In Their Day, They Were Stars
At the height of the Roaring ‘20s, newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst built an extravagant house on five beachfront acres in Santa Monica for his blond mistress, actress Marion Davies.
It was the grandest manse at the shore, dwarfing the residences of such Hollywood nobility as Louis B. Mayer, Samuel and Frances Goldwyn, Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer, Harold and Mildred Lloyd, and Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Oct. 5, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 05, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Marion Davies’ property: A caption accompanying a Column One article about Marion Davies’ Santa Monica property in Friday’s Section A identified a building as a 1920s guest house. The photo shows a structure built near the guest house at a later date that contained men’s and women’s locker rooms.
Davies, a silent film star, and Hearst entertained assiduously. Their elaborate costume parties drew the likes of Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Cary Grant, Gloria Swanson and Howard Hughes, who donned lederhosen for a Tyrolean bash.
Charlie Chaplin, rumored to have been Davies’ lover, cavorted with her in the 110-foot saltwater swimming pool, lined with Italian marble and spanned by a Venetian marble bridge.
During the silver screen’s Golden Age, Davies emerged as a Hollywood favorite, an effervescent prankster with porcelain skin and a zest for merrymaking.
Yet today she is remembered, if at all, as a minor luminary of that era, largely because of two men.
There was Hearst, the married magnate who used his media empire to tout her talents, leaving detractors to conclude that she couldn’t stand on her own. And there was Orson Welles, whose 1941 film “Citizen Kane” -- loosely based on Hearst’s life -- cemented in the public’s mind the notion that Davies was shrill and talentless.
In recent years, Davies’ fans have worked to revive interest in the actress and her films.
At the same time, admirers of the beach property, its mansion long ago demolished, have been pushing to turn the forlorn site, with its historic pool and guest house, into a public beach club.
The two efforts aim to rehabilitate not only a tired oceanfront property but also a dead woman’s image.
Near the end of 1915, soon after his wife, Millicent, had given birth to twin boys, Hearst attended a new Irving Berlin musical on Broadway, “Stop! Look! Listen!”
In the chorus was an 18-year-old strawberry blond named Marion Davies. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., she was the youngest of five children of a city magistrate, Bernard Douras, and his wife, Rose. She and two older sisters who also went into show business adopted the name Davies after seeing it on a real estate sign.
Hearst, 52, was smitten. “He sent me flowers and little gifts, like silver boxes or gloves or candy,” Davies recalled in taped reminiscences, published posthumously in 1975 as “The Times We Had.”
By the spring of 1916, according to Hearst biographer David Nasaw, the tycoon and the chorine were seeing each other regularly at parties and dinners. Seeking to be discreet for the sake of his wife, a former chorus girl who refused to grant him a divorce, Hearst tried to lead a double life. He fooled no one.
In May 1916, a story in the Hearst-owned New York American revealed that Davies had been “the first of the new Follies beauty crop to be selected by Mr. Ziegfeld” for his upcoming show. After that, news items about Davies began appearing regularly in the Hearst papers.
Davies’ first film role was in the 1917 “Runaway, Romany,” a movie she wrote that was directed by her brother-in-law George Lederer. “I couldn’t act, but the idea of silent pictures appealed to me because I couldn’t talk either,” Davies recalled much later, alluding to her problem of stuttering.
The next year, Hearst’s Manhattan film studio, Cosmopolitan Productions, produced two pictures starring Davies: “Cecilia of the Pink Roses” and “The Burden of Proof.” Reviews for the former were mixed. Hearst’s American raved about her performance.
The New York Times yawned: “There is no objection to Miss Davies. She is by no means a sensational screen actress, but she fills the requirements of her part.”
Throughout her two-decade film career, in which she worked at MGM and then Warner Bros., Davies seemed most at ease, and generally earned her best reviews, in light, comedic roles. Hearst often miscast her in epic costume dramas, but even in those she sometimes won praise.
In 1928, in the waning days of silents, Davies starred in two frothy comedies directed by King Vidor that are considered her best: “The Patsy” and “Show People.” They gave rise to her reputation as Hollywood’s first screwball heroine.
