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An Uneven Biography

February 25, 1996

Space does not allow for a full corrective review of Simon Callow's very uneven book, "Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu" (Book Review, Jan. 7) but let me cite a couple of items that may raise questions about David Freeman's claim that this biography is "unlikely to be unsurpassed," and that it is "vivid and knowing."

Callow uses considerable space to document [Welles' father] Richard's manifold deficiencies as son, husband and father, and then complains that his 15-year-old son rejected him: "There was nothing Dick Welles could do to bridge the gap between himself and his son whom he so deeply but unusefully [sic] loved." A few pages later Callow reports that "Dick Welles had conspired with Dr. Bernstein," who soon became Orson's legal guardian, "to have Richard Jr. [Orson's older brother] certified insane . . . and imprisoned in the state sanatorium of Kanakee," where he spent the next 10 years of his life. The heavy in all of this, of course, is Orson, who at age 15 immersed himself in theater at the Todd Seminary boarding school, from which he graduated summa cum laude in spite of his incapacity for learning Latin and geometry as Callow is quick to remind us. How ungenerous of Orson not to join his father in drunken debauchery and to fail to keep his older brother locked up.

I will spare you the often bizarre psychological speculations of Callow, partly because his accounts of Welles' homosexuality and boyhood dreams of cigars are sufficiently risible to generate unwanted interest in this tabloid stew disguised as a biography. Welles was not the only one to be fascinated by makeup and the make-believe.

RONALD GOTTESMAN, SANTA MONICA

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