The Queen of the Screen: Marion Davies

During the Roaring Twenties, Marion Davies was a legend. She appeared in close to 50 films, both silent and “talkies;” she was everywhere. However, many people thought her fame wasn’t from talent alone. Davies was the well-known mistress of William Rudolph: businessman, politician, and newspaper publisher. He had tremendous power to help Davies.

Marion Davies / Marion Davies / Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst / Citizen Kane.
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As the years went by, her reputation changed, and her legacy got twisted. By the time she died, the media had branded her an untalented sham who slept her way to the top. From her decades-long affair to a scandal that nearly ruined her entire career, Davies’ life was anything but ordinary.

“I Want More”

Since she was a young girl, Marion Cecilia Douras was beyond ambitious. Born to a middle-class family in Brooklyn, Davies and her sisters changed their last names to Davies because they thought it sounded more British. They thought this would help them rub elbows with the upper echelons of New York society, and it sort of worked.

A portrait of Marion Davies.
Source: Copyright: Warner Bros.

As the youngest of five children, she wasn’t the only one in her family who loved performing. Her older sisters Ethel, Rose, and Reine, were all in show business, even as children. Davies grew up desperate to be in the spotlight and determined to do anything to achieve her goals.

Tragedy at a Young Age

Besides her sisters, Davies also had an older brother named Charles. Unfortunately, he passed away when she was very young. In 1906, Charles drowned, and it was a devastating loss for the family. He was only 15 years old, and the sisters made a heartbreaking tribute to him years later.

A picture of Marion Davies and her father.
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Davies’ sister Reine named one of her sons Charles in honor of her brother. Davies later admitted that Charles was her favorite nephew, and she enjoyed spending time with her sister’s children. Family was always important to her, and she cherished the moments she had with them even when she became a big star.

Self-Made Despite What Others Said

Although many people claim that Davies slept her way to the top, she wasn’t waiting around for someone to discover her. After finishing school, she appeared as a chorus girl and eventually worked her way up to the famous Ziegfeld Follies. However, that wasn’t enough for her; she wanted to do more.

Clark Gable and Marion Davies in a scene from a film.
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Davies wanted to be an actress more than anything else in the world. The Follies weren’t enough for her. She was ready to move on to bigger and better things, but some believe there was a more sinister reason why she wanted to leave the Follies and pursue her other dreams.

The Dark Side of the Ziegfeld Follies

Many young actresses and singers longed for a spot in the Ziegfeld Follies, but there was a dark side that people didn’t know about it unless they were in it. The girls, including Davies, were in high demand, but not in a good way. Men would relentlessly pursue them, and it became creepy.

A portrait of Marion Davies.
Photo by Apeda/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Large crowds would gather at the stage doors where the girls entered and exited, and many of the people waiting were men. Although Davies wanted to be a star, nothing prepared her for the kind of attention she got, and it intimidated her, but that wasn’t the only reason she hated the attention.

Davies Hated the Audience

While you might assume that someone like Davies, who wanted to be a star, would love her adoring fans, she actually hated performing for crowds with the Follies. She revealed that college students, Yale men, in particular, were the worst audience members and wouldn’t behave.

A picture of Davies photographed through a mirror on her lap.
Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

One particular night, a group of Yale students threw tomatoes and rotten eggs at Davies and her costars when they didn’t like the show. It was unbearable, and she didn’t know how they got away with such behavior. But that wasn’t the only reason she was unhappy.

Something Holding Her Back

Davies was determined to be an actress, but something was holding her back. She had a strong stammer, and it affected her ability to perform. Her bosses at the Follies wouldn’t give her any speaking parts, so she never got to practice and improve her speech.

A studio portrait of Davies.
Photo by George Hurrell/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Davies would mostly get dancing parts, which she enjoyed because she was a talented dancer. Luckily for her, a mysterious stranger was in the audience one night, and Davies instantly captured his attention. This person was going to change her life and career forever.

