Beatrice Welles on Sedona’s Schnebly Hill, flanked by her father’s 1970 Academy Honorary Award “for superlative artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures.”
We are proud to claim Orson Welles as one of Sedona’s own. In 1941, at age 25, he directed, produced, starred in and co-wrote Citizen Kane, widely hailed as the greatest film ever made. He went on to direct, write and act in a dozen additional masterful features before his death in 1985 (some of which, unfortunately, he was never able to complete) including The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Othello (1952), Touch of Evil (1958), The Trial (1962), Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff, 1965) and F for Fake (1973).
Orson Welles’ association with Arizona dates back to at least 1941, when he scouted locations in Tuscon for Mexican Melodrama, aka The Way to Santiago, his unrealized follow up to Citizen Kane. Today, his daughter, Beatrice Welles, still lives and works in Sedona. Beatrice, who as a child played a small role in Chimes at Midnight, her father's favorite of his own films, is a passionate animal rights advocate and talented artist well known for her innovative handbag and fichu designs. She is also a controversial figure due to her ongoing fight to preserve her father’s artistic legacy. For our annual film issue, Beatrice sat down with Sedona Monthly to reflect on life in the red rocks with her father.
SEDONA MONTHLY: How did your family discover Sedona?
BEATRICE WELLES: We were visiting America from London, and my dad told us we should visit the Grand Canyon. Off [my mom and I] went. Of course, I believed everything my father said. This was in the ’70s, and the speed limit was 55. He told me if I went over 55 in Arizona, I would be put in jail. So here we are in this big car with no one on the roads, and I’m doing 55. It took us a month to do something that would probably take a week [laughs]. Somebody told us we had to see Jerome, but that there was nowhere to stay in Jerome, so we had to stay in a place called Sedona. We looked it up on a map and made a hotel reservation. It took me probably two hours to get down the canyon because I couldn’t see – it was a nightmare. We woke up to this amazing view. Nobody had told us. I was 20 – this was 1976. We toured the Southwest, but we kept on finding ourselves back in Sedona. We felt compelled to be here.
We went back to [Los Angeles] and showed my father 7,000 photographs. Sedona, Sedona, Sedona! We stayed in L.A. for about a month, and as we were packing to go back to London, my father said, Why don’t you pack for Sedona, find a house and we’ll live there. So that’s how it happened. It’s not surprising – that sort of thing happened a million times. He’d never seen Sedona, but he’d seen the photographs, and he saw that we were so happy. He wanted us to move to America anyway because he was working so much in the states. He thought Sedona would be a wonderful place, but it wound up not being a wonderful place because of the distance [between Sedona and L.A.]. He would get two days off, and it was two days to travel here. He was exhausted, but we all loved Sedona.
Where did you live while he was here?
We lived by the creek off Doodlebug Road until it flooded, and we were evacuated. It was such drama. After that, we moved to Sky Mountain Ranch to be as far away from the creek as possible. As much as we liked the creek, Sky Mountain was safer. We lived on Sycamore Road.
So what year did your family move to Sedona?
Early 1977, and then we moved away at the end of 1978. He really loved it – moving away had nothing to do with not liking Sedona. He didn’t get two or three weeks off. It would be two days, and it just didn’t work. We ended up going to Las Vegas, which we all hated. But it was 40 minutes by plane – he could do turnarounds if he had to. I only stayed there less than a year, and then I came rushing back here. When we first moved to Sedona, I was bored out of my mind. I came from London, and I was having a very heavy social life with lots to do. Every night there was an opening or a concert or something you wanted to go to. I was in Sedona writing letters to everybody and thinking I had never written so much in my life.
What did Orson do while he was in Sedona?
Nothing. When he came home, the doors closed, the bathrobe was put on, and it was nothing. He watched TV incessantly. It was the first time we had a remote. In England, he would sit in front of the TV and change channels over and over. And he worked. Even when he was home, he was writing – there would be a table full of papers and a typewriter. He was always working on something. He wasn’t on the phone; it was all creative. He couldn’t stop. He spent time with us, but he wasn’t into the outdoors.
During the period he lived here, there was a thin, locally produced magazine called Sedona Life, and he was listed on its masthead as a member of its board of advisors. How did he come to be involved in the publication?
It was my fault. I knew the woman who ran it, and I asked him to be involved as a favor to her. He didn’t do anything for it. He didn’t write for it. I was always asking him horrible favors for my friends, and he always said yes.
We know you’re an animal lover. Did your family have pets while you lived here?
My parents were huge animal lovers. My dad had Kiki. She was this tiny black teacup poodle. He invented a story that it belonged to a cutter, and he didn’t want it so my dad wound up with the poodle. Of course that isn’t true. He bought the poodle. He refused to admit it. So he and Kiki were inseparable. They went everywhere together. When he arrived home, Kiki was with him. It was bizarre, this large man with this tiny dog. He was mostly a dog person, but he liked cats, too. At the time, we had Kiki and my little Jack Russell terrier, who was 15 by then – she lived to be 22. And there was a Pekinese my mother had. Then there was the dog we got from the humane society here. At the time, it was outdoors where the dog park is now located. This dog was huge. I don’t know what he was – we got him as a puppy. He became so big we had to have a collar made for him. That was our ménage when we were here.
I have this great photo of my dad with a cigar in his mouth, and he’s holding Kiki. He hated to have his photo taken. He didn’t like how he looked, ever. Hence all the false noses while he was making movies. He was always hiding behind makeup. You could never take a picture at home. I have so few pictures because he hated it. But this one time, it was about Kiki.
Do you think of your father as an international globetrotter?
I’d say he was international, but that’s not even right because he was so American. He traveled frequently because he had to. I think you get very used to that way of life, and you like it. I know I do. I miss it terribly. It’s lovely to have a place to come home to, which we didn’t have really. We were living in hotels and rentals – we lived in rentals in Sedona. We had a house in Italy and Spain, but it was mostly hotels. He was a true American, though. He was born in the Midwest. People don’t think of him that way. They think he was English. He traveled to China when he was young. His father was an inventor – quite crazy – and his mother was a suffragist. She died when he was 9, which devastated him. She was the one who brought out his artistic side.
Do you have any great memories of your father in Sedona?
I have a very funny one. When we were in Sky Mountain, we had a pool. That was rare in Sedona, and it was lovely. We were surrounded by national forest, so you felt like you were swimming off a cliff. So I directed a melodrama here in town – it was a huge success. He came to opening night – to my horror – and he brought Burt Reynolds. I got so nervous that I lost my voice. Burt Reynolds was a megastar, and I didn’t know him. Anyway, after this thing, [dad] decided to take a swim. It was pitch dark. Suddenly we hear him roaring, screaming. My mother thought he was drowning. At the time, there was a security service in town. It was the days before alarm systems. A security guard would come check every two hours with a flashlight. So here comes this guy with a flashlight, flashing on my dad who was stark naked because he always went swimming naked. This poor security guard…I thought he was going to die.–– Interview by Erika Ayn Finch and Joe McNeill