Britain’s youngest prince made a splash when he visited California in 1928. But did he really cause as much trouble as the press said he did?
Born in 1902, George was the fourth son of Britain’s King George V and Queen Mary. They were distant parents at best, and George grew up without obvious examples of love or approval.
By the time George (the third spare) was born, his parents were pretty sure that, barring a total tragedy, he wasn’t going near the throne. As a result, he had a more relaxed childhood than his brothers, and was the only one of the kids who even attempted to tease his straitlaced parents.
The funniest thing I can tell you about young George is that when Queen Mary refused to give him more than four shillings a week for his allowance, George sold his autograph and a letter from his dad (the king of England) to get more spending money.
A budding entrepreneur? A schemer? Or just ruthlessly practical?
You make the call.
In the Navy
George loved music, art, and design, but princes can’t grow up to be artists. It just wasn’t done.
So George’s dad set him on a path to join the navy.
He went to the Naval College at Dartmouth, which he hated. He hated his naval tour of duty, too. Chronically seasick, George was miserable the whole time.
But because he was royal, George combined a lot of shore leave with his naval commission. In 1928, that’s what brought him to California as a junior lieutenant on board the HMS Durban.
But here’s the thing.
If you look up George’s trip in old newspapers, you’ll find wildly different accounts of what happened. Let’s try to sort the fact from the fiction.
On Thursday, September 6, the Durban arrived in Monterey Bay. George had dinner at the Pebble Beach home of real estate developer Samuel Morse. Afterward, he danced at Morse’s Hotel Del Monte, impressing everyone with his version of the “varsity drag.” By 3 a.m., the newspapers reported, EVERYONE was doing it.
But if George left the Hotel Del Monte with a smile on his face that night, it wasn’t because he was crushing on a local debutante. It was because of actress Lili Damita.
Rumor has it George met Lili the year before in Paris. A successful singer, model, and actress, she’d been invited to Hollywood by Samuel Goldwyn, who cast her in The Rescue opposite Ronald Colman.
Although George danced with plenty of other women that night, newspapers reported that Lili danced only with George.
The next day (Friday), George went to the Morse ranch in Carmel Valley. He rode horses, fished, and generally relaxed from the stress of all that dancing. But he was back for more that night, crashing in a bungalow on hotel grounds.
Dancing is a real theme with George, as you’ll see.
On Saturday, George did what sporting people do when they find themselves in Monterey over the weekend — he hit the links, playing the Dunes course at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club.
According to the Oakland Tribune, “…his approaches were good, but his putting ran up his score. He explained that he was unaccustomed to the speed of American greens, and that his duties as lieutenant on the British cruiser Durban have interfered with his golf.”
He shot a 90, which I think is pretty good for an out-of-practice amateur.
Destination: Santa Barbara
On Sunday night, the Durban steamed down to Santa Barbara. Silent film star Marion Mack was there to invite him to fly to Hollywood for the upcoming National Aeronautical Exposition.
This is where the trouble started…and where the exaggerated reports of George’s trip begin piling up. Later that day, the Durban’s Captain Coleridge issued a denial over the wire — Prince George would not be flying to Hollywood.
Reporters latched onto this denial and spun it into a tale of forbidden adventure.
They wrote that George’s dad had forbidden him to fly to Hollywood, afraid his wayward son would fall in with the wrong crowd. They said the king’s orders had been conveyed in no uncertain terms to the Durban’s officers, one of whom reportedly said:
“The only stars Prince George will see are those in the heavens and on the Stars and Stripes.” ¹
It’s a bit melodramatic, isn’t it?
And would a nameless crew member have made such a ballsy statement about the king’s son?
He didn’t, as we’ll see.
Destination: Hollywood, Day 1
There’s one thing the sources agree on: After spending Monday and Tuesday in Santa Barbara, Prince George went to Hollywood on Wednesday.
But that’s about all the agreement we’re going to get.
The exaggerated version of this story makes it sound like a prison break. They say George left the Durban in his uniform and convinced his host, George Slater, to drive him straight to Hollywood — ignoring his carefully planned schedule in Santa Barbara.
His dad, you see, hadn’t said a word about not *driving* to Hollywood.
So George, Slater, and Slater’s friend, Elliott Rogers, headed straight for Los Angeles. At the Ambassador Hotel, George checked in as “Lieutenant Windsor,” changed his clothes, and headed for Hollywood, where he and his friends met up with Lili Damita.
As romantic a story as this is, it’s not what actually happened.
George’s commanding officer knew exactly where he was — and it wasn’t with Lili Damita.
Slater and Rogers did drive George to Hollywood. That much was true. They took him to the United Artists studio, where Douglas Fairbanks had been deputized as his tour guide.
