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Film in American Popular CultureVisit the Film Archive
HEARST AND DAVIES: A TITAN MAKES HIS MARK
PART 1 OF 3

The working life of William Randolph Hearst began after he was expelled from Harvard College in 1885 for academic non-performance. His active career spanned an incredible eight decades, not coming to an end until his death in 1951 at the age of 88. He never retired, working habitually for sixty-six years, seven days a week, until in 1950-1951 his growing ill health gradually forced him to scale down. Hearst was still dictating business correspondence the day before he died. And even on his numerous trips to Europe and voyages on his yacht Oneida, he stayed in constant touch with his editors and worked while the many guests who always came along for these trips amused themselves at his expense.

Hearst was born into advantageous circumstances, the only son of a former gold prospector who had risen to become owner of the San Francisco Examiner and, later, U.S. Senator for California. His childhood was a pampered and privileged one, doted on by his mother Phoebe. Hearst grew to be a big man, like his father before him, and he was good-looking and personable to boot. Indeed, he was fortunate by birth; and, except for using his time at Harvard as an extended social outing, Hearst exercised all of his natural advantages in birth and upbringing to blaze a trail across American journalism, and society in general, like no one before or since. He was an authentic American giant in every way.

It is impossible to describe his era concisely, inasmuch as this encompassed multiple eras in American life; the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. He seized his paints and brushes and painted across a vast tableau of American civilization; equally with all the other great figures of these times, the Roosevelts, Wilson, Pulitzer, Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and others of this historical stature, Hearst used all his power and privilege to imprint his own personality and beliefs on the passing times. No one else was on the ramparts for so long a period of time; no one had more readers, listeners, admirers, and, indeed, critics and enemies; no other American of the time ever lived so extravagantly; and no one else had ever displayed such a wide range of interests as the Chief, who pursued art, architecture, real estate, political office, journalism, and filmmaking all virtually simultaneously. And, of course, no other great figure of the time publicly kept a mistress for thirty-eight years.

This is the story of one of America’s great romances, the affair between W.R. Hearst and film actress Marion Davies, a love that circumstance denied fruition into marriage, but that nonetheless stood the tests of time, flourishing in the midst of Hearst’s many challenges and sustaining both Marion and WR until his death.

A Prospector’s Love

One hot evening in 1916, a weary gold prospector, the middle-aged bachelor Clark Alvard, made the forty-mile trek from his mining shack in the Nevada desert to see a film in Las Vegas. The film being exhibited was, in fact, the first ever starring young Marion Davies, The Romany Runaway. At Alvard’s death in January 1938, the Ohio Chronicle-Telegram recounted that Mr. Alvard had immediately fallen in love with Marion and continued in his adoration and love until the day he died. Mr. Alvard wrote her of his feelings after seeing that first movie and continued to write to her, and to see every one of her films, for the next twenty-two years; in the early years, he received no replies at all but, once the studios had adopted larger public relations programs, Alvard did receive the standardized form of mimeographed reply to his letters, these replies always reminding Marion’s fans that, if they included twenty-five cents in a request for a photo, the same would be duly sent. Alvard often did request such photos.

The old prospector, never wavering in this unusual devotion, made out his will in favor of Marion, who was allocated 55% of the assets of his estate, this share amounting to some $10,000, a rather large sum in the money of that time, especially when in 1938 much of the nation was suffering extreme financial distress at the height of the Great Depression. The will also named Marion as one of the executors. She later issued a public statement noting the long history of kind letters from Mr. Alvard and stating her intention to make a gift to charity in his name.

The Chronicle-Herald noted, in a whining tone, that the $10,000 matched the weekly amount she was then being paid by Warner Brothers for “doing nothing” while executives at that studio were pondering her future in films. This kind of back-handed swipe at Marion, and indeed at her long-time lover William Randolph Hearst, had become commonplace by 1938 in the wake of Hearst’s national struggle with Franklin Delano Roosevelt over the direction of America in its relations with Europe and Asia. This struggle that had been carried on with typical Hearstian iron-fistedness, on the one side, and Rooseveltian cunning, on the other. This time Hearst came off second though in his sixty-year career in newspapers and magazines there were numerous triumphal moments. As for Marion, by 1938, and despite the difficulties posed by the Depression to her and Hearst’s finances, she was on her way to becoming a very wealthy woman, thanks almost exclusively to her long and storied affair with “The Chief.” She had made forty-five films and was by far the richest actress of the times. She could well afford to gift over to charity the money left to her by the undyingly devoted Clark Alvard.

