David Herrle interviews Todd Tarbox, author of ORSON WELLES AND ROGER HILL

Buy the book
Learn more about the author here
Visit Wellesnet, the Orson Welles Web Resource

David: I can’t tell you how delighted I was to discover Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts. You had me at…ahem…Hill and O. It’s mentioned in Patrick McGilligan’s astute Young Orson biography, which is quite an honor. Unlike the transcript-style This is Orson Welles and My Lunches With Orson, your book is presented in dramatic form, featuring engrossing phone calls between Welles and your grandfather, Roger “Skipper” Hill, and elevating their private discussions into art. Why did you decide to do the book this way, and how did you manage to, as you say, “tighten and, on occasion, rearrange their exchanges?” This format decision set the stage – ahem – for the planned production of a play adaptation. Did you have a future play in mind from the beginning?

Todd: Thank you for your generous appraisal of my book, which chronicles the remarkable six-decade relationship that began in 1927, when Orson enrolled at the Todd Seminary for Boys, a private boarding school in Woodstock, Illinois, where Roger Hill, was a faculty member and soon to become the headmaster.

The truth is that I’m not responsible for, as you say, “elevating their private discussions into art.” The “art” emanates from their dazzling minds and adroit tongues. To add texture to their discussions, I wove pertinent flashbacks, incorporating snippets from their letters, newspaper articles, plays and speeches. Often their conversations would lead down myriad paths with not infrequent digressions (fascinating digressions, I might add) that often led away from the central subject(s) they were discussing. My tightening involved removing a number of these asides, perhaps to be included in a second play one day. My infrequent – I emphasize infrequent – rearrangement of their exchanges occurred when a topic, such as Orson’s years at Todd, was discussed during several telephone conversations.

Yes, from the first moment my grandfather shared with me his telephone calls and voluminous correspondence with Orson over the years, I was convinced their unique relationship would translate well onto the stage and screen. [Photo below: Welles visiting the Todd School in 1948, with Skipper seated at the right]


David: This remarkable relationship began at the excellent Todd School for Boys, which, according to Simon Callow, “provided the hothouse in which Orson Welles’s exotic talents bloomed.” By the time Skipper became headmaster, Todd was an eclectic wellspring of “creative creators,” as you put it, and Skipper himself described the school as “nutty” and “unique,” adjectives that also apply to Welles. Hascy Tarbox, your father, and Skipper’s son-in-law, rather insightfully observed that Todd provided the zealous individualist with “unquestioned approval by the authority.” Beyond being an accomplished author, educator and genealogical relative to Skipper Hill, you’ve also had the privilege of attending Todd. Please share some of your recollections of that time and place. And please tell us what you think of the magnitude of Todd for the youth who would become Orson Welles. 

I attended Todd from first through fourth grade. The school was closed in 1954, and my family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The school’s philosophy was based on the premise that every youngster is born a creator. The challenge for each student, with the assistance of the faculty, was to develop creative talents and discover how to apply them in and out of the classroom. 

This quest was vastly enhanced by providing every Todd boy with dozens of creative, intellectual and athletic avenues to explore. The school was involved in making dramatic and comic films, as well as documentaries and travelogues. Even before Orson arrived on campus, the school was involved in the theater.  As a result of Orson’s influence, Todd built a sound studio and a number of the student-written-and-directed radio programs were aired over FM stations throughout the Midwest. Athletics was another high priority at Todd. The typical student played several sports, and, given the relatively small student body, there were few bench warmers. Developing an active mind and body were twin touchstones at Todd.

My father, who enrolled at Todd several years after Orson and later joined the faculty, wrote of the school:

Pleasure was blended with responsibility…Skipper tried to put a mature, interesting and exciting face on whatever ventures the kid pursued. It worked because an awful lot of youngsters who graduated from this place named their first-born son Todd. Todd was a wonderful blend of self-directed, creative programs and a rather hard-nosed academic curriculum…Todd was an extraordinary place. It was fifty to seventy-five years ahead of itself as far as educational philosophy…The secret of life that was espoused at Todd was to do something that you wanted to do. And just about every guy who went to Todd has wound up doing just about what he wanted to do. The Todd School for Boys was an incredible moment in time.

