Hearst, his California Castle and Citizen Kane–a too BIG story

It takes a very large personality to build a castle and refer to it as “the ranch.”


William Randolph Hearst was an imposing figure in the early 20th century, a polarizing newspaper tycoon who jumped into politics and mixed his  publishing fortunes with the business of early Hollywood and movies in a conscious and well-executed effort to greatly influence, if not control the public appetite, attitude and perspective on the political issues of the day. The term “yellow journalism” was coined to describe Hearst’s battles with Joseph Pulitzer as the two sensationalized the news to drive up circulation–the stuff of movies, don’t you think?

Although in later life Orson Welles denied his masterpiece Citizen Kane was completely inspired by Hearst’s life, stating it certainly wasn’t a biography, the fictional Kane with his Xanadu created a stir when the film was released, and living up to his reputation, Mr. Hearst did his best to bury the project, with threats, FBI investigations and grand-scale intimidation pitting the 76-year old newspaper tycoon against Welles, demanding that none of his many newspapers or media conglomerates in any way review or promote the film.

The movie did not originally do well, and it took another 25 years for Citizen Kane, and Welles, to be given well-deserved attention and gain critical acclaim.


The 115-room main house with separate guesthouses, two masterpiece pools and eight acres of gardens sits high above the city of San Simeon, occupying La Cuesta Encantada, “The Enchanted Hill.”  Hearst was known as the consummate host, making sure his guests, which included world leaders President Calvin Coolidge and Winston Churchill and A-list celebrities and notables George Bernard Shaw, Charles Lindbergh and Charlie Chaplin, to name but a few, had everything they’d ever need while staying at the Castle.


The Castle is full of art, both authentic antiquities and priceless reproductions, as Hearst collected whatever he fancied, with few restrictions and little restraint. Hearst’s mother, Phoebe, fueled his lifelong passion for collecting as she threw herself into providing her only son a classical education by way of extended trips to Europe filled with art and culture.


It has been speculated that Hearst’s excessive collecting was perhaps exacerbated by his early experiences with the family’s financial instability.  Hearst’s father made his vast fortune in silver mining, but fortunes were made, lost and regained and young Hearst was forced to move from school to school, shifting with the winds of the family’s financial strength.



Then there’s the Castle’s architect,  Julia Morgan, already a very highly accomplished and well-regarded architect with her own firm when in 1919  Hearst hired her to collaboratively design and build his showpiece.

Imagine the training and skill it would require to work for 28 years alongside a dreamer prone to last-minute changes to the orientation of an entire wing, frequently recreating plans for components of this massive project like someone else might suggest a change in paint color.  Also imagine hiring and managing the thousands of skilled workers and artisans required to complete this mammoth-scale project. And then imagine getting all the equipment up the hill in the first place. One of the first challenges was creating a road–requiring dynamite and a good plan! Julia Morgan was a marvel equal in her field to that of Hearst in his.


Women play a significant role in Hearst’s life and accomplishments. It’s impossible to speak of life at Hearst Castle without referencing Hearst’s companion and longterm mistress,  Marion Davies. Davies was already a successful actress before she met Hearst and I can’t say that I know all that much about the context of their meeting and subsequent life together, but it is clear to me that Davies was more than a “floozy,” to use the vernacular of her day. It would take a woman with intelligence and a strong independent spirit to keep up with Hearst’s larger-than-life personality.


I told you it was a big story! I have other little tidbits I’d enjoy sharing, so I’ll leave you with some more photos from our day at the Castle. It’s quite a place! Let’s visit again on Thursday.


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47 thoughts on “Hearst, his California Castle and Citizen Kane–a too BIG story

  1. Yippee, I’m first! 🙂 It’s a spot, ok, isn’t it? That first shot looking down and out- you’d hardly need all the statuary and flim flam. You tell the story so well, Debbie. I first saw really detailed photos of the castle on Cathy Dutchak’s blog. Catbird- if you know her, is currently in China for 9 months. 🙂 I’ll be back for part 2. Have a good week!

