Though Marion Davies was educated in a New York convent, she followed in the footsteps of her three older sisters to pursue a dancing career in the Ziegfeld Follies, under the auspices of her brother-in-law, theatrical producer George W. Lederer. While she was performing as a showgirl in 1915’s Stop! Look! Listen!, she met the man who was to change her life: publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Thirty-four years the young chorine’s senior, Hearst sat through every one of her performances for eight weeks straight, reserving two seats per show, one for him and the other for his hat.
It wasn’t long before Hearst had installed Davies as his protégée and mistress, and he set about showcasing her in a slew of personally-funded films. The smitten millionaire revved up his string of newspapers as a publicity engine to promote Davies’s career, giving strict instructions that the actress be mentioned at least once in each edition of all of his papers. Rival newspapers had a heyday retaliating in print to the overkill, panning Davies’s performances and making not-so-veiled insinuations about the publisher’s patronage of her.
Hearst desperately wanted to make an honest woman of his much younger mistress, but was chained for life to his unrelenting wife Millicent. He once hired detectives in an attempt to catch Millicent in the throes of an adulterous affair so as to have grounds for a divorce—piqued, she responded by purchasing a pearl necklace priced in the six figures and then having the Tiffany’s clerk send the bill to her husband. As for Davies, Hearst lavished her with jewels and money, which she went on to parlay into a vast real-estate fortune. (Hearst spent half a billion dollars during his lifetime, and once had to borrow a million dollars from Davies in order to squeak by.)
Largely due to the fact that Hearst never allowed her to accept any roles that would besmirch his convent-girl image of her, Davies’s career never amounted to as much as it could have had she been afforded the freedom to develop her considerable comedic talents. Despite several truly enchanting performances and Hearst’s expenditure of over $7 million to build her career through his Cosmopolitan Pictures (the studio’s primary purpose was producing starring vehicles for Davies), dwindling box-office receipts ultimately attested to her lack of popularity. Davies eventually retired from the screen in 1937 to settle into Hearst’s one-hundred-forty-six-room castle in San Simeon, California, where she would prove invaluable as a hostess and business head.
Following Hearst’s death in 1951, Davies married Capt. Horace G. Brown of the California State Guard (her first and only marriage), and continued to astutely manage her extensive financial holdings and to oversee her charitable organization, the Marion Davies Children’s Clinic. Orson Welles’s satirizing of Davies as the crass, low-rent Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane, his filmization of the thirty-six-year-long Hearst-Davies affair, missed the mark in that Davies was much-loved by her friends and appreciated for her riotous and mischievous sense of humor. She died of cancer at the age of sixty-four.
Somebody told me I should put a pebble in my mouth to cure my stuttering. Well, I tried it, and during a scene I swallowed the pebble. That was the end of that. – Marion Davies