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Film in American Popular CultureVisit the Film Archive
HEARST AND DAVIES:
THE GAYEST SOCIAL SCENE, OR, WHERE WE HAD THE MOST FUN
PART 2 OF 3

After the Freeport affair in 1923, Hearst may have been hoping for a breather from the searing ill winds of bad publicity, but matters further deteriorated when some signature Hearst investigative reporting took a wrong turn and blew up in his face.

Having built the reputation of his New York papers on battling the power of the corrupt political machine known as Tammany Hall, it was only natural that, when two Tammany-backed stock swindlers went on trial in New York, the Hearst papers took a serious interest in the outcome. After the defendants, Fuller and McGee, were acquitted in spite of what was generally considered overwhelming evidence of guilt, Hearst unleashed his attack dogs. In full, spare-no-expense style, the mode in which Hearst was at his most dangerous as a journalist, the editor of the New York American, Victor Watson, ordered the paper’s top investigative reporter, Nat Ferber, to get to the bottom of the case. Ferber found exactly what Hearst had hoped for: one Eddie Eidlitz, a former associate of the defense lawyer William J. Fallon who had won acquittal for the Tammany swindlers. Eidlitz was willing to testify that Fallon had participated in corrupting the jury. Thus began the sensational, front-page prosecution of William Fallon.

Eidlitz, in fear of his life on account of the involvement of Tammany Hall and the extremely dim view that would be taken there of his betrayal, was kept hidden away in lavish circumstances at Hearst’s expense, virtually a private witness protection program.

But Hearst had picked the wrong victim to use in his personal battle with Tammany Hall. In a maneuver that any extremely clever, even brilliant, defense attorney would be proud of, Fallon turned the tables on Hearst. He testified at trial that he was in possession of birth certificates for twin sons born to Marion Davies, and that, because of his knowledge of these children and of Hearst’s intimate relations with Davies, Hearst and his agents were out to destroy him at all costs. That the main witness against him, Eidlitz, had been discovered by Hearst’s reporter and was being handsomely maintained at Hearst’s expense were facts used by Fallon’s defense to compromise the integrity of the prosecution testimony and win Fallon’s acquittal.

The publicity against Hearst and Marion was a disaster. From the moment that jury selection had begun with the defense inquiring of the prospective jurors whether any of them were personally acquainted with a William Randoph Hearst or a Miss Marion Davies, the motion picture actress, the trial became front page material in the city newspapers and literally the talk of the town. The end result of this round in the continuing Hearst-Tammany Hall prizefight was crushing defeat for Hearst; not only did Fallon’s defense gambit succeed wildly in acquittal but the publicity of the trial had exposed Hearst’s relations with Marion Davies to public view, causing additional embarrassment and hurt to his wife and children as well as endangering Marion’s career as an actress. In Hollywood, where private degeneracy was de riguer, public exposure of this kind often led to career death, especially in the atmosphere of Hollywood in 1924 following three major scandals, one involving Fatty Arbuckle, the others involving the unsolved murder of director William Taylor and the drug overdose death of another director.

Hearst et al. retreated to California following the trial to ride out the storm. He and Marion even seriously discussed exiting the film business. Sometime in the early 1920s, according to later family declarations, Marion had given birth to her only child by Hearst, Patricia. This was kept a highly secret family affair, the daughter being placed with Marion’s sister Rose and her then-husband, George Van Cleve, who also was employed by Hearst. Then, in 1924, to compound Hearst’s woes, Van Cleve kidnapped Patricia and went into hiding. After five years of work by Hearst’s detectives, the pair were located and the child returned to Rose, only to be taken away again after custody proceedings in which it was found that because of Rose’s drinking the child should remain with George Van Cleve. On her deathbed, Patricia Van Cleve revealed to her son that she was indeed Marion Davies’ daughter, this news being but thinly reported in 1993.

The months went by and, in 1925, in view of their extended stay out West, Hearst bought a Beverly Hills mansion for Marion’s use, which became the place where, according to Marion’s autobiography, they had their best times. For years to follow, Marion’s house was the epicenter of a lush film-world social life. Located close to the studios and presided over by Marion and her sisters, the mansion provided the main forum for constant celebrity partying during the 1920s. The flow of guests and revelers was constant, but two or three days a week the sisters threw especially elaborate dinner parties with up to a hundred guests, among whom were the likes of Chaplin, Valentino, Barrymore, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and a mixed supporting cast of actors, actresses, politicos, athletes, dancers, elite foreign visitors, and Hearst’s top-level staff.

