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The Genius Who Launched the Martian Invasion

Published: April 17, 2014

Orson Welles

1937 Portrait of Orson Welles (Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress)

Orson Welles would be pleased; his name is now permanently linked with a national holiday. Halloween has become something of a “feast day” for the producer-actor, whose broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was first heard 75 years ago. Each year at this time, it is replayed on the radio and Web, with added commentary about the massive panic it caused when it originally aired. [Click here to read more about America’s reaction to the broadcast “Are We Ready for a Martian Invasion?”]

Welles—the revolutionary director of Citizen Kane, the talented Shakespearean actor, and the man who scared Americans into a massive panic in 1938—had an insatiable appetite for attention. His hunger for renown began in his earliest years, when his intelligence won him the flattering attention of adults. His ability to speak in complete sentences at age 2 earned him the reputation of a child genius. By the time he was 4 years old, he was convinced of what doting adults had repeatedly told him: He was destined for greatness. Not yet old enough for school, he was impatient to achieve his destiny. In those early years, “his main ambition was to escape from childhood,” wrote Alva Johnston and Fred Smith in their 1940 series on Welles, “How To Raise A Child.”

By the time he was 10, Welles—ready to set out into the world and support himself on his talent—“eloped” with his foster parents’ daughter, who was also 10. They were eventually found in Milwaukee, living on the coins they earned from singing and dancing on street corners. Returned to his foster parents, he was enrolled in the local public school.

He made no effort to conceal his boredom with the curriculum. One day in the fourth grade, “he announced that he would like to deliver a lecture on ancient and modern art,” wrote Johnston and Smith. “The teacher offered to turn the class over to him. That did not meet his views. He wanted the whole school. This was arranged. Orson gave a 10-minute history of art and then launched into an attack on the school’s methods of teaching art, which, he said, were sterile; instead of encouraging self-expression, they encouraged feeble imitation and produced lifeless copyists.

“‘You mustn’t criticize the public school system, Orson,’ interrupted a teacher.

“‘If the public-school system needs criticizing, I will criticize it,’ he replied.”

That little exchange won him notice in the local paper in Madison, Wisconsin. When interviewed, Welles made it clear that he was a child genius—a “cartoonist, actor, and poet.” Playing on his air of a prodigy, Johnston and Smith observed, “he was already abusing the simplicity of the public.”

Welles was eventually put under the guardianship of a Chicago physician who wanted to develop the boy’s genius. The remaining years of his education were quite informal—little more than Welles educating himself according to his own theories. He developed a remarkable knowledge of ancient history, art, and drama, and considerable skill as a magician. But he saw no need to master basic arithmetic. He was confident at age 10 that “there will always be people around to add and subtract for me.”

Welles grew up without the steadying influence of a stable family. When he was still young, his parents separated, then died. His extended family, which showed little interest in the boy, appears to have been a rare collection of small-town eccentrics.

Johnston and Smith were particularly impressed by Welles’ great aunts. “One was an important topic of conversation in Kenosha [Wisconsin] because she used her electric limousine to run after, not to ride in. She tied herself to the machine by a long rope and took her exercise by using the car as a pacemaker. Another, besides wearing a riding habit at all times, hailed her friends on the streets of Kenosha by lifting an enormous wig and waving it at them. A third is still the subject of speculation; she fell out, of a rickshaw in China and was never heard of again.” Yet another tried to achieve big-city decadence on a small-town budget. She “took baths in ginger ale because, as she told [Welles], it was cheaper than champagne.”

The boy’s inclination toward eccentricity was only encouraged by the adults who kept reminding him of his remarkable intelligence and talent. Surprisingly, Welles never developed into a spoiled brat. “Infant prodigies are usually admired and feared, rather than loved,” wrote Johnston and Smith. “The average prodigy is an arrogant little hellhound. According to the authorities, Orson was not so bad as might have been expected. Ashton Stevens described him as ‘gabby and precocious, but not snooty.’ Others say he was gentle and patient with the absurdities of adults.”

At the age of 16, he had talked his way into leading roles in the theaters of Dublin and London. When he returned to America, though, he found no demand for his acting or his plays. “For the first time in his life he found himself being persecuted with inattention,” Johnston and Smith reported. In Times Square, he was stunned to find large groups of people not mentioning him. A prodigy can only take so much neglect. Welles hopped a steamer and sailed to northern Africa for a change of scenery while writing a book on the plays of Shakespeare.

He returned to New York to find that Broadway had caught up with his European reputation. By age 19, he had several starring roles on Broadway and was starting to work in radio. By age 23, he produced his panic-inducing tale of Martians and death rays.

In the days that followed that October 30, 1938, broadcast, he must have wondered if he’d played his young prodigy card once too often. Hundreds of people were furious with him for both scaring them and then making them feel foolish. He had also made enemies in Hollywood, where he was considered both too young and too talented. “During its first two decades, the picture business was rich in child colossuses,” wrote Johnston and Smith. “It is in the nature of things that the superannuated infant prodigies and their cohorts should disapprove of a fresh young infant prodigy.” Yet here was the 24-year-old Welles being paid more than $150,000 plus percentage for every movie he made, and over $5,000 for each of his weekly radio broadcasts.

The press eventually dropped the story of the broadcast after Welles made an earnest apology. And victims of the hysteria no longer wanted to talk about how they were frightened into a blind panic. The outrage died away. But many Americans continued to regard him with the wary indulgence adults often give children who are too smart for their own good.

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