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While writing a memoir, director learns true lineage

| Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011

Many memoirs have agendas, tacit or otherwise. Some writers want to tell their side of a controversy, others have scores to settle, and some are just exercises in chest-thumping.

When Michael Lindsay-Hogg sat down to write about his five decades as a theater and movie director, he was mimicking in print what he'd done on stage and in film: telling stories. Because he'd shot early videos of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other rock bands in the early 1960s, and because his mother, the actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, gave him proximity to actors such as Humphrey Bogart and Roddy McDowall and directors including Sidney Lumet and Orson Welles, he thought there would be interest.

Lindsay-Hogg had no idea that writing "Luck and Circumstance: A Coming of Age Story in Hollywood, New York and Points Beyond" would turn out to be a revelation for him. That after years of whispers, rumors and innuendo about his lineage, he would finally be able to answer the question that dogged him his entire life: Was Welles his father, and if so, why had his mother shielded him from the truth?

"A lot of this stuff came to me in her last years and after she died," says Lindsay-Hogg, noting his mother had Alzheimer's disease before she passed away. "It made her an even more fascinating and elusive character to me because I learned so much about her and about the deals she may have made with herself in order to keep relationships going or not to be found out."

Lindsay-Hogg adds that his mother was in her late 20s when she made the decisions that led to the controversy that dogged him the rest of his life.

"One of the things I've learned about life is, you do change," says Lindsay-Hogg, who grew up thinking his father was Edward Lindsay-Hogg, an English baronet who lived in Ireland. "You may have your essential core, but the way life goes on, you change, and who you are at 50 or 60 bears no relationship to how you were at 25."

Lindsay-Hogg worked in Irish television before he got his first break directing "Ready, Steady, Go," a British television program that featured pop and rock acts. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it would seem, but one that was readily ceded to a young director with little experience.

"The other directors who had been doing that kind of show and similar shows, they didn't like it," Lindsay-Hogg says. "They were older, more mature, and they thought directing rock-and-roll television was kind of slumming. They really wanted to be doing TV specials with Shirley Bassey at the London Palladium. I think the musicians knew this. So when I turned up at the age of 24 and they were 21, 22, there was a kindred spirit."

The connections Lindsay-Hogg made led to his directing two of the stellar rock films of the era, "The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus" and "Let It Be" with the Beatles. These experiences stood him well when he directed the plays "Agnes of God," "Whose Life is it Anyway?" and "The Normal Heart," for which he earned a Tony Award nomination.

The unpredictability of rock 'n' roll musicians, combined with the quick calculations necessary for shooting live performances, came into play during theatrical productions.

"The similarity is dealing with actors and having to think on your feet," he says. "I love actors, but they're a wonderfully unruly, imaginative bunch, and the thing is to try not only harness the actors, but harness yourself, harness the whole production into going the same way. You have to be alert to changes of mood, changes of temperament, changes in the relationship between one actor and another, and an actor and the director. It does teach you to be quick, to be alert, quick to respond and quick to put out fires."

Lindsay-Hogg started writing the memoir in early 2007. Even then, he could not escape the intimations about Welles being his father. Finally, in 2009, his paternity was confirmed by his mother's close friend Gloria Vanderbilt, with whom Lindsay-Hogg had an affair in the early 1980s. Yes, Vanderbilt told him, Orson Welles was your father.

A lifetime of confusion because of the deceit practiced by people he thought loved him could have made Lindsay-Hogg bitter. Bu,t instead, on the last pages of "Luck and Circumstance," he grants his mother -- as well as Edward Lindsay-Hogg and Orson Welles -- grace.

"Do you criticize the person, do you think less of them, or do you understand that they struggled with certain things?" he says. "My mother always wished to be decent and truthful, but she was struggling with things. In a funny way, the more you know about someone, the more tender you feel about them, I think."

Additional Information:

Capsule review

Michael Lindsay-Hogg's 'Luck and Circumstance: A Coming of Age Story in Hollywood, New York and Points Beyond' is an atypical memoir in that it reads like a work of fiction. The writing is crisp and often elegant, if somewhat stream-of-consciousness, as Lindsay-Hogg recounts his incredible childhood as the son of actress Geraldine Fitzgerald and his encounters with directors Sidney Lumet and Orson Welles. When he becomes a director, there are stories about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, actors Jeremy Irons and Dustin Hoffman. What sets 'Luck and Circumstance' apart is its generosity; Linsday-Hogg never stoops to scandal, save for a few rueful fingers pointed at himself. And the book's crowning revelation -- he finds out during the course of writing the memoir that Orson Welles is his father -- is delivered with a beneficent grace.

• Rege Behe

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