Marion Cecilia Davies, January 3, 1897 – September 22, 1961, was an actress, producer, screenwriter, philanthropist, and one-time Harlemite.
Educated in a religious convent, Davies fled the school to pursue a career as a chorus girl. As a teenager, she appeared in several Broadway musicals and one film, Runaway Romany (1917). She soon became a featured performer in the Ziegfeld Follies.
While performing in the 1916 Follies, the nineteen-year-old Marion met the fifty-three-year-old newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and became his mistress. Hearst took over management of Davies’ career and promoted her as a motion picture actress.
Times writes that Hearst bought a Harlem studio, established his own film company, hired tutors and drama coaches, the best scenarists, set designers, and directors to help shape his Galatea.
For the opening of her first film, Cecilia of the Pink Roses, in 1918, he had the theater ventilating system loaded with attar of roses, bathing the audience in florid scent.
Hearst financed Davies’ pictures and extensively promoted her career via his newspapers and Hearst Newsreels. He founded Cosmopolitan Pictures to produce her films.
By 1924, Davies was the #1 female box office star in Hollywood due to the popularity of When Knighthood Was in Flower and Little Old New York, which were among the biggest box-office hits of their respective years.
During the zenith of the Jazz Age, Davies became renowned as the hostess of lavish soirées for Hollywood actors and political elites.
However, in 1924, her name became linked with scandal when film producer Thomas Ince died at a party aboard Hearst’s yacht.
Following the decline of her film career during the Great Depression, Davies struggled with alcoholism, and she retired from the screen in 1937 to devote herself to an ailing Hearst and to charitable work.
In Hearst’s declining years, Davies remained his steadfast companion until his death in 1951.
Eleven weeks after Hearst’s death, she married sea captain Horace Brown, and their marriage lasted until Davies’ own death due to malignant osteomyelitis (bone cancer) of the jaw in 1961 at the age of 64.
By the time of her death, Davies’ legacy as a talented actress was already overshadowed by her popular association with the character of Susan Alexander Kane in the film Citizen Kane (1941).
The title character’s second wife—an untalented singer whom he tries to promote—was widely assumed to be based upon Davies.
However, many commentators, including writer-director Orson Welles, defended Davies’ record as a gifted actress and comédienne to whom Hearst’s patronage did more harm than good.
In his final years, Welles attempted to correct the widespread misconceptions which the film had created about Davies’ popularity and talents as an actress.
Early life and education
Marion Douras was born on January 3, 1897, in Brooklyn, the youngest of five children born to Bernard J. Douras, a lawyer and judge in New York City; and Rose Reilly. Her father performed the civil marriage of socialite Gloria Gould Bishop.
She had three older sisters, Ethel, Rose, and Reine. An older brother, Charles, drowned. His name was subsequently given to Davies’ favorite nephew, screenwriter Charles Lederer, the son of Davies’ sister Reine Davies.
The Douras family lived near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Educated in the Sacred Heart religious convent near the Hudson River and later a religious convent near Tours, France, Davies was uninterested in her academic studies and very unhappy as a child supervised by Catholic nuns.
Her family was close friends with architect Stanford White, and Davies grew up learning about the Evelyn Nesbit sex scandal.
As a teenager, Marion left school to pursue a career as a showgirl. When her sister Reine adopted the stage name of Davies after seeing a billboard advertisement for Valentine Davies, Marion followed suit.
Early career on stage and in film
Davies worked as a chorine starting with Chin-Chin, a 1914 musical starring David C. Montgomery and Fred Stone, at the old Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia.
She made her Broadway debut starring in the show at Globe Theatre on October 20. She also appeared in Nobody Home, Miss Information and Stop, Look and Listen. When not dancing, she modeled for illustrators Harrison Fisher and Howard Chandler Christy.
In 1916, Davies was signed on as a featured player in the Ziegfeld Follies. However, Davies’ career as a Ziegfeld girl encountered difficulties as her persistent stammer prevented her from pronouncing any lines; consequently, she was relegated to only dancing routines.
