Coastal California has always been a place of big affluence and monster mansions, but nothing comes close to the Hearst Castle, the glamorous San Simeon estate of newspaper magnate William R. Hearst. Hearst Castle holds many secrets and untold stories, but perhaps the most intriguing one is its own story.
THE INTRIGUING STORY BEHIND HEARST CASTLE
A Controversial ‘King’
But for the gigantic and opulent Hearst Castle, not many people would have heard about William R. Hearst, the eccentric man who stood behind it. So who was W.R. Hearst?
William Randolph Hearst was born into a rich family, but had to wait for 56 years to get his hands on his inheritance. After his mother’s death in 1919, he finally acquired possession of 10 million dollars and the 40,000 acres of ranch land in San Simeon.
You know, historically speaking 10 million dollars was a lot back then, but today that sounds more like the price of an average villa in Beverly Hills!
Shortly after inheriting the estate, Hearst hired architect Julia Morgan 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 here” he told Morgan.
And so begins the history of Hearst Castle – the “little something” that still inspires awe after almost 100 years.
A Costly Love Affair
Hearst was a wealthy man with a lot of power and influence, but his family life wasn’t exactly perfect. Although married to a much younger woman with whom he had 5 sons, Hearst was a philanderer. His wife Millicent, a former vaudeville actress from New York, always knew her husband had affairs, but the mistress he took this time was more than just a fling. This time he was truly in love!
The showgirl-turned-actress –Marion Davis– was young and gorgeous and had an irresistible pout. She also had a sort of cheerfulness and good humor that no one could resist.
However, as an actress, young Marion was a disaster. Not only embarrassingly untalented, but she also had a stutter. But that didn’t seem to matter to Hearst, or to the large audiences who really love her. So Hearst began spending a lot of time and money to promote Marion’s acting career.
Marion and Hearst were madly in love. They even planned to marry as soon as he could get a divorce. But Millicent Hearst wasn’t going to give up her husband so easily.
After months of fights and arguments, the two managed to reach an agreement: she will continue to remain his official wife and receive all the necessary funds for a comfortable living and for raising the children. In his turn, he could live with the ‘other woman,’ but only as long is he wasn’t going to cause any social embarrassment to his family.
It wasn’t a totally acceptable deal to either one, but it was livable. So Hearst moved in with his mistress at San Simeon, while his wife was cashing checks in New York.
An Unorthodox Journalism
Hearst was a very powerful and influential man, but his power didn’t solely reside in his money. After inheriting The San Francisco Examiner from his father in 1863, Hearst continued to acquire a chain of newspapers across the country.
oon his publishing empire included dozens of newspapers, magazine and periodicals. But his unorthodox reporting pushes the limits of journalism.
His recipe for journalistic success was the pursuit of printing sensational stories on scandals, sex, and crime. But gossip columns and controversial stories were not his only subjects.
He was also in the habit of making up news to further his own agenda. When he wanted something to happen, he would report that it has been already happening and then it would indeed happen.
His papers were a mix of fact and fiction all across their pages. Nonetheless, people enjoyed reading them just the same.
The Birth of an Insanely Affluent Castle
The story of Hearst Castle began in 1919, when Julia Morgan was hired to design the plans. However, it took Hearst 28 years to finish his massive project.
The expenses involved in the construction were unimaginably vast, but there was more than that on W.R.Hearst’s plate. While building his dream castle, Hearst also bought a five-story beach house in Santa Monica for his mistress, a Long Island mansion for his wife, and an 11th century castle in Wales for himself.
By the end of the 1927 Hearst’s mansion was taking shape. 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 were now displayed here like in a museum.
In addition to the main building, he also erected 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 planted lavish gardens around the castle, with nearly 70,000 trees, purple bougainvilleas, sweet-smelling hyacinths and huge rhododendrons.
Behind the Scenes Stories of Hearst Castle
Week-ends usually brought 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.
Big shots like Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, or you-name-it-stars, directors and movie producers, all used to frolic at San Simeon. So Hearst had no choice but to make his mansion a fun and entertaining place. He spared no expense. Nothing was too much for Marion and his fantasy castle.
He built a billiard room, a plush movie theater, a library, 19 parlors and two swimming pools: the outdoor Neptune Pool and the indoor Roman Pool. And if that wasn’t enough, he built even a huge zoo with lions, tigers, zebras, giraffes, elephants, elks, bears and any imaginable sort of beast. But to create and maintain this opulence, Hearst had to spend most of his fortune!
Life at San Simeon may have been luxurious and exotic, but it had some strict rules. Guests were not allowed to bring their own booze at the Hearst Castle and they could only drink alcohol when it was served, at dinner time. While wine was not restricted, hard liquor was not allowed.
Also, no food or drinks were being served anywhere on the property, except in the main building’s dining room. Everybody had to show up like clockwork at meals and attend film screenings every night on command.
The story says that at one time Cary Grant wanted to play a prank on Hearst, so he hopped into a small airplane and threw a few bags of flower over the castle. But the joke had a very different effect on his host. The famous actor found his bags packed and put at the door, when he returned from this escapade.
The Battle Over “Citizen Kane“
Hearst’s life and the story of 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 Orson Welles’ film to amount to a defamation lawsuit. Besides, Hearst didn’t want to draw attention to the movie by trying to sue.
Instead, he put a lot of pressure on Warner Brothers and MGM to keep the studios from releasing the movie. He also forbade all his publications to run advertisements for the film. He goes so far as to even offer the incredible sum of 842,000 dollars to the film’s producer to destroy the negative and all prints of Citizen Kane. But his offer was declined.
In the end, after the protests of Time and other publications, Citizen Kane premiered on May 1, 1941 and the movie was a film sensation. The New York Times film critic called it “the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood.”
But despite the big success with the critics, Citizen Kane played only here and there, in scattered theaters. In the end, the movie 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.
So 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.
The Decline of a Newspaper Magnate
After the stock market crash and the economic depression in 1929, Hearst was forced to reorganize his finances. He began selling his properties and even had to give up his film company. Cash was so short that he bean selling off art, antiques and the animals from his zoo. He managed however to hang on to his beloved castle at San Simeon till his death.
In 1947 he became very ill and had 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.
It seems that not even the very rich have found a way to live forever! Hearst Castle was still unfinished at his death and has never been completed.