Pepi Lederer: ‘Marion Davies’ Niece’
By Allan R. Ellenberger
March 18, 2010
Today is the 100th birthday of Pepi Lederer, who is the niece of actress Marion Davies. What little that is known about Pepi comes from Louise Brooks’ autobiography, Lulu in Hollywood. In it she devotes an entire chapter to Pepi, Marion and William Randolph Hearst.
Pepi was born Josephine Rose Lederer on March 18, 1910 in Chicago, Illinois. Her mother, Reine was the older sister of Marion Davies, and an actress and writer in her own right and was the first to use the Davies name professionally. Married twice, first to Broadway producer and director, George Lederer, they had two children – Pepi and Charles, who later became a successful screenwriter. Reine divorced George when Pepi was two years-old and later married actor George Regas.
Pepi was given the nickname “Peppy” as a child because of her high spirited personality. When she turned 18 she changed the spelling to Pepi and legally made it her real name. She hardly ever saw or spoke about her father, and was embarrassed because he was Jewish.
Pepi and her brother Charlie were favorites of both Marion and Hearst. They in turn, preferred Marion to their own mother. When she turned twelve, Pepi was spending most of her time with Marion at San Simeon and the Lexington Avenue mansion in Beverly Hills, rarely seeing her mother. Once, years later when Pepi was living in a New York apartment building owned by Hearst, Reine unexpectedly stormed in drunk, calling Marion a scheming bitch for having robbed her of her children. The episode left Pepi sobbing and racked with guilt.
At Hearst’s San Simeon, Pepi had free run of the ranch. Visitors usually had to obey Hearst’s rules about liquor rationing (because of Marion’s excesses) and the insisted-upon early rising to have breakfast. Pepi, on the other hand, had no problems obtaining liquor since she had her own private boot-legger – Hearst’s executive secretary who had keys to the wine vaults and could not resist Pepi’s charm and flashing blue eyes. Louise Brooks said that Pepi “and her group of pansies and dykes could drink and carry on all night…” As long as Marion’s drinking was under control and no one was breaking up Hearst’s art collection, he didn’t care about their drinking or sexual activities.
In the great dining hall at San Simeon, Pepi and her friends would sit at one end of the long wooden table while Marion and Hearst would face each surrounded by their guests in the middle. Pepi’s friends usually included her brother Charlie, Louise Brooks, Sally O’Neil, William Haines, and Lloyd Pantages, son of the theatre mogul. The guests called them the Younger Degenerates.
Pepi‘s sense of humor gave her every chance to expose a guests vanities while humoring the rest. Claire Windsor’s falsies and writer Elinor Glyn’s red wig would mysteriously disappear from their bedrooms while they slept. An “exclusive” item would appear in Louella Parsons’ syndicated Hearst column, which would later have to be retracted. Once, when a group of Hearst editors, dressed in business suits and seated at a liquor-loaded table visited the ranch, Pepi organized a chain dance. Ten beautiful girls in wet bathing suits danced round their table, grabbed a bottle here and there, and then exited, leaving a room full of astonished men, who inquired, “Does Mr. Hearst know these people are here?”
Pepi was charismatic, but undisciplined with a gluttonous appetite for rich food, alcohol and eventually drugs – specifically cocaine. Once in an attempt to lose weight and quit liquor, she convinced Louise Brooks, who she first met at San Simeon in 1928, to join her at a friend’s duck blind in Virginia, where she hoped the seclusion away from her temptations would help kick her habits. Upon their arrival she had the liquor cabinet locked and spent her time listening to Bing Crosby recordings. After only a few days, she raided the kitchen, eating cold chicken and half an apple pie, then went for the liquor and was shocked that it was locked up. “You told him to lock it,” Louise told her.
“I’ll fix that,” she mumbled, and went to the kitchen and returned with a hatchet, and with three robust whacks, opened the door. For the remainder of the week, she satisfied herself with good whiskey, mouth-watering Southern cooking and Bing Crosby songs.
Pepi was also a lesbian. Though Louise Brooks never publicly admitted to an affair with Pepi, she once told a friend that Pepi said, “Let me just fool around a bit,” and Louise said, “Okay, if it’s anything you’re going to get some great enjoyment out of, go ahead.” And so they fooled around, but said she got nothing out of it.
Pepi secretly yearned to be an actress so she was thrilled when she was given a small comedy part in Marion’s picture The Fair Co-ed (1927) that was directed by Sam Wood. During filming she was told how good she was, but when the film premiered, her part had been cut. Marion consoled her with the promise of a better part in her “next” picture, but the next picture never materialized. Pepi realized that no one had been serious about her career and that was just a joke.
In 1929, Pepi visited MGM during the last day of filming of King Vidor’s Hallelujah. Conveniently, Marion, Charlie, and Rose were absent; so on an impulse, Pepi invited several of the cast members, including Nina May McKinney, to the house on Lexington Avenue. After three days, a neighbor, shocked by the sight of black people running in and out of the mansion, telephoned Marion, who sent Ethel to end the party. Pepi told friends she would never forget the look on Ethel’s face when her aunt opened the door and found Pepi in bed with Nina May. Pepi was immediately banished to New York as a punishment.
