The English author of The War of the Worlds and the brash “boy wonder,” whose broadcast version of the book scared Americans out of their wits, met for the first and only time in San Antonio on Oct. 28, 1940.
Lecture tours brought Orson Welles and H.G. Wells to the Alamo City on the very same day, an incredible coincidence that presented a local radio station with an historic opportunity. To the station manager’s delight, the two famous figures, who never had laid eyes on one another, accepted his invitation to a live, on-air meeting.
The younger guest had good reason to worry whether he would be on the receiving end of a stern talking-to. Welles had not sought permission for his “Mercury Theater” adaptation of The War of the Worlds, a tactless oversight that angered Wells to the point of threatening a lawsuit.
But those lucky listeners, who happened to tune in that afternoon, heard not a hint of hard feelings. The rare radio treat sounded, in fact, like a mutual admiration society as the 74-year-old Englishman and the American, just 25, took turns heaping praising on each other.
Noting the obvious, their almost identical surnames, H.G. Wells said that the highlight of his current tour of the colonies was meeting “my little namesake.” He graciously put Orson Welles at ease by dismissing the uproar over his Martian-invasion hoax of Oct. 31, 1938 as innocent “Halloween humor.”
“That’s the nicest thing a man from England could possibly say about the men from Mars,” Orson Welles responded with audible relief. “That not only I didn’t mean it, but the American people didn’t mean it” — a clear reference to the hysterical criticism aimed at H.G. Wells for writing the scary story in the first place.
H.G. Wells continued to stroke Orson Welles’ ego by asking about his soon-to-be released movie Citizen Kane.
“Mr. Wells is doing the nicest kindest thing,” the rookie director pointed out for the folks at home. “He is making it possible for me to do what here in America is spoken of as a plug.”
H.G. Wells pulled yet another compliment out of his hat: “This new picture of yours. You’re the producer, the art director, you’re everything!”
“It’s a new sort of motion picture with a new method of presentation and a few new technical experiments and a few new methods of telling a picture,” rambled the usually eloquent young man tripping over his own tongue.
But H.G. Wells was intent on helping him squeeze every drop of free publicity out of the air time.
“If I don’t misunderstand you completely, there’ll be a lot of jolly good new noises in it,” he said.
“I hope there will be a lot of jolly good noises in it,” chuckled Orson Welles. “It’s just what the motion pictures need these days. I can think of nothing more desirable. I’m all for it.”
The host reminded the audience when and where each man would be speaking that evening and thanked them for coming. They shook hands and went their separate ways — Orson Welles back to Hollywood to wrap up production on Citizen Kane and H.G. Wells home to his beloved London, which he courageously refused to leave even during the worst of the Nazi blitz.
After their chance encounter in San Antonio, there is no evidence the two men had any further contact. That is sort of a shame because H.G. Wells could have told Orson Welles a thing or two about surviving the “boy wonder” brand.
The son of a shopkeeping cricket player was only 27, when he began writing full-time. Picking right up where Jules Verne had left off, he published four science-fiction classics in five years. The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds have never gone out of print, and each has inspired two or more movies.
But H.G. Wells was more than merely the master of science fiction. One of the most prolific authors in the history of the English language, he wrote nonstop for half a century turning out 100 books, half novels and half nonfiction, and countless shorter pieces.
An optimistic socialist who hated Marx, his faith in the future was destroyed by the horrors of World War II. H.G. Wells speculated in his last book, published shortly before his death in 1946, that it might be better if another life form replaced human beings as the dominant species on earth.
As for Orson Welles, he “started at the top and worked down,” was his frank self-assessment late in a disappointing life. The “top” was, of course, Citizen Kane, considered by critics and many moviegoers the greatest film of all time. “Down” was the 45 years of frustration and unfulfilled promise that followed for the “boy wonder” who never quite grew up.