“It’ll probably turn out to be some very simple thing.”

In Barbara Leaming’s bee-ography of Orson Welles, there are a lot of tall tales from The Great Man, often accepted at face value by Leaming. Many of them have since been questioned, and it’s hard to know which may be true. In particular, recent commentators have tended to throw cold water on Marion Davies’ vagina.

If you recall, Welles claimed that “Rosebud” was William Randolph Hearst’s pet name for his mistress’s privates, and that she had mentioned this in a drunken conversation with Herman Mankiewicz, a friend and occasional visitor to Hearst’s Xanadu, San Simeon. Mankiewicz had used this secret information in the screenplay he wrote with Welles. I think this yarn hasn’t really taken root partly because we all know Orson was a big fat liar (and we love him for it), and perhaps because we’re reluctant to accept that CITIZEN KANE revolves around a smutty joke. Of course, Welles felt the “dollarbook Freud” of Rosebud, seemingly to explain Kane’s emptiness with an easy childhood symbol, was too pat anyway, and said “we did everything we could to take the mickey out of it.” So we shouldn’t see the sled as the centre of the labyrinth, the key to understanding. And so maybe it doesn’t matter so much if it IS a dirty joke.

Sidenote — did Leaming originate the story, or does it come, as Jon Tuska claims, from Gore Vidal? Vidal’s film scholarship and veracity have sometimes been questioned (cf his accounts of BEN HUR), but I don’t know that he’s ever been proved to have fibbed. Tuska says Vidal got the story from Charlie Lederer, nephew of Marion Davies (that’s not a conversation I can picture having with my aunt) and also second husband of Virginia Welles.

Thoughts arising from the CITIZEN KANE Blu-Ray: “That sure doesn’t look like a rose!”

And indeed, while it’s not an absolute likeness of a vagina, it has a certain Georgia O’Keefe quality. And it doesn’t look anything like a rose. Randy suggests a viewing of KANE with the theory in mind: if this was done as a prank directed at Hearst, how fiendishly cruel! The billionaire press baron is told by underlings that a Hollywood film has dared to tell a thinly-veiled version of his life story. He arranges a screening. The very first sequence, and a giant pair of lips mouths the word “Rosebud!” What the hell?

The newsreel ends, and suddenly everybody’s talking about it: the last word on his lips. And the whole damned movie is going to be about the quest to find out the meaning of this? The tycoon must be in a state of shock. And he has to wait two hours to find out the answer, and even when the sled shot lets him off the hook, the image he sees as the wood starts to char…

No wonder Hearst mobilized his minions to suppress the film. No wonder he tried to get RKO to treat the film like the sled and incinerate it. I discuss this with arch-Wellesian Randall William Cook:

“But we don’t know for sure, do we, that Hearst ever saw it,” I say.

“Well THAT would just be the greatest practical joke in history that never came off. The bucket of water that just sat on top of the door, forever.”

And he adds:

“Remember, just because David Thomson believes it, doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

25 Responses to ““It’ll probably turn out to be some very simple thing.””

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Might I go a step further?

    If David Thomson believes it, it probably ISN’T true!

  2. A Rosebud is a Rosebud is a Rosebud.

    While it’s very pretty to think so (as Ernest Hemeroid would say) Gore Vidal DOESN’T lie. He was the person who confirmed to me that Gable had Cukor tossed of GWTW because Cukor had been a customer of Gable’s back when Gable was a hustler — and Gore’s knowledge of male hustling is prodigeous. That “Daddy” called Marion’s privates “Rosebud” doesn’t really function as a “dirty Joke” in the film at all — which never deals with sex outside of the chorus girls in the great newspaper merger party scene. It’s an inside joke within an inside joke as only insiders would have known about it at the time and would have had no means of xpressing their knowledge of it without embarassing themselevs. One did not speak of a lady’s priavted in public.

    The best poop about Heast’s love life is the “Marion Davies’ Niece” chapter of Louise Brooks’ “Lulu in Hollywood.” It’s a inside joke too but of a more serious strike in that it allude to the illicit issue of said roesbud.

    The other great a clef about Herst and davies is Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan — which Welles considered adapting to the screen as his very first project. But then he met Herman J. Makiewicz and the rest is motion picture history.

  3. specterman Says:

    While it doesn’t look anything like a rose it does kind of look like a rosebud.

  4. Good point.

  5. I think Welles knew exactly what he was he doing. It’s a riff, a hook, somewhere for critics to hang their hat (excuse the image, Marion!)