    1. You WERE first, Jo! 🙂 There are so many different tours of Hearst Castle and although I’ve been three or four times, I don’t think I’ve yet seen all the rooms. In fact, I’m sure I have not. It’s an interesting place to tour and see that every detail has been considered. He was over the top, but he was definitely involved and told the architect and designers what to build and how to do it. Thanks for coming along on the first leg of the tour, my friend. I’m sure I’ll have more to share by Thursday. 🙂

  2. This is the first time I’ve seen any details from “the ranch”, Debra ! – a thousand thanks ! 🙂
    (That wasteland between it and the sea: what is going on down there ? – anything ?)
    I find it fairly OTT; but when unlimited funds meet undisciplined wishes, you can’t expect perfect taste … And it’s certainly representative of a whole chunk of your Hollywood history.
    Lovely post ! – I look forward to Part II.

    1. The land below the Castle is a combination of Hearst Corporation ranch land and open land that the Hearst’s donated to the state. It really is quite a wonderful area that is protected against any development. For that, we owe the Hearst family!I do think the OTT opulence and all that surrounds Hearst’s appetites would not be as openly displayed today as it was then. I’ve been enjoying reading about him, and realize that like most very successful people, there are his admirers and those who have nothing nice to say. He was probably somewhere “in the middle” of those two opinions. But a fascinating man! I hope I can add some more interest for Thursday’s post. Thank you for coming along on the tour, M-R. 🙂

  3. I love ‘structures’. The physical existence of them. And the stories they hold. Thank you for sharing this one! I was just talking about another structure yesterday and said how I would love to be “in” that place by myself. To absorb the feeling and the essence of the lives that touched this place. Your Castle leaves me wanting to do the same there! 🙂

    1. We have that in common, Colleen. I found myself going off into corners and really trying to place myself back in Hearst’s day, wondering what it would be like to have been one of Hearst’s guests. We made a joke to one of the docents that we were going to hide in the bushes and stay after hours…she let us know that the dogs would find us. LOL! Perhaps one day you’ll have the opportunity to visit, Colleen. 🙂

  4. Wow, what an amazing story–so many of these details I had not known. An incredible place! Your opening sentence here is downright brilliant, Debra–big personality, indeed. Thanks so much for the inside scoop, Debra!

    Hugs from Ecuador,

    1. Thank you, Kathy! I’m so glad you were able to take the mini-tour of Hearst Castle with me. I am really fascinated with Hearst and his times. I haven’t yet read the book I purchased about Julia Morgan, the architect, but I’m eager to get going on that, too. What an amazing woman she was. So glad to have you back on-line. It would be interesting to learn how it was for you and Sara go be off-line for so long. That’s a blogpost suggestion, Kathy. 🙂 I’m really curious. We all “donate” so much time to being plugged in and I often wonder if it wouldn’t be a blessing in disguise if we lost our connectivity a bit more often. But for today, I’m so glad I could share. LOL!

  5. dandyknife

    Looks like Mr Hearst had a penchant for lapis lazuli. He sounds like a generous soul, though, building those extra guesthouses; I would feel quite underfoot bunking in the main house, wouldn’t you? And besides, the peace of the guesthouse would better ensure the delight of hearing the dulcet tones of early-morning zebra brays.
    Counting the bathroom and kitchen, our home has seven rooms, and I still can’t keep up with the housecleaning.
    Looking forward to more stories and pix!

    1. The docent told us how even today there is a full-time staff cleaning, and they dust the rooms every single day, top to bottom! My home could fit in two of the upstairs bedrooms. LOL! It is really over the top, but at the same time, probably because of the outdoors being so accessible through many windows and French doors, it has a gracious and relaxed feel. It is very inviting despite the opulence. I must admit I didn’t hear any zebra brays–no dulcet tones. I feel cheated! 🙂

      1. Ok, you get that contract and I’ll come stay with you. You can’t possibly be there alone (or even just with your family). It will be so lonely. We will need staff though. I don’t do dishes.

  6. Well done, Debra. I can’t wait for Thursday’s installment – and more?
    All that opulence!
    We think of the news today and how slanted it is, depending on one’s own views, and social media, and forget how very controlled journalism was in the age of Hearst and Pulitzer. Using a female architect (even being a female architect) was a story in its own right for 1919. I would love to visit “the ranch” – but, until I do, your bird’s eye view and wonderful perspectives will be my tour. Thank you.

