In response to:
Remembering Orson Welles from the June 1, 1989 issue
To the Editors:
In his essay on Orson Welles [NYR, June 1], Gore Vidal asserts that “Rosebud was what Hearst called his friend Marion Davies’s clitoris.”
The ultimate significance of this statement is, of course, doubtful but it does cast some light on Mr. Vidal’s reliability. Barring the possibility of group sex (unlikely in view of Mr. Hearst’s frenzy for possession), only two people could have revealed Mr. Hearst’s form of address and it is rather hard to imagine that either would have shared this bit of intimacy with either Mr. Welles or Mr. Vidal. Mr. Vidal does not claim that either Mr. Hearst or Ms. Davies was his source, not does he share the chain of communication by which this tidbit might have reached him. It does not appear in the book which inspired his essay. So we have only Mr. Vidal’s ipse dixit.
This style of reporting may perhaps have its charm: there is surely a steady market for details of the bedroom behavior of the well-known. But even though Mr. Vidal may stand ready to supply this market—some may look forward to his providing parallel claimed revelations as to Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret and Denis Thatcher—is there any reason why The New York Review should help him?
New York City
Gore Vidal: replies:
First, I must share with the readers of The New York Review the Jay Topkis letterhead. He is associated with a law firm called Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, whose names are duly noted at the top of the page. Presumably, Lawyer Topkis wishes to associate his firm’s esteemed founders with his silly letter. This is curious, but then America’s ongoing success in the world is due to our creative lawyers and so it is not, perhaps, unnatural for Topkis to want his observations validated by a profession so universally revered. But the letterhead does not stop with five names. There are also close to a hundred other names in alphabetical order, in roman capitals. Lawyers all. This is brute, chilling power. Ask not for whom the siren sounds….
Now to the important matter of Rosebud (what song the sirens sang I will reveal at a later date). Although I met both Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies (Topkis for the defense: how can you prove that just because they lived together for a third of a century their relationship was other than that of brother and sister?), I did not ask Hearst what he called Marion’s clit and, may I say, neither adulterer volunteered this important information. Unlike today’s journalists and tell-all biographers I have very little interest in the sex lives of others. But the significance of Rosebud, if that indeed was Hearst’s private name for Marion’s tender button, goes a long way toward explaining Hearst’s fury at Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, whose co-author, the alcoholic wit, Herman Mankiewicz, was often in attendance at the Hearst court, whose Versailles was San Simeon, whose Marly was Santa Monica.
Topkis suggests that group sex should probably be ruled out. This is wise of him. Hearst was jealous of Marion and she was jealous of him. Louise Brooks (in Barry Paris’s recent biography) reports that although the “gay” courtiers could romp about pretty much as they pleased the heteros were on a tight leash. (Topkis for the prosecution: does Miss Brooks pretend that she was in every bedroom at all times of day and night?) In so staid an atmosphere how would the “Rosebud subject” have come up? Easily. Marion Davies was an alcoholic who surrounded herself with other merry drinkers and though Hearst and his servants did their best to keep the palaces dry, vinous times were had by Marion and such intimates as her nephew and niece, Charlie and Pepi Lederer, and, for a time, Herman Mankiewicz. Charlie Lederer was a screen-writer, a wit, a sometime drug-taker. I met him in the Fifties through the writer George Axelrod, who was producing a play of mine called Visit to a Small Planet (1957). When Axelrod had trouble raising enough money to put the play on, Charlie went to Aunt Marion and got her to sign, in her cups, as it were, a check for ten thousand dollars. He was greatly relieved when she made her money back. The matter of Rosebud was much discussed at that time. After all, alcoholic ladies often discuss intimate matters with intimates. Since Welles’s portrait of Hearst was more admiring than not, and Hearst was no longer running for president, how else explain his wrath over the film? Particularly when he had taken in stride Theodore Roosevelt’s charge that he and his press were responsible for the murder of President McKinley.
Although the prurient Topkis says that this “tidbit…does not appear in the book which inspired [the] essay,” it does. For the sake of Topkis’s century of partners, one hopes that he does not read briefs as sloppily as he has (allegedly) read Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles, which tells us that “the story made its way into the popular press in the 1970s” (page 287). (Topkis on the defensive: the word “clitoris” does not appear in the book. The word Brady uses is “pudenda” [sic]. I shall now submit in evidence the centerfold of a current issue of Penthouse….) Brady does say:
If this highly unlikely story is even partially true—it is possible that the word “rosebud” was used in general as an affectionate euphemism for a woman’s genitalia [Brady cites Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang]—Hearst may have become upset at the implied connotation, although any such connection seems to have been innocent on Welles’s part.
Since Mr. Brady saw a good deal of Welles while writing his book, one wishes that he had asked him—not that Orson, who was never innocent, would have given a straight answer. Orson loved mysteries, complications (id est, Orson’s first wife Virginia married—yes, Charlie Lederer). But if the story is true, I am now intrigued to know whether or not Mankiewicz told Welles the significance of Rosebud when he gave him the sled sequence. If not—or indeed if so—that might explain why in every discussion of who wrote what for Citizen Kane, Orson always firmly gave Mankiewicz full and absolute credit for the invention of Rosebud. Was this a message to Hearst? Over to you Pauline, Peter, Frank….
Meanwhile, all Topkises are kindly requested to return to their letterheads until the next ambulance siren sounds.
August 17, 1989