God, I'd give everything I have to marry that silly old man. Not for the money and security—he's given me more than I'll ever need. Not because he's such cozy company, either. Most times, when he starts jawing, he bores me stiff. And certainly not because he's so wonderful behind the barn. Why, I could find a million better lays any Wednesday. No, you know what he gives me, sugar? He gives me the feeling I'm worth something to him. A whole lot of what we have, or don't have, I don't like. He's got a wife who'll never give him a divorce. She knows about me, but it's still understood that when she decides to go to the ranch for a week or a weekend, I've got to vamoose. And he snores, and he can be petty, and has sons about as old as me. But he's kind and he's good to me, and I'd never walk out on him.
Davies was born Marion Cecilia Elizabeth Brooklyn Douras on January 3, 1897, in Brooklyn, the youngest of five children born to Bernard J. Douras (1857–1935), a Lawyer and judge in New York City; and Rose Reilly (1867–1928). Her father performed the civil marriage of Gloria Gould Bishop. She had three older sisters, Ethel, Rose, and Reine. An older brother, Charles, drowned at the age of 15 in 1906. His name was subsequently given to Davies' favorite nephew, Screenwriter Charles Lederer, the son of Davies' sister Reine Davies.
After making her screen debut in 1916, modelling gowns by Lady Duff-Gordon in a fashion newsreel, she appeared in her first feature film in the 1917 Runaway Romany. Davies wrote the film, which was directed by her brother-in-law, prominent Broadway Producer George W. Lederer. The following year she starred in two films—The Burden of Proof and Cecilia of the Pink Roses. Playing mainly light comic roles, she quickly became a film personality appearing with major male stars, making a small fortune, which enabled her to provide financial assistance for her family and friends.
Davies had appeared in several Broadway musicals and one film, Runaway Romany (1917) before newspaper tycoon william Randolph Hearst, with whom she had begun a romantic relationship, took over management of her career. Hearst financed Davies' pictures and promoted her heavily through his newspapers and Hearst Newsreels. He founded Cosmopolitan Pictures to produce her films. Hearst preferred to see her in historical dramas, but her real talent was in comedy. For this reason, Davies is often remembered today as Hearst's mistress and the hostess of many lavish events for the Hollywood elite. In particular, her name is linked with the 1924 scandal aboard Hearst's yacht when one of his guests, film Producer Thomas Ince, died.
In 1918, Hearst started the movie studio Cosmopolitan Productions to promote Davies' career and also moved her with her mother and sisters into an elegant Manhattan townhouse at the corner of Riverside Drive and W. 105th Street. Cecilia of the Pink Roses in 1918 was her first film backed by Hearst. She was on her way to being the most infamously advertised Actress in the world. During the next ten years she appeared in 29 films, an average of almost three films a year. One of her best known roles was as Mary Tudor in When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922), directed by Robert G. Vignola, with whom she collaborated on several films.
Lake told her friends and family that Davies became pregnant by Hearst in the early 1920s. As the child was conceived during Hearst's extra-marital affair with Davies and out of wedlock, Hearst sent Davies to Europe to have the child in secret to avoid a public scandal. Hearst later joined Davies in Europe. Lake claimed she was born in a Catholic hospital outside of Paris between 1920 and 1923 (she was unsure of the precise date). Lake was then given to Davies' sister Rose, whose own child had died in infancy, and passed off as Rose and her husband George Van Cleve's daughter. Lake stated that Hearst paid for her schooling and both Davies and Hearst spent considerable time with her. Davies reportedly told Lake of her true parentage when she was 11 years old. Lake said Hearst confirmed that he was her father on her wedding day at age 17 where both Davies and Hearst gave her away.
Largely because of the damage to her reputation caused by Citizen Kane, Davies has been largely ignored by film critics and historians. But a recent reassessment of her work has come about via broadcast of her films on Turner Classic Movies and the release on DVD on her silent films like When Knighthood Was in Flower, Beauty's Worth, The Bride's Play, Enchantment, The Restless Sex, April Folly, and Buried Treasure. This new availability, along with the publication of The Silent Films of Marion Davies by Edward Lorusso have allowed for a better assessment of Davies' work as an Actress. Despite the legend, most of Davies's films made money and she remained a popular star for most of her career. Indeed, Davies was the #1 female box office star of 1922-23 thanks to the enormous popularity of When Knighthood Was in Flower and Little Old New York, which both ranked among the biggest box-office films of 1922 and 1923, respectively.
In November 1924, Davies was among those aboard Hearst's luxury yacht Oneida for a weekend party that resulted in the death of film Producer Thomas Ince. Rumors have endured since then that Davies had an alleged relationship with fellow-guest Charlie Chaplin, and that Hearst mistook Ince for Chaplin and shot him out of jealousy. There has never been any evidence to support the rumors.
After seeing photographs of St Donat's Castle in Country Life magazine, the Welsh Vale of Glamorgan property was bought and revitalized by Hearst in 1925 as a gift to Davies. Hearst and Davies spent much of their time entertaining, holding lavish parties with guests at their Beverly Hills estate. Frequent guests included, among others, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and a young John F. Kennedy. Upon visiting St Donat's, George Bernard Shaw was quoted as saying: "This is what God would have built if he had had the money."
Hearst loved seeing her in expensive costume pictures, but she also appeared in contemporary comedies like Tillie the Toiler, The Fair Co-Ed (both 1927), and especially three directed by King Vidor, Not So Dumb (1930), The Patsy and the backstage-in-Hollywood saga Show People (both 1928). The Patsy contains her imitations, which she usually did for friends, of silent stars Lillian Gish, Mae Murray and Pola Negri. King Vidor saw Davies as a comedic Actress instead of the dramatic Actress that Hearst wanted her to be. He noticed she was the life of parties and incorporated that into his films.
