Marion Davies and Me

What makes a feminist? Is it the result of a smart woman living her life under the thumb of a powerful man?

Marion Davies lived much of her adult life with the controlling and uber-powerful William Randolph Hearst. Her unconventional life meant she had to endure the scrutiny of that relationship with Hearst through the lens of the class and caste system of America in the 1920s and ‘30s.

I lived under the thumb of my father Bjorn Erling Johansen who thought he had a right to my body, my mind, and my thoughts.

We both became feminists, Marion and me, though I’m not sure anybody has ever called Ms. Davies that before.  She never marched for the woman’s right to vote and she never, that we know of, protested the mistreatment of women. But she ran a film studio, and made savvy real estate investments, at a time when very few women did. 

When I visited Hearst Castle a few years ago, a docent mentioned that Marion Davies saved Hearst by loaning him $1 Million during the Great Depression. That surprised and intrigued me—I wanted to know more about the woman who saved the most powerful newspaper man in the world.

My research over the following two-and-a-half years fleshed out a complicated and sometimes difficult story of a young woman who made a choice at the age of eighteen to take up with a man thirty-four years her senior. It changed her life and her entire family’s history, but she was under his thumb from then on.

I saved my father. I didn’t have a million dollars, but I literally saved his life. He was unconscious and unresponsive with a high fever in the middle of the night as our sailboat headed toward an atoll. As the de facto First Mate, I jumped into action—at only fourteen years old, I had already trained for years for this situation by the very man who lay in his bunk unconscious. We had sailed to French Polynesia on our forty-five-foot sailboat with our captain-father a few months earlier, with no mother in the picture.

Two years of training on trimming the sails and steering through squalls, plus endless man-overboard drills had toughened me up. And navigating with a sextant—plotting and figuring shots—had me competing with dad to see who could get the most accurate position. But as I got better at all these jobs, the tension between us increased as he yelled at me, putting me down physically, criticizing my body, or worse, ignoring and disregarding me altogether. My confidence plummeted as his thumb pressed down on me.

That controlling thumb pressed down on Marion as well. Hearst controlled her life and her career. Where Marion wanted to make comedies or play strong females, he insisted on her starring in wholesome family or historical dramas. And partly because she was caught up in a feud between Hearst and Orson Welles—his big thumb is Citizen Kane, where she’s portrayed as a talentless bored alcoholic.

I know there isn’t much to feel sorry about when it comes to Marion Davies, is there? The woman lived in Hearst Castle after all! William Randolph Hearst gave her every material thing he could think of. And yet, all along, she worked steadily and hard, churning out forty-four movies, and after twenty years in the movie industry, is never given credit for what she accomplished.

Ultimately Marion never got out from under the thumb. Neither did I really, but you can. You have more legal and societal tools at your disposal, to help even the playing field of life. The thumb may look a bit different today for certain people, but maybe not. Women of color have a different thumb on them than white women do, that thumb is not always a father or a husband, it can be the whole system of institutionalized racism that women of color fight against every day to get equal opportunities and economic justice. White men are still running the world after all, though many evolved men are helping in our fight.

Women make deeper inroads every day. Times have changed and we are all evolving, but we have much farther to go. The thumb still shows up somewhere in every woman’s life, pressing down, making some of us rise and push back against this unwanted authority over our person—and thus is born the feminist.

Leslie Johansen Nack is the author of Fourteen, A Daughter’s Memoir of Adventure, Sailing and Survival, and her debut novel being published May 3 2022 called The Blue Butterfly, A Novel of Marion Davies. For more information, please go to lesliejohansennack.com

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Leslie Johansen
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