Faking it with Orson Welles
Orson Welles spoke to me on the phone only once. His secretary relayed messages between us, and the exchanges were lighthearted and cordial. My small PR firm was mounting a campaign for his film, F for Fake. My first meeting with Orson 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 when it was dramatically flung open by the man himself, dressed in an enormous black turtleneck and flowy black trousers. He and I were alone in the 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 the rest of the big outlets cover this small indie film? Our secretary Laney came up with the winning idea! We’d stage a fake Orson – hire a lookalike from New York, so two Orsons were on the stage at the same time! It was an irresistible photo op, and she started hunting for a fake Orson that very day. I was so proud 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 just knew that he 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, actress Pat Finley, had endured 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. 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 hadn’t leaped when they had no idea where they’d land. I wonder if everyone 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 history rose to the surface.
I started my working life at 15 as a Christmas gift wrapper at Sears & Roebuck. I assured my boss that I knew how to wrap and then raced home for a quick 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 modus operandi.
Although I was a journalism major, I had no press contacts, no real PR experience, and no clue about running a business. But none of those deficits stopped me from founding my Hollywood PR company. I began with chutzpah, fakery, and a manual typewriter on my suburban dining room table. My neighbor was my part-time assistant. I paid her to be a cheerleader, which I desperately needed. 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. When I got up the courage to palm $20 to the maitre’ d’ at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge, I knew I had arrived. That interview, with the legendary columnist Army Archerd and my client, the actress Rosemary Forsyth, was the first of many cash offerings I slipped into willing hands. My little outfit, now housed in actual offices in North Hollywood, did a credible job. We were doing well! 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 with Hollywood and sold the firm. I joined a brand-new business equipment leasing outfit on a tip from my CPA. Surprisingly, I did well and stayed in that business for eight years, eventually founding my own firm. The fakery? I have math phobia and can’t operate a financial calculator, which is a major tool in the leasing business. Somehow I managed to do the job and hire people who were not math-averse to tend to the details.
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. 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 double sink, piles of sheet pans, and several commercial refrigerators. We had no earthly idea what to do with this cook’s dream, but we drank some wine and toasted our future anyway. We learned by doing, made some mistakes, and took orders before we were ready, enlisting friends, family, and strangers to help us meet 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 with my husband. Even now, I marvel at my cheekiness. What the hell did I know about writing a book? Finally, with the advance money deposited and the hoopla among friends and family dying down, the enormity of what lay ahead 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. I recorded the book for Audible, and both are still chugging along eight years after their debuts.
Sixty-five years after the gift-wrap incident, with another book, Cook Like a Local in France, on the market, I’m still fakin’ it ’til I make it.
As for Orson, F for Fake did not find its American audience, but I’ll bet it would have if Orson had just believed in real-life fakery!