Mystery Man

During one of the Follies shows, a special guest was in the audience, and his eyes were on Davies the entire night. The mystery man in the audience was newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. He sat front row many times before and had taken a liking to a few different girls in the past.

A portrait of William Randolph Hearst.
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However, this time was different. While he would shower many of the chorus line girls with gifts, he took a particular liking to Davies. Unfortunately for Hearst, the feeling wasn’t exactly mutual at first. It seemed he would have to work a little harder to impress Davies.

She Was Terrified

Davies was not only unimpressed with Hearst but she was also scared of him. At the time, she was still just a teenager, and the other girls warned her about him. He was in his late 50s, and the other girls called him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

A portrait of Davies.
Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Hearst was relentless. He would come to the show every night for two months to watch Davies and sent her dozens of gifts, but he didn’t approach her. Instead, he was thinking of a bizarre plan to meet Davies on his own terms.

The Set-Up

Besides working as a chorus line girl, Davies also took modeling jobs on the side. Hearst set up a photoshoot with Campbell’s studio to photograph her in ornate costumes without Davies’ knowledge. It seemed like a good opportunity, but something dawned on her as she posed for the photos.

A picture of Davies in costumes.
Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Davies realized Hearst was standing in the corner of the photo studio, and she was horrified. In the middle of the shoot, she ran off and locked herself in the dressing room until he left. She later learned about his trick.

Ready to Move On

Davies was growing tired of dancing in the Ziegfeld Follies.. She was ready to launch her career as an actress. Once again, she wasn’t going to wait around for someone to hire her, so she wrote her own film titled Runaway Romany in 1917.

Marion Davies in a still from the film.
Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

She enlisted her brother-in-law George Lederer to direct the film. Although this kind of stunt might seem ordinary today, it was basically unheard of back then. Unfortunately, Runaway Romany was a flop with the critics and at the box office, but Davies wasn’t going to give up.

Whatever It Takes

Although her movie didn’t do well, she continued to appear in stage shows until someone from her past came back into her life. Hearst was back again and determined to help Davies’ dreams come true, but what would it cost her?

Davies poses for a picture.
Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Davies was determined to be a star, so Hearst used his power to make her one. She continued to alternate between stage and screen until 1920 when she made her last cabaret appearance in Ed Wynn’s Carnival. Then Hearst took control of her career.

Making a Deal With the Devil

In 1918, Hearst quickly formed Cosmopolitan Pictures and signed Davies to an exclusive $500-per-week contract. She wasn’t exactly in a position to say no to him because he had unlimited resources at his disposal. It was a dream come true for an actress at her age.

Davies poses with a ceramic head.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Once Davies signed the contract, she got more than she bargained for. She and Hearst started a physical relationship even though he was married. Their affair only gave Hearst more power over Davies’ life and career, but this was the only way she could get what she wanted.

She Didn’t Have to Try

While Davies might have been scared of Hearst in the past, he was putting all his effort into helping her career grow. He owned a newspaper, so Davies never had to work hard to get press; he just gave it to her. He reportedly spent around $7 million promoting her career.

A photo of Davies sitting in the garden of her home.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Some people believe that Davies could have been a star even without Hearst because she was a gifted performer. According to most, when Hearst signed her to his studio, that’s where it all went wrong. However, his promotions worked at first.

The “It” Couple

Even though Hearst was a married man, he and Davies were a very in-demand couple thanks to her charm. When she signed to Cosmopolitan Pictures, Hearst gave her everything she could have wanted, including a lavish townhouse in New York City.

A picture of Hearst and Davies at Hearst’s birthday party.
Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

She and Hearst attended countless premieres and soirees together, which helped Davies become popular in the elite circles in Manhattan and Hollywood. This also benefitted her family because they were able to move into the townhouse and have a comfortable life. Her new life was perfectly fit for a movie star.

