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COLUMN ONE

In Their Day, They Were Stars

Marion Davies and her beach house embodied Hollywood's Golden Age. Decades later, the actress and the site are back in the limelight.

September 29, 2006|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

At the height of the Roaring '20s, newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst built an extravagant house on five beachfront acres in Santa Monica for his blond mistress, actress Marion Davies.

It was the grandest manse at the shore, dwarfing the residences of such Hollywood nobility as Louis B. Mayer, Samuel and Frances Goldwyn, Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer, Harold and Mildred Lloyd, and Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 05, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Marion Davies' property: A caption accompanying a Column One article about Marion Davies' Santa Monica property in Friday's Section A identified a building as a 1920s guest house. The photo shows a structure built near the guest house at a later date that contained men's and women's locker rooms.

Davies, a silent film star, and Hearst entertained assiduously. Their elaborate costume parties drew the likes of Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Cary Grant, Gloria Swanson and Howard Hughes, who donned lederhosen for a Tyrolean bash.

Charlie Chaplin, rumored to have been Davies' lover, cavorted with her in the 110-foot saltwater swimming pool, lined with Italian marble and spanned by a Venetian marble bridge.

During the silver screen's Golden Age, Davies emerged as a Hollywood favorite, an effervescent prankster with porcelain skin and a zest for merrymaking.

Yet today she is remembered, if at all, as a minor luminary of that era, largely because of two men.

There was Hearst, the married magnate who used his media empire to tout her talents, leaving detractors to conclude that she couldn't stand on her own. And there was Orson Welles, whose 1941 film "Citizen Kane" -- loosely based on Hearst's life -- cemented in the public's mind the notion that Davies was shrill and talentless.

In recent years, Davies' fans have worked to revive interest in the actress and her films.

At the same time, admirers of the beach property, its mansion long ago demolished, have been pushing to turn the forlorn site, with its historic pool and guest house, into a public beach club.

The two efforts aim to rehabilitate not only a tired oceanfront property but also a dead woman's image.

*

Near the end of 1915, soon after his wife, Millicent, had given birth to twin boys, Hearst attended a new Irving Berlin musical on Broadway, "Stop! Look! Listen!"

In the chorus was an 18-year-old strawberry blond named Marion Davies. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., she was the youngest of five children of a city magistrate, Bernard Douras, and his wife, Rose. She and two older sisters who also went into show business adopted the name Davies after seeing it on a real estate sign.

Hearst, 52, was smitten. "He sent me flowers and little gifts, like silver boxes or gloves or candy," Davies recalled in taped reminiscences, published posthumously in 1975 as "The Times We Had."

By the spring of 1916, according to Hearst biographer David Nasaw, the tycoon and the chorine were seeing each other regularly at parties and dinners. Seeking to be discreet for the sake of his wife, a former chorus girl who refused to grant him a divorce, Hearst tried to lead a double life. He fooled no one.

In May 1916, a story in the Hearst-owned New York American revealed that Davies had been "the first of the new Follies beauty crop to be selected by Mr. Ziegfeld" for his upcoming show. After that, news items about Davies began appearing regularly in the Hearst papers.

Davies' first film role was in the 1917 "Runaway, Romany," a movie she wrote that was directed by her brother-in-law George Lederer. "I couldn't act, but the idea of silent pictures appealed to me because I couldn't talk either," Davies recalled much later, alluding to her problem of stuttering.

The next year, Hearst's Manhattan film studio, Cosmopolitan Productions, produced two pictures starring Davies: "Cecilia of the Pink Roses" and "The Burden of Proof." Reviews for the former were mixed. Hearst's American raved about her performance.

The New York Times yawned: "There is no objection to Miss Davies. She is by no means a sensational screen actress, but she fills the requirements of her part."

Throughout her two-decade film career, in which she worked at MGM and then Warner Bros., Davies seemed most at ease, and generally earned her best reviews, in light, comedic roles. Hearst often miscast her in epic costume dramas, but even in those she sometimes won praise.

In 1928, in the waning days of silents, Davies starred in two frothy comedies directed by King Vidor that are considered her best: "The Patsy" and "Show People." They gave rise to her reputation as Hollywood's first screwball heroine.

That year, Davies and Hearst moved into their beach compound at what is now 415 Pacific Coast Highway.

The three-story, Georgian Revival main house was U-shaped, with 18 Grecian columns across the back. Davies and Hearst had separate suites connected by a hidden door. Four other houses were occupied by Davies' family, long-term guests and more than 30 full-time servants. Altogether, the complex included 110 bedrooms and 55 bathrooms.

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