Have you ever seen the movie Citizen Kane? No? Okay, instead of reading this you should now go and watch Citizen Kane. Here is a place where you can watch it illegally. Just watch it, it will be great. You’re a human being and you can read words so you’re probably going to like Citizen Kane.
Right, you know the one person who did not like the movie? William Randolph Hearst, who did not like the way it portrayed Marion Davies.
Citizen Kane is generally (by everyone in history, all experts) thought to be about the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the publisher who, by the early 20th century, had built the nation’s largest newspaper chain. Charles Foster Kane isn’t portrayed positively in the movie, but, look, William Randolph Hearst wasn’t really a great guy.
A lot of stories in his newspapers were just flat out made up. Here’s a report about that:
“We had a crime story that was going to be featured in a 96-point headline on page one,” remembers Vern Whaley, an editor for Hearst’s Herald-Examiner. “When I found the address that was in the story, that address was a vacant lot. So I hollered over at the rewrite desk, I said, ‘You got the wrong address in this story. This is a vacant lot.’ The copy chief that night was a guy named Vic Barnes. And he says, ‘Sit down, Vern.’ He says, ‘The whole story’s a fake.’”
If Hearst is Kane, then it stands to reason that the lounge singer he seduces is supposed to represent his mistress, Marion Davies.
It’s not a flattering depiction. Here is a mild spoiler that has nothing to do with Rosebud – the mistress ends up dissolute and depressed and alcoholic. She is also played as completely talentless and a floozy.
I have absolutely nothing against floozies. I think floozies are a fantastic, nearly extinct species. However, portraying Marion – who was very funny, extremely talented, and maybe one of the only truly kind people of a ruthless period – as talentless or stupid or, well, any of the attributes shown in the movie seems unjust. Even the director and star Orson Welles understood that, saying later:
“We had somebody very different in the place of Marion Davies. And it seemed to me to be something of a dirty trick, and does still strike me as being something of a dirty trick, what we did to her. And I anticipated the trouble from Hearst for that reason.”
Hearst was, indeed, furious about the movie, not because of the way he was portrayed but because of the way it depicted Marion. You might not expect him to be so indignant on behalf of her honor considering the way they met.
That was back in 1916, when Marion was a showgirl performing in a revue of Stop! Look! Listen! William Randolph Hearst – called W.R. among his friends – was always a fan of show girls. He married one named Millicent in 1903. As the story goes with a lot of super-wealthy men from that period who married showgirls, the day before his fortieth birthday W.R. married Millicent because he wanted to be bohemian. Millicent married him because she wanted to be a respectable socialite; her son recalled that “she liked Society with a capital “S.”
So… W.R. was married. He was married, he wasn’t particularly happy about it, and he still slept with a bunch of showgirls, because, well, those were the times. Maybe in those matters, it is always “the times.”
He was known to like a lot of showgirls, especially at the Ziegfeld Follies where Marion performed, but Marion liked only him, as soon as she saw him. She later wrote in her memoir that, “He didn’t have a harmful bone in his body. He just liked to be by himself, and just look at the girls on the stage while they were dancing I think he was a very lonely man.” He was 53. She was 19.
He was a lonely man who was wooing her with diamond bracelets from Tiffany’s and his presence. A fairly famous anecdote says, “He was so infatuated with her that he attended every performance for eight weeks. He bought two tickets each night, using the second seat for his hat.”
But Marion does not mention the gifts or ticket purchases. Rather, she was deeply appreciative of the fact that he helped her overcome her debilitating stammer. When W.R. went into the motion picture business he signed her for $500. Marion accepted, saying she was “certainly not worth that much.”
However, to absolutely everyone’s surprise, she kind of was.