The instant passion and life-long love conceived by Mr. Alvard for Marion parallels the passion and life-long devotion that Hearst himself first conceived for Marion when he saw her perform in 1913 on Broadway in Stop! Look! Listen!, a musical in which Marion appeared as a chorus girl. The great newspaper man himself was the direct descendant of a very successful gold miner; perhaps the native characteristics of the miner type found their complement in a woman like Marion: a miner is the ultimate optimist, rugged, independent, hard-working, fired with ambition and singularly obsessed with wealth. That, perhaps, was Mr. Alvard; it certainly was Mr. Hearst. Marion must have been the kind of feminine symbol that men of this type sacrificed their lives for.

Boy Meets Girl

By the time she first met Hearst, Marion Douras, barely sixteen years old, was already a Broadway regular. The daughter of a Brooklyn attorney, and later city magistrate, she had dropped out of school altogether at age thirteen, being as she describes in her memoir, nothing more than a constant dunce. Her mother, broken-hearted with Marion’s academic failure, nevertheless acceded to Marion’s wish to study dance. Soon, she would follow her two older sisters onto Broadway. At the peak of her stage career, she was a chorus girl in the Ziegfield Follies, trouping from city to city, although it would not be very long before Hearst signed her to a movie contract, putting an end to the live performances and constant travel.

When Hearst first saw Marion dance in the chorus of Stop! Look! Listen!, he was fifty-eight though his constitution, outlook, and interests were those of a much younger man. His journalism empire was at its peak of influence. He had fathered five children with the former Millicent Nisbet, also a one-time chorus girl, the most recent being twin sons that same year.

In the New York of that era, as in Stanford White’s New York of decades earlier, the Broadway demimonde offered wealthy men a venue simultaneously to act out their fantasies and also maintain social and professional ties. In the contemporary Western world, environments of this kind have withered away, but in present day East Asian countries like Korea and Japan, it is still customary for groups of businessmen to visit so-called entertainment districts at night for the dual purpose of conducting business and besotting themselves with drink and women. Broadway once served this purpose, a temporary byway leading away from the essential puritanism of American culture.

Trustbusters, muckrakers, temperance ladies and gossip columnists mixed it up with business leaders like Stanford White and Hearst for decades and, at the end of the battle, a return to puritanical practices for the men of American business prevailed. While American society could tolerate, even occasionally embrace, gossip sheets full of stories about celebrities from show business, sports and related callings, such exposure was a death sentence for corporate executives, government officials and others who affected more serious careers. Today, it would be one thing for a bachelor film star in Hollywood to dabble with hookers, an entirely different matter for the CEO of IBM or the Governor of New Jersey to similarly conduct himself.

As a regular New York bon vivant of those looser times, WR attended every play that came to Broadway and participated fully in café society, the exciting nocturnal milieu of theater types, artists, Social Register bloods, and journalists. Like Stannie White before him, Hearst served time as a johnny at stage entrances, did the rounds of post-theater dinners and parties, and maintained his own hideaway apartments near the theater district where he hosted late-night soirees.

His first approaches to Davies were indirect, gifts sent backstage after her performances or given to her at the odd times when they crossed paths at a theater-crowd party or event. Early on, he gave her a $5,000 diamond-encrusted watch; she promptly lost it or had it stolen away, but Hearst replaced it with another, though slightly less extravagant, watch. He began to call periodically at the Douras household and ask if he could come to dinner; they would discuss Marion’s career, have dinner, and play parlor games. He would come around, usually on a weekly basis, always bringing an associate with him. After Hearst signed Marion to a $500 per week movie contract, he confessed to Marion’s father that he loved her. Neither parent objected, their view being that, once Marion had gone on stage to work for a living, she had earned her freedom on questions like this. Hearst, according to Marion, assured the family that he would seek a divorce from Millicent.

Having established himself with the Douras clan and captured Marion financially, Hearst had a clear path and seized his heart’s desire for good. Later years were to present many challenges to Hearst’s complete possession of Marion, and he would, as in these early stages, demonstrate the strategic cunning appropriate to a lion of the media jungle.

