It isn’t every day you are asked to review the biography of your grandfather’s mistress.
Time tends to soften the intensity of family wounds. A dutiful grandson, I’ve always had the greatest regard for my grandfather. As a little boy, I spent summer vacations at San Simeon, his castle in Central California. It seemed like a marvelous Disneyland, with sun-filled gardens, a compound on the scale of a hilltop Spanish village, an amazing art collection, and grand architecture—which meant nothing to me then, except that it was something impressive, extraordinary, rare; and the garden smelled very good.
I knew that my dad, one of five sons (W.R. Jr., widely known as Bill Hearst), had reservations about Marion Davies. I came to believe, as a young adult, that three of my uncles who were younger than Bill had even more disdain for her. Once you reach a certain age, if your parents’ marriage breaks up, you are a little more able to understand the complexities of human relationships.
But if you are a younger child of the family, it may feel like a terrible betrayal: of your parents by each other and, perhaps, by your parents of you. I didn’t grow up with any personal impression of the Hearst-Davies affair; it was an unspoken subject, until I went to see the film Citizen Kane as a college student in the late 1960s. The movie seemed very glamorous. And of course, it’s a riveting, legendary motion picture, though I thought some of the portrayals seemed overly dramatic. And Xanadu, the movie’s castle, seemed completely wrong from my own personal experience of San Simeon.
By my mid-20s, I had become a newspaper reporter, and a few years later I was a magazine editor working for Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone. I came across the Davies memoir from 1975, The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst. Long in paperback, this testimony of Davies’s was sold for many years at the Hearst Castle gift shop. It’s not a real autobiography, more a lengthy interview—but it was the first time I heard her voice. Or began to understand that she, too, was a historical person with emotions, ambitions, and, of course, frustrations, along with a celebrated film career.
Now, finally, there is a deeply researched and fair-minded biography of Davies’s life and movie work: Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies, by Lara Gabrielle. In this book, Davies is not simply the consort of a famous man—she’s a working actress, someone with her own personality, judgments, and perspective.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Gabrielle’s work offers a look at my own family’s mythology through the opposite end of the telescope: from the viewpoint of a woman who was part of my grandfather’s life—but who saw the world in different terms. Davies was a remarkable person who should be known for her philanthropic generosity as much as for her movies. But her life story has been overshadowed until now by the great men who ruled the earth in her generation, industry, and epoch.
The author deserves special credit since this was a difficult subject that she took on with intense scholarly devotion. This biography is not merely a summer beach read but a careful examination, a precisely drawn work, so it’s an enormous adjunct to our understanding of Hearst and Davies’s era and the movie business back then.
Leaving aside the opinions of the Hearst family, Davies’s life story has been in the shadow of so much mythology.
One major overhang is the Orson Welles penumbra—i.e., the character of Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane is a shallow and grasping woman who has no talent as an opera singer but has a boyfriend who can use his newspapers to promote her career. Welles wrote on more than one occasion that this was one of the few regrets he had about the film.
Sadly, the Susan Alexander character has become a substitute for the real Marion Davies. Welles felt he owed her an apology and wrote the foreword to Davies’s memoir, which was published posthumously. Seven years later, in 1982, he tried again to make amends for the conflation of Alexander with Davies: “It seemed to me to be something of a dirty trick and still strikes me as something of a dirty trick, what we did to her.”
As a film viewer, I always thought this was just one of the things that happen when you’re making a movie as opposed to writing history—so I admired Gabrielle’s effort to excavate the real Davies. It was a project facing a stiff headwind.
Another difficulty is the Hearst Castle tour guide problem—for almost 60 years, the standard spiel has tended to present some hybrid People magazine version of Susan Alexander.
The tired tourist is fed a hackneyed but lurid tale of extramarital adventures and lavish costume parties by the Neptune Pool. This version of Davies as a kind of party girl with no actual career of her own is another obstacle of mythology—a simpler, faster, easier snapshot to remember—and it corresponds to the dated pop culture view of actresses behaving badly with wealthy men.
Finally, the W.A. Swanberg biography Citizen Hearst—still sold at the castle gift shop—has become the de facto official version of my grandfather’s story, and it is also a scholarly work. Yet its treatment of Davies as yet another shiny object in Hearst’s life distracts from her real nature. So bravo to Gabrielle.
However you read the life of Hearst and the movie career of Davies, you’d be challenged to not notice that this was a great love affair. On numerous occasions, my grandfather sought a divorce, but in that era, a wife could obstruct the dissolution of a marriage. My grandmother, Millicent, wanted no part of it. I believe my grandfather was reluctant to either make false accusations or engage in a lengthy, hurtful, and public legal battle.
His view was that his life with Davies was happier than his life with my grandmother, which had become unhappy and filled with quarrels. It wasn’t the first time an unfaithful husband found himself at odds with his wife. As Gabrielle writes, my grandfather thought it was better to avoid an acrimonious divorce; he could simply spend his time with the woman he truly loved.
One could launch a thousand objections to their set of choices. One might wonder why Davies accepted the arrangement. She did not inherit a great fortune from my grandfather or seek control of his assets. So one should eliminate financial gain as the reason she persisted in a three-decades-long relationship with a man who was unable to remarry.