That year, Davies and Hearst moved into their beach compound at what is now 415 Pacific Coast Highway.
The three-story, Georgian Revival main house was U-shaped, with 18 Grecian columns across the back. Davies and Hearst had separate suites connected by a hidden door. Four other houses were occupied by Davies’ family, long-term guests and more than 30 full-time servants. Altogether, the complex included 110 bedrooms and 55 bathrooms.
As at his sumptuous San Simeon castle on California’s Central Coast, Hearst purchased entire rooms from European locations and had them reassembled in the beach house. He transplanted paneling from Burton Hall in Ireland, a ballroom from a 1750 Venetian palazzo and a 1560 tavern from an inn in Surrey, England. Seventy-five wood carvers worked for a year to complete the balustrades of the main dual staircases.
A common misperception holds that Julia Morgan, California’s first female architect and Hearst’s collaborator at San Simeon, laid out the beach house. In fact, William Flannery, about whom little is known, was the architect of the main house. Morgan designed the guest house (known as the North House) and the pool, with details that caught Hearst’s eye.
“Would like marble stairs to San Simeon pool like those at Santa Monica beach pool soon as convenient,” Hearst telegraphed Morgan in November 1928. “They are very successful.”
When the mansion developed foundation problems, Morgan served “almost as a civil engineer to shore that up and keep it from washing out to sea with the tides,” said Nancy E. Loe, special collections librarian at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
By the time the mansion was completed, according to “Marion Davies,” Fred Lawrence Guiles’ 1972 biography, it had cost $7 million -- $3 million for construction and $4 million for furnishings and artworks. That would be $83 million today.
The interior was palatial, with immense Oriental rugs, Tiffany crystal chandeliers, a room finished in gold leaf and 37 fireplaces. Portraits of Davies hung in the entrance hall.
When in town, Davies invited guests for dinner every night of the week and for all-day swimming parties on the weekends, Nasaw wrote in his 2000 biography, “The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst.”
Actress Louise Brooks recalled a weekend visit in April 1928 in which “there were 20 people to lunch, 40 were added in the afternoon to swim in the Venetian pool of white marble which separated the house from the ocean, and 40 more were added for the buffet supper served on the porch overlooking the pool.”
On special occasions like Hearst’s birthday, huge canvas tents were erected to accommodate as many as 2,000 guests. In 1937, partygoers dressed as circus performers (including a bearded Bette Davis) and rode a merry-go-round borrowed from Warner Bros. To make room for it, Hearst ordered a wall torn down and then put back.
In the beach house’s early days, Davies’ merry mood masked the panic that she felt with the rise of talking pictures. At a New York showing of Al Jolson’s 1928 film “The Singing Fool,” Davies began sobbing, her mascara running, and whispered to a companion: “I’m ruined. Ruined!”
Davies, whose low whiskey voice was marred by stammering, feared that talkies would spell the end of her starring roles -- and her $500,000 annual salary. But not long after, she was stunned to hear from Thalberg, MGM’s production chief, that her sound test had earned her a new contract. It turned out that memorizing lines kept her from stuttering. She went on to make 16 talkies.
It wasn’t just Hollywood celebrities and Hearst who viewed Davies as a vivacious companion. She charmed playwright George Bernard Shaw and aviator Charles Lindbergh. Weeks before the October 1929 stock market crash, Winston Churchill and his family stayed at San Simeon, then visited the beach house to swim.
In 1937, after 46 feature films, Davies retired from filmmaking. Not long after, Davies’ devotion to W.R., as she called Hearst, was sorely tested. His assets mortgaged, big-spender Hearst was on the brink of insolvency. Davies liquidated stock, real estate and jewelry to give him an empire-saving $1-million cash infusion.
By that time, she had amassed a personal fortune worth several million dollars, much of it in Beverly Hills and New York real estate. She was one of the richest women in Hollywood and donated millions to charity, hapless friends and even strangers.
Her image, however, would soon suffer a “murderous” blow, in the view of biographer Guiles, with the release in 1941 of “Citizen Kane.”
