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A charming actress whose career spanned from the end of the silent era to the first decade of the talkies, Marion Davies' substantial talent was overshadowed by her storied personal life and ongoing affair with powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. It was as a 19-year-old performer on Broadway that Davies first met Hearst, a married man who, after falling in love with the young actress, vowed to make her one of Hollywood's greatest stars. Literally sparing no expense, Hearst created a production company solely for Davies' projects and leveraged deals with major studios to distribute her films. Although her benefactor preferred to see his star in such elaborate costume dramas as "Buried Treasure" (1921) and "When Knighthood was in Flower" (1922), Davies' impish personality made her far better suited for comedies like "Tillie the Toiler" (1927) and "The Patsy" (1928). Whether justified or not, it was Davies' off-screen travails that earned her lasting notoriety over the years. The sudden death of silent film producer Thomas Ince on Hearst's yacht led to persistent rumors of murder and a cover-up. Years later, Hollywood wunderkind Orson Welles' film à clef "Citizen Kane" (1941) made the...
A charming actress whose career spanned from the end of the silent era to the first decade of the talkies, Marion Davies' substantial talent was overshadowed by her storied personal life and ongoing affair with powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. It was as a 19-year-old performer on Broadway that Davies first met Hearst, a married man who, after falling in love with the young actress, vowed to make her one of Hollywood's greatest stars. Literally sparing no expense, Hearst created a production company solely for Davies' projects and leveraged deals with major studios to distribute her films. Although her benefactor preferred to see his star in such elaborate costume dramas as "Buried Treasure" (1921) and "When Knighthood was in Flower" (1922), Davies' impish personality made her far better suited for comedies like "Tillie the Toiler" (1927) and "The Patsy" (1928). Whether justified or not, it was Davies' off-screen travails that earned her lasting notoriety over the years. The sudden death of silent film producer Thomas Ince on Hearst's yacht led to persistent rumors of murder and a cover-up. Years later, Hollywood wunderkind Orson Welles' film à clef "Citizen Kane" (1941) made the newspaper tycoon apoplectic when he was told the film cast him, and particularly Davies, in an unflattering light. Frequently painted as a party-loving gold-digger by the ill-informed, a closer look at Davies and her complicated relationship with Hearst revealed an ambitious, talented and devoted woman who possessed an inner-strength largely unrecognized by the public.
Born Marion Cecelia Douras on Jan. 3, 1897 in Brooklyn, NY, she was the youngest of five children born to Rose Reilly and Bernard J. Douras, an attorney and judge in New York City. Although educated in a convent, the nature of her large, boisterous and somewhat eccentric family soon led Marion and her elder siblings to life on the stage by their early teens. Outgoing and blessed with a China-doll beauty, she made her Broadway debut in the musical fantasy "Chin Chin" (1914), where she was spotted by renowned illustrator Howard Chandler Christy. Soon, she was regularly employed as a model by Christy and other famous artists, although it was acting that truly interested the gregarious Marion - who by then had taken the stage name of Davies, along with her sisters. Working steadily on Broadway, she went on to appear in such productions as the musical comedy "Stop! Look! Listen!" (1915) and the spectacular annual stage revue "Ziegfeld Follies of 1916." It was at some point around the time she appeared in the latter production that Davies met the man who would shape her life and career in the years to come - media mogul and multi-millionaire William Randolph Hearst.
Having made a name for herself on Broadway, the ambitious Davies leapt into the relatively new medium of film, debuting in the silent picture, "Runaway Romany" (1917), directed by her brother-in-law George W. Lederer and written by Davies herself. Hearst, one of the richest and most powerful men in the country - who was also 30 years Davies' senior and married - was more than happy to finance her second feature, "Cecilia of the Pink Roses" (1918). Initially setting the business-savvy actress up with her own production company, the Marion Davies Film Corporation, Hearst later formed Cosmopolitan Pictures as a means of producing films for his mistress. No demure ingénue, Davies served as a producer for the first time on the comedy feature "Getting Mary Married" (1919), in which she also starred. Although it would be nearly another decade before she would take on such a task again, Davies later produced the majority of her own movies, from the late 1920s on through to the end of her career in the late 1930s. Beginning in 1919, Hearst signed a deal with Paramount Pictures to distribute Cosmopolitan's films and embarked on his mission to make Davies one of the most heavily promoted actresses of the day. In particular, Hearst enjoyed seeing Davies in lavish costume epics and during the Paramount years, pressured her to take on dramatic roles in projects like the reincarnation-themed fantasy "Buried Treasure" (1921) and the notoriously expensive romantic period drama "When Knighthood was in Flower" (1922).
