Silent film actress Marion Davies enjoying a ride on a carousel. The Annenberg Community Beach House, the site of her former mansion, will host a birthday party for her Sunday. She would have turned 115 on Jan. 3. (photo by Photo Courtesy City Of Santa Monica)

BEACH HOUSE — The staff and docents at the Annenberg Community Beach House will open the facility’s doors on Sunday for a birthday celebration for its most famous resident — Marion Davies.

Davies, who would have been 115 on Jan. 3, was best known as a silent film actress and as the mistress of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, whose holdings included The San Francisco Examiner and The New York Journal.

People often neglect to mention Davies’ other characteristics, like her savvy business acumen or her generosity to both friends and medical causes, said Nan Friedman, manager of the beach house.

“I don’t think she’s widely known as who she was in her entirety,” Friedman said. “They show various facets of her life, and not the fuller picture.”

It’s a set of stereotypes that Friedman and the beach house docents will try to combat Sunday at a three-hour open house focusing on Davies’ life, following the thread of her time in New York to when she moved to California and took up residence at the beach house until her death in 1961.

“If they know something about Marion, they’ll learn some additional information about her and the facets of her personality,” Friedman said. “If they don’t know anything about Marion, it’ll be a great opportunity to get a 360 degree view on her as opposed to the simple version of how she might be known as an actress or mistress.”

Prior to becoming a docent at the Annenberg Community Beach House, that “simple version” was all that Kay Pattison knew about Davies.

Pattison conducted walking tours of historic Santa Monica. When City Hall decided to staff the beach house with docents, she signed up, feeling it was almost a natural extension of her passion for history.

She’d never seen one of Davies’ films, and knew of the woman only through the distorted lens of “Citizen Kane,” a 1941 drama loosely based on the life of her wealthy lover.

“I never expected to get hooked,” Pattison said.

Davies grew up the daughter of a middle-class family. Her father was an attorney and her mother pushed all three daughters into show business, the better to snare a wealthy husband.

The scheme worked, to a point.

Davies was 19 years old and performing as a dancer in the show “Stop Look & Listen,” when Hearst first saw her. A lengthy courtship followed as Hearst plied her with diamonds, dinners and flowers after her shows.

By 1916, she was his mistress, and although they would carry on the relationship to the end of his life, the two never wed.

Davies had a presence about her, Pattison said, and a personality “like the bubbles in a glass of champagne.” She was a talented actress with a flair for comedy rather than the dramatic roles that Hearst wished for her.

Hearst helped push her career forward and paid for her and her family to live not 10 blocks away from the home he lived in with his wife and five children.

The arrangement persisted until they moved to California to make movies and live the high style embodied by the beach house which Hearst bought for Davies in 1926.

By that point, however, Davies was independently wealthy. In her late 20s, she began buying up real estate, and eventually had a diverse portfolio of properties on both sides of the country.

She was also making $10,000 a week as an actress, or over $6.8 million a year in today’s dollars, Pattison said.

She would eventually be forced to bail Hearst out of personal bankruptcy after his profligate lifestyle nearly cost him his company, Pattison said.

That lifestyle brought great fame to the beach house in Santa Monica. The couple would throw parties there every Saturday at the end of filming for the entire cast and crew.

During the Depression, which struck four years after she moved into the mansion by the sea, they would have large dinners on Sundays and invite anybody and everybody in Hollywood.

She delighted in the company of others, and loathed being alone.

Davies was known for her generosity, Pattison said. She paid medical bills for people on set and sent the child of a friend to college on her dime.

She had a great fondness for children, a fact that manifested itself in large donations to children’s medical causes, including the Marion Davies Foundation and the Marion Davies Children’s Clinic at UCLA.

Davies retired from the film industry in 1937. She slowly slipped into obscurity, and her legacy was shaped not by the good works that she had accomplished, but by the image of a shrill, talentless woman portrayed in “Citizen Kane.”

The restoration of the beach house has changed that, bringing attention back to the life Davies’ lived rather than one that was played for her, Pattison said.

The home was saved by a $27.5 million donation by Wallis Annenberg, who had enjoyed it in its previous iteration as the Sand and Sea Club.

“It’s wonderful to have a comeback at 115,” Pattison said.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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