An early example of Hearst’s long-term “trapping” strategy vis-à-vis Marion occurred in the first few years of their relationship. She had been invited to come to a society party in New York honoring the Prince of Wales and was excited about meeting the Prince. Hearst picked her up after the matinee performance of her show and drove up to Cartier’s, where he bought some expensive jewelry. Getting back into the car, he offered Marion the two beautiful pieces he had just purchased on condition that she not go to the Prince’s party. Marion, a genuine gold-digger at this stage of her life, took the bracelet and ring, conceiving at the same time what she liked to characterize as a “double double,” that is, she decided to go to the party as well. Later that night, as she was preparing to leave Brooklyn for the party in Manhattan, she realized that Hearst’s detectives were outside the Douras house. She could not attend the party.

As ever in the older man/younger woman scenario, the age gap between Hearst and Marion Davies is an interesting question. The entire nation had been scandalized when it came out in the press during the murder trial of Harry Thaw that Evelyn Nesbit, who even five years later at the trial appeared in schoolgirl attire, was actually but sixteen or seventeen when she first had sexual relations with the almost fifty-year-old Stanford White. Given the possibility that they themselves could be touched by scandal, Marion and WR always publicly maintained that she was eighteen when they met. This at least legalized the situation without, however, entirely eliminating the titillation that arose due to their age difference. In fact, however, as Marion admitted in her own memoir, The Times We Had, she was sixteen at the time, Hearst fifty-eight.

Not very long after young Marion and WR had become an item, his newspapers began to run stories about Marion and her stage exploits though at the time she was still a virtually unknown showgirl. The Hearst campaign on Marion’s behalf appeared primarily in the Sunday drama sections of his newspapers. Hearst and his rival Joseph Pulitzer were pioneers in the world of Sunday supplements. The elephantine Sunday papers we buy today descend from these journalistic competitors’ creativity in the early twentieth century. Hearst, whose tastes dominated his newspapers’ content, had made it a rule early on not to engage in “traditional” drama criticism, specifically issuing instructions to his editors in 1915 not to engage in “old style dramatic criticism” but rather to provide “kindly” and “considerate” criticism of performances, eschewing the “perverse view of a blasé dramatic critic.”

Were Hearst’s opinions of proper drama reportage based on his extensive, often intimate, connections with theater people, actresses in particular, or on his reasoned sense of good journalism? By throwing himself so fully into café society, Hearst had essentially become a player in the theater world; there could be no question of his being objective or even-handed on matters affecting the stage and, later, the screen. If Hearst’s custom had been to avoid public confrontation and controversy, his stance on the proper role of dramatic criticism in his newspapers might have been understandable, even apart from his natural bias as an habitué of Broadway nightlife. Hearst, however, was a ferocious partisan in every other area of reporting, so the argument from personality fails. WR’s reluctance to permit objective dramatic criticism in his Sunday supplements, which would in truth have done a journalistic service for his readers, flowed almost automatically from his close involvement with theater personalities.

This same flaw, a too close mixing of the publisher’s personal whims and preferences with journalistic practice, is what eventually left the Hearst newspaper chain at something of a disadvantage. Whereas the major surviving newspapers of the early twentieth century, such as the paradigmatic New York Times, adopted increasingly “objective” news formats, combined with separate, back-page editorial content, Hearst continued to mix up reporting and opinion, according to the Chief’s tastes. Where Hearst’s legacy is strongest, in the long list of surviving and successful magazines, journalistic principles are less of a problem in serving up slanted material. A reader of Cosmopolitan does not necessarily expect or want objective essays on feminism or fashion. Magazines are all about bias, slant, and prejudice while the modern newspaper pursues, at least on the surface, a different agenda, professing to gather and report facts. Though many claim the so-called liberal media of modern times do not practice objectivity, no one disputes that newspapers strive for at least the appearance of objectivity. Hearst never bothered to set his newspapers up for objective reporting. From the time his father first acquired The San Francisco Examiner, blatantly used to support Hearst senior’s run for Governor of California, right up to WR’s death, the Hearst papers always had on prominent display the prejudices and predilections of the Hearsts.

By moving from showgirl to showgirl/mistress, Marion’s financial status materially improved. When she arrived for a 1916 audition for the new Jerome Kern musical Oh, Boy, she arrived by limousine, dripping diamonds and mink. Auditioning would have been a formality in any event since no prudent Broadway producer would reject Marion, knowing that the power of the Hearst press would be for the show with Marion performing in it and just as likely against the show were she to be turned down for the part.