Fairbanks, who’d been given a few days’ notice, left his set while in costume to show George around. He treated George to a rodeo, complete with 150 horses and cowboys. “Bravo! Perfectly rippin’!” George said.²
Then Fairbanks took George to his set and did a stunt-jump out a window just for him. They had tea in Mary Pickford’s bungalow, as studio employees nervously looked around for anyone with a camera. Fairbanks had been told that any publicity was strictly forbidden.
That night, Fairbanks and Pickford threw George a star-studded dinner party at their mansion, Pickfair.
Mary Pickford swore all her dinner guests to secrecy, including Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, and — of course — Lili Damita.
More people showed up for the afterparty, including Mary Astor, Norma Shearer, and June Collyer.
And this is where the exaggerated account gets…really exaggerated.
The *Really* Exaggerated Account
Like many formal parties, this one dragged on way too long. At 10 pm, a bored George told Lili that he wanted to dance. So Lili moved the party to Gloria Swanson’s, where Gloria cranked up the radio and they danced until the station stopped broadcasting at 1 am.
Meanwhile, the Durban’s captain had no idea George had skipped out on Santa Barbara. But someone with a female voice ratted him out in a midnight phone call to the British Consul. Rousted out of bed, a bunch of cops and British sailors tore down the highway from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, looking for their wayward prince.
But George wasn’t done yet. Without music, he couldn’t keep dancing.
So George and Lili and whoever was still standing went to Fatty Arbuckle’s brand-new Plantation Café in Culver City.
They begged Arbuckle to keep the club open. Could he please have his house band, the Henry Halstead Orchestra, play a little longer? Arbuckle let them stay until 5 am, and then told them to scram before someone called the cops.
But George wasn’t done yet.
So George, Lili, Slater, and Rogers borrowed Fatty’s orchestra and took them back to Gloria Swanson’s house, where they partied until 10 am.
Finally, Slater carted an exhausted George back to the Ambassador Hotel.
What Really Happened
When the Pickfair party broke up, George went to bed.
Some reports say he and a small group from the party went to a bar afterward. Maybe.
Others say he went back to the Durban to sleep. Probably.
Or, if we go with the party-all-night theory, he didn’t even sleep until morning, back at the Ambassador Hotel.
Either way, the exaggerated reports never explain precisely if or when the pursuing cops and sailors got hold of George — or why they failed to nab him the next day, when every paparazzi photographer knew where he was.
Destination: Hollywood Day 2
There’s a bit of confusion about Thursday morning, thanks to the confusion about where George spent Wednesday night.
He had a private suite on the 6th floor of the Ambassador Hotel, and was there until noon with Slater and Rogers. If you believe George was out all night, it makes sense that the guys would crash at the hotel and sleep.
If you believe George went back to the Durban, well, then he had Slater drive him all the way back to Hollywood that morning.
At noon, three beautiful women showed up for lunch: June Collyer, Lili Damita, and Gloria Swanson.
After a private lunch, the group went sightseeing. June took them to the set of her latest movie, Raymond Cannon’s Husbands Are Liars, at the Fox studio.
If that sounds like a low-key plan, it is.
George had originally been invited to take an aerial tour with Charles Lindbergh, ending at the national air races at Mines Field. But thanks to daddy’s no-flying rule, George was limited to terrestrial entertainment.
On his last night in Hollywood, George went to the Belasco Theater to see Gloria Swanson in Mid-Channel. It was the last stop on his itinerary — he went back to the Durban that night.
The next day, the ship continued on its voyage to Bermuda.
But the press wasn’t finished with George just yet.
On Saturday, after days of wild stories about his AWOL night in Hollywood, the Associated Press asked Captain Coleridge whether George was being punished for his bad behavior. Coleridge issued a firm denial:
“I should be obliged if you would note that all press reports concerning HRH Prince George during the visit of HMS Durban to Santa Barbara are without foundation and are unauthorized.” ³
And there you have it.
If you’re wondering whether George and Lili ended up together, they didn’t.
George didn’t end up with any of the women he met on this trip.
Lili Damita married Errol Flynn in 1935, just before he became a star. His career went into hyperdrive just as hers began to fizzle. They had one son together, followed by a bitter divorce finalized in 1942.
George continued on the Durban to Bermuda and New York, where he caught a passenger liner back to England for Christmas. There’s a lot more to tell about George’s wild life, but let’s save that for a future post.
¹ The Los Angeles Times, 13 Sep 1928.
² The Los Angeles Times, 23 Sep 1928.
³ Los Angeles Evening Express, 15 Sep 1928.
Books & Articles
Skewes-Cox, Pamela. “In the Company of the Craigs.” Noticias LIV, no 4 (2015): 185–260. https://issuu.com/santabarbaramuseum/docs/134613_noticias_web.
Watson, Sophia. Marina: The Story of a Princess. London: Orion Publishing Group, Limited. 1997.
Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Evening Express
Pomona Progress Bulletin
San Bernardino County Sun
San Francisco Examiner