By Lara Gabrielle, author of forthcoming Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies
On March 15, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards. Leading the nominations is Mank, David Fincher’s latest film about the writing of Citizen Kane. Its ten nominations include one for Amanda Seyfried, whose role as Marion Davies earned her a place in the Best Supporting Actress category.
For many decades, Davies’ life has fascinated the public. The story of the chorus girl from Brooklyn who rose to fame under the wing of William Randolph Hearst, becoming one of the most beloved silent stars of the 1920s, is like a modern fairy tale. Her story has been written by gossip columns and fan magazines for over one hundred years, and screenwriters have long tried to capture her personality for biopics and documentaries, with varying degrees of success.
The real Marion Davies has been largely hidden from view. Davies shied away from interviews, due to her wariness of strangers and the press, and trusted very few people with the details of her own unusual life story. My forthcoming book, Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies, lifts that veil to explore the life of this remarkable woman in detail. Letters, tapes, notes, and intimate interviews I conducted with Davies’ family and friends reveal a woman of extraordinary depth and nuance. Faced with many challenges in her life, Davies weathered the storms with enormous strength and resolve, emerging a woman who always remained in control of her own destiny, and who aptly referred to herself as “captain of my soul.”
Marion Davies has long been associated with Citizen Kane. Though the redeeming qualities of Orson Welles’ masterpiece are nearly undisputed – many consider it the greatest film ever made – Citizen Kane has been very damaging to Marion Davies’ legacy. The main character of Citizen Kane, media tycoon and politician Charles Foster Kane, is widely thought to be based on William Randolph Hearst, and his mistress Susan Alexander is thought to be based on Davies, Hearst’s real-life companion. In the film, the lowbrow Susan Alexander builds a relationship with Kane, who is married, and it ultimately destroys his political career. In order to maintain her love, Kane tries to build her career as a great opera singer, but Alexander has no talent for music. She leaves Kane when she realizes he is taking over her life.
Because the characters in Citizen Kane are composites, and Hearst and Davies are the most famous of Welles’ muses, the shadow of Susan Alexander has followed Marion Davies for decades. In reality, the character of Susan Alexander is much closer to Ganna Walska, an opera singer whose voice was famously mediocre at best. Walska became romantically involved with Harold McCormick, Vice President of International Harvester and a prominent supporter of the Chicago Opera. They married in 1922, and McCormick purchased the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris for Walska. The couple divorced nine years later.
Though Hearst and Davies never married, they spent nearly three decades together as devoted companions. In Hearst’s final days, when he was housebound, he wrote Davies notes of affection every night, sliding them quietly under her door before he went to bed. As Hearst neared death, Davies remained at his bedside for three sleepless nights, terrified that he would slip away without her.
As an actress, Davies broke considerable ground in the film world. She pioneered the “screwball” comic style, which has since become the trademark of comediennes such as Carole Lombard, Lucille Ball, and Carol Burnett. Davies was also one of early Hollywood’s great mimics, known for her spot-on physical and vocal impressions of the day’s stars. Offscreen, she gave large parties at her Beach House in Santa Monica and San Simeon, but she thrived on philanthropy and selfless giving. In 1926, she founded a clinic for low-income children in West Los Angeles, that families could access free of charge. She donated it to UCLA in 1958, where it continues as part of the Department of Pediatrics to this day. “I’ll probably be remembered more for the parties I gave at the Beach House,” Davies said in 1960, “but the clinic is the real joy of my life.”
She was also a loyal and steadfast friend. Davies’ exceptional generosity prompted several of her friends to make a pact never to admire Davies’ possessions. She gave so freely and so generously that anything complimented would inevitably become a gift. When the Hearst empire was in deep financial trouble, Davies pulled together $1 million of her own money to save it from insolvency. The warmth and vibrancy of her personality still resonates today. When I talk to people who knew Davies, the first thing I frequently hear is “Marion was the most wonderful woman I ever knew.”
Orson Welles himself publicly regretted the damage that Citizen Kane inadvertently wrought on the reputation of Marion Davies. Welles wrote the foreword when Davies’ autobiographical tapes were posthumously assembled and published in 1975. Of the relationship between Davies and Hearst, Welles wrote: “She was the precious treasure of his heart for more than thirty years. Theirs is truly a love story. Love is not the subject of Citizen Kane.”
Still, the renewed recent interest around Davies and Hearst fueled by Mank’s recent nomination, brings an opportunity to right Davies’ reputation. As my book shows, Davies’ talents shone in many varied domains, and her true legacy not only cements her rightful place as a woman of extraordinary independence and strength, but as one of the great women of the 20th century.