1924 had had its other low points for Hearst, especially concerning Charlie Chaplin, the legendary film comedian who was almost equally notorious at the time as a lady-killer. He and Marion appear to have been lovers at least for a time. While his fiancée was in late-stage pregnancy, Chaplin spent a great deal of time with Marion, especially when Hearst was not around. When the latter would come on to the set where Marion was working on Zander the Great, word would be gotten to Chaplin so that he could disappear through a studio side-door unnoticed by WR. The New York tabloids, which generally did not publish gossip about WR and MD, had a field day with Chaplin-Davies stories. Their public outings at clubs and restaurants in New York City were reported in loving detail, the accounts all emanating the strong belief that the two were intimate. No doubt, WR was put into a wounded state by these reports and other private accounts he would naturally have received from his friends and agents.

Indeed, during a cruise on the Oneida led by Hearst and with the usual mélange of guests and hangers-on, including Chaplin, an elaborate costume party was staged, following which one of the guests, Grett Urban, the daughter of Hearst’s artistic director, stumbled upon Chaplin and Marion making love. Young Grett made this claim in an unpublished memoir, suggesting it was no idle gossip or malevolent libel.

The Freeport murder, the Fallon affair, the kidnapping of Patricia, and Marion’s provocative behavior with Chaplin must have had the love-sick Hearst beseeching the heavens for relief from all the turmoil. Had he been a less determined man, he might have finally given up Marion, gone back to Millicent to lead a life of casual philandering like other men of his station. However, determination per se was probably Hearst’s most pronounced personal characteristic. Inherited no doubt from his father, who had stayed with mining through ups and deep downs until finally wringing from the mines fabulous wealth, this same stubborn persistence had kept Hearst in politics far longer than either reason or experience would suggest was reasonable; it had also impelled Hearst to build or buy dozens of media properties and driven him, against the disadvantages of age and background, to court and keep Marion Davies regardless, even heedless, of many formidable obstacles. Bad publicity, scandal, gossip, outrageous expense, harm to Millicent and the boys, Marion’s constant flirting and likely love affairs, and soon her addictive alcohol consumption, none of these factors ever succeeded in persuading Hearst to cease pursuing his love for Marion. And the worst was yet to come.

The Death of Thomas Ince

On another cruise aboard Oneida, in fact a week after the costume party cruise on which Grett Urban saw Marion and Chaplin making love, and populated by all the usual attendees, including Chaplin, one of the guests, Thomas B. Ince, an important movie producer and studio head, took ill and died ashore the next day. Ince was only forty-three and the circumstances of his death were never clarified. No autopsy was ever done. Police dropped their investigation after interviewing only two witnesses, neither of whom were cooperative with respect to even the simple question of who was aboard the Oneida that night. At first, Hearst himself had taken steps to cover up the fact that Ince had been onboard when he first took ill. This, together with the wildly inconsistent stories told to reporters by others who were on the boat that night, led to a rush of rumors, one of the especially hardy ones being that Hearst had shot Ince in the mistaken belief that it was Chaplin, generally believed by the public, as mentioned, to have been involved romantically with Marion at the time. Whatever the reality, the Hearst machine was able to extinguish the budding wildfire of police investigation and what would have been the accompanying journalistic frenzy à la Fallon. Few news stories appeared after the initial reports. Ince was quietly buried and public interest flagged.

This time, however, though he had escaped what could have been his worst scandal yet, Hearst was deeply shaken. Normally, when Joseph Moore or WR’s other advisers, recommended cutting back on expenses or otherwise retrenching, Hearst would dismiss them out of hand. Generally, Hearst was always in full-spend mode, acquiring art, newspapers, and magazines at breakneck speed, overpaying for everything just as he overpaid talent and overindulged Marion, Millicent and, indeed, himself. However, in the wake of the Ince disaster, the Fallon affair, and the Freeport case, Hearst was thrown sufficiently off balance to agree with his staff in their cost-cutting proposals this one time. He closed down his New York film studio, merged magazines and restructured his film production operation to make it part of MGM, relieving him of great expense. Marion’s salary at this point had risen to $100,000 a year, a royal sum at that time for any twenty-eight-year-old, much less an actress without stellar acting abilities, though perhaps not so much for a beautiful young woman sacrificing her youth and beauty for a wealthy man approaching seventy.

