Coastal California has always been a place of big affluence and monster mansions. But nothing comes close to Hearst Castle, the glamorous San Simeon estate of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
A Controversial Millionaire
By the beginning of the 20th century W. R. Hearst was a rich man. At age 56 he finally entered into his inheritance acquiring possession of 10 million dollars and 40,000 acres of ranch land in San Simeon. You know, historically speaking, $10 million was a lot back then, but today that sounds more like an average villa in Beverly Hills.
So let’s try visualization. It is 1919 and Hearst owns now 40,000 acres of prime California real estate. In the beginning he uses the land as a camping retreat for his family. But shortly after his mother’s passing he hires Julia Morgan –the first female civil engineering graduate from UC Berkeley– to design and build a house for him in San Simeon. “I am tired of camping out in the open at the ranch and I would like to build a little something” he reportedly tells Morgan. And so begins the project of the “little something” that still inspires awe after almost 100 years.
Hearst may have money, power and influence, but things aren’t exactly good between him and his wife, Millicent, a successful vaudeville actress from New York. He has always been a philanderer, but the mistress he took this time seems to be more than just a fling. The showgirl-turned-actress –Marion Davis– is young, gorgeous, and has an adorable pout. She is also embarrassingly untalented and even has a stutter, but that doesn’t seem to matter. At least not to him. Besides, audiences really love her. She has a sort of cheerfulness and good humor that no one can resist, so Hearst starts spending a lot of time and money to promote her career.
William Randolph is in love. He wants to marry the 34-year younger Marion Davies and she wishes to marry him too. But Millicent Hearst, the mother of William’s five sons, refuses to set him free. The two therefore reach an agreement, not totally acceptable to either one, but livable. She would receive all the necessary funds for a comfortable living and for raising their five children. He in turn, will continue to remain her official husband. He can live with the “other woman” as long is he isn’t causing the family any social embarrassment. So Hearst moves in with his mistress at San Simeon while his wife is cashing checks in New York.
Hearst is a rich man, but his power doesn’t solely reside in his money. After inheriting the San Francisco Examiner from his father in 1863, he continues to acquire a chain of newspapers across the country and soon his publishing empire includes dozens of newspapers, magazine and periodicals. But his unorthodox reporting pushes the limits of journalism. Gossip columns, controversial stories, scandals and crime are not his only subjects. He is also in the habit of making up news to further his own agenda. When he wants something to happen, he would report that it’s already happening and then it would indeed happen. His papers are a mix of fact and fiction all across their pages, but people enjoy reading them.
By mid 1920s revenues are streaming nicely from his media acquisitions, radio station and film company, but the expenses for his San Simeon project are unimaginably vast. The greater part of Hearst’s income actually goes into building his dream castle. And as if San Simeon isn’t enough, Hearst also buys a new Santa Monica beach house for his mistress –a 140-room, five-story beachfront property on eighteen acres of land, a Long Island mansion for his wife and an 11th century castle in Wales.
Building the Dream
By the end of the 1927 Hearst’s mansion is turning into a fascinating estate. The 115-room Casa Grande (the main building) looks more like a church, with its twin bell towers, but he loves grandeur! 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms and 19 sitting rooms are filled with priceless art and artifacts. Marble statues, tapestries and oil paintings, Tiffany lamps, exotic rugs and antique ceilings that he collected all his life are now displayed here like in a museum. In addition to the main building, he also erects three smaller guest houses, each one more beautiful and ornate than the other: Casa del Monte, facing the mountains, Casa del Sol, facing the sunset and Casa del Mar, facing the sea. Hearst calls his magnificent manor La Cuesta Encantada (the Enchanted Hill).
Hearst also loves plants and lavish gardens, so he plants nearly 70,000 trees around his castle, for shade. Purple bougainvilleas, sweet-smelling hyacinths and huge rhododendrons decorate his beautiful gardens.
The week-ends usually bring large crowds of guests at San Simeon. Marion Davies and her Hollywood crew would arrive with the train from Los Angeles on Friday nights and party till the wee hours of Monday mornings. Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, you-name-it big-shot stars, directors and movie producers all come to frolic at San Simeon, so Hearst has no choice but to make his mansion the most fun and entertaining place possible. He builds a billiard room, a plush movie theater, a library and 19 parlors.
He also builds two swimming pools: the Neptune Pool, located outdoors for swimming when the weather is warm and the Roman Pool, to be used when the weather is chilly. He spares no expense. Nothing is too much for Marion and for his fantasy castle.
He even builds a zoo, a huge park that holds lions, tigers, zebras, giraffes, elephants, elks, bears and any imaginable sort of best. But to create and maintain this opulence Hearst had to spend most of his fortune.
Life at San Simeon may be luxurious and exotic, but it has some imposed rules. Hearst is pretty strict about liquor on the premises. Guests are forbidden to bring their own booze and they can drink only when served. Usually is just one drink at dinner time. No food or drinks are being served anywhere on the property, except in the main building’s dining room. Everybody is expected to show up like clockwork at meals and attend film screenings every night on command.
Spending can’t go on forever. After the stock market crash and the subsequent economic depression, Hearst is forced to reorganize his finances. He begins selling his properties and even has to give up his film company. He is so short on cash that he has to start selling off even art, antiques and the animals from his zoo, but he manages to hang on to his beloved castle at San Simeon.
But not even the very rich have found a way to live forever. In 1947 Hearst has to leave his San Simeon estate to seek medical care. He died in his house in Beverly Hills on August 14, 1951, at the age of 88, with Marion Davies at his side. Hearst Castle was still unfinished at his death and has never been completed.
The Battle over Citizen Kane
Hearst’s life and his castle at San Simeon inspired Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane, one of the most acclaimed movies of all times. Although the movie doesn’t follow Hearst’s life step by step, the number of parallels between him and Kane makes the connection undeniable. Of course, Hearst didn’t like the unflattering portrait painted by the movie, but there wasn’t enough in Welles’ film to amount to a defamation lawsuit. Besides, he didn’t want to draw attention to the movie by trying to sue. Instead, he put enough pressure on Warner Brothers and MGM to keep the studios from releasing the movie, and sent the word out to all his publications not to run advertisements for the film. He even offered 842,000 dollars to the film’s producer to destroy the negative and all prints of Citizen Kane, but his offer was refused.
In the end, after Time and other publications protested, Citizen Kane premiered on May 1, 1941. The New York Times film critic called it “the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood.” The movie was played here and there in scattered theaters after which it disappeared almost entirely in the United States. In 1956, after Hearst’s death, the movie reappeared on television and made a big splash with the new generation of film critics. What was so great about Citizen Kane? Apparently the movie used new lighting and camera angles, as well as an innovative storytelling that didn’t follow the chronological order of the events. Citizen Kane was a cinematic revolution, a major breakthrough in the old filmmaking techniques.