Memoir Monday: The Times They Had

Marion Davies, in many ways, is my heart. An accomplished comedienne whose silent films The Patsy and Show People (in the latter, she does a killer Gloria Swanson impression) prove once and for all that silent films can be shockingly modern, Davies was undone by her relationship with William Randolph Hearst. A Victorian through and through, he wanted to see Davies in melodramas and hoopskirts; she wanted to drink champagne and sparkle. Even more devastating, her life with Hearst made her grist for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which presented a Marion Davies manquee as a talentless showgirl propelled to fame by Kane’s riches and publishing empire. That became the accepted truth as silent films fell into obscurity, and even today, with books and articles printed each year about how damn funny she really was, she’s rarely mentioned by casual silent film fans as one of the comedy greats. (Try to find Show People, funnier than most Chaplin movies, on DVD.)

Not to mention that Davies hocked Hearst out of debt in the 1930s by selling a million dollars’ worth of the jewels he bought her, and waking up the morning he died to find that his sons had taken his body away in the night. As the mistress, she couldn’t very well attend the family funeral, so the man she spent decades loving and living with was buried without her.

All of that being said, Davies’ posthumously published The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst is a hoot. Recounted in a series of recorded ramblings, Davies is clear-eyed about the past, but her voice can be similar to that of Peggy Hopkins Joyce, a little ditsy and a little out-of-touch (wouldn’t you be if you spent as much time at San Simeon as she did?). The most outrageous passage is about the Japanese internment camps 50 miles away from Hearst’s Wyntoon castle. Davies was, to put it bluntly, annoyed by the prisoners’ repeated escape attempts.

“I didn’t know what they were complaining about, because they had lovely menus in their camps; I had a copy of the menu. [Fascinating! But why did Marion Davies have a copy of the Japanese internment camp menu?] They had the most wonderful breakfasts, and chicken for luncheon, and anything they wanted at night. But still they were dissatisfied. They created a furor all the time, and it was a constant strain all during the war.”

Ah, the casual racism of a previous era. Can’t you just picture Hearst, Davies, and assorted glittering guests sitting around a table doing jigsaw puzzles and looking at each other in pique because alarms are going off thanks to another possible escapee? The rich are definitely not like us.

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