The New World of Hollywood

Even before his affair with Marion began, WR had involved himself in the world of film production. In 1913, a partnership between Hearst and a Chicago film producer was established to create “Hearst-Selig” newsreels to be shown in American movie houses, competing against American editions of the popular French Pathé newsreels. The pioneering film company Pathé itself became partners with Hearst in a number of ventures, including a deal whereby WR’s Sunday supplements ran novelizations of the plots of forthcoming Pathé feature films. The most significant product of this cooperation with the French firm was co-production of the popular serial movie, The Perils of Pauline. This well-liked series, which also made a star of the lead actress Pearl White, enjoyed all the free publicity and promotion the Hearst papers could provide, including, of course, “reviews” by Hearst’s movie “critics.”

To capitalize on his extensive and popular Sunday supplement comic strips, Hearst also organized a subsidiary animation studio in Manhattan to produce cartoons featuring such Hearst comic strip characters as the “Katzenjammer Kids” and “Maggie and Jiggs.” With the successful newsreel and animated cartoon businesses already in place, and having tested the waters in co-production deals, Hearst was, by 1916, primed to enter into the full-scale production of feature films. WR lacked the accountant’s touch: he rarely, if ever, performed profit-and-loss analysis before undertaking new projects. Throughout his career, right up until virtual bankruptcy late in the Great Depression, those he hired to watch over his money often complained that the company was over-extended and nearly insolvent. The film studios Hearst was to construct and operate were especially frightening to Hearst’s financial overseers – they involved huge expenditures to maintain and generated uneven, unpredictable revenue flows. In hindsight, it cannot be said that the Hearst film studios were a success. They never actually covered their costs, and no trace survives in the modern Hearst Foundation, the closest contemporary interest being the Foundation’s significant ownership interests in several television ventures.

Marion herself first entered the world of silent movies via her brother-in-law George Lederer, who hired her to star in his production of The Runaway Romany in 1916. As stated earlier, Hearst, on seeing Marion’s performance, signed her to a $500 per week acting contract. By doing so, he secured himself the potential leading lady that every studio needed to have; and, on the personal side, Marion Davies would be working and living conveniently in New York rather than touring the country in stage performances. His personal interest in Marion required that she be accessible. For Marion, the $500 was an order of magnitude better than the $50 weekly that she earned on stage. The one thing that held her back on Broadway, her stuttering habit, which WR himself found charming, would not be an issue in making silent movies.

Hearst’s newsreel outfit, International Film Company, released his first feature films in 1916. By 1917, controversy enveloped the new company as the government sought to shut down Hearst’s “war preparedness” picture Patria. The issue was the film’s blatant anti-Mexican and anti-Japanese message. Hearst’s personal view, which, as always, found expression in his papers, magazines, and films, was that it was Mexico and Japan that Americans should fear rather than Germany. However, as war with Germany was now declared, which also made Japan, as an enemy of Germany at that time, an ally of America, U.S. government representatives were demanding either withdrawal or substantial editing of Patria. Hearst complied with the wartime government’s wishes, having no desire to compound the public relations problem he was already having to deal with opinions inflamed by some pro-German reporting Hearst sponsored during the run-up to World War I.

In 1918, Marion’s Cecilia of the Pink Roses was released under the label of the Marion Davies Film Company though financed by Hearst. For business, tax, and romantic reasons, Hearst had established separate companies under the technical control of Marion. By this time, WR and MD had become committed lovers. As he would for the rest of his life, Hearst maintained the fiction of his marriage to Millicent, but even on Hearst family vacations, like the annual trips to Palm Beach, Marion would be stationed nearby, kept busy, and amused either by Hearst himself or by one of his minions.

After screening Marion’s Cecilia, Lewis Selznick agreed to a multi-picture distribution deal under which his company agreed to handle the next five Davies films. Even more than Selznick’s appreciation for MD’s talent, the inevitably strong Hearst media backing for her films persuaded Selznick of the future profitability of his contract with Hearst. By summer of 1918, Hearst’s relationship with Marion was known to the major players in Hollywood. Even the main New York gossip sheet of the time, Town Topics, had begun to run articles with oblique references to the WR-MD affair, prompting Hearst to instruct his publishing executives to begin buying advertising space in Topics, a strategy that effectively eliminated any further embarrassing revelations in that journal. It is worth recalling in this connection that Topics had also been one of Stannie White’s banes, so much so that, after public revelations concerning his famous “girl in the cake” party, White allegedly took to making regular payments to the Topics’s publisher, a Colonel Mann. Mann was later indicted in New York City for perjury in connection with his testimony in an extortion charge laid against one of his associates by the Manhattan District Attorney. Colonel Mann ran a sophisticated, widely read gossip sheet that fronted for a vile blackmail ring – his agents searched out lapses among the elite, presenting the offender with the options of public disclosure or private compensation to Mann, either by way of advertising or by buying some worthless stock. Mann ultimately beat the perjury charge and kept publishing Topics though it is said that afterwards the blackmail operation was much compromised by the notoriety of the trials, which, not ironically, fed the regular newspapers in New York with huge amounts of titillating fodder.

