Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1915, Welles was a child prodigy who at the age of ten was profiled in a Madison newspaper that exclaimed over his “fluent command of the language” and acquaintance with “books far beyond his years.” He was a gifted musician but had dropped music when his mother died; after his father’s death, the boy ended his formal education at fifteen and went to Ireland to sketch the countryside. After presenting himself as a star of the New York Theatre Guild to the management of Dublin’s famous Gate Theatre, he was cast in a leading role—and received rave notices. At seventeen, he coedited Everybody’s Shakespeare, a successful series of abridgements for high-school students.
Soon he was in New York, working as a writer, actor, and director both on stage and on air, churning out radio dramas with staggering speed and felicity—he took part in hundreds of radio broadcasts in his lifetime—and speaking into microphones with a seemingly inborn authority. Arthur Miller recalled decades later, “Welles’ genius with the microphone; he seemed to climb into it, his word-carving voice winding into one’s brain. No actor had such intimacy and sheer presence.” At twenty, Welles won praise for an all-black production of Macbeth in Harlem, a venture that was motivated partly by his sincere concern for racial equality and partly by a well-nigh incomparable appetite and talent for getting his name in the papers. In 1937 he and John Houseman formed the Mercury Theatre company and began producing stage and radio plays, one of which made him internationally famous when the innovative faux-newscast approach of his CBS radio adaptation of War of the Worlds sent citizens across the country into a panic, fearing the earth was under attack by Martians.
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