I grew up on Golden Age Radio, I love to learn about a great many things, and I enjoy a wide variety of genres. Me, bored? Never!
This might be the most heartbreaking review I ever write. I discovered the golden age of radio, The War of the Worlds, and The Shadow through Orson Welles. I discovered Welles at the end of his life when I was 12, when he performed the voice of the monster planet Unicron in Transformers: The Movie. It's not Citizen Kane, and it would never be anything remotely close. I get that, but that's how I came to appreciate one of the greatest geniuses the entertainment world has ever known. My love of radio happened because of this man. This man changed my life and expanded my world.
This biography is truly something special because it has something that other biographies don't have: Welles himself. Author Barbara Learning was able to contact and collaborate with Welles on this biography through means that typifies Welles' life story, and he gave her free reign and resources because he understood that there is Welles the man, Welles the legend, and his own memory, none of which were in alignment. He was curious to learn about all three aspects. More insightful than the story of Welles' life are the inserted dialogues between Welles and Learning, which adds both gravitas and that personal flourish that makes all the difference. Welles was an extraordinary man by any measure, and his life was as equally bizarre.
On a personal note... the epilogue shattered my childhood. After going through the highs and lows, after getting the personal reminiscences from greatness to virtual unemployment, the hardest part was hearing him refer to my first experience with him as "that horrible little project about Japanese robots that transform into vehicles and such" and how at least it'll help him to buy groceries or something. It was one of the last things he performed before he passed, and he didn't live long enough to see it released. I knew all along he wasn't pleased with it, and I get it, I really do. I can see how a man of Welles' star caliber might think that a string of voiceovers in commercials and cartoons would be something terrible, even after a long stretch of failure and unemployment. But to have his own commentary on it is rough. I like to think that it's little projects like this that will ultimately lead people of later generations to find his work through the back alleys when they might otherwise not seek out the likes of Citizen Kane. After all, that's how I discovered his work. And just like nobody could have predicted something like that, nobody could have predicted the kind of twists and turns Welles' life would take. I thought I knew about Welles before. This book expanded on so much I only thought I knew. As biographies go, this one's a treasure.
The question of the Shakespearean "authorship problem" is addressed in a rather unique way here. The author comes right out and tells you that he believes in the idea that Shakespeare wrote his own works, but that the target of the book is instead to present a history of the debate itself, letting the very nature of the debate reveal its own merits and flaws. The cases for Sir Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere are examined in depth, being representative of many of the other cases for alternate identity. The opinions of notables such as Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James, and many others are spotlighted and, in many cases, skewered as being ridiculous and unfounded. And yet, at the same time, the case for the Bard seems ever stacked against him due to a lack of supporting evidence and the ever-widening gap between what we know about him and what is revealed in his works. As a result, the process of how the problem has evolved over the course of time is as interesting as the problem itself.
This book is easily accessible for both the casual reader as well as the scholarly-minded, so the curious at every level will have little difficulty taking it all in and walking away with more than they might have expected.
There's a conscious effort to make this more of a dramatic narrative than a biography, but that's probably not a bad way to go considering most of what we know of Van Gogh is drawn from letters between him and his brother Theo. I won't say it's 100% accurate, but the very nature of the book allows you to crawl inside the man's head. Even if you don't agree or even sympathize with him, it's the kind of perspective that allows one to better appreciate the mind behind the artwork.