    1. I’m really glad you enjoyed this leg of the tour, Penny. Julia Morgan was certainly an amazing woman for any time in history, but you’re so right, at the turn of the century I cannot imagine there were many, if any like her! I think I’ll be studying more about the “yellow journalism” aspect of Hearst’s career because I really don’t know anything substantial about his political interests or what the power issues were connected to! I think it would be interesting to discover how “the more things change, the more they stay the same!” If you ever come back to California, this is a good part of the state to visit. I’ll make a road trip and meet you. LOL!

  7. We visited 8 years ago during a road trip down the PCH from San Francisco to L.A. I think we took 3 of the available tours that day, and clearly still hadn’t seen much of the castle. Amazing stuff! And what about that ride up to the castle? I thought I’d wet myself from fear on some of those twists and turns cliff-side.

    1. You took three tours on one day? You’re the CHAMP! That’s a lot of stairs…were you already on your exercise quest? 🙂 It is amazing stuff, isn’t it? I agree with you about the drive up the hill…I actually wondered if anyone freaks out. I would like to take the night tour sometime, but now that you’re reminding me of the transportation, that might be a little much!

  8. Dear Debra, 115 rooms! Wow! Such opulence and he lived a little after the “Gilded Age.” I so enjoy your forays into history because you research and then have the ability to make what you’ve discovered interesting and often, very often, intriguing. Thank you. Peace.

    PS: A few minutes ago I left a response to your response to my comment–now that’s a mouthful–for your last posting, the one on the drought and water. Peace again.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Dee. I really enjoy reading about the people and places that connect to larger stories, I think of “support material” as important. I do so much reading and I’m just so glad I have friends like you who enjoy stopping by. Hearst and his Castle are part of such an interesting time in history and we are very fortunate that his heirs donated the Castle and so much land to the state of California. The current Hearst Corporation is interesting, too. I’m so glad I can share a little bit about a very interesting family. 🙂 I haven’t yet seen your response to the other post, but I’m just now sitting down to my computer. Thank you, Dee.

  9. Ooh . . . two visits for the price of one. Thanks, Debra. It’s quite an imposing structure. We’ve been by it but not in it ~ it’s fun seeing how Hearst lived.

    Have you seen the Vanderbilts place ~ Biltmore? Lots of glitz, glamour, and excess there too.

    1. No, Nancy, I have never been to the Biltmore! I have “visited” with the History Channel, though, and it’s incredible! The funny thing about Hearst Castle, and a bit hard to relay just by photos, is that although it’s ornate and very opulent, it really does feel like a home. I don’t think he treated it like a showplace except when it came to offering his guests every possible comfort. It was meant to be enjoyed. I let my imagination roam wild and tried to capture what it would feel like to be one of Hearst’s guests–I think that would be awesome. 🙂

    1. Hearst and his family did literally camp on that hill long before he built the Castle, so that’s probably where “Ranch” came in…but it’s pretty funny to the rest of us. LOL! I’m glad you enjoyed the mini-tour. Thank you for coming along. 🙂

  10. We have past Hearst Castle a few times and we always head for the water to see our friends the Elephant Seals. You have definitely inspired me to take a peek. I didn’t know that about Citizen Cane–maybe there is hope for my blog in another 22 years, although who knows what’s in store for us when the blog scene no longer is a phenomena.

    1. I think you’d really enjoy the Castle, Cristine. The grounds and the views alone are worth the effort. And the grand rooms are simply amazing…I didn’t take that tour this time, but everyone has to at least once see those ballrooms! Hearst’s biography and even the story of his heirs is quite compelling. Ii hope I’ve been able to entice some interest–and I like those Elephant Seals, too. 🙂

  11. I’ve certainly heard of Hearst and his castle. It’s very OTT. The female architect was certainly ahead of her time as not many women back then had university qualifications and then ran their own companies. What a difficult task it would have been, particularly getting all the materials to the site. It would be a fascinating place to visit, not only for the architecture and the views, but also because of Hearst himself xx

    1. I agree with you on all counts, Charlie. It IS over the top and Julia Morgan was amazing. We watched a little video before the tour which showed some photos of the pack mules bringing supplies up the mountain! It was amazing…SHE was really amazing. It is quite a fascinating place to visit. If your sister hasn’t had the opportunity to “get there” you might let her know about it. I think it’s worth the trip and only about four hours from Los Angeles. Come over and go with her. 🙂

  12. Magnificent! (I’m referring to both your blog post and the castle!) Hearst Castle is absolutely breathtaking – I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have such enormous wealth and to be so self-indulgent. Marion Davies didn’t have that “dumb blond” look, I’m sure she was much more than just a pretty face. Thanks so much for this tour, Debra! 🙂

    1. Near the end of Hearst’s life he did lose a lot of his fortune, but I suppose that is a comparative loss, right? I am currently reading about the architect, Julia Morgan, and finding her life utterly fascinating as well. But when I move on from her, I’m heading on over to read about Marion Davies. I know so little, but I have a suspicion there’s a good story waiting for me. :-)I”m so glad you enjoyed…thank you!