While working for Florenz Ziegfeld, she was sexually pursued by a cavalcade of admirers and came to loathe young college men: “The stage-door-Johnnies [sic] I didn’t like. Especially those who came from Yale.”
During one infamous show starring Gaby Deslys, rowdy undergraduates from Yale pelted Davies and other chorus dancers with tomatoes and rotten eggs to show their displeasure with the performance.
While dancing in the Follies at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City, the teenage Davies was first observed by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst who was seated in the front row of the audience.
Recalling this first encounter, Davies indicated she was initially afraid of Hearst:
[Hearst] always sat in the front row at the Follies. The girls in the show told me who he was. They said, ‘Look out for him—he’s looking at you. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.’ … He sent me flowers and little gifts, like silver boxes or gloves or candy. I wasn’t the only one he sent gifts to, but all the girls thought he was particularly looking at me, and the older ones would say, ‘Look out.’
Hearst purportedly went to the Follies show every night for eight weeks solely to gaze at Davies. Without Davies’ knowledge, Hearst clandestinely arranged for an intermediary from Campbell’s Studio to invite Davies to be photographed in ornate costumes such as a Japanese geisha and a virginal bride.
While the photos were being taken, Davies realized that Hearst was secretly present in the darkness of the photography studio.
Terrified, she fled to the dressing room and locked the door. However, Hearst abruptly departed without introducing himself.
After months passed, they saw each other again in Palm Beach, but Hearst’s wife was present. Consequently, they did not become intimate until some time later.
After making her screen debut in 1916 and modeling gowns by Lady Duff-Gordon in a fashion newsreel, Davies appeared in her first feature film, Runaway Romany (1917).
Davies wrote the film, which was directed by her brother-in-law, producer George W. Lederer. Davies would continue to alternate between stage and screen until 1920 when she made her last revue appearance in Ed Wynn’s Carnival.
Hearst and Cosmopolitan Pictures
In 1918, Hearst formed Cosmopolitan Pictures and asked Davies to sign a $500-per-week exclusive contract with his studio.
After signing the exclusivity contract, 21-year-old Davies and 58-year-old Hearst began a sexual relationship.
Using his vast newspaper empire and Hearst Metrotone Newsreels, Hearst decided to promote Davies on an enormous scale.
His newsreels touted Davies’ social activities, and a reporter from the Los Angeles Examiner was assigned the full-time job of recounting her daily exploits in print.
In total, Hearst expended an estimated $7 million promoting Davies’ career.
Soon after, in 1918 Hearst—who was still married to Millicent Willson—moved Davies with her mother and sisters into an elegant Manhattan townhouse at the corner of 225 West 105th Street, on Riverside Drive in Harlem.
Soon after, in 1918 Hearst—who was still married to Millicent Willson—moved Davies with her mother and sisters into an elegant Manhattan townhouse at the corner of 225 West 105th Street, on Riverside Drive in Harlem.
Hearst ensured that “Marion’s new abode was nothing less than a palace fit for a movie-queen—especially since the queen would frequently be receiving the press on the premises.”
He next secured Cosmopolitan’s distribution deals first with Paramount Pictures, then with Samuel Goldwyn Productions, and with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
During the next ten years, Davies appeared in 29 films, an average of almost three films a year.
One of her best-known roles was as Mary Tudor in When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922), directed by Robert G. Vignola, with whom she collaborated on several films.
The 1922–23 period may have been her most successful period as an actress, with both When Knighthood Was in Flower and Little Old New York ranking among the top 3 box-office hits of those years.
She was named the number one female box-office star by theater owners and crowned as “Queen of the Screen” at their 1924 convention in Hollywood.
Other hit silent films included Beverly of Graustark, The Cardboard Lover, Enchantment, The Bride’s Play, Lights of Old Broadway, Zander the Great, The Red Mill, Yolanda, Beauty’s Worth, and The Restless Sex.
