Rosebud….” In director Orson Welles’s classic Citizen Kane, that final whispered word held the elusive key to the life of a tyrannical newspaper baron. But the deathbed iconography of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, on whom the movie was based, was equally poignant—and far less cryptic.
On the morning of Aug. 14, 1951, Hearst’s bedroom in the Beverly Hills mansion where he spent his final years stood nearly empty of personal effects, save for a cherished photograph on a desk beside the massive canopied bed. It was of actress Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress of 34 years, with her inscription from Romeo and Juliet: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea/My love as deep; The more I give to thee/The more I have, for both are infinite.”
To outsiders, it might have seemed that Hearst was a man who needed nothing. The son of a U.S. Senator, he already had a wife (who refused to divorce him), five sons and a fortune when, at 54, he spotted the 20-year-old chorine at New York City’s Ziegfeld Follies. But in Davies, the daughter of a small-time Brooklyn politician, he soon found an earthy, irreverent companion—and a refreshing change from his circle of sycophants. With his bankroll and influence, Hearst, whom Davies affectionately called Pops or The Old Bum, bought her a film career at MGM. Yet, despite the gossip, their love was more than dollars deep.
When Hearst teetered on bankruptcy in the aftermath of the Great Crash, it was Davies who—with proceeds from her own shrewd investments and earnings as a movie star—wrote him a check for $1 million. “I don’t care what you say about me,” she once told a reporter. “But don’t hurt him. He’s a wonderful man.”
In his twilight years, Hearst, who had once played host to international celebrities at his fabled San Simeon mansion, sat for hours with Marion in his screening room, watching her old movies with tears in his eyes. After his death, Hearst’s sons, who thought Marion an interloper, banished her from the empire. But even today, as part of their tour of the 165-room castle, throngs of visitors are shown snippets from Hearst’s grainy home movies—and the flickering image of the ebullient beauty who was his most treasured acquisition.