Welles was born to a mother, Beatrice Ives, who was a concert pianist and a crack rifle shot and a father, Richard Welles, who was an inventor and a businessman. Welles was a child prodigy, adept at the piano and violin, acting, drawing, painting, and writing verse; he also entertained his friends by performing magic tricks and staging miniproductions of William Shakespeare’s plays.
Welles’s parents separated when he was four years old, and his mother died when he was nine. In 1926 Welles entered the exclusive Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois. There his gifts found fertile ground, and he dazzled the teachers and students with stagings of both modern and classical plays. His father died in 1930, and Welles became the ward of a family friend, Chicago doctor Maurice Bernstein. In 1931 he graduated from Todd, but, instead of attending college, he studied briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago before traveling to Dublin, where he successfully auditioned at the Gate Theatre for the part of the Duke of Württemberg in a stage adaptation of Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel Jew Süss.
Welles remained in Ireland for a year, acting with the company at the Abbey Theatre as well as at the Gate; he also designed sets, wrote a newspaper column, and began directing plays. In 1932 Welles left Dublin and tried to get work on the stages of London and New York; unsuccessful, he instead traveled for a year in Morocco and Spain. In 1933 in the United States, he was introduced to actress Katharine Cornell by author Thornton Wilder and was hired to act in Cornell’s road company, playing Mercutio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Marchbanks in George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, and Octavius Barrett in Rudolf Besier’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street. In 1934 Welles organized a summer drama festival at the Todd School, where he played Svengali in an adaptation of George du Maurier’s Trilby and Claudius in Hamlet. At the end of the festival, he made his first film, the short The Hearts of Age. With Todd School headmaster Roger Hill, he prepared