Orson Welles was a leading man at 18, scared the radio audience silly at 23, and infuriated the Hearst empire at 25, ….
How is it that Orson Welles came to be such a figure of international fascination? Part of the answer is that he was an unusual species of individual: the adult prodigy. The child prodigy is born with a gift for instant accomplishment, and Welles was almost the archetype of this; they do not play with things as a child typically, instead they use them.
Welles, for example was staging his own adaptation of Shakespeare before he could read. And he taught himself to read at the age of three by using A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a primer. At ten, when he was examined by a group of psychologists assembled in Madison Wisconsin, he was described in the local paper as a poet, painter, cartoonist, and actor; the reporter did not know, apparently, that he was also a pianist, an accomplished magician, and a critic of Nietzsche. At that meeting, by the way, he routed the brain probers by replying to their questions with erudite pronouncements of complete irrelevance. In short, instant accomplishment.
The prognosis for children who show this gift for handling the adult world as though it were their rattle is statistically not very promising. The child of single and singular talent often develops into a talented adult; the way is much harder for the generally prodigious child. A few become excellent men and women, but in more cases they are eventually overtaken by their contemporaries and find themselves ill-prepared to compete on equal terms. It is only rarely that the child prodigy converts into an adult prodigy.
After adolescence the difference between the prodigy and the talented is not so easily defined. The most reliable guide, perhaps, is that in the former case public attention tends to focus more on the remarkable circumstances surrounding an accomplishment than on the accomplishment itself. And it can therefore happen that the prodigy’s reputation is not integrally associated with his achievements.
His mother, Beatrice Ives, a beauty and a concert pianist, introduced him to artistic society in Chicago when he was little more than a baby. Like most prodigies, he was much in the company of adults, and he attributed his ability to carry on one conversation while absorbing two or three others going on in his vicinity to his early habit of eavesdropping at the vivacious gatherings he attended with his mother. She died when he was nine, and he returned to his father, a retired manufacturer and inventor, who was to devote the rest of his life to travel and good living. Young Welles had seen Europe and the Far East by the time he was in his early teens; he had become accustomed to champagne suppers and the laughter of beautiful women.
Then there was Dr. Maurice Bernstein, who visited the family professionally, and who guessed that Welles was a prodigy at the age of one and a half. It was Dr. Bernstein who, as legal guardian of the teenager when he became an orphan, allowed Welles to declare Harvard superfluous and to go off instead on a sketching jaunt through Ireland, which within a year had brought him to Dublin and to leading parts in the repertory of the Gate Theatre.
Welles was not uneducated; he spent five years, from eleven to fifteen, in school. Again he was lucky, for the Todd School in Woodstock Illinois was very possibly the only educational institution that would have tolerated Welles or that Welles would have tolerated himself. Roger Hill, the headmaster, was undismayed o being told that Welles was devoting his energies in history to exposing the ignorance of the eminent Egyptologist, James H. Breasted; and he was able to adjust the curriculum so that his unusually energetic student could produce, direct, and act in an average of eight plays per school year.
After the season at the Gate, Welles returned to New York and was offended by the city’ failure to take any formal notice of his presence. He thereupon retired to Morocco where, as the guest of a local prince, he worked on a school edition of Shakespeare which he and Roger Hill brought out together and which sold reasonably well. On his next trip home he met Thornton Wilder, who sent him to Alexander Woollcott, who introduced him to Katherine Cornell, who engaged him as a juvenile for a repertory tour on which she was then stag. He was eighteen, and we may say that his status as a child prodigy was over. ….