Having finally broken with Orson Welles during the creation of “Citizen Kane,” John Houseman’s eclectic career bounced back after Pearl Harbor, when he was invited to help organize U.S. broadcast propaganda efforts during World War II.
Years later, in a London restaurant, Houseman learned that his former theatrical partner and best friend was due to stop in after his show, a much-praised West End version of ‘Moby Dick.”
|Orson Welles and John Houseman|
With those four burning braziers that Welles had once hurled at him fresh in memory, Houseman greeted the news with a excitement tempered by trepidation.
“I was tired, and had a hard day ahead of me, but an overwhelming compulsion kept me glued to my chair at the Caprice, making small talk with my wife while waiting for this meeting I so feared and desired,” Houseman recalled in his second book of memoirs, “Front and Center.”
Welles’ approach was heralded by an extrasensory impulse, Houseman claimed.
“A few minutes before one a faint but insistent blip on my private radar screen warned me that the Wonder Boy was approaching,” Houseman wrote. “Propelled by a potent mixture of nostalgia, curiosity and terror, I began to move toward the doorway in which I never for an instant doubted that Orson was about to appear.”
He did, and Houseman thought it an even bet whether Welles would throw his arms around him in an embrace or pummel him in an attack.
“Then came the moment when I knew Orson had become aware of me. With no change of expression on that big, round face, he separated himself from his party and started in my direction, so that we were now moving slowly and silently toward each other across the deserted floor like a pair of classic Western gunfighters approaching each other for the final shoot-out.”
Welles bellowed, “Jacko! Jacko! Jacko!” and bear-hugged Houseman.
“(P)atrons of the Caprice were treated to surprising spectacle of two very large men, locked in a frantic, clumsy embrace, whirling slowly, like a giant top, around the dance floor,” Houseman said.
They sat and drank champagne and eagerly relived their numerous triumphs and disasters, from Harlem theatre to the War of the Worlds, recalling “the terrible fights and the absurd reconciliations.”
Then, “out of carelessness or perversity,” Houseman made his fatal error. He mentioned that he wasn’t sure which night he could come to see Welles’ “Moby Dick” because he was waiting on tickets for Laurence Olivier’s “MacBeth,” which were really hard to get.
“I could have bitten off my tongue even as I said it,” Houseman recalled. “It was too late. The glasses on the table leapt and slammed as a huge fist crashed into the table. Orson was on his feet. His eyes were glazed and his face had the sweaty gray-whiteness of his great furies. Very quietly and intently, underlining each word as though addressing a child or half-wit, he said: ‘It is more difficult to get seats for Moby Dick than it is for Macbeth!’
“Then, before I could dispute his palpably false statement, his voice rose to a shout that reached every corner of the Caprice: ‘For 20 years, you son of a bitch, you’ve been trying to humiliate and destroy me! You’ve never stopped, have you? And you’re still at it!’”
As Houseman took his wife’s arm and headed for the door, Welles shouted that he’d better not show up at the theatre or he’d be thrown out.
“I never got to see Olivier’s ‘Macbeth,’” Houseman mused. “But I did see Welles’ ‘Moby Dick’ the next night, and I loved it. It had all the excitement and magic that were Welles’ special theatrical virtues. He did not throw me out, but he and I did not speak to each other again for close to 25 years.”
Source: “Front and Center” by John Houseman