“How small we feel with our petty ambitions and strivings in the presence of the great elemental forces of nature,” Sherlock Holmes declares to Dr. Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Sign of the Four (1889), the second full-length detective yarn to feature one of the world’s most beloved fictional creations, once dubbed “the greatest man who never lived.”
“The chief proof of a man’s real greatness,” Holmes continues, “lies in his perception of his own smallness. It argues, you see, a power of comparison and of appreciation which is in itself proof of nobility.”
In Robert Kaplow’s extremely engaging and nostalgia-laced novel Me and Orson Welles (originally published in 2005, reissued by Penguin in a movie tie-in edition in late 2009) Welles, dubbed “the wonder kid of Kenosha, Wisconsin” by the late film critic Andre Bazin, tells the young narrator that he is “a God-created actor” because he has “the look”, invoking the sentiment of Holmes in The Sign of the Four:
“The bone-deep understanding that your life is so utterly without meaning that simply to survive you have to reinvent yourself. Because if people can’t find you, they can’t dislike you. You see, if I can be Brutus tonight – I mean, really be him from the inside out – then for ninety minutes I get this miraculous reprieve from being myself. That’s what you see in every great actor’s eyes, you know.”
There are numerous similarities in the psychological make-up of Orson Welles and Doyle’s famous fictional detective, both men possessing extraordinary intellectual gifts, both haunted and made dangerously restless by the “bone-deep understanding” that each individual life is but a mere speck in the cosmos.
A serious re-examination of Welles’ brilliant work is long overdue on the 25th anniversary of his passing, just as Hollywood is now renewing the Holmes legend 173 years after the detective first appeared in print (Welles portrayed arch villain Moriarty in a 1952 BBC radio production of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, featuring Sir John Gielgud as Holmes and Sir Ralph Richardson as Watson.)
There have been numerous fictional versions of larger-than-life American artists in print over the decades: F. Scott Fitzgerald became the alcoholic has-been writer Manly Halliday in Budd Schulberg’s rambling roman-a-clef The Disenchanted; rowdy filmmaker John Huston was transformed into cold-blooded John Wilson in Peter Viertel’s fictionalized account of the production of The African Queen, White Hunter, Black Heart, and Ray Bradbury penned a novel, Green Shadows, White Whale, about his experiences making Moby Dick (a novel that particularly obsessed Welles throughout his life and career) with John Huston in Ireland in 1953; the legendary William S. Burroughs has appeared as a fictional character in several Jack Kerouac works and last, but certainly not least, is Charles Bukowski, poet and novelist of the underclass, who created his own fictional alter ego, Hank Chinaski, in dozens of short stories and novels.
The outsized persona of Orson Welles, however, has escaped the novelist’s scrutiny, despite the fact that he remains one of the most towering figures to emerge from the media of the 20th century: Broadway, radio, and, ultimately, motion pictures.
While Me and Orson Welles is by no stretch of the imagination a definitive fictive rendering of the life of the creator of Citizen Kane, the novel does offer fascinating insights into a critical juncture in the man’s scattershot career: New York City in 1937, less than two years before Hollywood came calling and Welles departed on gilded wings for the west coast where, as biographer Charles Higham precisely describes in his book Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius, the multi-talented artist would begin work as “the brilliant architect of his own downfall” owing to “some perverse streak of anti-commercialism.”