In 1926, Hearst’s wife Millicent moved to New York, and Hearst and Davies moved to the palatial Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Upon visiting the sprawling Hearst Castle with its Grecian statues and celestial suites, playwright George Bernard Shaw reportedly quipped: “This is what God would have built if he had the money.”
When not holding court at San Simeon, Hearst and Davies resided at Marion’s equally luxurious beach house in Santa Monica, at Hearst’s rustic Wyntoon estate in Northern California, and—when abroad—at St Donat’s Castle in Wales.
During the heyday of the Jazz Age, the couple spent much of their time entertaining and holding extravagant soirées with famous guests including many Hollywood actors and political figures.
Frequent habitués and occasional visitors included, among others, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Harpo Marx, Clark Gable, Calvin Coolidge, Winston Churchill, Charles Lindbergh, and Amelia Earheart.
As the years passed, Hearst’s relentless efforts to promote Davies’ career purportedly had a detrimental effect
According to Davies, Hearst grandiosely advertised her latest films with “signs all over New York City and pictures in the papers…. I thought it got to be a little too much.”
Such unceasing publicity irritated the general public. “In New York city there were big signs, blocks and blocks of signs,” Davies recalled, “and people go so tired of the name Marion Davies that they would actually insult me.”
In her published memoirs The Times We Had, Davies concluded that such over-the-top promotion of her film career likely did more harm than good.
Hearst’s jealousy also interfered with Davies’ career, especially in her earlier films and her stage roles.
According to Davies, he often vetoed the casting of attractive leading men and typically would not permit her to be embraced on the screen or in stage plays. In her memoirs, Davies claimed to have repeatedly assailed Hearst’s jealous stewardship in vain: “Everyone has to do a little embrace in pictures, just for the audience’s sake,” she told him.
However, Hearst would not relent. Consequently, many of her earlier pictures were regarded as sexless and featured “no kissing at all”[b] even when a kiss was needed for a happy ending.
Hearst also insisted on personally rewriting Davies’ film scripts, and his constant meddling often exasperated film directors such as Lloyd Bacon.
Hearst further hindered Davies’ career by insisting she star only in costumes dramas in which she often played “a doll-sweetheart out of the 1890s, in the manner of D. W. Griffith heroines.”
Davies herself was more inclined to develop her comic talents alongside her friends Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford at United Artists, but Hearst pointedly discouraged this.
Hearst preferred seeing her inexpensive historical 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, which she usually did for friends, of silent stars Lillian Gish, Mae Murray and Pola Negri.
Vidor saw Davies as a comedic actress instead of the dramatic actress that Hearst wanted her to be. He noticed she was the life of parties and incorporated that into his films.
Sound films and career decline
The coming of sound made Davies nervous because she had a persistent stutter. Her career nonetheless progressed, and she made a number of films during the early sound era, including Marianne (1929), The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929), 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.
During the filming of Operator 13, Hearst repeatedly caused problems on the set, and he insisted on directing a scene much to the consternation of film director Richard Boleslawski.
While at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Davies was often involved with many aspects of her films and was considered an astute businesswoman. However, her career continued to be hampered by Hearst’s insistence that she play dramatic historical parts as opposed to the comic roles which were her forte.
Hearst reportedly tried to persuade MGM production boss Irving Thalberg to cast Davies in the coveted title role of the 1938 historical drama Marie Antoinette, but Thalberg awarded the part to his ambitious wife, Norma Shearer.
This rejection came on the heels of Davies having been also denied the female lead in The Barretts of Wimpole Street; that role going to Shearer as well.
Despite Davies’ friendship with the Thalbergs, Hearst reacted angrily by pulling his newspaper support for MGM and moving Davies and Cosmopolitan Pictures distribution to Warner Brothers.
Davies first film at Warner Brothers was Page Miss Glory (1935). During this period, a personal tragedy occurred in Davies’ own life with the death of her vivacious 25-year-old niece, Pepi Lederer.
