25 Years after His Death, a Daughter Steps Out of the Shadow of Orson Welles
Sun, 10/10/2010 – 17:41 — therangernews
Written by Terri Lyn Jones, a former Ranger News writer, this is an article about Chris Feder, daughter of Legendary Kenosha-born film icon Orson Welles.
Young Feder with her father
Image courtesy of Chris Welles Feder
When I called Chris Welles Feder to discuss her book, In My Father’s Shadow: A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles, it was she who asked me the first question. “Do you live in Kenosha? You know, that’s where my father was born,” she asked. I said I was born and raised there just like her father, though he moved away at age 4.
Sharing a hometown with a movie legend is a great ice-breaker, but no ice needed to be broken with Feder. She was quite amiable when I found her on Facebook and when I interviewed her. Feder is a successful writer living in New York. Last year Algonquin Books published her book about her father and cinematic great, though the process was no easy feat. “The book took me 6 years to write. It was the most challenging thing I ever did,” she said.
One only needs to step into any library and find a multitude of books written on Welles. Why did she write the book? “I made peace with my father while writing it. The book put a human face on him, to preserve Orson Welles as I knew him. It was hard to make peace when he was alive because we were separated geographically,” she said. “It was hard to establish a normal relationship because he didn’t have much time for personal relationships. What remains is his legacy.”
Also Feder needed an identity of her own: “It is necessary, which is the case for children with famous fathers who grow up in their shadows to establish their own identity.”
The Fatal Phone Call
Feder grew up in Hollywood shortly after her parents, Welles and Virginia Nicolson, divorced. She enjoyed spending time with her stepmother, Rita Hayworth. She wrote, “The brightest days of my childhood…I owe to Rita.” Her father then sent her to the same school he attended: Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, IL. She was the only girl there and she shined in the school’s variety shows. However, her father discouraged her from a life of acting. “You are too intelligent,” he told her, “Most actors are children.”
After Todd School, Feder moved to Europe then South Africa with her mom and overbearing stepfather, Jack Pringle. After boarding school, Feder desperately wanted to go to college. Her father wanted to send her to the Sorbonne in Paris, but her mother strongly objected because she was jealous of her relationship with her father.
In a letter to Feder, she called it a “pathetic school girl crush” on her father. She wrote, “Your father will promise you the moon and the stars – he is very good at that – and then will leave you high and dry.” She forbade Feder of having anything to do with her father. Her mother didn’t want to be second-best. Feder told her father over the phone that it would be a good idea to “take a break” until her mother settled down.
“My mother was threatened by my father’s intervention. (The Pringles’) plan was to send me to work at age 18 as a secretary,” she said. Her mother issued an ultimatum: continue with her plan (which was to get rid of her so the Pringles wouldn’t have to support her any longer) and stop the visits with her father. “Father was known for disappearing acts so it was very possible I could study in Paris and he might disappear,” she added.
“This was the most traumatic experience in my life. I longed to go to college. I didn’t want to be a secretary,” though there’s nothing wrong with being one, she noted. “I had more to offer the world, but at 16 I wasn’t old enough to make the decision.”
Welles refused to speak to his daughter for 4 years. She said, “Father was immature. He was brilliant but he didn’t grow up.”
They finally met in Hong Kong in late 1958 or early 1959 (by which time he completed his last film for Hollywood, Touch of Evil). Feder wrote that her father looked like he weighed 300 pounds then. Did Welles’s girth and dissolution with Hollywood coincide with depression over refusing to speak to his daughter?
I spoke with Lawrence French, site administrator of Wellesnet.com, and he didn’t think Welles’ decline was due to his self-imposed separation from his daughter. French said things began to fall apart in 1948. “Welles wasn’t a communist but people thought he was during the Hollywood Blacklist era,” French said, “And he divorced Rita Hayworth and was fired from ABC radio for defending Isaac Woodward.” Welles had a private vendetta against racist cops in South Carolina who beat and blinded Woodward, an African-American soldier, in 1945.
Was this the usual relationship with creative types and their children at that time? I corresponded with Bella Stander, freelance writer, book critic and daughter of Lionel Stander, a contemporary of Welles possibly best known as Max in the TV show Hart to Hart. She wrote that she also had a similar relationship with her father. “It was difficult,” she added, “One day I will write about it.”
Stander also agreed that Welles’ decline had nothing to do with his daughter. She said, “Orson Welles was a narcissist; I doubt he thought often enough about Chris for her to be the cause of his decline.”
One of the First Independent Filmmakers
After Hollywood, Welles struggled with financing his own films. Feder stated, “He was passionate about his work. He had to raise money for his films. He was one of the first independent film makers. He didn’t have support. It left very little time for a personal life.”
But he did have his companion Oja Kodar, an artist he met in the early sixties who remained with him until his death. “Oja was the most important woman in his life. She worked by his side, collaborated with him, and threw herself entirely into his life,” Feder said. The two women finally met 5 years ago at Locarno, Switzerland at a film festival marking the 20th anniversary of her father’s death. “Oja and I feel like family,” she added.
8 days before his death, Welles said in an interview posted at Wellesnet.com that “The marketplace is the enemy of the artist.” Feder said, “It was difficult to finance films back then. Today, look at Woody Allen, look at the Sundance Film Festival. Father had difficulty then because there weren’t as many outlets. He didn’t have computers or technology.” She believes that because of technology today, more independent film makers can get their work out there.
And one of those films, Chimes at Midnight, was Welles’ favorite and not Citizen Kane for which he is best known.
Stepping Out of the Shadow
Feder married her second husband Irwin in 1970 and celebrated 40 years of marriage this year. They attended her father’s funeral in 1985, which she compared to a “pauper’s grave” like another genius, Mozart. A friend who was the last person to see him alive told Feder that her father said, “Even though he hadn’t been a good father to you, you’d been a very good daughter to him.”
Because she wanted to step out of the shadow and be someone in her own light, she became an educational writer. “I first started as a secretary. Then I got into educational publishing in my twenties. In my thirties I became known as a writer for education which led to Brain Quest, an educational game for children which has been incredibly successful for how long it has lasted as new generations discover it,” she said.
Feder also wrote a book of poems entitled The Movie Director, which is currently out of print. One copy is at the Woodstock Library, another at the University of Michigan, and one at the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana. Chris praised Catherine Benamou’s Orson Welles collection at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor: “Oja donated papers, his assistant Richard Wilson donated papers, and I will donate papers also. If you are ever in Ann Arbor, please visit.”
Although there are no plans, according to Feder, to mark the 25th Anniversary of his death on October 10, Welles fans can visit his birthplace in Kenosha by the Simmons Library. The librarians there will direct you to the exact house. It is marked with a plaque on a rock in the front yard by the shores of Lake Michigan, where it all started all started 95 years ago.