Two Hollywood stories in one

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A parade of dogs on Madison Avenue. Photo: JH.

Thursday, April 8, 2021. A bright, sunny day, yesterday in New York with temps reaching up to 73 degrees (and no humidity so it was a little cooler in the shade). Across the avenue from my apartment, one of my favorite trees, a pear has suddenly was abloom.

The weather has been a gift to New Yorkers this Spring. I went to dinner at Sette Mezzo on Tuesday night and much to my surprise the restaurant was packed both inside and out. Inside there are more tables (separated by large 4X6 woodframed plexi screens) but the beautiful din of a full restaurants’ customer voices was a joy to hear once again. 

I’d had dinner there last week when there were only three tables occupied inside and none outside. Last night it was packed, literally. A joy because it’s another indication that New York is coming back to its enormous energy. Considering all of the regulars, faces I’m familiar with as a regular customer, it looked like many who’ve been away from the city for the past 12 or 15 months had also returned. More good news.

Hollywood, the fabulous follywood.  My interest in that “town” stems from childhood and continued into my adult life when lived out there for 14 years from the late ’70s to the early ’90s.  The impression it made on me then was unlike the boy’s imagination but nevertheless as fascinating. Yesterday the Daily Mail — now the world’s greatest tabloid — had an article on “The Hearst Estate,” about now being put on the market by its present owner for $90 million. It was originally the former Los Angeles residence of the legendary American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst who occupied the mansion with his longtime mistress, the silent screen star he created, Marion Davies.  Mr. Hearst died in the house in 1951.

The Hearst Estate on sale.

I drove by the property hundreds, maybe thousands of times although you couldn’t see the 40,000-square-foot mansion with its 8 bedrooms and 15 bathrooms. But I was well aware of its history because of its owner and his “companion” Miss Davies.

By the late 1970s, its original resident had long passed away and few people knew about the property or its distinguished resident and his companion of more than three decades. There was a legal Mrs. Hearst, Millicent, who lived mainly in New York and was the mother of his children, with one exception (a daughter whom he had with Miss Davies named Patricia Lake). Although it was never known or publicly talked about Miss Lake was very close to her mother and her aunts who brought her up.

Patricia Lake.

I heard about her for the first time through a screenwriter and film producer, an Englishman named Ivan Moffat who coincidentally was the father of an English writer Ivana Lowell who grew up not knowing he was her father. 

One night back in the late ’70s I met Ivan at home of Lady Sarah Churchill and we got into chatting about his career which led to Marion Davies, whom I also knew very little about. In 1951, the same year that Hearst died, Ivan had been a producer on a controversial picture called “A Place in the Sun” starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters.

It was based on a novel and later a play by Theodore Dreiser called “An American Tragedy” which had been based on a true  story, a real-life murder in 1906 of a young pregnant woman named Grace Brown by a man named Chester Gillette. Brown had become pregnant by Gillette who was convicted of her murder and sent to the electric chair two years later.

Elizabeth Taylor and Monty Clift in A Place in the Sun.

It so happened, coincidentally, Ivan met Marion Davies around the time the film was finished, at a cocktail party. In the course of their conversation when she asked him about his work, he told her about the new film and its background. I don’t know if she were aware of the play or novel although it occurred when she was a famous silent film star and well known as Hearst’s mistress with whom he lived. At the cocktail party Ivan told her that the film was finished but they were worried about getting a release date because of the subject (unwed mothers). Marion was curious to know more and asked Ivan if he could get a print and they could run it in the screening room of the Hearst mansion.

Maid Marion with Mr. Hearst.

He got the print and on the appointed day and hour, he took it up to the house on Beverly Drive where the elder Mr. Hearst was bedridden and ultimately on his last days. Ivan and Miss Davies watched the film alone. She was shaken by the story and its message, and wept profusely at the end.  She congratulated Ivan on the greatness of the film, and he in response told her again how they were unsure that it would ever be released because in the 1950s, unwed motherhood was never discussed publicly and women were looked down upon for getting pregnant under the circumstances.

Hearing of this Maid Marion, as she was known to friends as a term of affection, told Ivan that she could help. Leaving the screening room of the great house she led him outside and down the long driveway to the gatehouse. The gatehouse, as Ivan described it, was full of teletype machines and telephones which could connect the publisher to any and all of his newspapers across America. Marion picked up a phone where she was automatically connected to the editor of the New York Journal-American or the Daily News — Ivan was never certain of which of the two Hearst newspapers she’d reached.

With the editor at the other end of the line, Marion explained that she “and Mr. Hearst had just seen the most magnificent film called A Place in the Sun” and that Mr. Hearst had directed her to call to tell the editor that he (Mr. Hearst) wanted the film to be publicized every day for the next two (or three) weeks in every Hearst newspaper in America as a “great film.” 

And that, was that; and so it was. The film was a huge success, critically and commercially. It won six Academy Awards for that year and again forty years later in 1991, it received a Golden Globe for the first award for a Best Motion Picture. It was later chosen by the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally historically, or aesthetically significant.” Thank you Maid Marion. And thank you Ivan Moffat.

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