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.