She Took It Too Far

As Davies started to work her way up the social ladder in Hollywood, she would sometimes take her unique sense of humor a bit too far. She liked to have a good time and once tricked then-President Calvin Coolidge into getting wasted, and it wasn’t her best decision.

Davies attends a military ball dressed in military uniform.
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She told the President that the wine he was drinking was just fruit juice, then she watched the chaos unfold. In her defense, he should have known the difference between wine and fruit juice because there is clearly a difference. However, not everyone was a fan of her antics.

Giving Back

While people in the higher social circles loved Davies for her parties and thrill-seeking personality, others loved her for her generous heart. She was lucky enough to have the means to give back to other people. She made sure to spread the wealth.

Davies makes her handprints in cement along with her signature.
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Many people who knew her talked about Davies’ exceptional kindness to the casts and crews of films she worked on. She even made sure to anonymously pay for the medical bills of crew members when they were sick. She never did it for the notoriety.

“Queen of the Screen”

After Hearst signed Davies to his studio, there was no stopping her. Starting in 1918, Davies appeared in about three films per year for a decade. They were pretty much all hits, and theater owners gave her the title of “Queen of the Screen.”

A portrait of Marion Davies.
Photo by George Hurrell/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

However, behind the scenes, Hearst was so controlling. While they put on happy faces for the public, their relationship was far from perfect. His devotion to her career often bordered on obsession, and he was wildly jealous. He even wanted to decide who she acted with, so it wasn’t someone too attractive.

Hearst Hurt Her Career

One thing everyone knew about Davies was that she had a knack for making people laugh. Therefore, she was perfect for comedies during her time on Broadway, but Hearst had his own agenda. He preferred to see Davies in costume dramas.

Davies and Robert Montgomery in a costume drama film.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hearst demanded that producers cast her in historical pieces because he thought he was helping her. Unfortunately, her career suffered from his need to control her life. He was so concerned with her falling in love with a costar that he didn’t think about how he could actually help her.

The Obsession Went Too Far

Hearst’s obsession would often go too far, and sometimes it resulted in him doing ridiculous things. Once, he purchased the Cameo Theater and renamed it the Marion Davies Theater. The cinema was just down the street from his office, so he could see the lights spelling out her name from his window.

A portrait of Marion Davies starring in a costume drama film.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He would advertise her latest films with signs all over New York City and put pictures in the newspapers. It became too much for Davies because she knew it irritated the public. People were getting so tired of seeing her name that they started to insult her.

She Looked Out for Other Actresses

No matter how famous Davies became, she stayed humble. She grew up admiring the work of silent film actress Florence Turner. However, Turner left the U.S. for England before WWI, and people quickly forgot about her.

A picture of Marion Davies.
Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

When she returned to the U.S., Davies heard that she was in poverty and wanted to help. Davies helped Turner and her mom travel back to the States and got her a job at a production company so she would have a steady income.

Refusing to Sign

Throughout the Roaring Twenties, Hearst and Davies went around town like the perfect couple even though he was still married to Millicent Wilson. His wife refused to grant him a divorce but didn’t care that Hearst and Davies flaunted their relationship.

A portrait of William and Millicent.
William Randolph Hearst, Millicent Wilson. Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

In 1926, Wilson moved to New York while Hearst and Davies moved into Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. The sprawling estate overlooked the Pacific Ocean, and they used the place to host several parties. They were never official on paper, but they were known as “the worst kept secret in Hollywood.”

Exclusive Guest List

The parties at Hearst Castle were legendary. Some of the A-list names that regularly attended the gatherings were Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and many more. The soirees were like something out of a movie because of how elaborate they were.

A shot of the swimming pool area at Hearst Castle.
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A private train would pick up guests at Glendale Station and take them to the property. The estate also had an airstrip in case they needed to fly someone in. Davies and Hearst would then greet everyone before they enjoyed a weekend full of activities like horseback riding, golf, and picnics.

