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.”