Far more dramatic, and perhaps more costly, was an off-screen event that would forever haunt the reputations of Hearst and Davies and become the stuff of Hollywood legend. In 1924, Hearst and Davies invited a group of their famous friends for a trip on board his yacht the Oneida to celebrate the birthday of pioneering movie producer Thomas Ince. Among their many guests were New York movie columnist Louella Parsons and Charlie Chaplin. Days later, the film community was shocked when it was reported that Ince had become ill over the weekend and, after being shuttled off the yacht near San Diego for what was thought to be severe indigestion, later died while en route to Los Angeles due to a heart ailment. Quickly circulating rumors, however, speculated that a jealous Hearst had long suspected an affair between Davies and Chaplin and, after coming across his mistress with another man in a dark passage of his ship, shot and killed Ince after mistaking him for Chaplin. No serious investigation was made into this or any other claims, but the suspicions lingered. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that fellow passenger and potential witness Parsons had been a mere regional New York columnist prior to the ill-fated excursion. Shortly afterward, she was given a lifetime contract with Hearst's papers, becoming one of the most widely syndicated and powerful gossip columnists in the country.
Despite a few quickly-quashed newspaper headlines and hushed whispers amongst the Hollywood hoi polloi, Davies carried on with her prolific, albeit underwhelming, career as a film star under Hearst's careful supervision. Unfortunately, his heavy-handed promotion of his star and lover was having the opposite result on her popularity from what he had intended. Having moved briefly to Goldwyn Pictures and then to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by 1925, Davies continued to appear in such syrupy material as the coming-of-age Western "Zander the Great" (1925), the separated-at-birth melodrama "Lights of Old Broadway" (1925), and the secret identity period romance "Beverly of Graustark" (1926). Having moved Cosmopolitan's operations to Hollywood in the early-1920s, Hearst later set Davies up with a home of her own in the seaside community of Santa Monica with a residence he began construction on in 1926. Not just any cottage on the beach, the "Ocean House" was a massive three-story, 34-bedroom Georgian mansion designed by architect Julia Morgan, which boasted guest houses, elaborate gardens and an opulent, tiled swimming pool. For more than a decade, Davies and Hearst held court at their home on the Pacific, hosting some of the most elaborate parties Hollywood had ever seen and establishing themselves as the preeminent socialites on the West Coast.
Although the period costume dramas Davies so frequently starred in - at Hearst's insistence - were by no means as poor as posterity would lead one to believe, the actress herself was far more comfortable in comedic roles. Known to her friends as an unrepentant cut-up and a gifted impersonator, Davies had occasionally shone in earlier comedies, and as the silent era neared its end, she joyfully took on a series of comedic roles. She was at her best as "Tillie the Toiler" (1927), a character based on a popular newspaper comic strip of the day, and in a pair of comedies directed by the legendary King Vidor - "The Patsy" (1928) and "Show People" (1928). The latter film, in particular, made excellent use of Davies' uncanny knack for mimicry and featured an abundance of cameos by the actress' famous friends, including Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and even Hollywood gossip columnist - and notorious Oneida passenger - Louella Parsons. Understandably, a life-long battle with a stutter made Davies nervous about the advent of sound in motion pictures. Nonetheless, she performed admirably in her first "talkie," the musical-romance "Marianne" (1929) and followed with the comedy "Not So Dumb" (1930), another talkie and Davies' last film under the direction of King Vidor.