No Powder Room? Let’s Build Another Mansion


The regard that Hearst had for Marion, and which by dint of his power and influence he caused others to have for her, is illustrated by an event that took place when Marion was first setting up on the MGM lot. In the building designed to house the female leads, only one of the dressing rooms had its own bathroom, it being intended that Marion, as primus inter pares, should occupy this special facility. Arriving on set, however, Marion discovered that Lillian Gish had arrogated the special dressing room for herself and adamantly refused to give it up. The MGM lot was chock full of temperamental, demanding talent like Gish: Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford were all there at the same time, a collection of divas probably never assembled in one place again thereafter. In a perfectly Hearstian gesture that bespoke the grandeur of his affections for Marion, and did so in a most public way such that even the rival divas would understand who-was-who on the MGM lot, he ordered a bungalow built for Marion on the lot, a structure that would end up having fourteen rooms, including top floor living quarters for Marion and a downstairs banquet room and office space for Hearst himself. The structure sat on the re-named Davies Square.

The heroine-worship, as it were, that consumed Hearst extended, of course, to his newspapers and magazines, which, from early on in their relationship, he had used to publicize and flatter Marion, at one point even causing Millicent, as noted before, to become aroused to a fighting pitch by what she perceived as excessive, ad hominem advertising for Marion’s films. Louella Parsons, Hearst’s gossip columnist, and whose lifetime contract was attributed by some to Louella’s having been witness to Hearst’s murder of Thomas Ince, was enlisted to give the full star treatment to Davies on the release of MGM’s Zander the Great. The resulting articles written about Davies oozed flattery to the point of beatification, over-the-top hagiography that would be laughed at and mocked in our more cynical and jaundiced times.

Not only did Louella depict Marion as a star among stars and as a virtuous maiden for the ages, there was the further imputation that the little blonde actress and former hoofer was a kind of classical scholar. During their “interview,” Louella noted that Marion was holding, discreetly obscured but still visible to the prying journalistic eye, a copy of The Life of Socrates. Marion “mischievously” noted that, yes, she was reading the book, but was shy about revealing that because, as she explained “naively,” “wouldn’t people believe I was just posing for the press?” Indeed. Louella herself had only been invited to join the Hearst organization in 1916 due to her favorable review of Marion’s first film, Runaway Romany, Louella’s having been the only favorable review written of that film. Incidentally, Hearst always advised Marion never to read the negative reviews of her work, only the positive reviews.

Marion also had a full-time reporter of her own, Ralph Wheelwright of the Los Angeles Examiner, commanded by the Chief to attend upon all Marion’s doings on the MGM lot, shadowing her constantly, to report even, as Upton Sinclair later described, her “change of hats.” Whether this reporter was used exclusively for publicity purposes or whether he also served as a kind of chaperone for Marion is a good question; Hearst liked to keep an eye on Marion himself, often showing up on her sets, but he couldn’t do that every day. No doubt, young Ralph, who was sorry to have been taken off his more interesting journalistic duties at the Examiner to babysit Marion, was, unbeknownst to him, doing a little domestic spying as well.

On the domestic front, during the first ten years, 1915 – 1925, of Hearst’s double life with Marion Davies, emotionally charged scenes between Millicent and WR were fairly common. By 1925, Millicent’s patience had run out. Although Marion believed, according to her own autobiography, that WR wanted a divorce but could not get one, the truth was apparently just the opposite: He did not want a divorce because it would collapse his empire, always a house of financial cards anyway, and also because the adverse publicity about Marion might ruin her film career, which depended on a clean public image. In any event, to mollify Millicent’s by now gravely wounded feelings and avert divorce proceedings, Hearst persuaded her that continued married life, even on a sham basis, would be financially advantageous to her and the boys. In other words, in the Hearstian way, he would undertake to support them all in a style far exceeding anything that divorce could possibly bring, in fact, exceeding what they would have enjoyed even if Hearst were the husband, father, and man he ought to have been. The fantastic expenses Millicent would thereafter incur must have gone some way in helping her to forget the humiliation of dethronement as Queen of the Hearst Kingdom.

Davies’s memoir suggests that Hearst had at one time employed private detectives to obtain evidence of Millicent’s own indiscretions, though the historical record is otherwise totally bare of proof that Millicent was guilty of any marital misconduct or, indeed, that Hearst had ever thought so, much less retained detectives to prove it. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that Hearst, in recounting to Marion his false account of striving for divorce, embellished that little tale with a side-story of hiring detectives to capture Millicent in flagrante delicto. Still only twenty-eight years old at the time, Marion may have been young enough to believe anything her great supporter, admirer, and lover told her.

