Jean Renoir, Orson Welles and the Dim Remembrance of Things Past

Steve Wasserman, Remembering Orson Welles

Journalists are fond of telling and retelling their favorite war stories. These are raucous tales of daring exploits — usually mixed with strong drink — of great personal heroism, of triumphs on deadline and other various noble achievements, often involving trickery played on the competition or on an obtuse editor. But in truth, these rollicking epics all too often fall prey to faulty memory and the desire (presumably unintentional) to improve a story.

Someone once said of critics that they wander through the battlefield, shooting the survivors. So it is with the historian who turns his lens on a fond recollection told with humor and gusto – but not much accuracy.

A recent example is former Times book editor Steve Wasserman’s foggy reminiscence in the Los Angeles Review of Books on his friendship with Orson Welles and what he describes as The Times’ poor coverage of the death Jean Renoir, who died of coronary occlusion at his home in Benedict Canyon on the afternoon of Feb. 12, 1979.

Wasserman writes:

The story begins with the death of Jean Renoir in Beverly Hills in early 1979. I was then deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Opinion section. The Times, in its infinite wisdom, had consigned news of Renoir’s demise to an AP wire story buried on page 19 of the Sunday paper. I was beside myself with unhappiness. Here was one of the great directors of the 20th century, dying in our backyard, as it were, banished to an ignominious squib on the paper’s inside pages instead of being ballyhooed prominently on the front page.

The immediate problem with Wasserman’s recollection is that Renoir died on a Monday and the story of his death appeared in the Tuesday paper, a fact that could be easily checked if he or anyone at the Los Angeles Review of Books cared to do so.

His next claim is equally false, however. One could quibble over whether the story was “buried,” but the account was not by the Associated Press, but by Paul G. Levine, an intern from Colgate University who contributed frequently to the Calendar and book review sections, with more than 90 bylined items in The Times, according to the clips.

Feb. 13, 1979, Jean Renoir

If Wasserman was “beside himself with unhappiness” that The Times published the story inside, one can only assume he was prostrate with grief that the New York Times ran nothing at all. It was not until the next day, Feb. 14, when the New York Times carried a full obituary by Paul Montgomery and an appreciation by Vincent Canby, both way back on Page D19, although it may have published an index photo on the front page – it’s a difficult to tell from the online archives.

And instead of Renoir’s death, what was “ballyhooed” prominently on the front page of The Times on Feb. 13?

Take a look. Here’s the Morning Final edition:

Feb. 13, 1979, Front Page
And here’s the makeover (home delivery) front page:

The chaos in Iran takes up about half the page, followed by stories on the oil crisis,  the nondupe  or Column One on illegal immigration (plus ça change, etc.), black nationalist guerrillas shooting down a Rhodesian airliner and the state Senate’s repeal of an $18-million tax.  All newsworthy stories. But that’s all the space available on the front page. On a different news day, maybe Renoir would have made Page 1. Maybe.

Feb. 13, 1979, Front Page

Wasserman continues:

The honor of the paper was at stake, I felt. We needed to act immediately to commission a proper piece, honoring Renoir’s life and legacy, to publish in the next Sunday’s paper. Only Orson Welles, I felt, could do right by Renoir.

For those Daily Mirror readers who are too young to remember, you should understand that at this point in his career (the late 1970s), Orson Welles, who gave us “Citizen Kane,” “Touch of Evil” and other works of genius, had disintegrated into a rather pathetic, rotund, dissipated spokesman for Paul Masson wine who occasionally turned up on “The Tonight Show.” Not much of a “get.”

Orson Welles shills for Paul Masson wine in the 1970s.  And yes, he is completely wasted.

Feb. 16, 1979, Paul Barzman

While Wasserman was “beside himself” and trying valiantly to protect the paper’s honor, what The Times did “in its infinite wisdom” was to get a first-person piece by Paul Barzman, Renoir’s literary secretary and companion until his death, publishing this piece Feb. 16.

Wasserman writes:

Wednesday came and went. No piece. We were keeping space open on the front page of the Opinion section. By noon on Thursday, we began to sweat.

Of course, since the chronology is off, none of this makes sense.

Feb. 18, 1979, Orson Welles
Feb. 18, 1979: Orson Welles’ essay on Jean Renoir is published on the cover of Sunday Opinion …

But Wasserman neglects to mention Charles Champlin’s piece on Renoir, published the same day on Page 3 in Calendar. (Note that Champlin had interviewed Renoir in 1972).

Feb. 18, 1979, Charles Champlin

By now you must be wondering about Welles’  piece. (Wasserman writes: “Every sentence had oxygen in it.”) It rambles. It sprawls. It’s unfocused. It is bloated and over-thought almost to the point of being unreadable. But don’t take my word for it. Welles’ piece can be read here.

Here are two paragraphs chosen at random:

Renoir has become a father-figure, a kind of saint in the academic establishment of world cinema. But though he always had his ardent partisans, a long-winded and murky dispute has ranged through the years over the question of which films are “true” Renoir and which are, if not “false,” at least what many French aesthetes speak of as “deceptions.” From his earliest beginnings, and many times throughout his long career, he had been charged with abandoning social realism, or with turning away from “nature” to a candid theatricality which outrages those who would tie his work to the impressionism of his father, or who would rate the films according to their ideological content.

The old critical preoccupation with what is and is not truly ‘cinematic” has never ceased to detest the unreality of the stage and to assume that film must be liberated from that unreality by a Zola-esque attention to natural detail. Those who insist on an analogy between Renoir’s moving pictures and the paintings of his father forget that Pierre Auguste rejoiced in the invention of photography as having liberated painting from the boring chores and dreary obligations of photographic realism.

Oxygen in every sentence? Oh really?

I don’t fault Wasserman too much for being forgetful, but I do hold him accountable for not checking when the relevant stories can be accessed with a few keystrokes. And he certainly overplays the drama. Beside himself over the placement of an obituary? I mean,  really?

I don’t have a dog in this fight other than impatience with mistakes and contempt for folklore. I wasn’t working at The Times in 1979 and I have no way of knowing what sort of discussions took place on story play. But I would say that instead of valiantly trying to save the reputation of a paper that was too unsophisticated to know — or care — who Jean Renoir was, as Wasserman recounts in his story, it sounds more like a turf war between features and op/ed. The Times had a staff obituary and two pieces in Calendar, which was perfectly adequate.  And I’m not sure how much was gained through Welles’ overstuffed think piece. Except for an opportunity for a little name-dropping and myth-making many years later.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1979, Books and Authors, Film, Hollywood, Obituaries and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Jean Renoir, Orson Welles and the Dim Remembrance of Things Past

  1. kthursby says:

    Larry, I read the piece earlier this week off LA Observed and thought, what an interesting read and look behind the curtain. Thanks for providing the detail and context. Certainly changed my opinion of the whole deal.


    • lmharnisch says:

      I don’t know if you were at The Times in 1979 (my first contact with the Calendar staff was about 1981-2) but this was in the heyday of Calendar and there is no way the editors would have ignored the death of Jean Renoir, so I knew immediately that the story wasn’t true.


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