After Citizen Kane purportedly portrayed Marion Davies as a talentless gold-digger, writers and historians accepted the fiction as fact.
In the Roaring Twenties, Marion Davies was a superstar. With a career of nearly four dozen films, both silent and “talkies,” Davies was everywhere. But many believe she didn’t achieve stardom on her skill alone.
Davies was famously the mistress of William Randolph Hearst — businessman, politician, and most notably, newspaper publisher. The man was even rumored to have started the Spanish-American War by printing a slew of provocative articles.
It’s no wonder, then, why some believe that he built Davies’ career.
It didn’t help that Davies enjoyed a lifestyle largely considered scandalous by the standards of her time. She was rumored to have had affairs with other big men in Hollywood, including Charlie Chaplin and a producer named Thomas Ince, who died after a weekend on Hearst’s yacht.
But likely what did the largest disservice to Davies’ reputation was her alleged portrayal in Orson Welles’ film, Citizen Kane, which has been widely called the greatest American film of all time.
Davies was reportedly the inspiration behind the character Susan Alexander, the untalented mistress of a media mogul who is himself loosely based off Hearst. These likenesses were not lost on Davies’ critics and Davies thus appeared to the public as a trifling, vapid actress buoyed only by her relationship with a powerful man.
What’s clear in the story of Marion Davies, however, is that just like any woman of her time, she was in a precarious position as the woman beside a powerful man.
As such, an ocean of chance encounters, deadly incidents, and controversy followed in her every wake.
Her Early Years
Marion Cecilia Elizabeth Brooklyn Douras was born the youngest of five on Jan. 3, 1897 in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, Bernard J. Douras, was a New York City magistrate and a lawyer. Her mother, Rose Reilly, tended to the home.
At some point, the family elected to change their surname from “Douras” to “Davies.”
Davies was educated in a convent but dropped out to pursue a career in show business. She got her start as a chorus girl on Broadway and in 1916, was signed on as a main player in Broadway’s Ziegfield Follies, a series of theatrical productions.
That’s when Davies met historic media mogul and business tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
The Rise Of Marion Davies
It’s quite clear that Hearst’s extramarital affair with Davies is what gave the upcoming talent her start in Hollywood.
Davies’ filmography would span over two decades, beginning only a year after she and Hearst started dating. Rather than have her audition for bit parts, Hearst simply established a movie studio and employed her as one of its permanent installments.
While starring in films is in and of itself no recipe for prolonged success, having a partner in charge of national and local news certainly can be. Hearst ordered that all of his papers give Davies positive reviews with each and every passing project of hers.
However, the young actress was an actual talent; not only did she star in two of the decade’s greatest comedies including The Patsy and Show People, but she produced the films as well. It’s largely agreed that the resourceful actress had a knack for the business — relationships be damned.
Even when films turned from silent to “talkies,” Davies managed the transition despite suffering from a slight stutter.
“I couldn’t act,” Davies wrote in one of her memoirs. “But the idea of silent pictures appealed to me because I couldn’t talk either.”
But it was 1922’s When Knighthood Was in Flower that firmly established Davies as a superstar. Not only was it considered the most expensive motion picture ever made up to that time, but it became an enormous box office success.
Not everything was as rosy behind the scenes, however, as dating William Randolph Hearst had just as many disadvantages as it did advantages.
Marriage To William Randolph Hearst
While Davies shined in comedic roles, Hearst was desperate to make her a serious actress. Unfortunately, his ruthless behavior with studio heads at places like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer eventually cost her her career.
Nonetheless, Davies adored him.
Charlie Chaplin’s second wife, Lita Grey, later wrote in her memoir that Davies reportedly said:
“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 a cozy companion, either…No, you know what he gives me, sugar? He gives me the feeling I’m worth something to him.”
Meanwhile, rumors circulated that Davies was having an affair with Chaplin. Hearst was thoroughly convinced that his mistress was indeed having an affair, but he mistook the guilty party for another and instead believed that Davies was with film producer Thomas Ince.
In November 1924, one day after returning from a weekend party aboard Hearst’s yacht, the Oneida, Ince died. Some suspected that he’d actually been poisoned by Hearst, but Ince’s autopsy later showed that he’d died of an attack of acute indigestion.
He had been keeping his failing health, ulcer, and heart troubles a secret, and died in his Hollywood home.
Citizen Kane And The True Story Of Mank
Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, is said to feature a character based loosely on Marion Davies. If true, it’s a terribly unflattering hommage. The character named Susan Alexander, a media mogul’s mistress, is both beautiful and supremely untalented.
The fictionalized portrayal sparked a barrage of ridicule for the real-life actress. Meanwhile, Hearst’s employee and movie gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, saw the film and told him that he was not only portrayed blatantly, but horribly. The tycoon subsequently ordered his papers never to mention the film — and discredit Welles whenever possible.
But screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, whose work on Citizen Kane’s script will soon be depicted in David Fincher’s upcoming movie Mank, claimed that Kane was not inspired by Hearst at all — even though the movie features a quote from Kane like this: “You provide the pictures, we’ll provide the war.”
Some, including Gore Vidal, believe that Kane’s infamous “Rosebud” was a reference to Hearst’s name for Davies’ so-called “tender button.” This, above all, was what infuriated Hearst most.
It’s no wonder how the universally lauded film was snubbed at the Oscars the year it was released and lost money at the box office.
The Last Act
Orson Welles would submit an apology to the defamed star. In the foreword to her 1975 memoir, Welles wrote: “Marion Davies was one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen…she would have been a star if Hearst had never happened.”
The director also maintained his depiction of Davies was positive, rather than critical:
“Xanadu was a lonely fortress, and Susan was quite right to escape it,” Welles wrote. “The mistress was never one of Hearst’s possessions; he was always their suitor, and she was the precious treasure of his heart for more than 30 years, until his last breath of life.”
Davies would stay beside Hearst until his death in 1951 and she claimed to have been unbothered by the film, saying she and Hearst never even saw it.
Davies married for the first time at 54 shortly after Hearst’s death. She died ten years later of stomach cancer.
Even though Marion Davies certainly made a name for herself in the world of Old Hollywood, it was hard for her audiences and many in the business to separate her relationship from her filmography.
Now, over half a century later, people are beginning to look at her talents outside of her personal life. In 2002, Charlize Theron narrated the documentary Captured on Film — The True Story of Marion Davies and film historian Edward Larusso released a 182-page illustrated work of her film stills.
In that sense, Marion Davies has finally made it — and might finally be remembered as the on-screen superstar she really was.
After learning about the controversial life of Marion Davies, read about the rise and fall of actress Frances Farmer. Then, learn about how actress Jean Seberg was driven to suicide by a covert FBI program.