What made the Todd School for Boys such an inviting and invigorating place and moment in time was due in large measure to Skipper. Emerson observed wisely that “An Institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”  Though the school closed its doors in 1954, Skipper’s shadow remains vivid for those who had the great fortune of living within his umbra.

One could argue that the Todd School was the only period in Orson’s life where he enjoyed sustained and unqualified success and security. How important was Todd and the Hills to Orson the boy and man? Both were essential in encouraging him to develop and demonstrate his myriad gifts to ever expanding audiences. Todd and the Hills allowed him unfettered creative freedom permitting him to successfully soar in so many directions. Orson’s prelapsarian and prolific years at Todd came to an end after five years, but the memory this halcyon time and place remained green for the rest of his life. Most important, the wellspring of his joy at Todd, my grandparents, never left him. They became his devoted foster parents who provided him no small degree of emotional ballast and joy throughout his life. [Photo below: Young Welles as a Todd student, fourth from the left]

David: A lovely excerpt from your book:

Roger: “I’m a Goddamn bluffer and the only talent I ever had was that people, many of whom were brighter than I, liked me.”
Orson: “It’s because you’re brighter than you think you are…[Y]ou formed the idea that the cute way to get around in the world was to underplay yourself…”

Next to Todd, Skipper is probably the most essential factor in the evolution of Welles. Though 20 years his senior, Skipper maintained an enviable youthfulness and was, according to Hascy, “the adolescent’s adolescent.” While you’ve admitted that Welles was destined for excellence, you believe that his “real existence would have been greatly diminished” if the two had never met. Whether it was unconditional encouragement, exalting in a mutual love of Shakespeare or providing finances, Skipper was Welles’ main tailwind. It does seem that Welles was guilty of benign exploitation of his mentor and other loved ones in his life, including his other surrogate father, Maurice “Dadda” Bernstein, thanks to his adeptness at affection manipulation. Barbara Leaming believed that Welles “played on the rivalry between his mentors” and even caricatured the triangle in Bright Lucifer. Was there an actual rivalry between Skipper and Dadda? Do you think that your grandfather gets the lionization he deserves? Also, with Skipper comes his wife, the remarkable Hortense. What can you share about her?

Todd: There was absolutely no rivalry between my grandfather and Maurice Bernstein. Early in their relationship, when Dr. Bernstein enrolled Orson in the fall of 1927 at Todd, they respected one another, personally and professionally, and over the years that Orson attended Todd their respect grew into friendship. They both appreciated Orson’s unique mind and spirit, desiring that the young “genius” make the most of his creative talents. Upon the death of Orson’s father, Richard Welles, fifteen-year-old Orson asked my grandfather to be his guardian.  Skipper shared with me that he responded: “To do so would break Dadda’s heart. He has known and adored you since you were an infant. You must choose Dadda.” Which Orson did. However, over the years that followed, selecting Dr. Bernstein proved to be somewhat problematic for Orson. [Photo below: Young Welles, Maurice “Dadda” Bernstein, Edith Mason, Hortense Hill and Skipper Hill – October 9, 1929]


My grandfather and Dr. Bernstein provided guidance and affection to young Orson. Bernstein’s was often conditional and overbearing, while my grandfather’s support was unconditional and easygoing. In This is Orson Welles Orson tells Peter Bogdanovich: “I’d say the biggest influence was Roger Hill. He’s still a great, valued friend…I can’t imagine life without him, and I go 10 years without seeing him, but it doesn’t seem like ten years, because I think of him all the time. He was a great direct influence in my life – the biggest by all odds. I wanted to be like him. Everything he thought, I wanted to think, and that wasn’t true of Dr. Bernstein.”

