Before her tenure as the reigning queen of Hollywood society, and her long-standing position as mistress of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies was among the most beautiful of Florence Ziegfeld’s glorified American girls. Here, she is shown in lavish showgirl costuming, an ethereal beauty in soft focus view by Campbell studio. This double weight gallery portrait is blindstamped by photographer lower right, and is an astonishing and rare view of one of the 20th century’s most beloved beauties.
by Hal Erickson
American actress Marion Davies became a Broadway chorus dancer through the auspices of her brother-in-law, the powerful theatrical producer George W. Lederer. There are many stories of how Davies came to the attention of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the most popular of which relates how, when watching her perform as a solo singer-dancer in the 1916 edition of Ziegfeld Follies, Hearst became so enchanted that for eight weeks thereafter he never missed a performance, reserving two seats per show (one seat for his hat). Hearst, who in addition to his publishing empire also dabbled in moviemaking, cast Davies in the 1917 silent film Runaway Romany. For the rest of her career, Davies appeared only in Hearst-produced movies, a professional association which spilled over into her private life; she became Hearst’s mistress, and might very well have married him had Mrs. Hearst not refused him a divorce. The Hearst press promoted Davies’ film career to the point of the ridiculous, overpraising each movie as though it were the Second Coming; in retaliation, rival newspapers mercilessly panned Davies, suggesting that she’d still be a chorus girl without Hearst’s sponsorship. The truth lay somewhere in between—when viewing such Davies films as Show People (1928), Blondie of the Follies (1932) and Cain and Mabel (1936), one is struck by her deft comic skills and superior musical talent; at the same time, she was not the actress promoted by the Hearst publicity machine. Davies retired from the screen after Ever Since Eve (1937), settling down as the popular hostess of San Simeon, Hearst’s gigantic estate on the California coast. After Hearst died in 1951, Davies married Capt. Horace G. Brown of the California State Guard and divided her time between managing her considerable financial holdings and maintaining the Marion Davies Childrens’ Clinic, a charitable organization. Davies was much loved by her friends and by Hollywood in general; alas, most people today “know” Davies only through the vulgar, abrasive character of “Susan Alexander” in filmmaker Orson Welles’ thinly disguised chronicle of William Randolph Hearst’s life, Citizen Kane (1941).