People began referring to Susan Alexander -- Charles Foster Kane’s mistress, played by Dorothy Comingore -- as “the Marion Davies part.” Alexander, like Davies, was blond, did jigsaw puzzles and drank too much, and she lived with Kane in the San Simeon-like Xanadu. The late movie critic Pauline Kael later observed: “Susan’s fake stardom and the role she played in Kane’s life spelled Marion Davies to practically everybody in the Western world.”
In 1945, Davies sold the beach compound, which she described as a “white elephant,” because of a property tax dispute. Investors paid her $600,000, a relative pittance that approximately equaled the cost of the 37 fireplaces.
Hearst died at the age of 88 in 1951 in the Beverly Hills mansion he shared with Davies. At his sons’ request, the distraught Davies had been sedated. As she slept, Hearst’s body was hustled from the house, along with every trace of him, including photographs of their many trips to Europe.
“Do you realize what they did?” she would ask later. “They stole a possession of mine. He belonged to me.”
Ten weeks after Hearst’s death, Davies married Horace Brown, a sea captain who had courted her sister Rose. She began to drink even more heavily than usual, and she lived increasingly in the past. Many of her friends had died, others had drifted away, and most of her films had been forgotten.
As Jeanine Basinger put it in her 1999 book, “Silent Stars”: “Although the critics often gave [Davies] excellent notices, they never forgave her for the sin of William Randolph Hearst.”
In early 1959, doctors found a malignant growth in Davies’ jaw. She underwent surgeries and cobalt treatments that discolored her famous porcelain skin. She died Sept. 22, 1961, at the age of 64.
By then, the beach property had gone through various incarnations. One owner, hotelier Joseph Drown, added three buildings to the site. In April 1957, pieces of the main house, such as shingles, columns and interior fixtures, were put up for sale. Not long after, the house was demolished.
The state bought the land in 1959 and leased it to the city of Santa Monica, which in turn leased it to the private Sand & Sea Club from 1960 to 1990. The city subsequently operated a day-use beach facility there.
The 1994 Northridge earthquake sent a brick chimney crashing through the roof of the North House. All buildings in the complex were red-tagged.
Since then, the site has slowly deteriorated for lack of funds. The North House’s windows have been boarded over, as have the historic pool and its whimsical fish tiles. Weeds have sprouted through cracks in the pavement. Railings have rusted and wooden beams stand rotting.
For years, government officials and community activists have worked on a plan to transform the site into a public beach club. For a modest day-use fee, anyone would be able to enjoy the swimming pool where Chaplin and other stars splashed, a sun deck with lounge chairs, volleyball and paddle tennis courts, event rooms, a children’s play area and picnic tables.
Wallis Annenberg, the TV Guide heiress and philanthropist, has committed nearly $28 million for the project from the Annenberg Foundation. She recalls as a young woman spending glorious summer days at the Sand & Sea Club, where many of the members, like her, were Jewish. Other private clubs tended to exclude Jews.
“It bothered me to see [this] land lying vacant with a chain-link fence around it,” Annenberg said. “It was important to me that this be a lovely fun place for the public to enjoy.”
The city recently reached a settlement with residents who had challenged the project because of worries about traffic, safety and noise. The city expects to break ground next September and complete the project by early 2010.
Davies’ fans hope that the facility will renew enthusiasm for her movies and the Golden Age in which she played a leading role.
“Seeing Marion Davies’ name in connection with this site will spur interest in her career and the history of Hollywood and its connection to Santa Monica,” said Marc Wanamaker, a Hollywood historian and archivist. “Remember, she was Hollywood royalty.”
A few years after her death, film festivals revived several of Davies’ best films. Confronted with her comedic flair and charms, film buffs and scholars weaned on “Citizen Kane” suddenly had to rethink their opinions. “Captured on Film,” a 2001 documentary, aimed to further redress some of the misjudgments.
Welles also sought to set the record straight. Decades after “Citizen Kane” cast a shadow over Davies’ career, Welles apologized, saying Susan Alexander “bears no resemblance at all” to Davies.
Fourteen years after Davies’ death, he sang her praises in the foreword to “The Times We Had,” calling her “one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen.”