Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies by Lara Gabrielle

Orson Welles did a number on Marion Davies in Citizen Kane, and he knew it. The fictional relationship between newspaper publisher Charles Foster Kane and his mistress, Susan Alexander, was widely assumed to be based on the real-life relationship between newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and Davies, his mistress of more than three decades.

In the film, however, Alexander is a screechy blonde shopgirl whom Kane tries to mold into an opera star, with disastrous, humiliating results. Davies was also blonde, but that’s where the resemblance ended.

Davies was a talented and charismatic movie star whose best films, which privilege her gift for physical comedy, can delight audiences to this day. I know, having caught recent Film at Lincoln Center screenings of two keepers, Show People and The Patsy (both from 1928). It’s true that Hearst financed her films, promoted them in his papers, and pushed her into too many overproduced costume dramas when, with different guidance, she could have been a female Chaplin or Keaton. But Davies was the real deal, not a mogul’s folly.

Davies in 1928’s The Patsy.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the time or interest to seek out Davies’s movies at Lincoln Center. Mank, the 2020 film about the making of Citizen Kane, at least paid her the compliment of casting the excellent Amanda Seyfried as a sympathetic if somewhat pitiable Davies. Seyfried, with even bigger, wider eyes than Davies’s memorable peepers, captured her effervescence. But Mank was more interested in Davies’s alcoholism than her career, and the Kane taint lingers. Welles regretted the smear, telling a BBC interviewer in 1982, three years before he died, “It seemed to me to be something of a dirty trick, and does still strike me as something of a dirty trick, what we did to her.”

And yet here the rest of us are, nearly four decades after Welles’s death, six decades after Davies’s, and eight decades after RKO released Citizen Kane, presented with an entertaining, first-rate biography that necessarily serves, like it or not, as a corrective to Hollywood myth.

The book is Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies. The author is Lara Gabrielle, a film historian, who has spent nine years digging through archives and interviewing anyone she could find who knew Davies. The title references a line from one of Davies’s favorite poems, William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” which the actress invoked during an interview for an aborted memoir. “I’m the captain of my soul,” she insisted. “Therefore, what I want to do I want to do myself, regardless of what people think that I should do.”

This, essentially, is the argument of Gabrielle’s book, that “despite Hearst’s influence … Marion made all her own decisions.” But the author also quotes a close friend of Davies’s, the screenwriter and director Frances Marion, referring to the actress as “a butterfly with glue on her wings,” not fully able to fly onscreen under the weight of Hearst’s mulish opinions.

One example: he went to the mat with MGM and director King Vidor to keep her from taking a pie in the face in Show People. She ended up getting sprayed with a seltzer bottle—and what difference that really made to Hearst is hard to know. But the hobbled-butterfly image fits the portrait of Davies that emerges from these pages: a free spirit, but one who was often willing to defer to her powerful older lover, even when it might not have been in her best interests.

She seems to have had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward stardom, perhaps because, unlike most in her position, she hadn’t had to scratch and claw her way to the top. Hearst, one of World War I–era Broadway’s pre-eminent stage-door Johnnys, had essentially plucked her from the Ziegfeld Follies and put her into pictures. Her collaborator on the aborted memoir thought of her not as a captain but as a “cork in the ocean.” To the extent that was true, however, she was a contented, even happy cork. Perhaps that is Gabrielle’s point.

The scene at Zsa Zsa Gabor’s “Come as your favorite character” costume party in Hollywood. From left, Laurence Harvey as himself, Davies as General MacArthur, and Gabor as Jeanne Avril (the character she played in Moulin Rouge). Davies’s husband, Horace Brown, stands behind them.

Maybe the best way to consider Davies is as someone who could be acquiescent but never passive. She was born in Brooklyn to working-class Irish-American parents and at 16 persuaded her mother to let her drop out of school to become a dancer. She took her movies seriously, completing take after take without complaint, even during physically demanding scenes.

When talkies arrived, she overcame her stutter to continue making successful movies, with co-stars that included Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Dick Powell, until she retired in 1938, at the age of 41. She threw great parties, with and without Hearst. She was a serious and generous philanthropist. She was smart, well read, and had both opinions and a mouth. (Among the delights of Gabrielle’s book are its forays into very old-school slang, such as “Oh, my ass for a banjo string!”)

Hearst, 34 years her senior, once suspected Davies of having an affair with her good friend Charlie Chaplin—“a dirty little ignorant cockney clown,” in the publisher’s words. He sicced detectives on them, to inconclusive results, and Gabrielle throws up her hands on that question as well.

The stronger evidence is that Davies and Hearst were genuinely in love with each other, and though she tried to shrug it off, she was apparently deeply wounded by the fact that they were never able to marry. Hearst’s wife, Millicent, another former chorus girl, refused to give him a divorce, and he, a Catholic, declined to push the issue. Even Susan Alexander enjoyed the privilege of being the second Mrs. Kane.

Davies with Charlie Chaplin, with whom Hearst once accused Davies of having an affair, 1929.

The Davies-Hearst relationship was an open secret in Hollywood, and in 1951 she was by his bedside when he slipped into a coma and died shortly thereafter, at the age of 88, in the lavish Beverly Hills home he’d built for her and which they’d shared for years. (It still stands and has appeared in numerous movies, including The Godfather, where it served as the stubborn movie mogul’s estate, setting for the famous horse-head-in-bed scene.)

Davies wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral, and the Hearst Corporation essentially ghosted her, as did several of his five sons, to whom Davies had been close. She shrugged the snubs off, at least in public: Hearst “knew how I felt about him, and I know how he felt about me. There’s no need for dramatics.” That was from an interview she gave to Life that was published two weeks after his death, so her shrug was a barbed one.

The volatile, unhappy marriage to a former stuntman that took up the last decade of her life does not make for happy reading; though, on the fun side of the ledger, she was an old friend of Joseph P. Kennedy’s and offered her Beverly Hills home to the newly wed John and Jacqueline Kennedy when they were honeymooning in Southern California. “We have just had the most perfect four days imaginable at your house—how can the rest of our lives help but be a tragic anticlimax,” read Jackie’s thank-you note. Davies would attend John’s inauguration in January 1961, eight months before her death, from cancer, at 64.

Despite the evident breadth and depth of Gabrielle’s research, her many insights, and her obvious affection for Davies, the woman herself remains at a bit of a remove—a vivid presence seen and felt, but not quite grasped. One problem is that, as a stutterer, she was a reluctant interviewee and, when someone did get her in front of a notepad or microphone, she was almost always reticent about the central relationship in her life. In that remove she resembles not Susan Alexander but Kane himself, who ultimately confounds the reporter sent out to solve his mighty mysteries.

Davies the performer is an easier get. Gabrielle names her “the matriarch” who paved the way for the screwball daffiness of Carole Lombard and the broad but character-driven physical comedy of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett.

That seems exactly right. Watch a clip from The Patsy on YouTube and see for yourself. Davies is beautiful, sure, but better yet, she’s funny, insouciant, and alive, with a way of making the audience complicit in the good time she seems to be having. Star quality, in other words. It. You needn’t be a stage-door Johnny to swoon.

Bruce Handy is a journalist and the author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult