Book Review : ‘Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies’ by Lara Gabrielle

Whenever I’m travelling, I enjoy the fact that I can visit and discover the wonders of whatever chosen destination and finally be able to take that time of the year to read a book. I used to be a much more avid reader when I was younger. Many factors, such as a passion for films, blog and magazine writing, work, etc., slowed my reading activities. Don’t get me wrong, I sill like to lose myself in a good novel, and I try to do so as much as possible in my free time. However, my number of books read per year has unfortunately decreased. So, a vacation, which includes train journeys, snacks alone in restaurants, and the desire to eventually rest during a long day of exploration, provide more occasions to dive into some literary world.

So, all this blah-blah to say that, last Monday, I came back from a beautiful, wonderful, extraordinary one-month trip to Portugal. I had the opportunity to visit eight places, meet unforgettable people, and read. Not long before leaving, I was able to retrieve my copy of a book I’d been waiting for for ages: Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies. That is the writing result of long years of work and research by author Lara Gabrielle. When I got my copy, I promised myself to keep it for my trip. It increased my impatience even more! That might be the weirdest thing you’ll ever read about a book, but as I held it for the first time in my hands, it felt very comfortable. Like, physically comfortable. The cover is agreeably soft without being slippery. Anyway, still determining which kind of paper it is, but I think more books should use it.

Reading my copy on a beach in Lagos.

I’d be completely lying if I claimed I am a huge fan of Marion Davies. To this day, I have shamelessly seen only two of her films: Cain and Mabel (Lloyd Bacon, 1936) and Blondie of the Follies (Edmund Goulding, 1932). Since screwball comedy is my favourite film genre and the general subject of my master thesis, I immensely enjoyed the first one. As for Blondie, despite the name of my favourite band being part of the title (!), I must admit I only remember a little. However, I could see Marion’s talent even with this limited knowledge of her presence onscreen. I even once put her in a top 100 list of my favourite actresses. So, she made an excellent first impression. Actually, the real reason why I was so eager to read that biography is that I was sure it was going to be good great, captivating. You know, I’ve been following Lara Gabrielle’s writings via her blog Backlots. This site dedicated to the art of classic films is one of the first blogs of the genre that I discovered and one that inspired me to create my own. Lara’s writing is both informative and entertaining. Moreover, she has worked on that book for a decade, including tons of research, travelling and meeting people connected directly or indirectly to Marion Davies. It was always fun to see her Facebook posts keeping us up to date on the evolution of her research. As someone who loves looking at archives, the whole process sounded like much work but also lots of fun. I remember when I met Lara in San Francisco in 2015, she was already in the process of her research. She explained how she couldn’t have chosen a better subject, making the whole matter even more intriguing. Nevertheless, as the final product was published around seven years after that encounter, one had to be patient. Extremely patient.

However, patience prevailed, and it was worth waiting for a product of genuine quality all these years. Discovering Marion Davis through Gabrielle’s writing has been, as The Who would sing, an “amazing journey“. For those unfamiliar with Davies, I’m not here to do her biography because there’s one you can read now! Briefly, she was that actress who started her career in the Ziegfeld Follies and eventually became a silent film star. She could transition between silent and talkies despite her speech impairment (stutter), which shows incredible resilience. She’s especially remembered as the mistress of businessman William Randolph Hearst. Their relationship has often been wrongfully compared to the one between Charles Foster Kane and Susan Alexander in Orson Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941). Of course, this is a very superficial preview of who Marion Davies was and doesn’t reflect the richness of her character.

It is sad that many people only remember Marion Davies for that comparison to the talentless Susan Alexander. It makes her sound like a gold digger and unvalidated those 30+ years of true love for Hearst, which are truly obvious as we read the book. Luckily, a selection of smart people also recognizes her acting talent. I remember a teacher at university mentioned what a brilliant comedian she was. A former colleague recently acknowledged that she didn’t get the recognition she deserved. There are several moments in the book during which the author analyses Marion’s acting in some of her films and perfectly extracts the brilliance and subtlety of it. Even without having seen the film in question, these descriptions give a good preview of what awaits us. I wonder if that makes sense. If we return to Hearst, their relationship is also a big part of the book. They shared many years together, so it was unavoidable. Moreover, there are many interesting parallels between their relationship and Marion’s professional career. Plus, it remains a truly poignant love story. I didn’t agree with everything he did or thought, there was a clash of generations between them, but he was undeniably a determining piece of the puzzle in Marion’s life.

