What was for decades one of Hollywood's juiciest rumors--the kind of scoop Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper whispered about but never dared dish--unceremoniously surfaced this month in a newspaper death notice three paragraphs long, Page 14, Column 6.
Patricia Van Cleve Lake, "the only daughter of famed movie star Marion Davies and famed (publisher) William Randolph Hearst," was dead.
Hollywood of the 1920s once buzzed with rumors that a child had been born of the scandalous affair so publicly conducted by Hearst and Davies--the eccentric newspaper monarch and his actress mistress. But the little blond girl who lived in the margins of the publishing dynasty was always introduced as "the niece of Miss Marion Davies."
Patricia grew up mingling with the likes of Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson and Jean Harlow at the parties Davies threw inside Hearst's hilltop castle at San Simeon. If anyone noticed the striking resemblance the young girl bore to Hearst, they did not mention it aloud.
She carried the secret around for more than 60 years, even after the deaths of Hearst in 1951 and Davies a decade later. But 10 hours before she died from complications of lung cancer in a desert hospital on Oct. 3, Patricia Van Cleve Lake told her son she wanted the world to know who she really was.
What her birth certificate did not reflect, her death certificate would. Even after the obscure obituary was published, naysayers called her a fraud. "One man called the mortuary and raised holy hell," Arthur Lake Jr. said from his mother's Indian Wells home, where portraits of Hearst and Davies cover the walls.
Indeed, the skeptics have a point. All the proof Lake had to offer were countless stories and a suspiciously familiar nose and long face. Whatever the truth, Lake undeniably led a glamorous life at the center of one of Hollywood's most enduring rumors, at a time when the star system flourished, the incomes were fabulous and the lifestyles opulent and uninhibited.
"She lived her life on a satin pillow," Lake said fondly after his mother's death. "They took away her name, but they gave her everything else."
Marion Davies was a former Ziegfeld girl who wanted to be an actress and William Randolph Hearst was a man who made things happen. Legend has it that Hearst was once so hungry for a hot news story that he started the Spanish-American War. His wife refused to divorce him to let him marry Davies, so he dove shamelessly into an extramarital affair. When Davies decided she wanted to act, Hearst founded a movie studio to keep her working and ordered all his newspapers to give her rave reviews.
But, in the early 1920s, even for Hearst, it was easier to start a war than to make the world accept a child born out of wedlock. So when Davies told him she was pregnant, according to family lore, he put her on a steamship to Europe and followed later. They say she gave birth to a baby girl in a small Catholic hospital outside Paris. The year was sometime between 1920 and 1923; Lake never knew exactly.
Much of what happened afterward is a matter of debate. Lake is not here to tell her story, but she confided the following account to her grown children and a handful of close friends before she died:
It was arranged that the newborn baby be given to Davies' sister, Rose, a chorus girl whose own child had died in infancy. The dead child's birth certificate was altered and the baby, named Patricia, became the daughter of Rose and George Van Cleve. At least on paper.
She lived with the Van Cleves but Hearst paid the bills, sending her to Catholic schools in New York and Boston. (George Van Cleve, meanwhile, zoomed from a lowly Arrow shirt model to head of Hearst's Cosmopolitan Pictures Co.)
Patricia spent much of her youth at "the Ranch," the family name for the San Simeon castle that offered a private zoo, tennis courts, three chefs and the celebrated Neptune pool with 345,000 gallons of mountain spring water, warmed to 70 degrees.
Patricia played tennis there with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Buddy Rogers. Errol Flynn spotted her, all of 17, at a beach party and was smitten. So was she. ("God, I wish Errol Flynn was still alive," a thin and ailing Patricia said, sitting on a bar stool at a party just months before she died. "He was a barrel of laughs, and pretty good in the hay, too.")
The affair with Flynn lasted years, even after she married Arthur Lake, the movie actor who played Dagwood Bumstead and the man handpicked by Hearst to be her husband. One day, Hearst summoned her to his San Simeon tower. "You have got to stop this," she remembered him saying. "You are a married woman."
She stared back at him--the father of five sons shacked up with a movie star--and asked: "What about you?"