After the enjoyable musical romp "Blondie of the Follies" (1932), Davies enjoyed a rare hit with "Going Hollywood" (1933), which co-starred rising crooner Bing Crosby. Though paired with some of the finest leading men Hollywood had to offer, her films frequently met with indifference at the box office. Such was the result when Davies chose to appear - in black face for much of the film - in the ill-conceived Civil War romance "Operator 13" (1934), opposite established movie icon Gary Cooper. Angry with MGM and its studio head Louis B. Mayer for not giving his actress the lead in a pair of high-profile films, Hearst signed Davies with Warner Brothers in 1935, where she would wind down her career with a handful of features. Among them was the poorly-received "Cain and Mabel" (1936), a romantic comedy of errors that benefited little from the presence of Davies' co-star, Hollywood's biggest leading man, Clark Gable. After completing "Ever Since Eve" (1937), a romantic-comedy costarring Robert Montgomery, the 40-year-old Davies said goodbye to Hollywood and retired from the movies. Hearst immediately shuttered Cosmopolitan Pictures. Soon after, she followed him to his famous retreat, the enormous, sumptuously appointed Hearst Castle, located atop a hillside along the stunning coastline of San Simeon, CA.
Perhaps one of the most influential films of Davies' legacy was one that she had nothing to do with. Co-written, produced, directed and starring Orson Welles, "Citizen Kane" (1941) told the Faustian life story of newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane. In a move both creatively inspired and professionally reckless, Welles and cowriter Herman J. Mankiewicz had clearly based large portions of the power-mad character of Kane (Welles) on Hearst. Having carefully guarded the specifics of the story from the press prior to its release, an early preview screened by none other than Hearst employee-for-life Louella Parsons led to charges of slander from Hearst and a banning of anything related to "Citizen Kane" in all Hearst publications. Ironically, it was the character of Kane's subservient wife Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) that reportedly raised Hearst's ire the most, as he felt it was an attack on the reputation of his beloved Marion. Despite Hearst's efforts to have the film permanently shelved, "Citizen Kane" went on to earn critical raves - if not commercial success - and became regarded by many as the greatest motion picture of all time. Years later, Welles stated in interviews that Kane's wife was in no way inspired by Davies. The talentless, would-be opera star Susan had been based in part on the wife of another actual tycoon, but "As for Marion," Welles insisted, "She was an extraordinary woman - nothing like the character Dorothy Comingore played in the movie."
Davies was also a clever businesswoman, investing in real estate and other ventures that made her exceptionally wealthy over time. As touching as it was ironic was the fact that by the end of the decade, the former actress was in a position to lend financial support to Hearst, whose fortunes had largely evaporated in the years after the Great Depression. In 1951, William Randolph Hearst died from a heart attack at his home in Beverly Hills. At the insistence of his family - Hearst had never divorced his wife - Davies was not invited to his funeral. Soon after, she married former actor Horace Brown in Las Vegas. By all accounts it was an unhappy, tumultuous union. Although she reportedly filed for divorce on two separate occasions, one was never officially granted. Long known for her generosity and charity work, especially when it came to children's causes, Davies donated to such organizations as the UCLA Center for the Health Sciences, which named its children's clinic after her. Increasingly, she remained out of the public eye and after five years of suffering from various health problems, Marion Davies died of stomach cancer in 1961 at the age of 64.
Published posthumously in 1985, the autobiography The Times We Had was culled from a series of audio recordings Davies made in the early 1950s as she looked back on her days with Hearst. Colloquial in tone and relatively scandal free, it painted a picture of a fun-loving, yet intelligent woman who was deeply devoted to the mercurial newspaper mogul, their elite circle of friends and her various charitable causes. Some 30 years after her death, one last bit of juicy Davies gossip found its way into the tabloids. After the death of Davies' "niece" Patricia van Cleve in 1993, van Cleve's family announced that Patricia had, in fact, been the biological daughter of Davies and Hearst. With Hearst married and hoping to avoid a scandal, he and Davies had allegedly given the infant to Davies' sister Rose to raise as her own, privately supporting Patricia throughout her lifetime. Despite the fact that the young woman spent a great deal of time with Davies and Hearst at their retreat in San Simeon and the remarkable physical resemblance she shared with her "aunt," it remained a secret Patricia carried with her until her final days.
By Bryce Coleman
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