Hiding Her Struggles

Davies and Hearst let their guests freely enjoy themselves and explore the grounds while staying at the castle, with one exception. They wanted everyone to gather for cocktails strictly at 7:30 on Saturday evening, and they were only allowed to have one cocktail.

A portrait of Marion Davies.
Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images

Hearst also forbade them from keeping alcohol in their rooms for a disturbing reason. Davies struggled with an alcohol addiction, and this was how he kept her under control. She would find ways to the bottle regardless of Hearst’s strict rules. Guests also would sneak in alcohol too.

He Broke Her Heart

Although Hearst had control of who Davies interacted with and was extremely jealous, he didn’t have a problem cheating on her. If a wife and a mistress weren’t enough, Hearst continued to be a womanizer throughout the Roaring Twenties. He had another ongoing affair with a different chorus girl.

A photo of Marion Davies.
Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One day when Davies opened the newspaper expecting to see her name, there was a review of chorus girl Maybelle Swor, the woman Hearst was having an affair with, and she was furious. She couldn’t believe that he wasn’t continuing to promote her work.

Two Can Play at That Game

Hearst might have been cheating on Davies, but she wasn’t going to sit around waiting for him. She knew he was wildly jealous and used that knowledge to rile him up. Davies would flaunt her relationships with the men in their inner circle.

A picture of Charlie Chaplin, Marion Davies, and George Bernard Shaw.
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Although Davies was close friends with Lita Grey, Charlie Chaplin’s second wife, that didn’t stop her from having an affair with Chaplin; it broke Grey’s heart and infuriated Hearst. Unfortunately, Davies didn’t realize that her revenge would have severe consequences that would affect everything.

The Center of a Scandal

During this rocky period in their relationship, Hearst was also trying to do a business deal with the legendary film producer Thomas Ince. During one awful weekend, it all came to a head, which put Davies at the center of a murder case.

A portrait of Thomas Ince and his wife.
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In 1924, Hearst invited Ince to join Davies and many guests on their private yacht. While on the boat, Ince reportedly suffered an attack of acute indigestion and was escorted off the boat in San Diego. He was put on a train by Hearst’s studio manager, Dr. Daniel Goodman.

Things Got Worse

After Ince got on the train, his condition worsened, and he was removed from the train by another doctor and nurse. He allegedly told the doctor that he had drunk strong liquor aboard Hearst’s yacht, and he was taken to his Hollywood home, where he died.

A portrait of Marion Davies.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Rumors began to fly, blaming Hearst and Davies for Ince’s death. People thought Hearst was jealous or Davies shot him. Chaplin’s valet allegedly witnessed Ince bleeding from the head when he was carried off the yacht. However, there was never enough evidence to prosecute anyone, and his death was ruled the result of natural causes.

It Affected Them Both

After all the negative attention from both the press and law enforcement, Hearst and Davies started to fade into the background because they wanted to keep low profiles. Hearst’s company was also going under because he spent frivolous amounts of money to promote Davies’ career.

An outdoors picture of Marion Davies.
Photo by John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Nonetheless, Davies’ career progressed, and she made numerous films towards the end of the ‘20s and the beginning of the ‘30s. The coming of sound made her nervous because of her persistent stutter, but she was able to power through the transition.

She Finally Got Some Freedom

For most of her career, Hearst only wanted her to play sweet, innocent roles, especially ones where she didn’t have to kiss a male costar. However, she always wanted to do more comedy, like the roles Charlie Chaplin was known for.

Marion Davies laughs with the director during the filming of The Patsy.
Marion Davies, Director King Vidor. Photo by John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

She would show off her comedic chops at their dinner parties, and people thought she was hilarious. Davies finally got to use her comedy skills in 1928 for the film The Patsy. Hearst was surprised that she did so well in the role and encouraged her to continue making these films.

