The descriptive powers of the great John Houseman.


You know how much I love great writing. I got a big surprise when I found an old autobiography on Amazon by the late, great John Houseman. The surprise is: The man was a spectacularly great writer. The book is Unfinished Business; the paperback was published in 1988 by Columbus Books, Ltd. Below, you’ll find a sample from pages 340 and 341. This book is about 480 pages.

Who is John Houseman? He was a theatrical director and producer, and film producer. And he acted in just one movie near the end of his life, for which he won the Oscar for Best Performance in a Supporting role, and that was in The Paper Chase from 1973. He played a brutal professor named Kingsfield at the Harvard School of Law. A tremendous performance! If you’ve not seen that film, I suggest you find it.

He and the famous actor and director Orson Welles had a partnership for some five years, which ended badly. If you’re not familiar with Welles, he directed and had the lead role in Citizen Kane, generally considered to be the greatest movie ever made, released in 1941. Given the animosity, with which the partnership concluded, they avoided each other. In 1955, they ran into each other at a restaurant in London.

This is how Houseman described that encounter:

Welles and I had not met in years. Now that we were both in Europe, I knew that I would run into him sooner or later. Whatever pleasure I might have taken in introducing Joan to London’s nightlife withered in the agitation with which I now awaited the appearance of my onetime friend and partner.

By 12:30am, most of the others had gone off to bed. I was tired, and I had a hard day ahead of me, but an overwhelming compulsion kept me glued to my chair, making small talk with my wife while I waited for this meeting that I so feared and desired. Around 1am a faint but insistent blip on my private radar warned me that the Wonder Boy was approaching. With that same sense of levitation that I had experienced in Sinclair Stadium I found myself rising from my seat. Propelled by a potent blend of nostalgia, curiosity and terror, I began to move towards the doorway in which I never for an instant doubted that Orson was about to appear.

He did. He came suddenly into view – a huge figure in a dark suit, emerging from a small crowd of familiars and waiters. As I continued to move towards him I had not the faintest idea of what would happen. Either he would hurl himself upon me with a roar of rage, swinging and flailing as he so often had during our five years’ partnership. Or he would fling his giant arms around me in a choking, passionate embrace. Either way, it would be dangerous and dramatic.

Under my feet I felt the softness of the carpet change to the smooth hardness of the dance floor across which I continued to advance. Then came the moment which I knew that Orson had become aware of me. With no change of expression on that big, round face, he separated himself from his party and started in my direction, so that we were now moving slowly and silently towards each other across the deserted floor like a pair of classic Western gunfighters approaching each other for the final shoot-out. I could feel the muscles of my arms tensing – ready to fly up to parry the haymaker that would be aimed at my head or to return the bear hug in which I would be enveloped.

We were less than three feet apart when the silence was shattered by a bellow of “Jacko!” and patrons of the Caprice were treated to the surprising spectacle of two very large men, locked in a frantic, clumsy embrace, whirling slowly, like a giant top, around the dance floor. Finally we stopped and moved to Welles’s table where champagne was served….

In the event you’re curious, that little meeting over champagne ended with them shouting insults at each other. And that was that. I hope you enjoyed excerpt as much as I did.

About Michael McKown

Avatar photoJournalist, specialty magazine editor/publisher for 22 years, entrepreneur, co-founder of America's largest working dog organization, producer/director, and co-founder of Ghostwriters Central in 2002.