Marion Davies (January 3, 1897 – September 22, 1961) was an American film actress, producer, screenwriter, and philanthropist.
Davies was already building a reputation as a popular film comedienne when newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, with whom she began a relationship, took over management of her career. Hearst promoted her heavily through his newspapers, and pressured studios to cast her in historical dramas for which she was not suited. For this reason, Davies is better remembered today as Hearst's mistress and the hostess of many lavish events for the Hollywood elite. In particular, her name is linked with the 1924 scandal aboard Hearst's yacht when one of his guests, film producer Thomas Ince, died.
In the film Citizen Kane (1941), the title character's wife—an untalented singer whom he tries to promote—was widely assumed to be based on Davies. But many commentators, including Citizen Kane writer/director Orson Welles himself, have defended Davies's record as a gifted actress, to whom Hearst's patronage did more harm than good. She retired from the screen in 1937, choosing to devote herself to Hearst and charitable work.
In Hearst's declining years, Davies provided financial as well as emotional support until his death in 1951. She married for the first time eleven weeks after his death, a marriage which lasted until Davies died of stomach cancer in 1961 at the age of 64.
Davies was born Marion Cecilia Douras on January 3, 1897, in Brooklyn, the youngest of five children born to Bernard J. Douras (1857–1935), a lawyer and judge in New York City; and Rose Reilly (1867–1928). Her father performed the civil marriage of Gloria Gould Bishop. Her elder siblings included Rose, Reine, and Ethel. A brother, Charles, drowned at the age of 15 in 1906. His name was subsequently given to Davies's favorite nephew, screenwriter Charles Lederer, the son of Davies' sister Reine Davies.
The Douras family lived near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The sisters changed their surname to Davies, which one of them spotted on a real-estate agent's sign in the neighborhood. Even at a time when New York was the melting pot for new immigrants, having a British surname greatly helped one's prospects – the name Davies has Welsh origins.
Educated in a New York convent, Davies left school to pursue a career. She worked as a model and posed for illustrators Harrison Fisher and Howard Chandler Christy. In 1916, Davies was signed on as a Ziegfeld girl in the Ziegfeld Follies.
Portrait of Marion Davies for the June 1920 cover of Theatre Magazine
After making her screen debut in 1916, modelling gowns by Lady Duff-Gordon in a fashion newsreel, she appeared in her first feature film in the 1917Runaway Romany. Davies wrote the film, which was directed by her brother-in-law, prominent Broadway producer George W. Lederer. The following year she starred in three films -- The Burden of Proof, Beatrice Fairfax, and Cecilia of the Pink Roses. Playing mainly light comic roles, she quickly became a major film personality, making a small fortune, which enabled her to provide financial assistance for her family and friends.
In 1918, Hearst started the movie studio Cosmopolitan Productions to promote Marion Davies' career and also moved her along with her mother and sisters into an elegant Manhattan townhouse at the corner of Riverside Drive and W. 105th Street. Cecilia of the Pink Roses in 1918 was her first film backed by Hearst. She was on her way to being the most famously advertised actress in the world. During the next 10 years she appeared in 29 films, an average of almost three films a year.
Hearst and Cosmopolitan Pictures
By the mid-1920s, however, Davies's career was often overshadowed by her relationship with William Randolph Hearst and their social life at San Simeon and Ocean House in Santa Monica; the latter dubbed by Colleen Moore "the biggest house on the beach – the beach between San Diegoand Vancouver".
According to her own audio diaries, she had met Hearst long before she had started working in films. Hearst later formed Cosmopolitan Pictures, which would produce several starring vehicles for her. Hearst's relentless efforts to promote her career instead had a detrimental effect, but he persisted, making Cosmopolitan's distribution deals first with Paramount, then Goldwyn, and then Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Davies herself was more inclined to develop her comic talents alongside her friends at United Artists, but Hearst pointedly discouraged this. Davies, in her published memoirs The Times We Had, concluded that Hearst's over-the-top promotion of her career, in fact, had a negative result.