Before Hearst could engage in hugely expensive film studio production, he needed capital. While his mother Phoebe lived, he had sufficient capital for the newspapers and magazines but not for the movie business. However, in April 1919, Phoebe Hearst fell victim to the post-WWI influenza pandemic; she died and left WR an estate worth around $10 million, $115 million in today’s money. Now having what he needed to pursue his and Marion’s careers in the movies, Hearst formed Cosmopolitan Productions, named for his flagship magazine. He also entered into a distribution agreement with the prominent film industry figure Adolph Zukor and hired, among others, Frances Marion, the leading scriptwriter of the time.

Both his chief financial advisor, Joseph Moore, and Zukor himself, tried to persuade Hearst that running a major film studio would be a colossal expense and that Hearst would be better off partnering with an existing studio, like Paramount, to develop scripts into films. Hearst, exhibiting his customary air of over-confidence and hubris, refused to consider anything less than full-scale, wholly-owned studio production. He also declined to observe the Hollywood custom of sharing profits with directors and other talent; consequently, he had to agree to much higher than normal fees for artists’ services. As was the case when Hearst had immersed himself unsuccessfully in campaigns for political office, he went ahead in movies full-steam, oblivious to cost, because he was obsessed with the film business and with Marion, his lover and protégé.

WR aimed to produce lavish, high-end films. He collected the best directors, actors, and actresses he could find, usually over-paying for their services. He hired the world’s most famous designer, Joseph Urban, who had been artistic director of the Boston Opera Company, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Ziegfield Follies, to become Cosmopolitan Pictures’ artistic director. As a genuine “amateur” in films, using that term in its original sense of “lover,” Hearst intended to create film art not just movies. This creative, amateur impulse led Hearst, in the same year of 1919, to begin planning what eventually became the most famous private residence in America: San Simeon. For the next fifteen years, 1920 to 1935, Hearst would spend his family’s fortune wildly, making movies and building San Simeon, supporting both his wife Millicent’s hugely expensive life as high society matron and WR’s own phenomenally costly life as Hollywood royalty and voracious art collector. Much of the expense revolved around Marion: keeping up the Hollywood whirl played to Marion’s interests and desires, while lavishing money on Millicent’s social climbing tempered her disappointment in Hearst’s abandoning her bed for Marion’s. Had WR been able to stick with wife and family and concentrate on what he did so well, i.e., creating and managing newspapers and magazines, there is no telling how much wealth he might have accumulated. But the piling up of wealth per se was not Hearst’s style: no miser he, money was for spending, and on the grandest scale possible.

Let Us At Least Be Discreet

On virtually every occasion when Marion stayed near the official Hearst family, her mother and sisters would accompany her. What were the purposes of this arrangement: to occupy Marion’s time, to support the Davies clan, to provide cover against prying eyes? Probably all three factors played a part in the chaperone system that Hearst and Marion developed over time.

When the Hearsts were at the ranch in San Simeon in the years before Marion moved in permanently, Hearst would rent an estate well outside Los Angeles and install Marion there rather than in Los Angeles proper where the attentions that young Hollywood swains paid to Marion caused WR pain.

Typical traveling arrangements for Hearst-plus were in evidence during the family’s 1922 holiday in Britain. The main party, sailing on the Aquitania, was comprised of the usual entourage of Hearst family, friends, and business associates, all of whom were put up in the Savoy hotel on arrival in London. Marion herself set sail shortly after the Aquitania departed and was lodged in a suite of rooms some considerable distance from the Savoy.