Taking a Step Back

Their happy period didn’t last very long. Hearst was trying to direct Davies during her scenes, and she felt like she couldn’t win anymore. Instead of fighting him, she decided to take a step back from acting. Luckily, it wasn’t her only talent, and she stepped into the role of a businesswoman at Hearst’s studio.

A portrait of Marion Davies.
Photo by Russell Ball/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Hearst tried to get her roles by persuading production bosses, but she went through a period of several rejections. As a result, Hearst pulled his newspaper’s support for MGM and moved Davies and Cosmopolitan Pictures’ distribution to Warner Brothers.

She Saved Him

Hearst and Davies lived a lavish lifestyle throughout their relationship, which became impractical after the Great Depression. The ‘30s were a brutal turning point for the couple, as his business went on a downward spiral. While she could have picked up and left, she decided to help him.

A portrait of Davies at home.
Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Davies sold whatever she could and eventually wrote Hearst a check for $1 million instead of leaving him when he was struggling. It was the one thing that saved him from bankruptcy. He was so used to spending his money frivolously, and now he needed help from her.

Quitting Acting

Although she had a heart of gold, the hardships of the 1930s became too much for Davies. In 1938, she finally quit acting after Hearst closed Cosmopolitan Pictures. Sadly, her drinking problem got much worse. She claimed to have left show business by choice but complained that people damaged her career.

A dated picture of the film team filming for the Marion Davies film.
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Davies and Hearst retreated from the public eye over the next few years, but they would soon find themselves at the center of another news story at the beginning of the 1940s. Davies couldn’t catch a break, and she just wanted to retire in peace.

Citizen Kane Mocked Them

In 1941, Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz released their masterpiece, Citizen Kane. The comparisons to Davies and Hearst couldn’t be denied. Kane was a wealthy media magnate who lived in a castle, whose second wife was an untalented opera singer whose sad career drove her to drink.

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.
Photo by ullstein bild/ Getty Images

Sounds familiar, right? Instead of ignoring the comparisons, Hearst tried to block the film’s release. He had some success, but it only drew more attention to his life. He was enraged by the portrayal of Davies, but Welles denied that he based the female character on her. The damage was already done.

The Movie Used Her Nickname

Citizen Kane’s famous ending shows Kane’s darling “Rosebud” is actually a childhood sled. However, most people didn’t realize that the use of “Rosebud” is much more scandalous. According to writer Gore Vidal who knew Davies, Hearst’s nickname for Davies’ nether regions was “Rosebud.”

A still from the film.
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It could have been a coincidence, but with the comparisons already pointing to Hearst and Davies, it was hard to deny that the famous couple didn’t inspire Welles’ characters. The movie destroyed Davies’ reputation and made it seem like she was actually talentless.

Together Till the End

Despite the affairs, fights, jealousy, money, and drinking problems, Hearst and Davies stuck by each other’s sides even when their efforts were misguided. Davies once told her friend she would never leave him, and she kept her word even when he was having money problems.

William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies in a coach.
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Davies was by Hearst’s side when his health faltered, and he passed away in 1951 when he was 88. She was absolutely heartbroken when he died. It was the first time she was alone since she was 20, but the roller coaster ride wasn’t over.

She Gave Everything Away

When Hearst died, he left Davies controlling his shares of his company. She was torn between continuing his work and finally making a life of her own. Her decision shocked many people because she gave up all her stocks just weeks after Hearst died.

An exterior shot of Davies and Hearst beach property.
Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

After she gave up her stocks, Davies stunned everyone by getting married to a sea captain named Horace Brown. They got hitched in a brief ceremony in Las Vegas on Halloween. It should have been a time for her to have a fresh start, but the new union was dark.

They Both Had Issues

Davies’ drinking problem persisted, and Brown was also an alcoholic. They were horrible influences on each other, and she filed for divorce twice but never went through with it. In 1952, a gossip columnist contacted them about their failed divorce attempts, and they gave a bizarre interview.

