Only one movie star mattered to Bob Board when he was growing up in Long Beach during the 1930s, and that was Marion Davies. “My parents didn’t approve of her at all,” he remembers with a laugh. “They said, ‘Oh, she lives with this old man who is married and has children, and they live in a castle by the beach up north.’ I thought, ‘Ooohh, this does sound like an interesting person.’ ”
The “old man,” of course, was newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and Board’s parents were not alone in attributing Davies’ stardom to her real-life role as Hearst’s mistress rather than to any actual talent.
Board strongly disagrees, and he’s on a mission to dispel the myths surrounding an underappreciated talent. Most people, Board says, unfairly identify Davies with the mistress character in “Citizen Kane.” “Marion was not only a fine comedian, but also a gifted all-around entertainer,” he says, citing films such as “Peg O’ My Heart” (1933) and “Going Hollywood” (1933). “She sang, she danced and she was beautiful. She was this radiant blond woman with a genuine warmth. She was generous. In New York, in the early days, she was known by poor children as the ‘Christmas Lady,’ ” says Board, 80, a retired actor and stand-in. As to her notorious liaison with Hearst, Board points out that at 35 years, it outlasted most Hollywood marriages.
Davies, a Brooklyn native, was a painter’s model before becoming a Broadway star and “Ziegfeld Follies” performer. She was spotted onstage by Hearst, who catapulted her to stardom in silents and talkies; she averaged three pictures a year between 1917 and 1937.
Davies shined as a comedian at MGM and Warner Bros., but Hearst wanted her to be a serious leading lady, and his grousing at the studios brought her career to a premature demise. She retired in 1937 and died of cancer in 1961. She’s interred in a mausoleum at the Hollywood Forever cemetery marked by her family name, Douras.
As a teenager, Board began collecting every Marion Davies memento he could get his hands on--lobby cards, one-sheet posters, autographed photos, engraved dishes, a Marion mannequin and much more. He has also hand-crafted items including a “Marionette” and miniature dioramas of Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Along with the items he displays, Board also keeps a profusion of Davies memorabilia in storage rooms crammed with books, cards and more.
Interest in Davies has been escalating, the most recent instance being this year’s Peter Bogdanovich film “The Cat’s Meow,” with Kirsten Dunst portraying Davies. Board credits the Davies revival to the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, which is giving film buffs a chance to see her work uncut. Fan networks are burgeoning on the Internet, he says. “A friend of mine who runs a Marion Davies Web site in Seattle told me he gets about a thousand hits a day.” That suits Board just fine. “When I was a kid, there was a lot of laughter about my love for Marion. This is a really nice way for things to turn out.”