At any rate, from 1925 until Hearst died in 1951, the Hearsts remained husband-and-wife, on good terms, in frequent communication. In fact, they often entertained friends and family jointly as if they were still a true, married couple. The sons, however well-cared for by Millicent and the household staff, felt the sting of WR’s long absences, often not even broken by a call, letter, or telegram. Throughout their adult lives, they complained of the lack of affection, of Hearst’s simply not being there for them when they were growing up. By and large, the sons grew up to be experts at spending money and spotting female talent, with not much else to recommend them, constituting huge disappointments to Hearst. Though he lived larger-than-life and achieved virtual deity status in his profession, he, like many of the rest of us who have been parents, could only stand by and watch his children waste their advantages and opportunities. At least he was sensible enough to concede defeat when, after placing his sons in charge of various properties and seeing them stumble, he had to fire them and put professional journalists into places that were meant for his direct heirs. Not that the boys were ever cut off financially, merely that Hearst was too proud of his empire to have it run down by the playboys that he and Millicent had raised. Would it all have been different had Hearst made a better example of himself as husband and father? Quite possibly yes, as both he and Millicent must have painfully imagined as the boys became men.

By the mid 1920s, the string of media acquisitions he had made and the restructuring of his film production business both had paid off handsomely. Revenues were streaming in nicely and Hearst characteristically wasted no time in putting the new streams of money to work doing what he felt money was best suited for: constructing or acquiring homes and real estate. Four major projects were ongoing simultaneously: the final building phase of San Simeon, the construction of a new Santa Monica beach house for Marion, the acquiring of a Long Island mansion at Sands Point in New York for Millicent, and the purchase of a castle in Wales, St. Donat’s.

As for Marion’s beach house in Santa Monica, a spot was chosen not far from other prominent Hollywood people like Mayer, Thalberg, and Fairbanks, but the house built for her there dwarfed anyone else’s. Similarly, Millicent’s new digs, formerly owned by ubersocialite Mrs. Oliver Belmont, the former Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt, and situated near to the Astors and the Guggenheims, was the most magnificent in that rarefied neighborhood, a 140-room, five-story castle on eighteen acres of beachfront property. The estate property was surrounded by a stone wall and had its own lighthouse.

However unimaginably vast were his expenses in building or buying at Santa Monica and Sands Point, the greater part of his income actually went into San Simeon. Marion and the typically large crowd of guests would take the train up from Los Angeles on Friday evenings and not arrive at San Simeon until early on Saturday. The weekend would be all fun and games, with the trip back to LA on Sunday night for work on Monday. It could be a grueling exercise for the guests, and, to be certain that the party crowd required to entertain Marion would make the trip, Hearst had no choice than to make San Simeon the most fun and interesting place imaginable, going so far as to build the world’s largest private zoo, a park that held lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, reindeer, bison, elk, zebras, ostriches, assorted primates, and sundry other manner of beast. To create and maintain such total and complete magnificence, Hearst spent the greater part of his fortune. One finds a disturbing contemporary parallel in Michael Jackson’s Neverland, designed along Hearstian proportions and driven perhaps by Hearst-sized ambitions and desires.

Even though by the mid-20s, Hearst was well into his sixties while Marion was not yet 30, he maintained an active and physical life comparable to a much younger man. He neither smoked nor drank and stayed active in tennis, riding, hiking, and swimming. No doubt having the companionship of a beautiful and exciting young woman contributed to his health.

As time wore on at San Simeon, and especially once Marion became the grande dame of the establishment around 1926, finally usurping Millicent’s former role, the guest list came under Marion’s control and hence tilted to the film world side and further away from the journalists and power brokers whom Hearst himself identified with most closely. Complaints were increasingly heard among the guests of the “strange” ways of Mr. Hearst, his steady and penetrating gaze flowing out from a very large, imposing man, the seeming aloofness or coolness of his overall demeanor. No doubt WR had not mastered air-kissing protocols and the rest of the tribal mores of Marion’s Hollywood crew; this alone would have marked him as a suspicious outsider, however much he was involved in Marion’s film-world life and affairs. WR seemed to prefer the youngish reporters he employed who occasionally received invitations to San Simeon, no doubt both because they spoke his native language and also were bound to kowtow to the Chief himself in his magnificent lair. WR often held meetings with his visiting staff outdoors, near the zoo and its animals. A wit among these young reporters wrote archly about San Simeon, “The place is full of worried editors dodging the kangaroos.” Oddly enough, throughout the entire medieval-like village that comprised San Simeon, with its great house and satellite “bungalows,” Casa Del Monte, Casa del Sol, and Casa Del Mer, all situated atop La Cuesta Encantada (the Enchanted Hill), no food or drink was to be had except in the great house. An overnight visitor wanting even her usual morning coffee would have to trudge up to the main kitchen of Casa Grande to satisfy this simple thirst. Evidently, having food available only in a central location was part of Hearst’s strategy to ensure continuous partying and conviviality.

