Friday, January 13, 2012

Marion Davies and Hearst’s Sand-Castle by the Sea

We Santa Monicans are proud of our movie heritage. Last Sunday I helped the Santa Monica Conservancy celebrate what would have been the 115th birthday of Marion Davies (1897-1961). Davies, of course, was the consort of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst for over thirty years, from the time she was a Ziegfeld Follies cutie until his death in 1951. He used his money and his personal clout to promote her movie career, but this wasn’t simply the case of an ambitious young thing putting out for her sugar daddy. From all reports, despite their thirty-four year age difference, Marion genuinely loved the big galoot she called “Pops.”

His largesse to her was legendary. Diamonds may have been a girl’s best friend, but Hearst also liked to surprise Marion with small parcels of Southern California real estate. Many of these she sold at a profit, amassing enough of a personal fortune that when bad times struck the Hearst empire she was able to help out her man with a $2 million gift. But she held onto her very special seaside villa. It was located just north of the Santa Monica pier, and in those days of uncongested streets, Marion could leave the MGM lot in Culver City, remove her makeup in the car, and be cooling her tootsies in the blue Pacific in 15 minutes flat. The palatial estate was the site of some of Old Hollywood’s liveliest shindigs. Marion loved costume parties, and there are priceless photos of filmdom’s finest (everyone from Douglas Fairbanks to the Marx Brothers) dressed as Tyrolean goatherds and circus clowns. She was a more than gracious hostess: a guest who had hit on hard times would sometimes be slipped a costly bauble, with Marion blithely explaining she’d grown tired of it.(She also created a children’s medical foundation that for many years was housed on the UCLA campus.)

Marion’s white sand-castle is long gone, but its guest-house has been lovingly preserved and incorporated into the Annenberg Community Beach House. That’s where the birthday salute was staged. Docents in period costumes discussed Marion’s life, but the biggest treat was a screening of one of her silent comedies, The Patsy. It’s a shame that so many of us, under the spell of Orson Welles’ great Citizen Kane, confuse Marion Davies with Kane’s paramour, the talentless Susan Alexander. It’s quite true that William Randolph Hearst used his millions (and his readership) to boost Marion’s career, much as the movie’s Charles Foster Kane tried to buy success in the opera world for his tone-deaf protégé. But Marion – though not well suited for the costume epics that Hearst chose for her – was a genuinely delightful comedienne. In The Patsy, playing a put-upon younger daughter who triumphs over her domineering mother (Marie Dressler) to win the man of her dreams, she is charm personified.

A better movie portrait of the relationship between Marion Davies and Hearst is Peter Bogdanovich’s little-seen The Cat’s Meow (2001). It stars Kirsten Dunst as an adorable Marion, opposite Edward Herrmann as her over-stuffed W.R., in a semi-factual story about the mysterious death of director William Ince aboard Hearst’s yacht. Another way to understand their era is to read Cari Beauchamp’s Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, which explores the beginning of the movie industry from the viewpoint of another Marion. Who knew that in the early days many top screenwriters, like the multi-talented Frances Marion, were female? And who knew that early Hollywood women were dynamos, until the moguls put them back on their pedestals?

Happy birthday, Marion, wherever you are.


  1. While I knew she was more talented than her filmic counterpart in Kane - I did not know that Marion Davies was so savvy (selling that real estate) or generous. I'm now quite interested in learning more about her - and I think I will start with The Cat's Meow and work my way forward! Thank you for the history lesson, Ms. G!

  2. My pleasure. Sorry this response is belated. Did you ever watch The Cat's Meow, Mr. C?