Orson Welles vs. Me

Orson Welles never spoke to me on the phone. His secretary relayed messages between us, and for many weeks, the exchanges were lighthearted and cordial. I was mounting a campaign for his film, F for Fake, for the distributor, one of my PR outfit’s clients. Our first meeting was on a dark and stormy night (no kidding) at his rented villa high above Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. I nervously banged on the immense door’s heavy knocker and was stunned whe it was flung open by the man himself.  He and I were alone in that immense house, but Orson was so genuine and charming that I quickly forgot to be nervous. 

He offered me a drink, and we bashed around like two old friends in the sparsely furnished kitchen looking for glasses and ice. We spent several pleasant hours discussing a campaign to launch the American debut of his film about fakes and frauds. The movie’s subjects included the art forger Elmyr de Hory, the biography forger Clifford Irving, the mystery man Howard Hughes, and even the young Orson Welles of the famous “War of the Worlds” hoax, with the elder Orson serving as narrator.  The evening went well, and I left with sufficient material to create a press kit and pitches for the media. I was thrilled that we were on a first-name basis and that this movie legend seemed to like me and approve of my ideas.

The next day, I brainstormed with my staff about gaining national press for the premiere, which would take place at the Orson Welles Theatre in Boston. What stunt could we orchestrate to make Time Magazine, The New York Times, the Today Show, and all the rest, want to cover this indie film opening? Our secretary Laney came up with the winning idea! We’d stage a fake Orson – hire a lookalike from New York and set it up so two Orsons were on the stage at the same time! It was an irresistible photo op, and she started hunting for a fake that very day.

I was so proud of myself that I phoned Orson’s secretary to share the news. She thought it was terrific, too. An hour later, my secretary walked into my office all atwitter. Oh, Joy! Orson himself was on the phone. I knew that was calling to congratulate me on my brilliant vision.

“Never in my life have I had the misfortune of dealing with such a towering moron,” he shouted at me. “The machine has not been invented which could measure my displeasure with such an idiotic idea!  There is only one Orson Welles on this planet, and I would never consider subjecting myself to such low-brow humiliation for the sake of publicity,” he roared. Of course, I stammered, trying to interject my explanation, but he couldn’t hear me because he was bellowing. Eventually he ended his tirade with a classic line that made me collapse with laughter afterward, “I’ll have you fired for this. You’ll never work in this town again.” Bang went the phone.

The distributor had endured her own lashings from Orson, and she did not fire me. But I was forced to take my company’s name off all the press materials, invent a fake publicist to serve as contact, and skip the opening in Boston.

Of course, I don’t believe that fakery is necessarily a bad thing. I think a little sleight of hand and a lot of audacity are at work in almost every successful endeavor. I’ve consulted some of my contemporaries and found that there’s not one of them who hasn’t take a leap when they had no idea what they were doing! I mean, what’s the fun in never taking a chance?

I wonder if everyone who is lucky enough to live a long time has feigned expertise to move ahead with their plans. Once I started ruminating about this, memories of my own fakery bubbled up.

I started my working life at 15 as a gift-wrapper at Sears & Roebuck at Christmas time. I assured my boss that I knew how to wrap and then raced home for a fast lesson from my mother. I’m still the fastest wrapper in the family. Landing jobs and creating them with sheer zeal and not much else became my pattern.

For instance, I founded that PR company with chutzpah and fakery on my suburban dining room table. Although I had been a journalism major, I had no press contacts, no real PR experience, and no clue about running a business. I started anyway with my neighbor as my part-time assistant. I paid her to be head cheerleader, which I needed desperately.  When it was time to make a scary phone call to some big-wig at The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, or The LA. Times, I’d rehearse my pitch and she would pat me on the back telling me I could do it! Our company motto was “Fake it ’til you make it!” At last, I convinced a few. actors that I knew what I was doing, and when I got up the courage to tip the maitre’ d’ at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a primo booth for the legendary columnist Army Archerd, I knew I had arrived. My little outfit did a credible job and I enjoyed it. We even won an Academy Award for “The Man Who Skied Down Everest” with no budget but lots of hard work!

Several years later, I was burned out and sold the company.  I joined a brand-new business equipment leasing outfit on a tip from my CPA. Surprisingly, I did well in the job and stayed in that business for eight years, eventually founding my own firm. The fakery? To this day I can’t operate a financial calculator, a major tool in the leasing business. Somehow I managed to do the job and hire people who were not math-averse like me to tend to the details. I never got caught, but I certainly had some close calls.

Years later, after I’d left Hollywood for a rural lifestyle on California’s Central Coast, a friend who was a farmer and shared a love of food and cooking invited me to be her partner in a commercial kitchen. It was available at a fantastic discount, and I agreed to invest. The day we closed the deal, she and I stood giggling in a sea of stainless steel tables surrounded by a six-burner Wolff range, a stand-alone Hobart mixer, a big deep commercial sink, piles of sheet pans, and several commercial refrigerators. We had no earthly idea what we would do with this cook’s dream of a place, so we drank some wine and toasted to our future. We learned by doing, made some mistakes, and took orders before we were ready, enlisting friends, family and strangers to help us make our deadlines.  Eventually, we developed a good reputation with our high-end hors d’oeuvres and sold our wares to almost every gourmet grocery outlet in California. So much for not knowing anything about the food business!

The apex of my spurious adventures came when I accepted a publisher’s advance to write a 350-page memoir about my travels. To this day, I marvel at my cheekiness. What the hell did I know about writing a book? After the money was nestled in my account, and the hoopla among friends and family died down, the enormity of what I’d contracted to do slapped me right in the ego. I was scared to death and remained so until the massive two-ton truck on my back was lifted and Home Sweet Anywhere went on the market. Sixty-five years after the gift-wrap incident, I was still Fakin’ it ’til I made it. 

As for Orson, F for Fake never did find its audience, but I’ll bet it would have if Orson’s ego hadn’t been so fragile.

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