But that’s what happened. So we must ask: Why did the relationship work; what was in it for both of them? How did they end up feeling at the end of their time together? Those are more difficult and dark questions than anything in Citizen Kane, and Gabrielle has done a wonderful job of presenting the raw facts. It’s a story told from Davies’s point of view, one that ends with my grandfather passing from this earth in 1951 (he was 34 years older than her) and Davies having yet another life with another man soon after.
As well as being a detailed biography of Davies’s film career, this is a profile that does not lend itself to easy, moral, or psychoanalytic answers. But if the various possibilities of human relationship interest you, this book will take you to a rare corner of love—and life in an era not so distant from our own.
Marion and W.R. (as they are called in the book) were deeply in love. They were not perfect people, but they stayed together longer than many married couples, without any legal sanction. I fear that the end of my grandfather’s life was filled with sadness for him and for Marion, but I would not presume that they had many regrets about the years they’d spent together.
Readers who expect juicy tidbits about the fabled 32-year romance of Marion and W.R. may be disappointed. Captain of Her Soul is a university-press publication, with pages of footnotes and an extensive bibliography. I can see why Gabrielle’s book didn’t attract a traditional New York publisher; it reveals the real story of Marion. The photos chosen for the book follow the narrative and bring vivid documentary imagery to the story. One arresting photograph shows an elderly Marion on the presidential inaugural platform, a few chairs back from John F. Kennedy as he takes the oath of office in 1961.
In a sense, Gabrielle’s book is two stories interwoven seamlessly. One thread is a detailed narrative, told chronologically, of a genuine romance. Much as with Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century, the reader follows the couple’s movements, and experiences, almost day by day. But Marion and W.R. had a less tumultuous affair than Liz and Dick, bordering on the domestic.
The other thread is an equally detailed narrative of the motion picture industry, in the same time frame: from the silents of the 1910s through the talkies of the ’20s and on up to the 1960s. Historians of U.S. film will find this side of the story—as seen through the eyes of Marion, W.R., and a vast array of friends, writers, celebrities, press agents, and actors—to be a kind of oral history of the era, including how films were cast, produced, and financed. Gabrielle’s appendix lists 49 movies in which Davies appeared as a billed actress. So one can’t discount her career as a working actress and as a professional woman with her own income.
Gabrielle steers away from salacious detail, but if you are a fan of three-dot names, your reading will be richly rewarded. The text is filled with celebrities and other talents of the era: Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Louis B. Mayer, George Bernard Shaw, Frances Marion, Hedda Hopper, to name just a handful who appear regularly at lavish parties at the pair’s Santa Monica and San Simeon residences. Many of them are both friends and colleagues of their hosts. There is even a cameo by Adolph Hitler. Marion had become aware of the treatment of Jews in his emerging regime. She and others urged W.R. to meet Hitler and to express alarm about what they were hearing. On the couple’s next European trip, he met with the German leader, who denied any such behavior. W.R. left with suspicions about the Führer’s honesty and character. “W.R. was not impressed by him,” Marion recalled.
Despite the enormous fun, travels, and energy of their years together, Gabrielle portrays them as living under a shadow of sadness. W.R. would fret over Marion’s “flirtatious nature.” Yet Marion had no temptation to wander, saying, “I had no intentions of ever getting married to anybody, because he knew I was in love with him.” Nevertheless, she clearly would have preferred marriage, and very quickly after W.R.’s death, she accepted a proposal from Horace Brown, a close friend of theirs.
During their time together, W.R. experienced disappointments of his own. Gabrielle writes that he very much aspired to be a top-tier movie producer but fell considerably short of that ambition. With their age difference, it was likely that he would die years before his lover, so some of the satisfactions of a long, happy marriage were denied them both.
Gabrielle’s book left me admiring just how deep their love must have been, so I asked the author whether she felt their romance was truly heartfelt. She wrote me back:
Over the years, I’ve come to see the genuineness of their relationship as axiomatic.… Marion was never bound to him in any way. She had nothing forcing her to stay, she had her own money, her own livelihood, there was nothing keeping her but the love she had for him. She could have left at any time, but never did. She said on her autobiographical tapes “I had plenty of opportunities to get married. But how can you marry when you’re in love with someone else?”
At the end of W.R.’s life, Marion cared for him and comforted him. She commissioned a portrait of him as an infant with his mother for his final birthday. On his end, there were the little notes that he wrote her and slipped under her bedroom door every night. Of these tender instances, Gabrielle wrote me, “If we couldn’t tell it was genuine before, that seals the deal, I think.”
After W.R. passed, Marion was not invited to the funeral, which was held in San Francisco. She gathered with friends in Los Angeles, and as the memorial service got underway, Marion sat on a shag rug and recited the Lord’s Prayer.
In the final analysis, Gabrielle, like a detective or an archaeologist, has reconstructed a life history and made a convincing case, contrary to the prevailing cliché, that Marion was a complex, happy, and talented actress—and that whatever sorrow darkened her days, her love affair with W.R. Hearst was genuine, long-lasting, and intensely satisfying.
If either had wanted to escape, it would have been much easier than a divorce. Their loyalty, and candid expressions of affection, are enduring proof of an intense romance.•