The true story of Marion Davies, real-life ‘Mank’ character

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Marion Davies was born to be a gold digger.

The Brooklyn show girl, raised in a lower-middle-class household by a striving mother and an unsuccessful lawyer dad, had one ambition drilled into her: Live in the pocket of a wealthy man.

Davies succeeded — aligning herself with one of America’s richest, most powerful media barons, William Randolph Hearst. He inspired the title character in Orson Welles’ unflattering “Citizen Kane,” while Davies was thought to have been the model for Kane’s mistress, Susan, an untalented social climber.

“Welles admitted that he made Marion look worse than she was,” David Nasaw, author of “The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst,” told The Post. “Welles created a fictional character that had nothing to do with Marion, except that she did jigsaw puzzles. That was the hint to insiders. It was cruel.”

Now, 60 years after her death, Davies is getting a posthumous Hollywood do-over. Amanda Seyfried plays her in the Netflix movie “Mank,” which centers on screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his alcohol-fueled creation of “Kane.” The film received six nominations for the 2021 Golden Globes — more than any other this year — including best dramatic film and best supporting actress for Seyfried.

“Amanda brought dimension to the role,” Laray Mayfield, the movie’s casting director, told The Post. “She showed that Marion was not just a funny girl who drank too much at parties. She had integrity and that is what made Hearst feel safe with her.”

A golden-haired beauty with a stammer, Davies started young, leaving school to be a chorus girl like her three older sisters; her first credited Broadway appearance, in the musical “Chin-Chin,” came at age 17.

But it was two years later, while dancing in the Ziegfeld Follies at 42nd Street’s New Amsterdam Theatre, that everything would change for Davies.

Davies— seen here in the 1926 movie “Beverly of Graustark” after Hearst nurtured her film career — died in 1961. Her niece later claimed to actually be the love child of Davies and Hearst.
Davies— seen here in the 1926 movie “Beverly of Graustark” after Hearst nurtured her film career — died in 1961. Her niece later claimed to actually be the love child of Davies and Hearst.
Alamy

William Randolph Hearst, then 53 and owner of the influential New York American and New York Evening Journal newspapers, was already married to a former showgirl, Millicent, when he attended the “1916 Follies.” He was there with his publishing buddy Paul Block, who seemed to be having a fling with Davies. But the relationship was winding down and Hearst was clearly taken with the 19-year-old.

Backstage, as described in “Marion Davies: A Biography” by Fred Lawrence Guiles, Hearst gave Davies an exquisite gold watch from Tiffany. In short order, she lost it. When she was afraid to tell Hearst, a friend took the initiative. A fresh watch — albeit a little less exquisite — was delivered.

The romance between Davies and Hearst quickly took off, as the illicit couple dined at hot spot Delmonico’s and enjoyed rendezvous at his hideaway near Bryant Park. He moved Davies and several of her family members into a 25-room townhouse on Riverside Drive. The lavish digs conveniently placed her near the 86th Street mansion Hearst shared with his wife and five sons.

Hearst stoked Davies’ career, making sure she was featured in his newspapers. “Hearst wanted the world to see her as he did: as an angel,” said Lara Gabrielle, who’s writing a Davies biography, “Captain of Her Soul,” for 2022 publication.

Screenwriter Anita Loos remembered lunching with Hearst and Davies one afternoon, then sharing dinner with the publisher and his wife that night. Hearst told Loos: “Well, young lady, we seem to be sitting next to each other in rather diverse locations, don’t we?”

By all accounts, Davies was a handful. She lived nocturnally and drank like a fish, refusing to let Prohibition get in the way. Though Hearst frowned upon alcoholic excess, he financed her indulgences. When she toured the country with the musical “Oh, Boy,” Davies stayed in suites and threw at least one bash with bottomless champagne and caviar.

Marion Davies and publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (left) were lovers — despite him being married — from 1916 until his death in 1951.
Marion Davies and publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (left) were lovers — despite him being married — from 1916 until his death in 1951.
The LIFE Picture Collection via

In 1919, Hearst launched Cosmopolitan Productions, a motion-picture company through which he could boost Davies’ Hollywood profile. She would appear in 29 silent movies and 17 talkies for the company. It also provided excuses for the two of them to spend time together. “Hearst was in love with Marion — and jealous,” said Nasaw.

And the movies, he added, “were not a vanity project. Many of her films made money. Marion was a terrific actress.” Vintage film expert Steve Massa, author of “Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy,” characterizes “Show People” and “The Patsy” as two of her best.