A shot of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies home.
Photo by Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Brown listed his transgressions against his wife, saying he bought a monkey, and it bit Davies. He also said he shot out her lights, pushed her into a pool, sprayed her friends with a fire hose, and let the air out of her tires. It was a very toxic relationship.

She Always Took Him Back

After Brown confessed to everything he had done to Davies, she grabbed the phone and told the reporter that she was taking him back. She ended the call by saying, “Thank God we all have a sense of humor!” Maybe she was too scared to be alone at that point.

Marion Davies and Horace Brown during a party.
Herbert K Hyde, Horace Brown, Marion Davies. Photo by Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis/Getty Images

Life continued to be hard on Davies. Many of her silent-era colleagues were dying, and she had her own health problems. Her drinking caused many of her health issues, and doctors made a sad discovery during a routine check-up.

She Fought Till the End

The doctors found a growth in Davies’ jaw and later diagnosed her with a type of bone cancer. She spent the next two years battling cancer and eventually died in 1961. She was just 64 years old when she passed away.

A portrait of Marion Davies at home.
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For years before her death, Davies had suffered from strokes, and her fiery spirit was gone. Two hundred mourners and many celebrities attended her funeral at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Hollywood. She left an estimated $20 million behind.

Davies’ Biggest Secret

Although she was gone, people weren’t finished talking about her. Davies had always been close with her nieces and nephews, especially her sister Rose’s daughter, Patricia. Patricia spent a lot of time with Davies and Hearst, and she was left with a significant inheritance.

A picture of Marion Davies.
Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

On Patricia’s deathbed in 1993, she made a shocking confession. She revealed to her immediate family that Davies and Hearts were her birth mother and father, not her aunt and uncle. Patricia’s family began to put together a clearer picture of her life.

They Hid This Massive Secret for Years

Patricia was born in an unnamed hospital in France sometime between 1919 and 1923. It was right around the time Davies and Hearst began their affair. Davies allegedly got pregnant, and Hearst sent her to France to give birth away from the public eye.

A studio portrait of Marion Davies.
Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Coincidentally, Davies’ sister Rose had just lost a child, so they saw it as an opportunity. She decided to give the baby to her sister and falsify the paperwork. She kept this dark secret throughout her life, but it wasn’t always easy to hide.

She Had Trouble Hiding It

In 1924, Rose’s estranged husband kidnapped Patricia for five years. Although she was distraught about the disappearance of her child, Davies couldn’t show it so that she wouldn’t expose herself. Hearst wanted to help, so he hired a private detective to track down Patricia.

A picture of Marion Davies sitting at home.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hearst financially supported Patricia throughout her life, and the couple eventually confessed their secret to her later on. Patricia took the knowledge almost to her grave, and it must have been hard to find out that news and not be able to share it with anyone.

Hearst’s Final Hours Were Chaotic

Davies spent most of her life with Hearst and stood by his side through thick and thin. However, what she got for sticking around was a brutal betrayal. During his final days, Hearst’s family and friends filled their house, all wanting to say their last goodbyes.

An aerial shot of William Randolph Hearst's funeral.
Photo by Duke Downey/San Francisco Chronicle/ Getty Images

The large crowd made Davies so upset, and she tried to get them to leave. Instead, Hearst’s son ordered the doctors to sedate her. They followed orders, and when she woke up the following day, her life was never the same. Davies was struck by tragedy.

They Pushed Away

When Davies woke up, her bed was empty, and Hearst’s nurse told her he had passed away during the night. She was devastated, and his associates had his body and belongings removed like he never lived there. She never got to say goodbye to him.

A picture of Millicent Wilson posing with her sons.
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When it was time for the funeral, Davies didn’t attend. No one knew if she made that choice herself or if Hearst’s wife and sons wouldn’t let her be there. While they had spent their time together, he never got a divorce, and it was a sad end to their story.