Marion Davies, as photographed by Bain News Service
Hearst loved seeing her in expensive costume pictures, but she also appeared in contemporary comedies like Tillie the Toiler, The Fair Co-Ed (both 1927), and especially three directed by King Vidor, Not So Dumb (1930), The Patsy and the backstage-in-Hollywood saga Show People (both 1928).The Patsy contains her imitations, that she usually did for friends, of silent stars Lillian Gish, Mae Murray and Pola Negri. King Vidor saw Davies as a comedic actress instead of the dramatic actress Hearst wanted her to be. He noticed she was the life of parties and incorporated that into his films.
After seeing photographs of St Donat's Castle in Country Life magazine, the Welsh Vale of Glamorgan property was bought and revitalized by Hearst in 1925 as a gift to Davies. Hearst and Davies spent much of their time entertaining, holding lavish parties with guests at their Beverly Hills estate. Frequent guests included, among others, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and a young John F. Kennedy. Upon visiting St Donat's, George Bernard Shaw was quoted as saying: "This is what God would have built if he had had the money."
The coming of sound made Davies nervous because she had never completely overcome a childhood stutter. Her career survived, however, and she made several comedies and musicals during the 1930s, including Marianne (1929), Not So Dumb (1930), The Florodora Girl (1930), The Bachelor Father (1931), Five and Ten (1931) with Leslie Howard, Polly of the Circus (1932) with Clark Gable, Blondie of the Follies (1932), Peg o' My Heart(1933), Going Hollywood (1933) with Bing Crosby, and Operator 13 (1934) with Gary Cooper. She was involved with many aspects of her films and was considered an astute businesswoman. Her career, however, was hampered by Hearst's insistence that she play distinguished, dramatic parts as opposed to the comic roles that were her forte.
Hearst reportedly had tried to push Irving Thalberg to cast Davies in the title role in Marie Antoinette, but Thalberg gave the part to his wife, Norma Shearer. This rejection came on the heels of Davies having been also denied the female lead in The Barretts of Wimpole Street; Norma Shearer got both roles. Despite Davies's friendship with the Thalbergs, Hearst reacted by pulling his newspaper support for MGM and moved Cosmopolitan Pictures toWarner Brothers. Davies's films there included Page Miss Glory (1935), Hearts Divided, Cain and Mabel (both 1936), and Ever Since Eve (1937), her last film.
When Cosmopolitan Pictures folded, Davies left the film business and retreated to San Simeon. Davies would later state in her autobiography that after many years of work she had had enough and decided to devote herself to being Hearst's "companion and confidante". In truth, she was intensely ambitious, but realized that at the age of forty, and after twenty years of hard work, that she had not won over the public or the critics not under Hearst's control. Decades after Davies's retirement and death, however, the consensus among critics is far more appreciative of her efforts, particularly in the field of comedy.
Hearst and Davies lived as a couple for decades but were never married, as Hearst's wife refused to give him a divorce. At one point, he reportedly came close to marrying Davies, but decided his wife's settlement demands were too high. Hearst was extremely jealous and possessive of her, even though he was married throughout their relationship. Davies was aboard the Hearst yacht when film producer Thomas Ince became ill and died.
An urban legend, revolving around a rumored relationship with Chaplin, has endured since 1924. Chaplin (among other actresses and actors) and Davies were aboard the yacht the night Thomas Ince died. Despite the lack of evidence to support a relationship, rumors have circulated that Hearst mistook Ince for Chaplin and shot him in a jealous rage. The rumors were dramatized in the play The Cat's Meow, which was later made into Peter Bogdanovich's 2001 film of the same name starring Edward Herrmann as Hearst, Kirsten Dunst as Davies, Eddie Izzard as Chaplin, Joanna Lumley as Elinor Glyn, Jennifer Tilly as gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and Cary Elwes as Ince. Patty Hearst co-authored a novel with Cordelia Frances Biddle titled Murder at San Simeon(Scribner, 1996), based upon the death of Ince. The 1999 film RKO 281, a dramatization of the events during and after production of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, depicts Welles being told by screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz that Hearst shot Ince, and refers to this several times as an analogy for Hearst's efforts to bury the film.