  6. Kind of like a rosebud, though the leaves around it seem all wrong. And nobody who had a rosebud in front of them would draw it looking quite like that.

    Examining the psychology of the thing, as a device to torment Hearst, something that would make him furious but that he couldn’t make any open protest about, it sort of rings true as possibly characteristic of the young Welles.

  7. Jorge Luis Borges in his review of CK described the film as a “labyrinth without a center”, Borges loved labyrinths of course.

  8. Well, if we reject Rosebud as “dollarbook Freud” the centre doesn’t hold. On the other hand, my sister-in-law always cries at the end of Kane — the film’s much-discussed “coldness” just makes the ending all the more affecting for her,

  9. Christopher Says:

    “hhhhairy potterrrr….”gasp…

  10. Via Wellesnet, the Vidal correspondence — http://www.wellesnet.com/?p=156

    Rosebud is referred to at times as MD’s clitoris, at others as her pudenda. I think the latter is a terrible word, so I went for vagina, but clitoris is probably the correct body part.

  11. specterman Says:

    I’m inclined towards seeing this as just another Hollywood tall tale at the mo but I’d love to know how the story first started the rounds.

    According to the NYRB letter Vidal never hear the story from either Mankiewicz or Welles. He doesn’t say he heard it from Charlie Lederer either. Though if you read between the lines of the letter it’s possible to infer that maybe he did. I wonder did Tuska simply make an inference from this letter or did Vidal actually tell Tuska he heard it from Charlie Lederer ?

    If you take Vidal’s letter at face value, he: a) Doesn’t know if the story is true or not (though I suppose he could never be certain anyway) b) Thinks if it is true the idea of using it in the film is much more likely to originate from Mankiewicz than Welles c) Doesn’t say where he first heard the story himself. Though sketches out a scenario how Mankiewicz might of heard the significant detail.

    So is Vidal just being circumspect for legal reasons with this letter and knows a lot more than he’s letting on or in fact doesn’t really know where the story first started ?

  12. I don’t think Tuska spoke to Vidal, and it looks like he’s drawing all sorts of inferences from the letter, including a wild suggestion that the titular clitoris may have actually been Virginia Welles’, which is an odd leap since absolutely nobody suggested it.

    I don’t think there could be any legal barrier to Vidal telling everything he knows — it’s NOT libelous, and everybody concerned is dead anyhow. My mind does kind of boggle at the suggestion that Kane is more flattering to Hearst than otherwise: maybe it doesn’t show quite how evil he was capable of being, and it gives him some of Welles’s charm, but it hardly endorses his methods and does show him as ultimately a failure as a human being.

    I think too many people accept Kane’s political motivation (if the privileged rich don’t look after the worker, the worker might try to look after himself) at face value without seeing how reactionary it really is. No doubt Vidal understands this, but maybe he didn’t appreciate how much Welles wanted us to question the idea of the patrician oligarch keeping the proletariat in their place.

  13. As usual, Gore tells a much livelier and infinitely more plausible story than anyone else.

    As for Welles’ attitude towards Hearst, he was a softie at heart. Citizen Kane makes fun of it’s protagonist’s pretensions, arrogance and ruthless desire to dominate and control. And yet what we come away with is the image of lonely guy who never knew how to love other people because the love of his mother was so sharply wrested away from him. It’s almost sentimental — and would be so entirely were it not for the gothic trappings with which the tale is encrusted. As is clear from its opening moments Citizen kane is a horror film. And as with all great horror film the “monster” is (drumroll please) The Return of The Repressed

    “You know I can’t help but feeling sorry for Mr. Kane.”

    “Don’t you think I do?”

    or as Orson would later say — via Marlene Dietrich

    “He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?”

  14. Indeed — as an actor and director, Welles had to feel some sympathy for all his subjects, so he uncovers the human side of Hearst/Kane. But the film is still an uncompromising denunciation of the yellow press, craftily disguised.

  15. Welles himself said that “Kane was better than Hearst and Davies was better than Susan Alexander.” She was a remarkable actress in King Vidor’s silent comedies where she mainly spoofed serious dramatic sirens like Pola Negri and the underlying pretensions of their stardom, and by extension the pretensions of Hearst who sought that respectability.

    All of Welles’ characters are in Truffaut’s words, “sacred monsters”, who are wrong but command the audience. Truffaut preferred bad guys in general and rooted for Hank Quinlan over Charlton Heston. The only unambiguously good character who Welles plays is Jack Falstaff, who he also said was the only good character in Shakespeare.