Pepi had been a permanent resident at San Simeon for many years and was a closeted lesbian who had sexual relationships with actresses Louise Brooks, Nina Mae McKinney, and others.
At some point during the affair between Pepi and Brooks, Hearst became cognizant of Lederer’s lesbianism. According to Louise Brooks’ memoirs, Hearst—to avoid a public scandal or to forestall blackmail—arranged for Pepi to be committed to a mental institution for drug addiction.
In June 1935, mere days after her institutionalization, Pepi committed suicide by leaping to her death from an upper floor window of the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. Hearst purportedly used his press influence to have Pepi’s death obscured in the news cycle, and Davies arranged a funeral for her niece at a private chapel.
After a brief hiatus due to her niece’s suicide, Davies starred in Hearts Divided (1936) and Cain and Mabel (1936). Her final film for Warner Brothers was Ever Since Eve (1937).
Mirroring earlier events at MGM, Warners purchased the rights to Robert E. Sherwood’s 1935 play Tovarich for Davies, but the lead role in the 1937 film adaptation was given to Claudette Colbert. Hearst shopped Davies and Cosmopolitan for another year, but no deals were made, and the actress officially retired.
In 1943, Davies was offered the role of Mrs. Brown in Claudia, but Hearst dissuaded her from taking a supporting role and tarnishing her starring career.
In her 45 feature films, over a 20-year period, Davies had never been anything but the star and, with the exception of uncredited cameo appearances, had always received top billing.
Relationship with Hearst
In her memoirs, Davies claimed that she and publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst began their sexual relationship when she was a teenage chorus girl.
Although they lived together for the next three decades in opulent homes across Southern California and Europe, they never married as Hearst’s wife refused to grant him a divorce.
At one point, Hearst reportedly came close to marrying Davies, but decided his wife’s settlement demands were too high. Although he was a notorious philanderer, Hearst was extremely jealous and possessive of Davies, even though he was married throughout their relationship.
Lita Grey, the second wife of Charlie Chaplin, wrote four decades later that Davies confided to her about the relationship with Hearst. Grey quoted Davies saying:
God, I’d give everything I have to marry that silly old man. Not for the money and security—he’s given me more than I’ll ever need. Not because he’s such cozy company, either. Most times, when he starts jawing, he bores me stiff. And certainly not because he’s so wonderful behind the barn.
Why, I could find a million better lays any Wednesday. No, you know what he gives me, sugar? He gives me the feeling I’m worth something to him. A whole lot of what we have, or don’t have, I don’t like. He’s got a wife who’ll never give him a divorce.
She knows about me, but it’s still understood that when she decides to go to the ranch for a week or a weekend, I’ve got to vamoose.
And he snores, and he can be petty, and has sons about as old as me. But he’s kind and he’s good to me, and I’d never walk out on him.
Despite their well-known jealous attachment to one another, both Davies and Hearst had many sexual liaisons with other persons while living together in San Simeon and elsewhere.
Davies had sexual relationships with fellow actors Charlie Chaplin, Dick Powell, and others, while Hearst had a sexual relationship with blonde chorus girl Maybelle Swor.
According to Davies’ friend and confidant Louise Brooks, Davies was particularly incensed by Hearst’s indiscreet relations with Swor and became irate when Hearst’s newspapers began openly promoting Swor’s career in a nearly identical fashion to their earlier promotion of Davies.
By the late 1930s, in the wake of the Great Depression, Hearst was suffering financial reversals. After selling many of the contents of St Donat’s Castle, Davies sold her jewelry, stocks and bonds and wrote a check for $1 million to Hearst to save him from bankruptcy.
Alleged biological daughter
Further information: Patricia Lake
Since the early 1920s, there was speculation that Davies and Hearst had a child together some time between 1919 and 1923. The child was rumored to be Patricia Lake (née Van Cleve), who was publicly identified as Davies’ 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’ niece but Davies’ biological daughter, whom she had conceived with Hearst.
