most valuable lessons of both my professional career, and my life.

Higham's literary career was controversial, to put it mildly. Born into privilege in England, his family fell on hard times following a divorce. He published poetry from a young age and wrote several plays. Later, as a successful journalist and film critic, he took a writer-in-residence position at UC Santa Cruz, which led to his first book, one of the few serious critical overviews of the films of Orson Welles. Though generally admiring, it was also unsparing - and committed, for Welles acolytes like Peter Bogdanovich and author Barbara Leaming, the unpardonable sin of blaming Welles for many unnecessary self-inflicted career wounds. Higham attributed them to Welles's "fear of completion" that repeatedly led him to abandon projects that remained unfinished, or were subsequently maimed and mishandled by others attempting to salvage what was left.

Higham went on to become the New York Times Hollywood correspondent, and the successful author of numerous formulaic and increasingly sordid biographies largely trashing some of the biggest movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s.

I don't know whether Errol Flynn really was a Nazi spy or Cary Grant a "wife-beating, miserly closeted homosexual," as one obit short-handed two of his more sensational claims. But when I had the opportunity to interview Higham for a radio documentary I was producing on Orson Welles, I didn't care. Tawdry tales of Tinseltown - true, exaggerated, invented, unverifiable - didn't interest me.

What did interest me, intensely, was what he'd written about Welles, an early hero of mine both for his prolific and wildly successful radio career in the 1930s and 1940s, and for a small handful of some of the most memorable American films ever made, from the acknowledged masterpieces "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons" to the noir classics "Lady From Shanghai" and "Touch of Evil."

In 1985, Welles turned 70, and Higham had written "Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of An American Genius," the more critical of two biographies published that year. The other, by Hunter College film professor Barbara Leaming, boasted Welles's complete cooperation and Leaming's uncritical adoration, offering a gracefully written and colorful portrait of an uncompromising genius who'd suffered more than his share of indignities and tough breaks in a world of artistic philistines. Higham's book, by contrast, had enjoyed no cooperation from Welles at all - that earlier book had ensured lifelong enmity from the sensitive and easily wounded Welles. Its writing was mechanical, the tone generally unsympathetic, the narrative a tragic arc of vanity, indulgence, and artistic dissipation. Small wonder that critics dismissed it as merely the latest uninspired product in a literary assembly line of celebrity takedowns.

Still, much as I love and admire so much of Welles's work, I could not brush aside Higham's "fear of completion" thesis. And when I interviewed Higham - after having earlier interviewed Leaming - I found myself increasingly skeptical of her sunny, uncritical embrace of the Orsonian world-view. I really wanted to embrace her simplistic account of the unjust victimization of a misunderstood and underappreciated genius. But Higham, a more graceless writer, nevertheless made a compelling case for something more than just bad luck dogging Welles's career. As an acting prodigy whose lifelong infatuation with Shakespeare began when he was a young boy, Orson himself in a candid moment might have agreed with Cassius: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves..."

As I was wrapping up my interview with Higham, he offhandedly asked me if I'd interviewed Welles himself for the piece. "Oh, God, no," I said, dismissing the possibility. "I can't imagine he'd agree to do something like this. He doesn't know who I am, and I don't know anyone who knows him." Higham replied, "You should do it. At least try. He's staying here in town at a house in the (Hollywood) Hills close by."

As I pondered our conversation later, I began to think, "Yeah - what the hell? What have I got to lose? Why don't I?" I made a mental note to follow up.

The following week, as it turned out, based on some previous investigative reporting I had done, I was subpoenaed to testify as an expert witness in a civil lawsuit brought against the Lyndon LaRouche political cult. After almost two full days on the stand, getting pounded in cross-examination by the LaRouche attorney - an aggressive former prosecutor - I was exhausted and anxious to get back to my documentary.

As I was about to pull out of the parking lot, I snapped on KNX for a quick news update, only to hear: "Actor-director Orson Welles was found dead today in the Hollywood Hills home where he had recently been staying. Officials said he had suffered an apparent heart attack, and died alone. Welles, 70, was best known..."

I don't remember the rest of the report; I don't think I heard it. I may have been in shock. Not only would I have to reconfigure the documentary from a birthday tribute to a eulogy, I could not believe how my timidity and procrastination had cost me a priceless opportunity to snare what might have been one of the very last interviews Orson Welles would ever grant. At the very least, I had missed forever a chance to tell the great man how much his work had inspired me. And he'd been living less than a mile from my office.

I went on to finish what became a two-part documentary, a sad and difficult job quite different than the project I had eagerly embarked upon. It got some attention and won a few awards, and today it's part of the archived holdings in the Paley Center for the Media. But I will always regret the failure of nerve that carried such an incalculable price.

Late in his career, in a reflective moment, Welles famously observed that "We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone." Last month, Higham - like Orson - apparently suffered a fatal heart attack, at home, alone. He, too, was past his prime, his early artistic promise not eclipsed by a string of hammy bit parts, chat-show appearances and Paul Masson commercials, but buried under a pile of lurid yet lucrative celebrity exposes that similarly earned him wealth and fame, while costing him dearly in credibility and respect.

But it's the second half of Welles's quote that I want to remember: "Only through our love and friendship," he added, "can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone." And that's the lesson I learned not just from Orson, but from Higham: in work, and in life, never hesitate to reach out to someone, no matter how prominent or inaccessible they may seem.

They can only say no. But over the decades, I've been surprised by how often they say yes.

Washington Post file photo from 1981 of Charles Higham; young Welles photo from Bellman


More by Joel Bellman:
You can call him Al
Ed Edelman and his sense of decency
The Scapegoat *
My back pages
Watergate, reconsidered
Previous Native Intelligence story: Close to markets or not, fat poor kids are different than fat rich kids

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