The record shows that Ince suffered an attack of acute indigestion while aboard the yacht and was escorted off to San Diego by another of the guests, Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman, a Hollywood writer and producer. Ince was put on a train bound for Los Angeles, but was removed from the train at Del Mar when his condition worsened. He was given medical attention by Dr. T. A. Parker and a nurse, Jesse Howard. Ince told them that he had drunk liquor aboard Hearst's yacht. He was taken to his Hollywood home where he died the following day of a heart condition.
By the late 1930s, Hearst was suffering financial reversals. After selling St Donat's Castle, Davies bailed him out by writing out a check for $1 million. Hearst died on August 14, 1951.
The California State Parks staff at Hearst Castle report at the time of Hearst's death, 51% of his fortune had been bequeathed to Davies.
Eleven weeks and one day after Hearst's death, Davies married Horace Brown on October 31, 1951, in Las Vegas. It was not a happy marriage; Brown allegedly encouraged her drinking. Davies filed for divorce twice, but neither was finalized.
In her later years, Davies was involved with charity work. In 1952, she donated $1.9 million to establish a children's clinic at UCLA, which was changed to The Mattel Children's Hospital in 1998. She also fought childhood diseases through the Marion Davies Foundation. Part of the Medical Center at UCLA is named the Marion Davies Clinic.
She suffered a minor stroke in 1956, and later underwent surgery on her jawbone for osteomyelitis. Twelve days after the operation, Davies fell in her hospital room and broke her leg. Davies made her last public appearance on January 10, 1960, on an NBC television special called Hedda Hopper's Hollywood. Joseph P. Kennedy rented Davies's mansion and worked from behind the scenes to secure his son John F. Kennedy's nomination during the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
Davies died of stomach cancer on September 22, 1961, in her home in Hollywood, California.
Her funeral at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Hollywood was attended by 200 people and many Hollywood celebrities, including Mary Pickford, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Mrs. Clark Gable(Kay Spreckels), and Johnny Weissmuller. She is buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Davies left an estate estimated at $20 million.
Since the early 1920s, there has been speculation that Davies and Hearst had a child together some time between 1920 and 1923. The child was rumored to be Patricia Lake (née Van Cleeve), who was publicly identified as Davies's niece.
On October 3, 1993, Lake died of complications from lung cancer in Indian Wells, California. Ten hours before her death, Lake requested that her son publicly announce that she was not Davies's niece but Davies's biological daughter, whom she had conceived with Hearst. Lake had never commented on her alleged paternity in public, even after Hearst and Davies deaths, but did tell her grown children and friends. Lake's claim was published in her death notice, which was published in newspapers.
Lake told her friends and family that Davies became pregnant by Hearst in the early 1920s. As the child was conceived during Hearst's extra-marital affair with Davies and out of wedlock, Hearst sent Davies to Europe to have the child in secret to avoid a public scandal. Hearst later joined Davies in Europe. Lake claimed she was born in a Catholic hospital outside of Paris between 1920 and 1923 (she was unsure of the precise date). Lake was then given to Davies's sister Rose, whose own child had died in infancy, and passed off as Rose and her husband George Van Cleve's daughter. Lake stated that Hearst paid for her schooling and both Davies and Hearst spent considerable time with her. Davies reportedly told Lake of her true parentage when she was 11 years old. Lake said Hearst confirmed that he was her father on her wedding day at age 17 where both Davies and Hearst gave her away.
Neither Davies nor Hearst ever publicly addressed the rumors during their lives. Upon news of the story, a spokesman for Hearst Castle only commented that, "It's a very old rumor and a rumor is all it ever was."