Lake had never commented on her alleged paternity in public, even after Hearst’s 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 1919 and 1923. Lake was then given to Davies’ 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.”
Thomas Ince scandal
In November 1924, Davies was among those revelers aboard Hearst’s steam yacht Oneida for a weekend party that culminated in the death of film producer Thomas Ince.
Ince purportedly suffered an attack of acute indigestion while aboard the luxury yacht and was escorted off in San Diego by Hearst’s studio manager, Dr. Daniel Goodman.
Ince was put on a train bound for Los Angeles but, when his condition worsened, he was removed from the train at Del Mar.
He was given medical attention by Dr. T. A. Parker and a nurse, Jesse Howard. Ince allegedly told them that he had drunk a strong liquor aboard Hearst’s yacht. He was taken to his Hollywood home where he died.
Following Ince’s death, rumors became widespread that Hearst had caught Ince “pressing unwelcome attentions on Miss Davies and shot him fatally.”
A variant of this rumor alleged that Davies had a sexual liaison with fellow-guest Charlie Chaplin, and that Hearst mistook Ince for Chaplin and shot him out of jealousy.
Chaplin’s Japanese valet allegedly witnessed Ince being carried from Hearst’s yacht and claimed that Ince’s head was “bleeding from a bullet wound.”
Screenwriter Elinor Glyn, a fellow guest at the yacht party, claimed “that everyone aboard the yacht had been sworn to secrecy, which would hardly have seemed necessary if poor Ince had died of natural causes.”
Years later, Chaplin’s wife Lita Grey repeated claims that Chaplin had sexually pursued Marion Davies aboard Hearst’s yacht and that a violent altercation of some kind had occurred. However, there was never any substantive evidence to support these allegations.
After Ince’s death, District Attorney Chester C. Kempley of San Diego conducted an inquiry and issued a public statement which declared that “the death of Thomas H. Ince was caused by heart failure as a result of an attack of acute indigestion.”
Despite the district attorney’s declaration, and the fact that three physicians and a nurse had attended Ince before he died, the rumors persisted.
Consequently, “one can still hear solemn stories in Hollywood today that Ince was murdered” in a jealous dispute over Davies.
Retirement and Hearst’s death
By 1937, Hearst was $126 million in debt. Consequently, when Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures folded in 1938, Davies left the film business and retreated to San Simeon.
Davies would later publicly claim in her autobiography that, after many years of work, she had become bored with film acting and decided to devote herself to being Hearst’s “companion.”
However, Davies was intensely ambitious, and she faced the harsh reality at the age of forty that she could no longer play young heroines as in her earlier films.
Consequently, when drunk at parties in San Simeon, Davies often lamented her retirement and “cursed everyone who felt she had contributed to her ruined career.”
As the years passed, Davies developed a drinking problem, and her alcoholism grew worse in the late 1930s and the 1940s, as she and Hearst lived an increasingly isolated existence.
Although Hearst and Davies “were still playing the gracious lord and his lady, and the guests were still responding with grateful expressions of joy,” nevertheless “the life had gone out of their performances.”
The two spent most of World War II at Hearst’s Northern California estate of Wyntoon, until returning to San Simeon in 1945.
After a long period of illness, Hearst died on August 14, 1951, at the age of 88. In his will, Hearst provided handsomely for Davies, leaving her 170,000 shares of Hearst Corporation stock, in addition to 30,000 he had established for her in a trust fund in 1950.
This gave her a controlling interest in the company for a short time, until she chose to relinquish the stock voluntarily to the corporation on October 30, 1951.
She retained her original 30,000 shares and an advisory role with the corporation. She soon invested in property and owned The Desert Inn in Palm Springs and several properties in New York City, including the Squibb Building at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street, the Davies Building at E. 57th Street and the Douras Building at E. 55th Street.
Marriage to Brown and charity work
Following Hearst’s death, the majority of Davies’ coterie of hedonistic friends gradually drifted away, and “she relied upon one or two companion-nurses to keep the blues away.”