To keep Marion amused, and out of trouble as much as possible, Hearst detailed J.Y. McPeake, Hearst’s Good Housekeeping publisher in England, to escort and serve her. What distinguished this particular trip from many other similar Hearst-plus voyages were the events that transpired when Marion returned home. Her sister Reine made Marion the guest of honor at a welcome home party in Freeport, Long Island; a guest at the party was shot in the mouth by his jealous wife allegedly due to attentions he was paying to Ms. Davies at the party. The incident was closer to a drunken interspousal brawl than to a wronged-woman’s revenge, as the man and woman involved more soberly admitted in the days following the incident, but the non-Hearst papers played the story prominently for a few days, especially after Marion, evidently on the advice of counsel supplied by Hearst, denied being at the party. Hearst must have been scared stiff that continued delving into the party and into Marion’s life would lead to public revelation of their private arrangements. If anyone knew where investigative journalism could lead, it was Hearst himself. Curious reporters might have learned the whole affair had been a coming home party for Marion, which in turn could easily have led to establishing her being in London at the same time and nearly the exact place as the Hearsts, the disclosure of which would have outraged Millicent and their sons, who were on the trip as well.

Strangely, Marion never wavered from her “absent from the scene” defense; even in her autobiography, The Times We Had, she blithely asserts that she was at home with other relatives engaged in some harmless domestic pursuits. At the height of the Freeport affair, after unsuccessfully demanding a retraction from the offending newspapers that carried the story of her involvement in the brawl, she brought actions for libel action against the papers. Her bluff was called, however, and on the day she was scheduled to testify in court she failed to appear, causing the trial judge to dismiss her case. Marion later attributed her failure to testify to her stammer, claiming that jurors always disbelieve a stammering person. In all, however, it seems clear she failed to testify out of fear of a perjury problem that would have arisen had she sworn to being absent from the scene. Of course, her autobiographical repetition of the original fib did not subject her to any such penalty, especially since she did not allow publication of the memoir until after her death. Unfortunately for one who wishes to give an accurate historical account of the events of the Hearst-Davies affair, such misstatements of fact cast an unfortunate pall of mendacity over the rest of her book.

A tension in the early days of their affair was Hearst’s preoccupation with maintaining discretion, keeping the affair out of the limelight, a preoccupation that conflicted with his eagerness to keep Marion sufficiently amused and entertained that her more youthful and available admirers would not too much succeed in their seductive intentions. Hearst devised various solutions including, as mentioned, parking Marion close by in more or less isolated rental mansions. Another solution was a life filled with private parties. In one case in 1921, Hearst took Marion, her family escorts, and a good-sized contingent drawn from the Cosmopolitan staff on a long cruise aboard his yacht Oneida. They cruised from New York to New Orleans, Texas, and Mexico, all the while elaborately catered to by Hearst.

Despite precautions, Millicent was becoming aware of the romance between her husband and Marion Davies. Late in 1921, when she was in New York and Hearst at San Simeon, she initiated a contretemps concerning the advertising being run in the Hearst papers for Davies’ upcoming movie Enchantment. Millicent took it upon herself to complain directly to Joseph Moore, Hearst’s manager in New York, to the effect that, first, the advertising was too extensive for a film that had not even opened at that point, and, second, there was too much emphasis on the star of the film rather than the film itself. No doubt Millicent’s unusual interference in business resulted from her growing jealousy and anger. At this early point, despite having knowledge of WR’s infidelity, she could still hope that Marion was a passing fancy. By this time in their marriage, other such passing fancies might very well have already come and gone. The historical record is ambiguous on this point but substantial rumors, for example, surrounded Hearst’s relationship with the troubled actress Alma Rubens. Even after Rubens had become too difficult to work with due to heroin use, Hearst kept her on payroll, fueling rumors of an affair between the two. In any event, by 1922 Millicent was fully aware of the Davies affair and had already begun what was to become her largely separate life with the boys and her pursuit of some very large social ambitions. Naturally, as aggrieved wife, she expected compensation. Almost like Hearst himself, she took to spending money on their homes, travel and charities as if there were no limit to the Hearst fortune.

Career and Life in Hollywood

Unfortunately, the movies Marion was starring in during the early 1920s were not box office successes despite their expensive production values. When he re-negotiated the distribution agreement with Zukor, a difficult, extended process marked by Hearst’s threats and bullying, he ended up conceding important financial benefits in exchange for special treatment by Zukor’s company for Marion’s films. Shrewd businessmen, observing Hearst’s emotional situation, could play on that to extract profitable concessions from the old newspaperman. Nothing was more important in Hearst’s hierarchy of values than the success of Marion’s film career and this aspect of Hearst could be negotiated against.

