Wesley Britton’s Books,
Interviews, and Media Appearances

About Dr. Wesley Britton


Spies on Film

Spies on Television & Radio

Spies in History & Literature

The James Bond Files


Spies on Film ~
Tying Spies to the Railroad Tracks – Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst

By Ronald Payne

Editor’s Note ~

I first became acquainted with the name Marion Davies while researching my third book, Onscreen and Undercover: The Ultimate Book of Movie Espionage (Praeger Pub. 2006). I learned that, during the silent movie era, Davies was best known for establishing the mold of moustache-twirling villains tying wide-eyed damsels in distress to railroad tracks. Accompanied by an ominous piano soundtrack, the film’s dashing hero inevitably rushed to Davies’ rescue, swooping her to safety just as the train roared past.

During this era when hastily produced films were populated by female spies crafted for largely female audiences, Marion Davies was also among many actresses caught up in spy plots involving homegrown Americans fighting the Germans before and after World War I. For example, Davies’1918 The Burden of Proof, a film produced by her own company, involved her husband having secrets that German spies were after. Then, Davies starred in one of the oddest spy stories of the era, The Dark Star (1919). Davies played a girl who has memorized secret plans held in a supernatural relic that had fallen from space with mysterious powers. German spies went after her when she gave the plans to her French secret agent boyfriend. She blew the relic up when it’s wired to a bomb.

Not all her parts were so fanciful. Later in 1934, after the era of the “talkies” had begun, MGM released Operator 13 starring Gary Cooper and Marian Davies. In this Civil War costume drama, Davies played a Union spy working with the actual historical lady spy, Pauline Cushman (Catherine Alexander). But such roles had become infrequent. By this time, Marion Davies had become one of the richest women in Hollywood and was girlfriend of one of the most powerful men in America, and could spend her time thinking about term deposits and investments if she wanted. She didn’t need to be tied to railroad tracks anymore.

Recently, writer Ron Payne sent me his short biography of Davies, Marion Davies – Movie Queen Once Reigned in Gloucester", a piece originally published on July 29, 2004, in a local paper called Glo-Quips.

Ron says he “interviewed, at least, thirty-three different sources to get this story, as well as visiting the former home of Marion Davies in Gloucester, Virginia. Always fascinated with William Randolph Hearst [Davies’ longtime companion], and the legend of the beautiful blonde Marion at his side,” Ron said that writing and researching this article was “one of the happiest experiences of my career.”

So I asked Ron if we could post an edited version of his article for Spywise.net. After all, it’s full of old Hollywood lore, a murder mystery, and insights into filmmaking back when filmmaking was new. Ron graciously agreed – so here is an interesting look into an original “American princess.”

Once upon a time, Marion Davies starred in such films as Lights of Old Broadway, When Knighthood Was In Flower, Adam and Eva, Little Old New York, Enchantment, The Bachelor Father, Hearts Divided and dozens of other motion pictures produced by William Randolph Hears’ís Cosmopolitan Productions, in association with both Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and later the Warner Brothers Studios.

Best known as newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s girl friend – (we dare not say, mistress) – Marion Davies was the love of his life, in spite of the fact that he never divorced his wife, Millicent, to marry her. Instead, Hearst and Davies lived together at San Simeon, Hearst’s legendary California estate and at her 100 room beachfront Santa Monica mansion, which Hearst built for Miss Davies in 1926. It was officially christened as “Ocean House,” a Georgian style structure, which boasted 37 fireplaces – some 250 years old and brought to the location – and a dining room that seated 25 people. Its construction was $3,000,000 (about $30,000,000 in today’s money) and was filled with $4,000,000 in furnishings and art works.

The relationship between Davies and Hearst was the stuff of Hollywood legend. Hearst, the owner of The New York American and The San Francisco Examiner and sixty other publications, including Cosmopolitan magazine, was one of the most powerful forces in American journalism.

A ruthless publisher, who told correspondent Richard Harding Davies during the Spanish-American War in Cuba, “You supply the pictures and I will supply the war!” Orson Welles parodied, emulated and infuriated Hearst in his classic 1941 motion picture, Citizen Kane, and Hearst did everything in his power to destroy Welles’ career and reputation – by not running advertisements for the film in the Hearst newspapers across America and the rest of the world. Hearst did not care what Welles thought of him, but his bitterness derived mostly from Welles’ portrayal of Marion as the drunken-untalented Susan Alexander, Kane’s wife, in the film.