Eleven weeks and one day after Hearst’s death, Davies married sea captain Horace Brown on October 31, 1951, in Las Vegas.
Their union was unhappy. Davies filed for divorce twice, but neither was finalized, despite Brown admitting he treated her badly: “I’m a beast,” he said. “I took him back. I don’t know why,” she explained. “I guess because he’s standing right beside me, crying. Thank God we all have a sense of humor.”
Throughout her later years, Davies was “noted for her kindness” and renowned for her generosity to charities. During the 1920s, she had become interested in children’s charities, donating over $1 million.
In 1952, she donated $1.9 million to establish a children’s clinic at UCLA which was named for her.
The clinic’s name was changed to the Mattel Children’s Hospital in 1998. Davies also fought childhood diseases through the Marion Davies Foundation.
Illness and death
In Summer 1956, after many decades of heavy drinking, Davies suffered a minor cerebral stroke and was admitted to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital.
After the stroke, her Hollywood friends noted that “much of her old spirit and fire were gone,” and Davies quipped to columnist Hedda Hopper that “we blondes seem to be falling apart.”
She would never fully regain her health. During this time, many of her friends would die including Louis B. Mayer and Norma Talmadge. Their deaths convinced Davies that she would soon pass as well.
Three years later, during a dental examination in February 1959, a growth was discovered on her jaw.
Not long afterwards, Davies was diagnosed with cancer. Davies made her last public appearance on January 10, 1960, on an NBC television special entitled Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood.
During this same period, Joseph P. Kennedy rented Davies’ 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.
When Joseph P. Kennedy learned Davies was dying of cancer, he “had three cancer specialists flown out” to examine her.
In Spring 1961, Davies underwent surgery for malignant osteomyelitis.
Twelve days after the operation, Davies fell in her hospital room and broke her leg. Her health rapidly failed over the following summer. Davies died of the malignant osteomyelitis on September 22, 1961, in Hollywood, California.
Her funeral at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Hollywood was attended by over 200 mourners and many Hollywood celebrities, including her friends Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Glenn Ford, Kay Williams, and Johnny Weissmuller.
Davies was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. She left an estate estimated at $20 million.
Susan Alexander Kane
According to biographers, Davies’ reputation was destroyed following the release of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941).
Davies was mistakenly assumed by film audiences to be the unalloyed inspiration for the character of Susan Alexander in the film, which was based loosely on Hearst’s life.
Many viewers, including journalists, “assumed that the powerful publisher Charles Kane in the film was Mr. Hearst, the huge castle Xanadu was in reality Mr. Hearst’s fabulous estate San Simeon and the blonde young singer he tried to turn into a diva, although she had no voice, was in reality Miss Davies.”
Consequently, a retroactive myth soon developed that Davies was “not a great actress and the films she made were not among the more impressive or profitable releases.”
By the time of her prolonged death from cancer, Davies was erroneously depicted in press obituaries to have been an extremely mediocre and unpopular actress during her lifetime.
However, contrary to the retroactive myth that Davies’ films were neither popular nor profitable, most of Davies’s films made money, and she remained a popular star for most of her career.
She was the #1 female box office star of 1922–23 due to the enormous popularity of When Knighthood Was in Flower and Little Old New York, which both ranked among the biggest box-office hits of 1922 and 1923, respectively.
Over time, the popular association with the character of Susan Alexander Kane led to later revisionist portrayals of Davies as a talentless opportunist.
In his later years, Orson Welles attempted to correct the widespread misconceptions which Citizen Kane had created about Davies’ popularity and talents as an actress. In his foreword to Davies’ autobiography, The Times We Had (published posthumously in 1975), Welles wrote that the fictional Susan Alexander Kane bears no resemblance to Davies:
That Susan was Kane’s wife and Marion was Hearst’s mistress is a difference more important than might be guessed in today’s changed climate of opinion. The wife was a puppet and a prisoner; the mistress was never less than a princess.