By 1923, the combined costs of wild personal spending, movie production, and an acquisition spree by WR had finally brought his business to the edge of insolvency. What followed marked another turning point in the journalistic career of William Randolph Hearst, one of the first having been his decision ten years earlier to handle plays and films with kid gloves to accommodate his personal friendships and romantic interests in the show business milieu.

This time, instead of indulging his emotional attachments to theater folk at the expense of journalistic objectivity, Hearst would effectively sell out his political and social views in order to obtain financing for his collapsing media empire.

In the summer of 1923, Moore advised the Chief that the president of Chase National Bank, Hearst’s main bank, had summoned Moore to his office and gone over the Hearst business accounts, pointing out their overdrawn and ill-maintained condition, and asking that Hearst find a new bank. Several days later, Moore telegrammed the further bad news that almost two million in loan repayments were coming due and that no refinancing through Chase was possible. They were now up against the wall.

As a last resort, Moore requested that John Neylan, his West Coast counterpart in the Hearst organization, look into obtaining financing from banks in San Francisco. Neylan quickly learned, first, that the Hearst companies’ loan-to-equity ratios were so bad that normal financing was out of the question from banks on the West Coast and, second, that help on the basis of personal connections or relationships was also doubtful given The San Francisco Examiner’s ongoing public battle with local financial interests over the fate of Hetch Hetchy, the crucial real estate involved in securing additional needed water supplies for the growing population of San Francisco. In short, the Hearst media were clamoring for public ownership as a utility while San Francisco commercial interests were maneuvering for private, for-profit control of the valley. As usual, the Hearst papers were revved up to all-out brawl mode against the bankers and businessmen. With this public battle ongoing, the bankers were in no mood to succor Hearst financially, even had his businesses been in top-notch financial condition. Facing the downfall of all he and his family had built, Hearst had little choice, or so it must have seemed to him, but to change tack in the debate over Hetchy Hetch. Hearst made clear to Neylan, who had been leading the charge against the banks, that it had become necessary to ameliorate the bare-knuckled nature of the editorial invective. In the end, by toning down the editorial attacks and by adopting a more equivocal position on the issue of municipal ownership of the water supplies, Hearst was able to enlist the prominent San Francisco banker, Herbert Fleishhacker, in sponsoring a public financing scheme whereby small-denomination bonds issued by Hearst companies were sold to the public in 1924, thereby averting collapse.

Later, as the Hearst news organization as a whole mellowed into a more business-friendly format, complaints were occasionally voiced about the loss to America of the great crusading journalists of days gone by. H.L. Mencken in particular, contemplating Hearst’s later support for the hidebound Calvin Coolidge, bewailed the virtual disappearance of the fiery, passionate reportage of the old Hearst empire. Mencken wrote, “The American daily press, with Hearst leading it in a devil’s dance, was loud, vulgar, inordinate and preposterous – but it was not slimy and it was not dull. Today it is both.” Although most of Hearst’s biographers excused, apologized, or rationalized the new, pro-business Hearstian philosophy as somehow consistent with his earlier set of beliefs and not necessarily related to his chronic need for large sources of revenue to support Marion, Millicent, at least four magnificent estates and his unquenchable appetite for art, it seems a reasonable conclusion that Hearst, having by the 1920s achieved the empire and personal life he wished to keep and realizing the enormity of its costs, simply abandoned any journalistic goals inconsistent with making the maximum amount of money.

As his empire swayed in the balance in 1923, Hearst’s adventures in films prospered. Two of Marion’s high-budget spectaculars, When Knighthood Was In Flower and Little Old New York, succeeded on all levels and drew critical praise for Marion’s performances. Hearst came out of his distribution agreement with Adolph Zukor and formed a fully integrated studio in partnership with Joe Godsol, establishing the new entity as Goldwyn Cosmopolitan. In turn, in 1924, the newly established super-company of Metro-Goldwyn, soon to become MGM, acquired Goldwyn-Cosmopolitan; Hearst’s and Marion’s interests were now subsumed under the big Hollywood company’s rubric. Hearst, with his vast publicity machine, and his paramour Davies, with her personal box office draw, were highly welcome in the world of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, general manager and production chief, respectively, of MGM.

November 2005

From guest contributor Joe Leibowitz

 
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