  16. I recently saw Operator 13, in which Davies plays an actress and Civil War spy, using her stage skills to become a master of disguise and help defeat the South. This includes blacking up as a maid. Grotesque, but her skills as impersonator/caricaturist get a workout: she produces a voice like Putney Swope’s. There’s no reason why she couldn’t have continued in talkies if the public had been interested.

  17. As Vidal notes,when discussing the authorship of CITIZEN KANE, Welles was always careful to give Mankiewicz credit for Rosebud. He may have been in on the joke, but he plainly did not want the credit for it. Vidal suspects the message was for Hearst. I think not. I suspect it was for Marion. Welles always said that he and Mank did Ms. Davies wrong in CITIZEN KANE.

    I first ran across the Rosebud/Clitoris story in Kenneth Anger’s HOLLYWOOD BABYLON. That came out in 1975, and the first “underground” version showed up ten years prior, I believe. The story had been in circulation long before Leaming, Brady, or Vidal brought it up. Vidal’s explanation seems the likely one – the story was fairly common knowledge from the fifties onward, and the source was Marion Davies via Lederer or one of that circle. From what I’ve read about Davies, she probably thought the whole affair hilarious.

  18. Well, one should never believe anything in Hollywood Babylon… except that much of it’s true.

    It would be nice to think Davies was more amused than offended. It would make up for the way they portray Susie Kane.

  19. An odd, interesting, and coincidental tidbit: two nights ago I read THE BIG BRASS RING, the late-period Welles script written with his companion Oja Kodar, reviewed by Gore Vidal, and adapted into a flawed by fascinating movie by George Hickenlooper and F. X. Feeney. It’s a bad script, inert, impressionistic, hermetic, and vague; but the general idea is superb; there is some marvelous, pointed dialogue; two great characters in Blake Pellarin and Kim Mennaker; and a wealth of fascinating allusions to Welles’s life and career. For example, Pellarin’s wealthy, neglected, ambitious, alcoholic wife, Dinah, owns a superb emerald necklace that, in a significant plot point, turns out to be fake, as she had, unbeknownst to her husband, sold the original to finance his political career. Well, it turns out that Marion Davies, during the Great Depression, when Hearst’s empire was tottering, sold a million dollars worth of her jewelry, without Hearst’s knowledge, and gave him a check that saved the farm.

  20. And Welles certainly knew that story, since he quoted it as evidence of what a fine woman MD was.

    Welles’ late scripts, including The Cradle Will Rock, are immensely enjoyable, and it’s quite hard to tell what kind of movies they would have been in his hands — maybe all the doubts would be dispelled by his cinematic wizardry and poetry? At any rate, if I had to pick one, I’d go for Cradle over Ring any day, even though he was reportedly considering Rupert Everett to play the young Welles, which is just crazy.

  21. I think Welles had much more invested in CRADLE, and in his tantalizing LEAR project (is there a script around for that one, I wonder?), than in the demented BBR, which is vaguely crass and cynical, an updated, sexed-up STRANGER, written to prove to a debased Hollywood that the old master was still commercial. It’s the kind of thing Jake Hannaford would try to direct in his dotage (THE KREMLIN HANDKERCHIEF?). The published version is not even a script, really; just a fleshed out treatment meant to attract money, star, and studio. Of course, Welles was never any good that, even if his vast talent couldn’t help but shine through in the attempt. He could whore out his persona, but never his genius. I suspect Welles was relieved when the project fell through, and that BBR would never again have seen the light of day if Oja hadn’t needed to pay a few bills.

    Given the homoerotic undercurrents that trickle throughout Welles’s life and work, I find the thought of a still young and ravishing Rupert Everett playing Welles to be…interesting, to say the least. Accuracy is not always truth.

    I read your great review of Tam-Lin the other day and put it in my Netflix cue. Thanks for the tip.

  22. Hope you enjoy Tam Lin — maybe it’s more odd than good, but it’s certainly distinctive.

    Having seen how good an impersonation Welles CAN be, in the otherwise undistinguished Me and Orson Welles, I’d be hard pressed to accept someone with no physical resemblance in the role, but maybe that’d be better than someone who only gets partway, like the guy in RKO 281.

  23. Randy Cook Says:

    I think Rupert had the nose Orson always WISHED he had.

  24. That would make sense. “My own nose is a… nothing.” A nosebud, if you will.

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