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.
Marion insisted, throughout her life, that she “really couldn’t act.” However, according to ome of her biographers, Fred Guiles, “Audiences were responding to Marion as a star, and she was not simply a producer’s girlfriend who was being forced on the movie going public.”
Audiences really did love her. She had a sort of cheerfulness and infallible good humor – a kind of spunkiness – that fit perfectly in the 1920’s. She was also beloved by the people whom she worked with, in large part because her practical jokes livened things up on a set. Once, when playing a chaste maiden, she put a pillow under her dress so that she would appear suddenly pregnant when she turned to the side. Sometimes she would do her first take as a femme fatale with her teeth entirely blackened.
Her good spirits extended beyond the movie sets. Once, teetotaling President Calvin Coolidge visited Marion and W.R. He requested fruit juice, Marion gave him wine. By the third glass, he claimed it was the finest juice he had ever drunk.
She was also supposed to be exceptionally nice. When Irving Thalberg, the husband of her rival Norma Shearer, took ill, Marion set up a bungalow for him to recuperate. When the silent film star Alma Reubens became a morphine addict, Marion helped nurse her back to health and set her up in a comfortable hotel.
She was even better to her friends and relations. She raised her nephew, Charles Lederer, who went on to write screenplays like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Ocean’s 11, His Girl Friday and Mutiny on the Bounty.
The playwright Tennessee Williams once said, “Marion Davies makes up for the rest of Hollywood.”
Unfortunately, Marion herself was never particularly content, which had much to do with the fact that she was Hearst’s mistress, not his wife.
Despite the fact that he built magnificent houses for them off set – St. Donat Castle was so glorious that George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “This is what God would have built if he had had the money” – and a 14 room bungalow on set for when she was filming, Marion longed for more in the way of commitment. Though in her biography she claimed, “I wanted to be Marion Davies, having the great privilege of knowing Mr. William Randolph Hearst. That was all I wanted,” no, in real life she wanted more.
Marion seemed to be a fun forthright person to all of her friends, so it’s frustrating that her biography appears to be a patchwork quilt of lies.
Marion referred to Millicent, whom Hearst refused to divorce as “The Black Widow.” To be fair, Millicent referred to her as “that woman.” Marion once demanded that Hearst say he couldn’t live without her. Hearst replied that he absolutely could do that, he had simply chosen not to.
In what may have been an attempt to retaliate, Marion supposedly began an affair with Charlie Chaplin. Of that time Chaplin wrote, “The film colony enjoyed an era of Arabian Nights. Two or three times a week, Marion gave stupendous dinner parties with as many as a hundred guests, a melange of actors, actresses, senators, polo players, chorus boys, foreign potentates, and Hearst’s executives and editorial staff to boot.”
That sounds like great fun for them, but not so much for Hearst who was soon frequently sending Marion telegrams reading, “Operator could not find you. Where were you? Explanations in order.” Hearst hired private detectives to follow Charlie and Marion, and actually broke up with her briefly in 1924. However, they quickly reconciled.
But I do think that Hearst was legitimately threatened by Chaplin, who was not only a multimillionaire himself by that point, but was a young multimillionaire. I would add that Chaplin was famous, but, really, W.R. was also famous.
Tales of her affair with Chaplin have since made their way into the film The Cat’s Meow in which Marion Davies is portrayed by Kirsten Dunst (really very well). It concerns a yacht party on which Tom Ince mysteriously died (true) and also Chaplin and Davies having orgies (maybe).
While W.R. took her back, Marion and Charlie continued meeting; Marion’s prop man was told to alert them immediately if W.R. appeared on set. She later supposedly had an affair with Dick Powell, as evidenced that he wrote seemingly everyone he had ever met that they were having an affair. Whether or not the affair was true, Marion remained his friend until the end of his life, despite the fact that Dick Powell seems pretty crummy, and I seriously cannot remember a single movie he was in.
That is not to say that Marion and W.R. didn’t love one another, because I truly believe they did. They adopted a menagerie of animals at their home; at one point their zoo was filled with lions, bobcats, kangaroos and Marianne the Elephant. Their greatest loves may have been their dogs, which they both treated like surrogate children. They grieved together when each other’s dogs died; Marion remembered when W.R.’s dachshund Helen died that “he cried, and cried” before burying the animal with a tombstone that read, “Here lies Helen – my devoted friend.” Meanwhile, when Marion’s dog Ghandi died, she gave him a full funeral service conducted by an Irish priest.