According to her own audio diaries, she met Hearst long before she had started working in films. Hearst later formed Cosmopolitan Pictures, which would produce most of her starring vehicles. Hearst's relentless efforts to promote her career had a detrimental effect, but he persisted, making Cosmopolitan's distribution deals first with Paramount, then Goldwyn, and with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Davies herself was more inclined to develop her comic talents alongside her friends at United Artists, but Hearst pointedly discouraged this. Davies, in her published memoirs The Times We Had, concluded that Hearst's over-the-top promotion of her career, in fact, had a negative result. One particular Example, he had purchased the Cameo Theatre (located in San Francisco) in 1929. He then lavishly remodeled both the exterior and interior decor in a rosebud-hued Art Moderne motif, and renamed it The Marion Davies Theatre. From Hearst's office windows further up Market Street, he could see pink neon letters constantly spelling out her name above the marquee. Hearst Metrotone Newsreels were included on the program, and these newsreels regularly touted Miss Davies' social activities.
By the late 1930s, Hearst was suffering financial reversals. After selling many of the contents of St Donat's Castle, Davies sold her jewelry, stocks and bonds and wrote a check for $1 million to Hearst to save him from bankruptcy. Davies had developed a drinking Problem over the course of many years, but her alcoholism grew worse in the latter 1930's and the 1940's, as she and Hearst lived an increasingly isolated life. The two spent most of the Second World War at Hearst's Northern California estate of Wyntoon, until returning to San Simeon in 1945.
Hearst reportedly had tried to push MGM production boss Irving Thalberg to cast Davies in the title role in Marie Antoinette, but Thalberg gave the part to his wife, Norma Shearer. This rejection came on the heels of Davies having been also denied the female lead in The Barretts of Wimpole Street; that role going to Shearer as well. Despite Davies' friendship with the Thalbergs, Hearst reacted by pulling his newspaper support for MGM and moving Davies and Cosmopolitan Pictures distribution to Warner Brothers. Davies' films there were Page Miss Glory (1935), Hearts Divided, Cain and Mabel (both 1936), and Ever Since Eve (1937). Mirroring events at MGM, Warners purchased the rights to the play "Tovarich" for Davies, but the film version Tovarich was given to Claudette Colbert. Hearst shopped Davies and Cosmopolitan for another year, but no deals were made and Davies officially retired. In 1943, Davies was offered the role of Mrs. Brown in Claudia, but Hearst dissuaded her from taking a supporting role and tarnishing her starring career. In her 45 feature films, over a 20-year period, Davies had never been anything but the star and always got first billing. The only exceptions were films in which she appeared as herself.
Davies was commonly assumed to be the inspiration for the Susan Alexander character portrayed in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941), which was based loosely on Hearst's life. This led to various portrayals of Davies as a talentless opportunist. In his foreword to Davies' autobiography, The Times We Had (published posthumously in 1975), Welles wrote that his fictional creation bears no resemblance to Davies:
Eleven weeks and one day after Hearst's death, Davies married Horace Brown on October 31, 1951, in Las Vegas. It was not a happy marriage. Davies filed for divorce twice, but neither was finalized, despite Brown admitting he treated her badly: "I'm a beast," he said. "I took him back. I don't know why," she explained. "I guess because he's standing right beside me, crying. Thank God we all have a sense of humor."
In her later years, Davies was involved with charity work. In 1952, she donated $1.9 million to establish a children's clinic at UCLA which was named for her; the clinic's name was changed to The Mattel Children's Hospital in 1998. She also fought childhood diseases through the Marion Davies Foundation.
She suffered a minor stroke in 1956, and later underwent surgery on her jawbone for osteomyelitis. Twelve days after the operation, Davies fell in her hospital room and broke her leg. Davies made her last public appearance on January 10, 1960, on an NBC television special called Hedda Hopper's Hollywood. Joseph P. Kennedy rented Davies' mansion and worked from behind the scenes to secure his son John F. Kennedy's nomination during the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. It was not long after that she was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
Davies died of stomach cancer on September 22, 1961, in her home in Hollywood, California.
Davies was portrayed by Virginia Madsen in the telefilm The Hearst and Davies Affair (1985) with Robert Mitchum as Hearst. Madsen later became a Davies fan and said that she felt she had inadvertently portrayed her as a stereotype, rather than as a real person.
Davies was portrayed by Heather McNair in Chaplin (1992); by Gretchen Mol in Cradle Will Rock (1999); and by Kirsten Dunst in The Cat's Meow (2001).
Since the early 1920s, there has been speculation that Davies and Hearst had a child together some time between 1920 and 1923. The child was rumored to be Patricia Lake (née Van Cleve), who was publicly identified as Davies' niece. On October 3, 1993, Lake died of complications from lung cancer in Indian Wells, California. Ten hours before her death, Lake requested that her son publicly announce that she was not Davies' niece but Davies' biological daughter, whom she had conceived with Hearst. Lake had never commented on her alleged paternity in public, even after Hearst's and Davies' deaths, but did tell her grown children and friends. Lake's claim was published in her death notice, which was published in newspapers.
Melanie Griffith was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress – Miniseries or a Movie for portraying Davies in RKO 281 in 2000.
Welles told filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich that Samuel Insull's building of the Chicago Opera House, and Business tycoon Harold Fowler McCormick's lavish promotion of the opera career of his second wife, were direct influences on the screenplay for Citizen Kane. "As for Marion," Welles said, "she was an extraordinary woman—nothing like the character Dorothy Comingore played in the movie."