Readers may even wonder about the reliability of Jaglom’s transcript (or Biskind’s rendering thereof). At one point, for example, Richard Burton appears at Welles’s table and asks if Elizabeth Taylor, whom he’s lunching with across the room, can come over and say hello. Welles shoots back: “No. As you can see, I’m in the middle of my lunch. I’ll stop by on my way out.” His brisk brush-off of Hollywood royalty is hilarious. But one immediately wonders: were Burton and Taylor, who divorced in 1976, really having lunch together at Ma Maison on that day in 1983?
Of all the people whom Welles rants about, the one for whom he reserves the most venom is his old theater and film partner John Houseman, who at the time of the Ma Maison lunches with Jaglom was riding high, having won a supporting-actor Oscar in 1973 and followed it with a string of high-profile acting jobs and lucrative commercials. Every bit of it made Welles seethe with envy. How strange to see the director of Citizen Kane saying: “If I got just one commercial, it would change my life!…I don’t even get the radio ones anymore!….You know, I could comprehend it, in this youth-oriented world, if my ex-partner wasn’t getting so rich on it.”
Welles and Jaglom also wander into politics. Jaglom (none of whose movies I’ve ever seen, as far as I can remember) comes off as a standard showbiz lefty, who has no apparent trouble with Hollywood Stalinism but despises director Elia Kazan for “naming names” in 1952 to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Welles can’t forgive Kazan either (even though he forgives German and French entertainers who performed for Nazis during the war), but at least he makes a point of mentioning the newspaper columns he wrote in the 1940s, in which he attacked Stalinist Russia “at a time when everybody thought God was smiling on Stalin.” He says he begged HUAC unsuccessfully to let him come to D.C. to explain to them “the difference between a Communist and a liberal.” And he says that in his experience “right-wingers” are “usually nicer people than left-wingers.” When Jaglom, coming off as a parody of P.C., says he’s “tormented” daily by his privileged life while children starve in Africa (“I should feel guiltier than I do”), Welles punctures his posturing: “Oh, the irony of these kinds of conversations is that they end with: ‘Do you want some berries?’”