At the end of March 1930, Pepi was in New York and was concerned that she had not menstruated in three months. Finally, desperate for a reason, she called Marion about her condition. Marion told her to stop wasting time and to make an appointment to see an abortionist at once. He found that Pepi was pregnant, and aborted the fetus the next day.
A few days later, Louise Brooks visited her and found her in bed, sick, feverish, and frightened. She was hemorrhaging badly and told Louise about the abortion. “This was the most astonishing piece of news since the Virgin birth,” Louise said, “because, as far as I knew, she had never gone to bed with any man.”
When Pepi explained, Louise asked if she knew who the man was. “No I don’t,” Pepi said violently. “And I don’t want to know the name of a man who would rape a dead-drunk woman.” Pepi continued, saying that it had to happen on New Year’s Eve, when she got drunk at a party given by Lawrence Tibbett and someone had to take her home. “But I don’t remember who it was,” she said, “and I don’t want to remember who it was and that’s the end of it.” (After Pepi’s death, a mousy, deranged friend of hers told Louise with a smirk that it was he who had taken her home on that 1929 New Year’s Eve and raped her. He also admitted to escorting other drunken women home and performing in the same manner).
The following June, a recovered Pepi accompanied Marion and Hearst to Europe on the Olympic. While in England, she convinced Hearst to give her a job on one of his English magazines, The Connoisseur and ended up staying there for five years. In London, she wrote to Louise that she was now a person in her own right, not a way station for would-be friends of Marion and Hearst. And she said that she found a lovely companion, Monica Morris, who now shared her flat, her generous allowance, and Marion’s charge accounts.
Louise was apprehensive of Pepi’s taste in girlfriends and asked around about Monica Morris. When asked, one friend exclaimed: “My God, the Stage-Door Ferret! Don’t tell me Monica has latched onto Pepi!” It seemed that Monica had earned her nick-name because she was the most predatory among the group of girls who had fought over Tallulah Bankhead when she became a star of the London theatre in 1923.
Regardless, they remained an item until Pepi’s return to the United States on April 15, 1935. They spent two weeks in a suite at Hearst’s Ritz Tower Hotel on Park Avenue before going to Hollywood. It was Monica’s first time in New York but the first thing she asked Louise after they met was “Will you take me to Harlem to get some cocaine?” She evidently lost her stash while on board the ship and was most urgent to replace it. Louise referred her to Tallulah Bankhead at the Gotham Hotel, and Monica hurried out, leaving Pepi and Louise to have their last serious talk before Pepi’s death.
Though they laughed together, Louise could see the cocaine addiction in her eyes and the reason why she wanted to avoid Marion and Hearst. She had also lost weight, which Louise attributed to the cocaine.
When Pepi and Monica arrived in California, they stayed at the Lexington Avenue house. Marion and Hearst were at San Simeon but no directive came for Pepi and Monica to join them there. Weeks passed and there were no fancy parties, and Monica grew ever more bored among the Davies relatives. Then, without warning, Marion and Hearst decided to have Pepi committed to the psychiatric section of Good Samaritan Hospital for a drug cure. Pepi only had time to slip her diamond ring (a present from Marion on her 18th birthday) from her finger to give it to Monica before she was taken away.
A few days later, on June 11, 1935, Pepi was propped up in bed reading a movie magazine in her sixth floor room at Good Samaritan when she asked her nurse for something to eat. The nurse stepped to the doorway to call a floor nurse and order something, when suddenly, she heard a noise and turned to see Pepi plunge through the window, carrying the screen with her.
Six floors below, in a thicket of shrubbery, Pepi’s body was picked up. Hospital attendants said she only lived a few minutes. She was dead before they could carry her to an operating room, her neck broken.
Marion, Hearst and Reine were at San Simeon when they received the news. Reine took the news more calmly than Marion, who lost control, as she always did when confronted by death. Louise Brooks was in her dressing room at the Persian Room of the Plaza, getting ready to open her new act when she was informed of Pepi’s death. “Looking in a mirror as I checked my hair, makeup, and costume for the dinner show” Louise said, “I thought, her dreaded visit to Hollywood had lasted exactly six weeks.”
As for Monica, her trunk was searched by Hearst’s people and a bundle of Pepi’s letters was taken from it – she felt it was because they feared blackmail. The ring that Pepi had given her was snatched from her finger. She was given a steamship ticket to Southampton and a thousand dollars in cash and was told she was being deported immediately after the funeral.
St. Mary’s of the Angels Church, 4510 Finley Avenue, Hollywood where Pepi Lederer’s funeral was held
Newspaper reports said that Pepi was suffering from acute melancholia, the usual public reason for drug abuse. Pepi’s funeral was held at St. Mary’s of the Angels Church in Hollywood. Her bronze casket was placed in a crypt in Marion’s private mausoleum at Hollywood Cemetery.
On the 100th anniversary of her birth, it’s hoped that Pepi has found some peace.
Marion Davies’ private mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Pepi’s is the first bottom crypt to the left of the door.
Information for this article was taken from “Marion Davies’ Niece” by Louise Brooks and from “Louise Brooks” by Barry Paris (1989).