Marion Davies Slept Here

St Donats

Well, I’ve never been to Hollywood, tempting offers involving a cat, Elizabeth Taylor’s granddaughter, and a place to stay in LA notwithstanding. You don’t need to be going way out west, though, to be in the presence of Tinseltown’s past, to sense the influence of its players and witness their follies. Now, I am not referring to the likes of Ms. Catherine Zeta-Jones, who was born here in Wales. I mean stars, not celebrities. To be sure, I am somewhat of an Occidental Tourist. Where others, traveling in the Welsh countryside, will find traces of ancient history or sights that quicken the pulse of the most seasoned horticulturalist, I see signs of old Hollywoodland. Take the castle of St. Donats, for instance.

These days, St. Donats is a sort of Hogwarts for assorted Muggles, which is to say that it is an exclusive college for international students, many of whom, if my ears did not deceive me as we walked across the campus last week, come here from the United States. The castle has a centuries-spanning past, as is customary in the case of such fortifications; but in my case, the history lesson exhausted itself in reflections about its state anno 1925, when it got into the ink and blood-stained hands of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst and the far daintier ones of his lovely companion, screen actress Marion Davies (shown in an autographed picture of unverified authenticity from my collection).

Though better known as a silent screen actress, Davies transitioned successfully to sound film and was no stranger to radio. On the air, she starred in the Lux Radio Theater productions of “The Brat” (13 July 1936) and “Peg ‘o My Heart” (29 Nov. 1937), in which she recreated of one of her sentimental talkie roles.  Despite her stardom in the 1920s and ‘30s, Davies has long suffered ridicule and neglect, an unwarranted disrepute largely owing to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. A caricature of Hearst, it leaves audiences with the impression that Davies was the delusional mistress of an influential mogul who humored her whims by purchasing her fame and foisting her lack of talent on an unimpressed multitude. Anyone who has seen Davies in films like The Patsy or Show People knows this to be slanderous. The Brooklynite with the Welsh surname was a brilliant comedienne, far more accomplished than neo-Hollywood A-lister Kirsten Dunst, who impersonated her in the speculative yet tedious Cat’s Meow (2001).

A 1927 volume titled Alice in Movieland (previously raided for a picture of silent screen star Rod La Rocque), attests to Davies’s fondness for Britain: “Well, yes, I d-do admire the Prince of Wales,” she confessed, “and I d-did try to look like him when I played the boy in the lovely uniform in my picture Graustark.” The picture was the delightful yet rarely screened Beverly of Graustark, which, along with a dozen other Davies features, I had the good fortune of catching at New York’s Film Forum some years back. “I love to do boys parts,” Davies added; and as Beverly (listed high among the films I got around to rating on the Internet Movie Database) she is at her most charmingly androgynous.

Unlike her relationship with Hearst, the star’s Hollywood bungalow was no modern affair. It featured a “pure” Tudor door leading to a Tudor hall. “Nothing Pullman about this!” the author of Alice in Movieland marveled. Yet it wasn’t “nearly Tudor enough,” Davies told her. She was determined to move house “some day”—or have her house moved: “It’s got to be the most Tudor thing in the world. I shall have it t-taken away somewhere else, and another one, m-much more beautiful b-built in its place [. . .].”

“[S]ome day,” she knew, was not too far off. Apparently, the Xanadoozy of an imported castle that is San Simeon was not enough for Hearst; perhaps, it was rather too much, too grand and imposing, even for him. Hearst was getting on in years and wanted a quiet retreat for himself and Ms. Davies. A 14th-century castle overlooking the strait known as the Bristol Channel was his idea of quaint, I gather. According to Davies biographer Lawrence Guiles, getting it ready involved the installation of an additional forty-seven bathrooms. And I find the idea of renovating our newly purchased three-bathroom, semi-detached Edwardian house in town daunting!

Unlike San Simeon, which I visited on an August so foggy it suggested Autumn in Wales rather than sunny California, St. Donats is open to the public only for a few days each year, after its current residents are flown out and the school shuts down in mid-Summer. I am determined to go back for another look. To me, it’ll be like Going Hollywood.

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