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Orson Welles on Churchill


In late autumn 1968, Dorian Bond was tasked with travelling to Yugoslavia to deliver cigars and film stock to the legendary Hollywood director Orson Welles. The pair soon struck up an unlikely friendship as they travelled across Europe and reminisced about Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, among others…

‘They should name a cigar after you,’ I ventured. ‘After all, there’s a Churchill.’

‘Churchill was Churchill,’ Mr Welles growled, before taking another puff. ‘He came round to my dressing room once in London when I was playing Macbeth. He quoted one of my speeches, then continued on into the rest of the speech which I had cut out to make the play less tediously long! He didn’t miss a trick!

‘I’ll tell you a funny story. He was out of power then. Having presided over one of the most important events in world history alongside dear old FDR, he lost the election. I suppose rightly. He was a little out of date by then, a man who had charged at Omdurman against the Fuzzy Wuzzies. Anyway, I was in Venice on the Lido trying to persuade an expatriate Russian Armenian to put up some money for me for a movie I’d written. As we walked through the hotel lobby to lunch, Churchill was standing there with Clemmie and we nodded to each other. At lunch the Russian was suitably impressed. Actually, he wasn’t just impressed, he was bowled over! How on earth did I know one of the architects of the Allied victory in 1945?

‘The next day I was swimming opposite the hotel and suddenly found myself near Churchill.

‘“Mr Churchill,” I said, “I have to thank you for acknowledging me yesterday. The man I was with is being pursued by me to invest in a film I plan to make. He thinks I am very well connected.”

‘“Little does he know that I am no longer Prime Minister. Russians are not familiar with our democratic systems!”

‘With that, he swam away and joined Clemmie on the beach.

‘That evening, as I walked into dinner with my Russian friend, we passed Mr Churchill’s table. Without hesitation, Churchill stood up and bowed deeply as I passed.’

Mr Welles enacted the bow and we roared with laughter. Here was one of the most famous actors in the world charmingly re-enacting a scene from his past when probably the most famous man in the world had bowed to him in jest. A wonderful moment for me.

I told Mr Welles some days later that I had attended Churchill’s lying-in-state in Westminster Hall in January 1965, and with all the other people of England had shuffled past his coffin illuminated by four great candles and bowed my head. The next day I had stood in the grey January day and watched his coffin go by on a gun carriage and felt this was truly a marker of the end of empire, the end of Britain as a world power.

‘Did you know Churchill ran most of the war drunk on cognac? That’s why he got along so well with that old rogue Stalin! Poor FDR was most disapproving.’

I then told him the Churchill Yalta story. At the conference, the three world leaders would sit around the table with their aides. Notes were passed between them constantly as the talks progressed. One day, Churchill passed a note to Anthony Eden, his foreign secretary, which the Russians managed to retrieve from a wastepaper basket.

It read, ‘Dead birds don’t fall out of nests.’

Stalin was intrigued. Surely this was a code about some diabolical act the Allies were planning. For days the NKVD, the predecessors of the KGB, attempted to break the code. They failed. Stalin was at his wits’ end. That evening after dinner, when he and Churchill were having a drink together, he asked the question.

‘Mr Churchill, I have to ask you something. It’s about a note you wrote to your aides some days ago. It said, ‘Dead birds don’t fall out of nests.’

‘Oh, that,’ smiled Churchill wryly.

‘We are Allies, Mr Churchill, please enlighten me.’

Churchill took another mouthful of Cognac. ‘It isn’t a code, Secretary Stalin. It was a reply to a note from Mr Eden telling me my fly buttons were undone!’

Extracted from Me and Mr Welles by Dorian Bond

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