That love for animals extended into other areas of their life. In Europe, W.R. once bought a car for a peasant (they still had peasants back then, apparently, those were the times) after accidentally killing her goose. Meanwhile, when a cat was killed on set in a chase scene, Marion reported the filmmakers to the SPCA.
So, in keeping with her great love of animals, she was sort of living out Mae West’s motto that women need four creatures in their lives “a mink on her back, a jaguar in her garage, a tiger in her bed and jackass to pay for it all.”
But she still wasn’t happy.
Marion’s greatest challenge – as she had never completely overcome her stutter – was transitioning into the talking movies of the 1930’s. She starred with some extremely distinguished leading men, such as Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Bing Crosby and Gary Cooper, all of whom she may or may not have slept with.
By then her drinking had turned into full blown alcoholism. After W.R. banned her from having alcohol in the house, she hid bottles of gin in all the toilet tanks. When you are hiding liquor in toilet tanks, you have probably become a more than casual drinker. There were terrible scenes at parties. W.R.’s son Bill said, “Perhaps Pops felt that Marion’s heavy drinking may have been his fault because he had not married her. This caused him much soul searching and grief in his final years.”
In 1937, at age 40, Marion announced her retirement from films. She may have been emotionally exhausted, but she was also extremely successful, and having wisely invested her money, was a millionaire many times over.
However, W.R. was nearly bankrupt. He informed Marion sadly, “I guess I’m through,” and I think he expected, perhaps understandably, that she would leave him (he was now 74) for a younger love. Marion immediately liquidated stocks and sold off real estate. Within a week she presented him with a check for one million dollars. When that wasn’t enough, she sold all her jewelery and mortgaged the rest of her real estate.
Even with these steps, by 1939, the couple was living relatively simply. They moved into a smaller house where they cooked meals together, and Marion made all of W.R.’s ties. I think it might have been the only time in Marion’s life she was completely happy. I think probably she had been craving that domesticity for years.
Then in 1941 Citizen Kane was released. While it was a brilliant movie, it was also… really unfair to portray Marion so negatively when she had just given her entire life savings to her aging lover. Louella Parsons, the gossip columnist, claimed it was “a cruel, dishonest caricature.” The producer Louis B. Mayer left the screening room in tears and offered to buy the negative in order to burn it. (In retrospect, it is a good thing Welles did not say, “Yes, Louis, I would like some of those sweet, sweet dollars, burn away.”)
However, interpretations change. The depiction of a talentless woman who owes her career to her wealthy benefactor (in the movie, Kane builds his mistress an opera house in which to sing) is now thought to be based on an entirely different couple. Wikipedia claims:
Orson Welles‘ masterpiece Citizen Kane is in part based on the life of Samuel and Gladys Insull. Playwright Herman J. Mankiewicz based Susan Alexander’s catastrophic operatic debut in “Citizen Kane” on Gladys Wallis Insull’s New York role as Lady Teazle in a charity revival of “A School for Scandal.” The review of Susan Alexander’s debut in Kane echoes Mankiewicz’s actual 1925 review of Gladys Insull. His 1925 review began: “As Lady Teazle, Mrs. Insull is as pretty as she is diminutive; with a clear smile and dainty gestures. There is a charming grace in her bearing that makes for excellent deportment. But Lady Teazle seems much too innocent to lend credit to her part in the play.”
Long after the film Welles finally issued a statement saying:
“The mistress was never one of Hearst’s possessions, he was always her suitor, and she was the precious treasure of his heart for more than thirty years, until his last breath of life. Their’s is truly a love story. Love is not the subject of Citizen Kane.”
Speaking of his last breath of life – William Randolph Hearst died at age 89. Supposedly a fight broke out over his deathbed. Marion attempted to enter his room where he was surrounded by his family, demanding to know how he was doing. One of her sons replied, “Why should you care, you whore?” She was given a sedative by the doctor and W.R. passed away in the night.
Marion mourned, “I loved him for 32 years and now he’s gone. I couldn’t even say goodbye.”
She was not allowed to attend the funeral.
When Hearst died, she was left with voting control of his company which was a considerable fortune. She sold it back to his family for a fee of $1 a year.
And then, eleven weeks and one day after Hearst’s death, she married for the first time.
I always feel sad about that, somehow. It feels like a weirdly offbeat thing to do, as though the film of her life was coming to this very good, respectable end. Then she married someone immediately after Hearst’s death, and, well, no good director would choose to end the movie there.
The message of this story – someone really needs to make a movie about Marion Davies.
A History Of Mistresses, by Elizabeth Abbot