In reality, Susan Alexander, the fictional character of the picture, had nothing in common with the extremely gifted and talented Marion Douras Davies. In fact, Marion Davies was one of the most charismatic screen personalities of her generation, a fact Hearst was all too eager to exploit in his “publicity puffs” regarding Marion and her films in the Hearst press. Something about Marion’s comings and goings appeared in glowing headlines almost weekly – sometimes daily – in Hearst newspapers from Maine to California – a fact not lost on Orson Welles and co-writer Herman Mankiewicz, when it came time for them to write the screenplay for Citizen Kane.

Hearst was grateful to Marion during the mid-1930’s when she saved him and his empire from bankruptcy and total collapse with a personal loan in the “millions-of-dollars.” the Hearst Corporation, one of the richest and most powerful privately held companies in the world today – would not exist, if Marion Davies had not come to the aid of her friend, lover, protector and benefactor, William Randolph Hearst when she did.

Another story seems far more myth than fact. Director Peter Bogdonovich’s film, The Cat’s Meow, had an angry and jealously outraged Hearst caught up in a mistaken identity murder. This was based on the legend that Hearst had allegedly shot and killed Hollywood producer Thomas Harper Ince thinking he was getting his revenge on screen legend Charlie Chaplin, whom he believed to be Marion’s secret lover.

According to the late Orson Welles, the murder took place on Hearst’s yacht, The Oneida, on the third week in November 1924 when Hearst invited a group of his and Marion’s friends to join them on a cruise from Los Angeles to Catalina. The occasion was to celebrate the birthday that Sunday of Tom Ince, who almost single handedly had created the “western-cowboy genre in motion pictures.” Ince was rich – a true pioneer in the infancy of Hollywood – and a man all set to go on to greater things in his career.

Super star comedian and director Charlie Chaplin was also invited on board, as he had been a friend to both Hearst and Marion ever since his first great successes five years before. However, as time passed, it became obvious to Hearst that Chaplin’s interest in Marion was more than just platonic friendship. Soon Marion “would be the bait”, The Oneida, the trap and Hearst “the vengeful spurned lover.” But, it all fell apart. Hearst mistook Ince for Chaplin and shot him in the back of the head.

As the story goes, Hearst columnist Luella Parsons was also on board The Oneida that night and witnessed the murder. To buy her silence, Hearst is believed to have granted her a lifetime contract with Hearst Newspapers – right on the spot. However, the official story on Ince’s death is that he died from bleeding ulcers. The police never investigated the cause of death.

Years later, Marion Davies still denied that Thomas Ince was murdered when she and her new husband, Horace Brown, retreated to their Gloucester County, Virginia, estate from the “wilds of Beverly Hills.” In 1951, Brown, a former Captain in the Maritime Service, (Merchant Marines) had married Davies just three months after the death of Hearst at the age of 88. Marion was 54 when Hearst died and the two had been together 34 years.

When Horace Brown proposed to Marion – William Randolph Hearst was dead – both were lonely. Horace had come into Marion’s life, the first time, when Medical Officers of the California State Guard asked Marion if they could use her facilities as a medical installation and children’s clinic. The Medical Administration' officer handling this task was none other than Horace, himself.

Good natured and with his peculiarly Southern-Gloucester County, Virginia, charm, Horace introduced himself to the beautiful blonde movie star as her “Virginia ham.” Indeed, “the ham” was as in “ham actor” – Horace appeared regularly as an “extra” in some of Hollywood’s most famous pictures – and the thought of “Horace Brown, the Virginia ham” made Marion laugh uncontrollably.

“Horace Brown IS a ham,” Marion told her sister, Rose Douras, about her future husband. Originally, Brown had courted Rose but after meeting Marion, he could not get her out of his mind. He was, like Hearst, instantly smitten with her. Marion was blonde, vivacious, full of generous laughter and warmth – and like Carole Lombard – one of the most beautiful women to ever grace an elegant party or a movie set.

On the other hand, Marion was attracted to Horace, too. Physically, at least, Horace could have passed for Hearst, himself. He looked like Hearst when in his fifties. Friends often did a double-take when they saw Horace for the first time; he so strongly resembled William Randolph Hearst. Always fascinating – never boring – Marion captivated Horace, just as she had captivated W.R. Hearst thirty-five years earlier when Hearst first saw Marion at The Ziegfield Follies in New York in 1917. Hearst, like Horace Brown, fell instantly in love. Marion told Horace that when she met Hearst, “W.R. always bought two seats to see her show. One for himself. And, one for his hat.”