  13. Okay. We MUST go here together someday. And to the Huntington. And so many other West Coast places.

    This mansion reminds me of several European cathedrals. San Sulpice, for one. Only more ornate.

    1. Andra, the Castle is right in the middle of the Central Coast I think telling you I just know you’d love. This would be the perfect place to meet and enjoy together. I’m putting it right at the top of my list for us. I would just love that! 🙂

  14. Now this I found very interesting and look forward to more…. a very beautiful, if imposing building to call the ranch…. but it must be well worth the visit to see for ones self…

  15. 115 rooms full of history? I AM THERE 😀
    An imposing house for an imposing man sounds appropriate no? I am surprised at how contemporary some of the interior is, what a progressive style!
    As beautiful as this, I have to say though, after seeing Windsor Castle, I don’t think I will ever see any other fort/mansion beyond a mansion as sumptuous 😛

    Choc Chip Uru

    1. I’m chuckling…you’re the first person to reference Windsor Castle. You know, I almost made some comments about not comparing Hearst Castle to British and European Castles, but I decided I wouldn’t open that door. This beautiful “castle” only dates back to the early 20th century…we don’t have anything too old here, do we? When you get the chance, though, take a peek at the photos on the post I put up today…I don’t think many Castles have the swimming pools that Hearst had. Very California. Next time you take one of those wonderful trips like you took last year, you might be able to visit this castle. Someday perhaps. 🙂

  16. Your writing and photos are brilliant Debra and I must say I had no idea such places existed in your country. Talk about the American Dream! This is a fascinating story and I am torn between my love of architecture and my somewhat lefty views of the ‘haves’ vs the ‘have nots’. I left England, my country of birth, hoping to escape the class system. How naive and idealistic! It exists everywhere in the world. I work with the disenfranchised, the homeless, those who call a doorway in an alley their home. As I read your post I was reminded of the vast divisions between humans and how little we understand or know about either end of the social spectrum. Thank you for this eye opening post…

    1. John, thank you so much for your very thoughtful response! I think that Hearst’s vast wealth, partially inherited and much it due to his own publishing empire, was at its zenith pre-income tax. By the time of the Great Depression and a little beyond his financial losses were significant. I am so glad the State has kept the Castle for us to see and enjoy, as much to gawk and be amazed by, but also to learn more about the excesses of that time and the limitless consumption. Things (and people) were to be used and discarded, although I think he really did love his animals and did the best he could by them. Not so sure about people. 🙂 On the other hand, I suppose, Mrs. Hearst worked alongside Eleanor Roosevelt in many philanthropic endeavors and I believe was very involved in helping people. The work you do is so important and must at times be very draining. I admire you for your heart for others, John, and can easily understand the “push-pull” between admiring the Castle for its beauty and being all too aware of what that kind of “consumption” represents. I am so glad you shared your thoughts. Thank you.

  17. Pingback: Heading into our weekend exhale with a final stop at Hearst Castle | breathelighter

  18. I sure love all the back stories enveloping this castle. He lived a very fascinating life.
    That second photo … that really is a very photographic part of the castle, eh. 😀 The Enchanted Hill gives the castle a better charm.
    You know how I have a mixed bag opinion about visiting this place. Seriously, they need to not rush the tours. 😀 If anything, it’s a good meter for art lovers and for architectural observation and knowledge.

    1. I hear what you’re saying about being rushed, Rommel. I think because we weren’t on the more popular tours this times maybe we didn’t feel quite as rushed as might have been the case in some of the great halls, but I was probably more annoyed at some of the other people in our tour who talked too much for my taste. I would like a private tour. LOL! The next tour we take will hopefully be the night tour. I think that would be really intriguing. Maybe if you go again you’ll find it less rushed. It could also have been the tour guide!

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