Hearst built more than one castle, and Marion was the hostess in all of them: they were pleasure domes indeed, and the Beautiful People of the day fought for invitations. Xanadu was a lonely fortress, and Susan was quite right to escape from it.
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 30 years, until his last breath of life. Theirs is truly a love story. Love is not the subject of Citizen Kane.
Welles told filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich that Samuel Insull’s construction of the Chicago Opera House, and Harold Fowler McCormick’s lavish promotion of the opera career of his second wife Ganna Walska, were the actual influences for the Susan Alexander character in the Citizen Kane screenplay.
“As for Marion,” Welles said, “she was an extraordinary woman—nothing like the character Dorothy Comingore played in the movie…. Marion was much better than Susan—whom people wrongly equated with her.”
Several decades after her death, a critical reassessment of Davies’ occurred due to the greater availability of her notable films such as When Knighthood Was in Flower, Beauty’s Worth, The Bride’s Play, Enchantment, The Restless Sex, April Folly, and Buried Treasure. This new availability allowed for a more accurate evaluation of Davies’ oeuvre as an actress.
In the 1970s, film critic Pauline Kael attempted to rehabilitate Davies’ legacy and noted that her reputation had been unfairly maligned.
Gradually, the consensus among film critics became more appreciative of her efforts, particularly in the field of comedy.
According to biographers, “if Hearst had allowed her great talents as a mime and comic to come to full flower in a long series of comedies as bright as her Show People and The Patsy, her screen reputation could not have been so readily damaged by the controversy surrounding Citizen Kane.”
Portrayals of Davies
Since her death in 1961, Davies has been portrayed in a variety of media by different actresses. In 1985, Davies was portrayed by 23-year-old Virginia Madsen in the ABC telefilm The Hearst and Davies Affair with Robert Mitchum as Hearst.
ABC inaccurately marketed the film as “the scandalous love affair between one of the richest and most powerful men in America and the obscure Ziegfeld girl he promoted to stardom.”
To prepare for the role, Madsen “screened Davies’ movies, read books, hunted up a collector of Davies memorabilia and even interviewed the actress’ stand-in.”
In the process, Madsen later became a Davies fan and said that she felt she had inadvertently portrayed her as a stereotype, rather than as a real person. In subsequent decades, Davies was also portrayed by Heather McNair in Chaplin (1992) and by Gretchen Mol in Cradle Will Rock (1999).
The 1999 HBO movie RKO 281 focuses on the production of Citizen Kane and Hearst’s efforts to prevent the release, with Melanie Griffith portraying Davies. The movie depicts Davies growing irritated with Hearst’s lifestyle and political views.
In 2001, director Peter Bogdanovich’s film The Cat’s Meow debuted with 19-year-old Kirsten Dunst starring as Davies. Dunst’s performance interpreted Davies as “a spoiled ingenue” who was the ambivalent “lover to two very different men.”
The film was based upon unsubstantiated rumors concerning the Thomas Ince scandal which was dramatized in the play The Cat’s Meow and then adapted into the movie.
That same year, a documentary film Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies (2001) premiered on Turner Classic Movies.
In 2004, the story of William Randolph Hearst and Davies was made into a musical titled WR and Daisy with book and lyrics by Robert and Phyllis White; music by Glenn Paxton.
It was performed in 2004 by Theater West. It was also performed in 2009 and 2010 at the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica, California, the estate built by Hearst for Davies in the 1920s.
Amanda Seyfried is the latest actress to portray Davies in the 2020 Netflix film Mank about Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter of Citizen Kane. Seyfried was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.
Photo credit: 1) Davies in the 1920s. 2) Portraits of Davies appeared on covers for Theatre Magazine (June 1920). 3) William Randolph Hearst circa 1910s. 4) The character of Susan Alexander Kane (portrayed by Dorothy Comingore) in Citizen Kane (1941).