Marion Davies, more talented than people think, gets what she deserves in Oakland writer’s biography

Marion Davis in the 1925 film “Zander the Great.” Davis is the subject of Oakland author Lara Gabrielle’s new biography, Captain Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davis. Photo: Lake Marion Canesa

Imagine being one of the most well-known figures in Hollywood history, but your life has been reduced to a relationship with a powerful person.

That was the fate of actress Marion Davis over the years.

Although she made 45 feature films between 1917 and 1937, most of us know her today because of her many accounts of her relationship with publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst. Since the 1980s, at least six films have featured Davis as a character, from Virginia Madsen in the 1985 ABC TV movie “The Hearst & Davis Incident” to Kerr in 2001’s “Cat’s Meow” Sten Dunst.

But most importantly, Dorothy Comingore’s Susan Alexander was the surrogate for the actress in Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane, and people began to associate with Davis. , Davis died in 1961 at the age of 64.

The film’s protagonist, inspired by Hearst and other newspaper magnates, portrays Alexander as an untalented singer, whom Kane tries to legitimize by building an opera house for her. With Citizen Kane being included in many cinematic masterpieces, the character of Alexander has replaced the real Davis in many people’s minds. Her role in “Kane” was featured in the 2020 film “Mank,” where Amanda Seyfried was nominated for an Oscar for playing Davis.

Now, film scholar Lara Gabrielle is trying to tell the full Davis story.

Author Lara Gabrielle walks through the streets outside the Huntington Hotel in San Francisco. Gabrielle is the author of a new biography of actress Marion Davies, which features the hotel and Grace Cathedral. Photo: Bronte Witpen/Chronicles

“There’s definitely a record that needs to be corrected,” said Gabriel, an Oakland native and author of a new book, Captain Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davis, which Gabriel and I will present in January 2019. Mrs Dalloway’s Bookstore in Berkeley discusses the book. Thursday, September 29.

Growing up in the Bay Area, the name Hearst was well known to Gabriel. (The Chronicle is owned by the Hearst Company.) But she didn’t become fascinated by the actress until she was 13 when she read Davis’s posthumous compilation of memoirs. When Gabrielle started her classic film blog “Backlots” in 2011, Davis became a common talking point. Davis’ last biography was published in 1972, and she discovered new archival sources, as well as locations in the Bay Area associated with Davis and Hearst, such as the Fairmont Nob Hill where Davis stayed and the Huntington Hotel, and Grace Cathedral. Hearst’s funeral was held. Davis even had a movie theater named after her on Market Street, but it had long since been demolished.

In 2013, Gabriel began research at institutions including the Los Angeles Film School’s Margaret Herrick Library and the New York Public Library’s Billy Ross Theater Collection.

“As someone who has these resources, I have the ability to make her more fulfilling,” Gabriel said.

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies in “Mank.” Photo: Netflix

Davis’ career took her from 1910s Broadway’s “Zigfeld’s Folly” to silent and finally talkies. A longtime partner of Hearst and his wife Millicent, she is the hostess of Hearst Castle, the legendary estate in San Simeon now open to the public. She was also a shrewd investor in California real estate, which allowed her to give Hearst a $1 million loan to rescue his company during the Great Depression and start the Marion Davis Children’s Clinic, which eventually merged into California UCLA Medical Center.

While Davis is a natural comedian, Hearst, who closely oversees her films, prefers historical dramas. These films usually don’t highlight her talent, but have been praised in Hearst’s publications.

“One of the reasons she’s not known as an actress today is that she doesn’t have a great movie that everyone knows,” Gabriel said. “Her best film, The Show Man, was silent and didn’t break out in the same way for people.”

About this portrayal in Citizen Kane: While many associate Susan Alexander with Davis, Gabriel points out that opera singer Ganna Volska and her relationship with Chicago businessman Harrow De Fowler McCormick’s relationship is in many ways closer to the character.

“I want people to come out of this book and realize that Marion is really her own person,” Gabriel said. “She’s been maligned for so long because of the image Hearst has created for her, but in the end, she’s the captain of her soul.”

William Randolph Hearst with his longtime partner actress Marion Davis. Davis is the subject of Lara Gabrielle’s new biography, Captain Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davis. Photo: University of California Press

“Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davis”

by Laura Gabriel

University of California Press, 344 pages, $34.95

Conversation between Lara Gabrielle and Tony Bravo: Thursday, September 29 at 7pm. Free, registration required. Mrs Dalloway’s Bookstore, 2904 College Ave., Berkeley. 510-704-8222

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