Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Woman Who Almost Had it All

Santa Monica Remembers Movie Star Marion Davies

When I was getting my graduate degree at UCLA, my friends and I used to drive by this enormous, white colonial building that sat right on Santa Monica Beach and looked like a bedraggled bride--it was a white elephant from a previous era that had been badly weathered by wind and water. I read that it had been the beach house of actress Marion Davies, and it appeared to be only slightly smaller than Hearst Castle. The sea battered it and the Northridge earthquake finally did the rest. The big old mansion had to come down. But historic preservation in the 21st century has spared one of the guest houses and rescued the mansion's history. I was able to visit there with the help of a friend who worked on the committee to preserve this fascinating piece of film history.

Marion Davies (1897-1961) was a pretty, blonde, teenage chorus girl in New York when she met one of the richest men in America--publisher William Randolph Hearst.

Marion Davies in a photo probably taken in New York, when she was in her early twenties.

Hearst (1863-1951) inherited a fortune that his hardscrabble father made in the Nevada silver mines, and he spent his life turning this enormous fortune into a smaller one. By the time he met Marion Davies, Hearst had been married to another showgirl for 15 years and had five sons. But the family man in his fifties was still a stage-door Johnny, and that is how he met Marion. And though he did not divorce his wife, their romance would last the rest of his life.

He gave her everything: a film career for one thing. After he got her started in silent films in New York he took his own film company, Cosmopolitan, to Hollywood, where he moved the company (and her 18-room dressing room) onto the MGM lot. Louis B. Mayer was no fool. Having the most powerful newspaper man and his girlfriend working in association with MGM was good for business, even if the Marion Davies pictures didn't make a dime (which they might have if Hearst didn't overspend on every one of them).

One of Hearst's gifts to Marion was the house he built for her on Santa Monica beach in the 1920s, the biggest and fanciest house in Hollywoodland. Hearst and Marion gave hundreds of parties there for all the stars. Most of all they loved costume parties: as if the daily work of dressing up for the job wasn't enough! But Hearst and his newspapers were powerful, and when he sent an invitation, even the most important stars trembled and appeared at the appointed hour.

Girls gone wild: Gloria Swanson, Marion Davies, Constance Bennett, and Jean Harlow all dressed up for a costume party at the Marion Davies Beach House in the early 1930s. Harlow, for once, looks like the young kid she really was. Bennett was so chic, it appears she said phooey to the whole costume thing and wore her best silk evening gown and ermine cape.

Marion starred in both silents and talkies, but finally retired in 1937. She was forty by then and a little world weary. She had fourteen more years with Hearst before he died, in another of her homes in Beverly Hills, in 1951.

His sons had the body whisked away and Marion was not invited to the funeral. She sold the beach house, finally married one of the gents who had danced attendance 'round her, and died ten years later. She spent her last years using her considerable fortune to help others. She truly was the dame with the heart of gold. The girl who had it all--except the one thing she wanted most from Hearst--his name.

When the beach house had to come down, it appeared that Davies' life in Los Angeles would be virtually forgotten. But a committee of preservationists, the City of Santa Monica, and the Annenberg Foundation, stepped in and purchased the site, preserving one of the three guest houses on the beach as a memorial to this woman who led a truly remarkable life. The Annenbergs built a public beach facility on the location of the original home, and it can now be used for parties and events. During the day, the public can use its showers and other facilities for a small fee. They have even preserved Miss Davies' original swimming pool and that too is part of the new beach club. It is a terrific addition to the region and keeps more high-rise condos and other development from polluting the coast line.

The Annenberg Community Beach House on the site of Marion Davies' original home.

The Marion Davies Guest House sits adjacent to the new Annenberg facility. You can see on the hills beyond what development is like in the surrounding region.

Turner Classic Movies is working to revive interest in the films of Marion Davies. She was a wonderful comedienne and a truly charming hoofer. And now the City of Santa Monica, a group of volunteers, and the Annenberg family, have given her a place in Santa Monica and Los Angeles history. It is the least they can do for the beautiful, funny, and unsophisticated Marion, the Woman Who Almost Had it All.

Marion Davies, near the end of her film career, in the late 1930s.

Docents are available to give tours of the Guest House and though there isn't original furniture in the structure the bathroom tiles are really something to see--and this is just the guest house! To learn more:

Marion Davies Beach House Preservation and Tours

The Annenberg Community Beach House

Actress Marion Davies on IMDB

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