My charismatic grandfather was never in want of being lionized. He possessed the mind of a serious scholar and the heart of a sprightly child, and he was adored by Todd students and faculty for more than four decades. My grandmother, Hortense was as intelligent and spry as her husband. They enjoyed sixty-six years of marriage until my grandmother died in 1982 at the age of 87. At Hortense’s memorial Orson eulogized:

Of everyone I’ve known, she was the most truly passionate. Yes, passionate in every good meaning of a word I choose with care. Other great and good souls may be described as warm or warm-hearted. That’s too tepid sounding for Hortense. Warm is a word for comfort and consolation. The word for her was Heat. Fire. The very element itself. She has gone away and left a black hole in our universe. And yet to mourn is to remember. That shining, vivid, marvelously living presence is back with us again and our hearts are stabbed with happiness. For just to think of her can never be anything but an occasion for joy.

 [Photo below: Hortense and Skipper]

David: Skipper’s conscientious wisdom certainly shaped Orson’s approach to artistic collaboration for the better. Hascy’s words at Skipper’s 1990 memorial are paramount: “You were one of the chosen if you were fortunate enough to have worked with him. For those who did, he bequeathed the greatest gift one man can bestow upon another, the capacity to make you feel important…” That rings like what Welles-protégé Gary Graver said about Welles in his memoir: “[Y]ou always felt as though you were a collaborator, no matter how small your job might have been.”
However, a contrary Hascy quotation about Orson’s precocious directorial power over a Todd production of Twelfth Night appears in your book: “[H]e left absolutely no latitude, no tolerance for self-expression.” Yes, Welles denied collectivist moviemaking and extolled directorial dictatorship, but the obstinate auteur also could be an embracive, even flattering collaborator. In his Marilyn biography Norman Mailer says that facts “always attract polar facts,” so were both Hascy and Graver correct?

Todd:  Possibly so. Orson became surer of himself as a director and actor on the stage and on radio in New York in the 1930s and early 1940s. Observe this exchange between Orson and Skipper:

Orson: There is an actor I know who doesn’t think much of me, who goes on for three pages saying, “I’ve never heard Orson Welles raise his voice or say any unkind thing to an actor in my life.”
Roger: Well, that’s a little overdoing it.
Orson: No, it’s true.
Roger: Really?
Orson: Yes, you’re thinking of my directing the Todd boys. I do all my mean talk to the people behind the camera. Anybody who has to perform in front of the public is treated with great deference. I take it out on poor assistant directors, and usually for the benefit of the actors, to show them what they could be getting.

David: Hascy Tarbox has been presented as a negative rival to Orson Welles, even by Hascy himself (in a sense): “I think that I hold the record for being the longest burr under Orson’s saddle.” Callow called him Welles’ “arch-enemy,” Leaming claimed that Welles was adamantly against her talking to him, and Welles referred to him as “that bastard.” Denying Orson-envy, Hascy believed that the envy was Orson’s, perhaps for Hascy’s remaining at the Edenic Todd School, which he guessed “was the only security that Orson ever had”. A Renaissance man in his own right (he was a rather talented painter, for one), Hascy needn’t have been envious, and this is validated by your praise of him in the book:

Like Orson, my father’s creativity knew no bounds. He could do anything with his head and hands: paint, sculpt, write, act, direct, build anything. Like Candide, he spent a considerable amount of time on life’s small stage tending his garden wisely and devotedly.

It seems that your father, like Welles, has been enigmatized by history’s combers, and I feel that he doesn’t belong among the real and perceived villains surrounding Welles. Please provide a clearer picture of the real Hascy Tarbox.

Todd: My father strode the world with grace, wit, confidence and intelligence. With an artist’s eye, he gleaned and recorded much during his seventy-three years.  Dad lived a life that was rollicking and reflective, as well as perceptive and articulate – be the medium paint, clay, wood or words. His letters, many illustrated with his clever sketches, effervesce with a vigorous toast to life. He created in myriad mediums, but, in the final analysis, he was his greatest creation.