Adventures of the Late 20s

By the late 1920s, as the era of silent movies came to an end, Hearst, Marion, and the real cinema brains at MGM had finally found a formula to make good films starring Marion that also turned a profit. Essentially, instead of the elaborate, artsy, costume-rich, period dramas favored by WR, they turned out light-hearted, contemporary comedies, which, though still produced using quality talent, were far less costly and also more reliably popular among filmgoers. The Patsy and Show People were two representatives of this class of production, the latter earning $176,000 for MGM, a solid profit in 1928. It was also Marion’s last silent movie.

By now, Marion’s income was very large, stemming not only from her grand salary at the studio but also from her share of the profits of WR’s production facilities. The tax problems she experienced in 1928 reflect how huge her income really was. Called to Washington, DC by the federal tax authorities, she was presented with a bill for nonpayment of $950,000 and, to settle the separate question of the fraud charge the government was ready to prosecute, an additional $110,000 would have to be paid. In Marion’s view,

It was all a political thing. I don’t want to mention his name, but
he was the President of the United States [Calvin Coolidge], and
he had been attacked by the Hearst papers for going to South America.
He was getting even by using me.

The historical record shows little or no serious conflict between Coolidge and the Hearst editorial pages. By and large, and much to H.L. Mencken’s dismay, Hearst went along with Coolidge’s policies. However, perhaps taking a lesson from this unfortunate row with the taxing authorities, once Hearst’s candidate for president in the 1928 election, Herbert Hoover, was elected, a representative of Hearst visited Hoover and received the latter’s assurances that the new president had personally conveyed some instructions “very favorable to Mr. Hearst” to ranking officials of the income tax bureau.

Together with the huge income, Marion, by virtue of her Hollywood connections and relationship with Hearst, had achieved social cachet. Neither she nor Hearst cared for the company of traditional high society, but Princes and Dukes, even Kings, showed up at their parties, as well the just plain rich and famous. She was in New York in 1927 when Charles Lindbergh was wildly received as a hero on returning from his historic flight across the Atlantic. Huge crowds followed his every move in the city, and he was on every grande dame’s hit list as the number one guest to have for dinner. Lindbergh, being no socialite himself, caused Mrs. Astor to feel she had failed in having him to dinner when he ignored her society guests and spent the time talking only with his map man and his fuel man, fellow aviators that Lindy had brought along. Next up for the flier-god was dinner with the Vanderbilts, but with characteristic impulsiveness and heedless of the social implications, Marion decided that she wanted Lindy to come visit her and a small group of friends in the Warwick Hotel. To this end, she got the Mayor of New York City, Jimmie Walker, on the phone and requested him to extend her personal invitation to Lindbergh, the Mayor being nominally in charge of the flier’s itinerary while he performed his triumph in the city. Walker, eager to avoid offending Mrs. Vanderbilt, who was waiting in her Fifth Avenue manse with three hundred guests dying to meet Lindbergh, attempted to dissuade Marion and declined to intervene. Not to be denied, she then called a Hearst minion whom she knew was with Lindy at the time, Victor Watson, and instructed him to issue the invitation. Watson did so and Lindbergh accepted. The Mayor called back after getting the news of Lindbergh’s change of itinerary and begged Marion not to go through with her plans. Marion sensibly replied that it should be left up to Lindbergh as to where he wanted to spend his time.

Word had leaked out that Lindbergh was coming to the Warwick, and he had to fight his way through a huge crowd outside the hotel to get up to the Hearst suite; he stayed for a few hours, played the guitar for Marion and her guests and engaged in some charades and other parlor games before leaving to continue his victory parade. The man whom Mayor Walker had sent to break the news to Mrs. Vanderbilt later reported to Marion that, as he broke the news, Mrs. Vanderbilt exclaimed, “Don’t tell me. He’s not coming,” and then fainted dead away.

M. Davies, Espionage Agent

In 1928, as the clouds that foreshadowed the great debacle of the Second World War began to gather over the pretty blue skies of Europe, secret diplomacy once again came into its own, the kind of bilateral, separate, and clandestine dealings that had played a significant role in the prelude to WWI. Specifically, just as Hearst-plus was making its annual tour of Europe, the French were privately agreeing to British naval expansion in exchange for British accession to France’s ground forces’ expansion, all in contravention of earlier, post-WWI arms control agreements. The French political faction opposed to this secret agreement decided that leaking the text of the proposed agreement to Hearst’s agents would guarantee its publication, thus circumventing its realization. They calculated that the Hearst newspapers’ editorial policy, tilting towards Germany and Italy at the time, would impel Hearst to expose the secret treaty and derail it.