One of the most striking qualities of Captain of her Soul is how the author powerfully portrays the actress’s spirit through the pages. I’ll explain. In the introduction of her book, Lara Gabrielle writes, “In my ten years of research, I have come to know the real Marion Davies intimately” (p. 2). This statement reflects how Gabrielle probably conducted her research in a way to know Marion Davies like a friend and not only like a public figure surrounded by facts. Yes, the writing rightfully remains objective, as a biography should. However, this presentation of the silent film star is surrounded by warmth and respect. During her reading, we learn everything about Marion Davies, and, at some point, even for me, she almost felt like a friend. That’s how strong Lara’s desire to portray her as a human being is. We learn to know her. Like everybody, Marion had her flaws and qualities, and I’m sure readers can relate to different aspects of her life and personality. On different occasions, I even thought of people I knew while reading something about her. For example, her unusual sleeping schedule while working in theatre reminded me of the one my friend who works in a bar has (a different type of career but still something out of the nightlife). In other words, it’s a book that has a soul.

During these many years of research, it is evident that Lara Gabrielle dug deeply into the life and career of Marion Davies and tried as much as possible to understand it by also looking into what surrounded it. Consequently, she provides A LOT of historical contexts, allowing us to understand the evolution of Marion’s life better. I like how the book doesn’t solely focus on Marion. It also presents the years in which she lived, the people with whom she worked, her relatives, etc. It makes the whole thing easier to understand, and, being myself a fan of history, that was much appreciated. There is a perfect balance between Marion (the actress and the woman) and the life and history surrounding her. It creates importance around those who brought something to Marion’s life. For example, the book also made me want to discover the films of William Haines and perhaps give a second chance to King Vidor.

With William Haines in Show People (King Vidor, 1928)

If the fact and spirit of Marion Davies’s life are described in a way that keeps us entertained, it’s because it’s done tactfully and with force in the writing quality. Lara Gabrielle’s book is certainly not a Wikipedia page (I mean that as a compliment). Her writing has nothing monotonous, and while remaining 100 % professional, it keeps us wanting to turn the pages and learn more. What I have always appreciated about Lara’s texts, something I initially observed with her blog, is that it remains very well-written. She uses a rich, varied and carefully chosen vocabulary. BUT, at the same time, it is easy to understand and follow. English is my second language and, although I have now four years of university in English behind me, it remains my second language. Consequently, not everything I read is always necessarily easy to follow. Nevertheless, with Lara’s writing, I never had such a problem. I wonder if it’s because she speaks and teaches many languages and may be able to put herself in non-native English speakers’ shoes. However, keep in mind that she doesn’t take us for children that speak two words of English either. She knows how to embark us in her writing by the sole quality of it. We could almost say that it’s universal English

Generally, I prefer reading autobiographies because you always feel the person will reveal more of herself or choose how she wants to discuss things. However, Captain of her Soul is one of the GREAT biographies I’ve read. I explained earlier how that book has a soul. I never thought that would happen while reading a biography, but I felt a bit emotional while reading the chapter about Hearst’s passing. Honestly, it was heartbreaking. Lara Gabrielle has this strong capacity to make us feel Marion’s emotions. I’m not always the most empathetic person, so props to her for defying that aspect of my personality. In conclusion, the book doesn’t look for sensationalism. It is written by someone who clearly loved and admired Marion Davies and wanted to share that with us.

Furthermore, since this book has spirit, cinephiles like me will enjoy how it can be appreciated like a film. Because it avoids being too cold and factual, we attach ourselves to the characters as we would in an actual film. But not only for that reason. The author also has the talent for describing the events of Marion’s life in a remarkably visual way. On many occasions, I could picture a “scene” of Marion’s life in my head which made my reading far from boring. Some moments could be taken straight out of a film. That is the result of the combination of Marion’s fascinating life and Gabrielle’s talent to tell it.

Now, if I had to look into the flaws of this book to make it a nuanced review… Well, it would stay un-nuanced (is that a word?) because I don’t have anything negative to say about it. Some parts interested me less, but that’s not the author’s fault or parts that should be deleted from the book. It’s only subjects that touched me less, like the business life of Hearst (and I know there’s massive importance to that, so that couldn’t be removed from the book)! But that’s very subjective.

In conclusion, no need to insist even more on the fact that Captain of her Soul is a must-read. Even if you haven’t heard of Marion Davies, it would be a fascinating introduction to her. It is not only a biography but also a precious historical document. For all the reasons enumerated in this review (I hope I haven’t been too repetitive), I give this book a rating of *****.

Lara Gabrielle’s Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies was published in September 2022. You can purchase it directly on The University of California Press’s website. 

I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did!

See you! 🙂