After looking at an exhibit of Dad’s paintings, the naturalist and writer, Roger Caras, said of my father’s work: “The big difference between Mr. Tarbox and the bulk of the material I see is that Mr. Tarbox is really good. He has something to say about our natural world that people need to see and read! He is a designer, certainly, and he is an illustrator as well, but, not to put either of those fine skills down, he adds a dimension of excitement to his work that makes it art of a different kind. There is some magic here.” Dad was truly a magical presence. [Photo below: painting by Hascy Tarbox]

David: Far from being weak for adapting other writers’ material, Welles excelled at innovation, savant-like theatricality and meticulous editing. He even made Shakespeare his own, and his blunders (including the jumbled puzzle Mr. Arkadin) still dazzle. His work also has been and is incomprehensible to many people. For instance, Skipper observed that “[The Magnificent] Ambersons was just too dark and troubling for a public that wanted to be entertained and not enlightened,” which jibes with Charles Higham’s take on the same film: “[F]or intellectuals not dominated by a need to identify at a cinema performance, the film works beautifully; for the common run of people, it works far less well.” In a discussion about The Trial, Welles justified his work’s designed difficulty: “[Y]ou are supposed to have a very unpleasant time.” He also said that his “films are as black as the black hole.” In other words, Welles’ basically melancholic, fragmentary and surrealistic cinema isn’t Capra or Spielberg. How do you rate his filmography, and what might be the most profound benefits of their legacy?

Todd: What is most laudable in life and in art: quantity or quality? I opt for the latter. Leonardo da Vinci – one of the greatest minds in recorded history, a gifted scientist, engineer, mathematician, inventor, architect, writer, sculptor and painter – was the consummate embodiment of the “Renaissance man.” He is most celebrated for his art. His Last Supper, Mona Lisa and Vitruvian Man are a testament to his genius. Is he any less a genius because he wasn’t a prolific painter and fewer than twenty of his paintings are known to exist? 

Johannes Vermeer, one of the most lauded painters of the Dutch Golden Age, left the world only 34 paintings, while many of his contemporaries were far more prolific painters and whose work is far less memorable. Should the paucity of his painting damn him? Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was the best-selling novelist of the 19th century. Its affecting and effecting abolitionist theme is credited with being an important catalyst in starting the Civil War. She wrote more than two dozen other books in her lifetime, including Little Pussy Willow and The Minister’s Wooing, which were modest literary shadows compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Has history damned her because none of her other books achieved such universal approbation?  

Curiously, many who look at Orson’s work as a director admit his genius that is unarguably evident in Citizen Kane, but are quick to disparage him for never (in their minds) approaching the quality of his first film. Had Orson only written, directed and acted in Kane, his contribution to filmography would be considerable. Welles left the world cinematic quality, not quantity. Had he not been such a maverick or had he adequate financing, who knows how many more memorable films he would have left the world? A feckless imponderable, that. Orson’s provocative, profound, and kaleidoscopic “ribbon of dreams” is his enduring legacy. [Photo below: still from The Lady From Shanghai]

David: Welles believed that an artist’s product should speak louder than his or her own life, and he hated that “people today scrutinize an artist’s personality, crowing over his mistakes, his human failings” instead of his or her work. This is why he expressed relief that the dearth of knowledge of Shakespeare and Cervantes liberates their work from befuddlement. Regardless, deciphering artists’ Rosebuds is in our nature, and, ironically, Orson’s art and Orson (who was both Kane and Quinlan, both Lear and Falstaff) seem indivisible, so I ask: How do you sum up the man? And what do you think about the importance or non-importance of the relation between art and artist?

Todd: Summing up Orson, Marlene Dietrich reflected eloquently: “When I talk to him, I feel like a tree that has been watered. You should cross yourself when you say his name.” High praise, richly deserved. It seems to me that art and the artist are one. They are inseparable.