In the event, according to Marion, she was taken aside, apparently by an agent of the French Foreign Minister, during a luncheon hosted at the Elysee Palace and casually led to an open safe in which a lone document was lying in plain view. She snatched it up and stuffed it into her intimate clothes, subsequently furnishing it to Hearst himself back at their hotel. On its publication, the French opponents of the plan achieved their goal: the agreement was canceled. In her own account of these events, Marion offers simply and simple-mindedly the motive of child-like curiosity for her stealing the document, claiming that she just wanted to read something written in French, though she understood not a word of that language. It appears to be the case that Marion had, in fact, been pre-selected by the French, with the cooperation of Hearst’s agents or perhaps WR himself, to purloin the document.

Hearst had to leave France after the note was published in his newspapers. And again, in 1930, after arriving for a visit to France, he was required by French officials to quit France due to this a hostile act against the French government.

The single biggest crisis of Marion’s Hollywood sheltered professional life was the advent of the talkies, 1928 – 1929. On first hearing Al Jolson sing in The Singing Fool, Marion burst into tears, not for the poignancy of the great singer’s performance but rather for the fate she imagined in talkies for a stuttering actress such as she was. Chaplin, though he did not stutter, regarded the coming of sound to movies with equal horror. He, and many other Hollywood figures put into shock by the prospect of having to speak while performing, predicted that talkies were a fad that wouldn’t last. Typically, though Marion was ready to throw in the towel immediately and give up her film career, Hearst dismissed that thought, took out his giant-size checkbook, and hooked Marion up with a thorough professional program of speech therapy, elocution, and drama lessons.

The results were good. Marion passed her initial screen test for talkies, the discovery being made that she had a pleasant enough voice. Other stars of the silent era, like Emil Jannings and John Gilbert, were not so fortunate, the advent of sound ending their careers because their voices sounded bad. As movies with sound overran the film business, Hearst moved quickly to establish his little bon-bon as a leading lady in this new genre. Ironically, one of the first starring vehicles for Marion was The Floradora Girl, a story based on the show that Evelyn Nesbit was starring in on Broadway when she first met Stanford White in 1901.

Though MGM management was delighted to have the powerful Hearst media empire as an ally, individual producers and directors found his constant meddling in Marion’s pictures to be distressing and distracting. There were always conflicts between Hearst and those making the films that Marion was in: this was to be expected since Hearst’s primary interest was not that the film be good or that it should earn a profit, but rather that Marion Davies be loved by the audience as he loved her. His jealousy, also quite natural in a man of 60+ in love with a woman of thirty, a flirtatious woman at that, also drove him to come on to her movie sets to keep an eye on her.

As the decades wore on, Marion admitted that though she had started up with Hearst in the role of gold-digger, she had eventually come to love him. She also finally gave up the idea of ever becoming Mrs. Hearst, the public’s view of Hearst as a towering public figure entitled to a young mistress would not, at the same time, regard it favorably were he to divorce his wife and separate from his children in order to marry this same mistress. They probably had it right on this score. While the public and the Hollywood community could well tolerate discreet, though unauthorized, amours, the public scandal of divorce was an entirely different matter. When asked whether she was worried about the marriage issue, Marion liked to say, “Why should I run after a streetcar when I am already on board?” This was characteristic of her jaunty, saucy and devil-may-care attitude, probably another aspect of her that Hearst found alluring.

Hearst was a lucky man, from his advantages at birth right through all his successes in journalism, films, and romance. And Fortune herself did not fail him on October 29, 1929, when the worst stock market crash in American history struck millions of investors, leveling many a rich man and inaugurating the Great Depression. Hearst owned little stock – his fortune was mainly in real estate owned by his publishing companies. Perhaps his near-mad spending on art and architecture, which left him no spare change for market speculation, saved him in the end.

In the initial onset of depressed economic conditions, even Hearst felt constrained in spending. This was symptomatic and causative in the gathering force of that economic deluge, characterized by the sudden, final contraction of overall economic demand, so pronounced and obvious that even the very largest of the big spenders like the Chief cut back in 1929 and 1930, extinguishing the possibility of normal recovery. Short of Louis XIV, the Sun King of France in the early eighteenth century and perhaps a few others, few consumers more extravagant than Hearst had ever lived.

By the end of 1930, Hearst had recovered his personal animal spirits and was back in full swing, lavishing money on his castles and mansions. Perhaps the fall in prices and wages excited his natural acquisitive and bargain-seeking impulses.