When Marion Davies married Horace Brown in Las Vegas in 1951, she was one of the wealthiest women in the United States, and that meant she was one of the richest people in the world. While pursuing massive construction and real estate projects in New York City – in July 1954, Marion built a 22-story office building on Park Avenue and 57th Streets and named it “The Davies Building.” The building cost Marion $9million (or about $90,000,000 in today’s money adjusted for inflation.)

A second Manhattan building – “The Douras Building” – named in honor of her father was erected at Madison Avenue and 55th Street. It was seventeen stories. Later in 1955, in her fourth year of marriage to Horace G. Brown, Marion bought the glamorous Desert Inn in Palm Springs, California, for $1,750,000. It was a favorite hangout for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Cary Grant.

Each investment doubled, tripled and quadrupled Marion Davies’ private fortune. All the while, Horace, who could not shower Marion with expensive gifts of mansions and diamonds, kept her in stitches with his bawdy seadog stories, which served as just the right tonic for a woman whose spirits often needed uplifting after the death of the incomparable Hearst. This is not to say that Marion and Horace’s marriage was always perfect – or an easy one. On July 17, 1952, just eight months after her marriage to the Virginia native and former sea captain, Marion filed for divorce in Santa Monica, California, but soon dropped the divorce action. Life without Horace would have been just too hard.

Apparently, Horace liked to squirt her friends with a water hose and this behavior often annoyed Marion. He also removed all the telephones out of the house on one occasion. This led to her divorce action. When the telephones were restored, the Browns became a couple again. Screen legend and United Artists co-founder, Mary Pickford, told Marion to “hold onto Horace and never let him go.”

Pickford’s second husband, (she was only recently divorced from swashbuckling screen legend, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.), Buddy Rogers, himself a celebrity band leader and film actor, also encouraged Marion to keep Horace. “Horace is a great guy!” Rogers insisted. “A true Virginia ham, but a wonderful person!”

During those times, Marion and Horace were often visited by Marion’s niece, Pat Lake and her husband, Arthur Lake, whose Gloucester fans recognized Arthur as “Dagwood Bumstead,” the comic strip character he portrayed in the movies. The “Dagwood and Blondie” characters made Arthur Lake and co-star, Penny Singleton, two of the most popular stars at Columbia Pictures during the 1940s. Lake would later, successfully, take the character to television. For many years, Patricia Lake was known as the niece of Marion Davies. Only recently has it been revealed – what many suspected, all along – Pat Lake was really the daughter of Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst.

In 1960-61, Marion was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It started with a toothache – a pain in her jaw. She died September 22, 1961, at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, California, with a bereaved Horace Brown at her bedside, along with other family members. A Requiem Mass at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church was conducted by Reverend Father John O’Donnell, following a recitation of the Rosary the night before at the Pierce Brothers Mortuary outside Hollywood. During her long hospital stay at Cedars of Lebanon, Marion received get well wishes from President John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, former President Harry Truman, Senator Barry Goldwater, General Douglas MacArthur, but always insisted she appreciated most those good wishes she received from friends and acquaintances in Gloucester, Virginia.

To say the powerful and fantastically wealthy William Randolph Hearst was obsessed with his beloved Marion Davies would be the understatement of the last century. In the end, Virginia’\s very own Horace Brown loved Marion, too. Marion Davies’ sense of outrageous fun, high spirits, good humor and laughter and loyalty to her family and friends should not be forgotten. She was a dynamically talented light comedian, just as Charlie Chaplin predicted, before Hearst stopped casting her in those ever so stifling costume epics she abhorred. She liked to enjoy herself. Marion liked to laugh. She liked entertaining people. When she found her niche in movies as a light hearted entertainer, she was just as good as Lucille Ball would be later in a new medium called television.

Marion never did television. She retired from the silver screen in 1937. After that, she was a rich woman, and, a Hearst legend for all time. Those of us discovering or rediscovering her today in her films are witness to a great screen presence. Her charisma is real and not something created by the Hearst press. To historians of the future, we can now say: “Once upon a time, as most of the great fairy tales begin, there lived a bonafide American princess in our midst.”

For other articles by Ronald Payne, check out The James Bond Files section here at Spywise.net.

We also hope you enjoy the Ronald Payne Hollywood Files, available in the Spies on Film section, also posted here at Spywise.net.