Cosmopolitan merged with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924, and Davies signed a $400,000 ($6 million today) contract for 40 weeks. But when Lillian Gish got MGM’s only female dressing room with a lavatory, Hearst arranged to build what he called a “bungalow” for Davies. (Nasaw described it as “a 14-room mansion on the lot.”)

With Millicent still in New York, Davies ruled as the queen of Hearst’s legendary “castle” in San Simeon, Calif. He also bought her an estate in Beverly Hills. “She had her own home, her own servants and her own life,” said Nasaw.

Her estate was party central, with lavish dinners and rivers of illicit booze served to 100 or so guests, multiple nights each week. Her crowd included John Barrymore, Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin — with whom Davies was said to be having an affair.

If Hearst was put off by Chaplin, you wouldn’t know it. He invited the actor on jaunts aboard his 250-foot yacht, including a 1924 costume party during which a guest walked in on Davies and Chaplin having sex.

A week later, when producer Thomas Ince fell ill and was carried off of Hearst’s yacht before dying at home, rumors swirled. One of them — fueled by secrecy around the death — according to the Los Angeles Times, was that Hearst mistakenly shot Ince rather than the intended target: Chaplin.

Portrait of actress Marion Davies (1897-1961) wearing a fur stole and taffeta skirt, for Apeda Studios, 1929.
Portrait of actress Marion Davies (1897-1961) wearing a fur stole and taffeta skirt, for Apeda Studios, 1929.
Getty Images

The less juicy tale, according to Gabrielle, is that Ince suffered from an ulcer and angina and “became violently ill” after consuming booze and salty food. Said Nasaw: “It’s a ridiculous idea that Hearst killed him. They tried to keep everything secret because of prohibition.”

Nasaw also does not think Davies took advantage of the man  she called “Pops” in good times and “Droopy Drawers” during bad: “She didn’t have to take advantage. He happily gave her everything she wanted.”

But Hearst couldn’t provide sobriety. “Marion started drinking at 12 years old and never stopped; her major problem was that she was a drunk,” said Nasaw. “Hearst tried every quack cure to get her sober. He also tried to restrict drinking at San Simeon, but Marion’s friends smuggled in liquor for her.”

As the 1930s wore on, Davies lost her ingénue status. Hearst refused to let her take femme fatale roles — all the rage at the moment— and she faded from Hollywood. At the same time, Hearst’s publishing empire was collapsing. A poor money manager, he had been hit hard by the Depression. And his right-wing politics, according to Nasaw, alienated readers. Hearst found himself more than $100 million in debt.

Davies did the little bit she could to help. “She hocked her jewels,” recalled Gabrielle. “In less than 48 hours she produced a check for $1 million. It couldn’t save the company. But it helped.”

Marion’s impressive New York properties

After World War II, Hearst’s business regained its footing. And in the end, the relationship made her wealthier than acting ever could: By the time of his death in 1951, she held 30,000 shares of robust Hearst stock, as well as her own money and real-estate holdings.

But her looks had faded — “because of the drinking,” said Nasaw, “she did not age well” — and, two months later, she entered into a rotten marriage with a merchant marine, Horace Brown. “After Hearst’s death, a part of her soul was gone,” said Gabrielle. “She so badly wanted to marry Hearst but was never able to do it. This was her opportunity to be a married woman. Additionally, Horace looked just like Hearst. But her relationship with Horace was difficult. There was emotional and verbal violence.” Nevertheless, they stayed together.

Davies was diagnosed with cancer in 1959 and made one of her last public appearances in January 1961 at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. Nasaw described her “sitting with the [Kennedy] family: a puffy-cheeked blond woman with sunglasses.” She was there because, through Hearst, she knew Kennedy patriarch Joseph. On Sept. 22, 1961, Marion died from jaw cancer that had been exacerbated by a botched dental procedure.

Hearst was in love with Marion — and jealous.

David Nasaw, William Randolph Hearst biographer

Wild rumors followed her to the grave. In 1993, Davies’ niece Patricia Lake claimed on her deathbed to actually be Marion’s daughter, fathered by Hearst and born in a French “chateau of some sort or a little private hospital.”

Lake’s death certificate lists Hearst and Davies as her parents. Gabrielle is not buying it. “The calendar doesn’t lie,” she said. “I can tell you when Patricia was born and tell you where Marion was and tell you that Marion wasn’t pregnant.”

Despite her humble beginnings, Davies “was talented and shrewd and lucky; she would charm everyone in the room,” said Nasaw. At her core, he added, “She was a Brooklyn girl.”



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