Generally, journalism fell on hard times, including Hearst’s chain. Advertising revenues declined among all newspapers, reflecting the extreme contraction in demand. The McLean family’s flagship paper, the Washington Post, was forced into bankruptcy and sold at auction to Eugene Meyer; the Pulitzer heirs were likewise forced to sell their New York papers to Scripps-Howard. In the midst of all the financial wreckage, Hearst, ever the optimist, schemer, and spender, decided upon an extensive campaign to acquire radio stations, which he perceived as the best means to increase newspaper circulation via advertising over the airwaves. Since more capital was needed, he executed a major re-structuring of his assets, issued a large class of non-voting, preferred stock and used the full power of his presses to retail the shares of Hearst Consolidated Publications Inc. to the general public. The preferred stock guaranteed a nice return of 7% and was rather cleverly marketed as a good investment for ordinary folks in times of economic distress, the underlying concept being that the Hearst properties backing the instruments were solid and stable. To enhance their appeal to the public, a $25 share could be purchased on a $2 per month installment plan. It probably did not hurt the financial community’s view of the viability of the Hearst businesses that, in 1934, consistent with the direction of the entire labor situation at the time, an across-the-board pay cut of some 39% had been imposed over all the Hearst publications. Hearst initially opposed the pay cut, but was finally persuaded by his financial advisors of the necessity of reducing wages.

The party life continued at San Simeon, which Marion described as “quite romantic,” meaning that, in the evenings, if WR were upstairs working or not on the premises, she and the guests would play boardgames and flirt; she would often notice one or more of the men looking at her in that certain way. They might even offer some bold, provocative flattery about her looks. Naturally, Marion was charmed, but, she claims, as soon as the Chief showed up, these forward gents would take flight. Nevertheless, at least some of these young hopefuls are believed to have succeeded with Marion, from time to time.

By the 30s, Marion’s incipient alcoholism, first evident in her teenage drinking, had fully blossomed. Her circle of friends, family, and acquaintances conspired with her to maintain a steady supply of booze in the face of WR’s determination that her drinking be kept under control. Guests at San Simeon, though permitted to drink wine in moderation, even during Prohibition, would find themselves disinvited in the event of their displaying drunken behavior on the premises. The head butler at San Simeon developed significant expertise in the art of decanting appropriate quantities of wine during dinner, knowing just the point at which to withdraw the bottle from potentially overindulging guests. Rowdy behavior of any kind annoyed Hearst, whether excess in alcohol or the portrayal of frank sexuality on screen; notwithstanding his own large sexual adventure with the teenage Marion and notwithstanding the habitually soused condition of the grown version of that same lady, Hearst was full of disapprobation of others with any of these issues. One evening when Jean Harlow was a dinner guest at San Simeon and came into dinner dressed in her usual sex-bomb garb, a tight white silk dress without underwear, Hearst demanded that Marion advise Harlow to go back upstairs and “get dressed.” While actresses like Harlow, Garbo, and Dietrich were heating up the screen with sizzling portrayals of feminine wiles and desires, Hearst refused to support any acting of that kind for Marion, even forbidding her to engage in the by-then almost obligatory kissing scenes. In this regard, he once advised Louis B. Mayer:

Marion cannot do sex pictures. She does not look like a
vampire. But she is marvelous in boys’ parts…She is excellent
as a waif…She does a fine college girl…She does inimitable
characterizations…She is good as just a fresh American girl...and
she is good in a sentimental story.

It is not altogether unlikely that Hearst’s private view of Marion as some kind of Girl Scout, or even Brownie, was not how others saw her. In her memoir, she discusses Howard Hughes being a frequent visitor to San Simeon, describing him favorably as very kind and smart though not loquacious. As to his notorious, famously excessive, romantic life, she writes:

Howard went around with Billie Dove. I think he went with
her for longer than with any other girl. The other girls were more or
less just ice cream.

He loved ice cream, you know. He never drank or smoked, but
he was an ice cream addict. He ate it by the quart. At one time
I too was an ice cream fiend, and we used to have ice cream races
at night. I always ate the most, so I always won….One man said
he had won a prize for eating ice cream. He said to me, “Nobody
can outdo me!” Well!! He was green when I got through with him.

It is well-established that Howard Hughes’ principal addiction as a young man was sex. He is reported to have maintained literally dozens of young women in various apartments around Hollywood simultaneously. Not until he was elderly and had difficulty eating is ice cream ever mentioned in the existing biographical materials. The close and imaginative reader of Marion’s description of so-called “ice cream races” is tempted to interpret the passage as Marion’s indirect description of sexual orgies that were held at San Simeon when Hearst was absent, and the right crowd was in town. Her use of the word “fiend” is suggestive, as is her reference to Hughes’ girlfriends as “just ice cream.”

If this interpretation is correct, the outsized sexual appetite Marion confesses to have had would be no surprise: she was in a sensual cage created by living with a man forty-two years older than she. The fantasies she would naturally have had under these circumstances could be lived out in the debauched company of her Hollywood friends.

By 1934, Marion’s film career had begun to falter, with Hearst and the studio executives constantly at odds over her pictures, which lost money pretty regularly. MGM believed that borrowing Bing Crosby from Paramount would improve the prospective box office for Marion’s upcoming film Going Hollywood. Unfortunately, Marion and Bing became close drinking buddies and the making of the film involved such an amount of daytime drinking and partying, and very late morning arrivals on set by Marion, that after six months of shooting and nearly one million in costs, the film ended up losing $250,000. She made one more disastrous movie at MGM before leaving that studio for a new deal with Paramount. Hearst was blind to the causes of her MGM films’ failures: his incessant meddling and misguidance of her career, Marion’s undisciplined attitude and drinking, and, in the last analysis, her lack of talent. Marion herself, in her autobiography, repeatedly states her belief that she had no talent whatsoever. She never pretended to; she had no diva complex, no “artistic temperament” like the other major female leads, simply because she was in essence no artist. She started out life as a moderately pretty showgirl on Broadway who, but for the intercession of Hearst’s power, would have in all likelihood married well and gone on to a relatively normal life like that of her sisters. But Hearst, in his monumental obsession, had other plans. Marion would often complain to WR regarding the constant overpraise for her performances to be found in his Sunday supplements. She believed, probably rightly, that the public would, on seeing her actual performances, come away angry with the big build-ups they had read in the papers.

One of the disappointing blights on Hearst’s fantastic life and career was his hyperbolic anticommunism and the related anti-labor policies that he pursued during the 1930s. Standing alone, these might not have done much harm to his reputation as an historical figure, but Hearst’s early support of Hitler and Mussolini sealed his fate as one of the ultimate bête noirs of the American left. While scattered reporting of his affair with Marion occurred every now and again earlier in their careers, especially during those relatively brief moments of public scandal, the press generally did not doggedly pursue Hearst until, in confronting labor and the left-wing of the American intelligentsia, WR became an object of constant attention and vituperation in the leftist media. They went after him ad hominem, especially relating to Marion.

Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle and an active Socialist Party member who ran unsuccessfully for Governor of California listed the so-called “public outrages” in America that had motivated his run, among these being:

…our richest newspaper publisher keeping his mistress in a
city of palaces and cathedrals, furnished with shiploads of junk
imported from Europe…letting it out as a jest that he had spent
six million dollars to this lady’s reputation, and using his new-
papers to celebrate her changes of hats.

By 1936, labor and political pressure on Hearst had become unbearable. Strikes proliferated at his newspapers; FDR ridiculed him by name in public. Leftist biographies published in 1937 excoriated him. The extremely clever Roosevelt, attuned to the growing national unpopularity of Hearst due to the latter’s stance on events in Europe and his anti-labor activities, conceived a strategy to diminish his opponent, Alf Landon, by connecting Landon to Hearst’s approval. Hearst, inflamed by the charges against him of harboring fascist sympathies, launched a full-scale counteroffensive against Roosevelt, calling him the candidate of the communists. The business outcome of Hearst’s public controversies at the time was a drop in the circulation of his papers that ultimately threatened insolvency for the chain once again.

When, after Hearst had publicly proclaimed on the day before the 1936 presidential election that Landon would beat Roosevelt, the latter actually won an historical landslide victory, it was Marion who was tasked to break the ice in sending Hearst’s congratulations to the Roosevelts. She was personally well acquainted with Roosevelt’s son-in-law, John Boettiger, from his Hollywood days. Boettiger was called to the phone at Hyde Park in New York, where the Roosevelt family was celebrating victory in the election. Marion got on the line and told her old friend that she loved him and wanted the Roosevelts to know that, although she and WR felt as if they had been “flattened out by a steam roller” due to the extremely one-sided election results, there were no hard feelings harbored by Marion or Hearst. He then took the line and recapped the gist of Marion’s statement. Beyond the obligatory message of congratulations and the diplomatic use of his editorial pages to applaud the huge victory, Hearst took things a rather cynical step further, hiring John Boettiger to be editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer with a guaranteed level of editorial independence theretofore unheard of amongst Hearst editorial staff. No doubt, Boettiger’s being Marion’s old Hollywood friend played a role in the hiring, but it is also clear that Hearst wished to gain some favor in the Roosevelt White House where it can be said without exaggeration that he was looked upon as a rascal and national enemy.

February 2006

From guest contributor Joe Leibowitz

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