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 William R. Hearst, a newspaper magnate who made history in the early 1900s. There are many tales and unpublished anecdotes about Hearst Castle, but perhaps the most intriguing one is its own.
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THE FASCINATING HISTORY OF HEARST CASTLE
A Controversial ‘King’
But for the gigantic and opulent castle of San Simeon, not many people would know today about William Hearst, the eccentric man who stood behind it. So who was W.R. Hearst?
William Randolph Hearst was born into a wealthy family. But getting his hands on his inheritance took him 56 years! After his mother’s death in 1919, he finally acquired possession of 10 million dollars and the 40,000-acre ranch in San Simeon. 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 began the history of Hearst Castle – the “little something” that still inspires awe after almost 100 years.
A Costly Love Affair
Hearst might have had money and influence, but his family life was not 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!
Marion Davis, her competitor, was young and beautiful. A showgirl-turned-actress with an irresistible pout and a cheerfulness that no one could resist!
As an actress, young Marion was a disaster. Not only was she embarrassingly untalented, but she also had a stutter. But none of that seem to matter to Hearst or to the large audiences who really loved her. So Hearst began spending a lot of time and money to promote his mistresses’ 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 he will give he 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 Unconventional Form of 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.
Soon 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. And 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 history 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.
One one hand, the expenses involved in the construction were unimaginably vast. But in addition to that, Hearst also offered to buy 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. The man really liked living big!
By the end of the 1927 Hearst’s castle was taking shape. The 115-room Casa Grande (the main building) was shaped more like a church, with its twin bell towers. But he loved grandeur: 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms and 19 sitting rooms were 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 called his magnificent manor La Cuesta Encantada (the Enchanted Hill).
He also planted lavish gardens around the castle with nearly 70,000 trees, purple bougainvilleas, sweet-smelling hyacinths and huge rhododendrons.
Behind the Scene Stories of Hearst Castle
Weekends 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. Hearst had no choice but to make his mansion a fun and entertaining place, so he spared no expense. Nothing was too much for Marion and his fantasy castle.
He built a billiard room, a movie theater, a library, 19 parlors and two swimming pools: the outdoor Neptune Pool and the indoor Roman Pool. And if this wasn’t enough, he even built a huge zoo with lions, tigers, zebras, giraffes, elephants, elks, bears and any imaginable sort of beast. But in order 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 at dinner time, when it was served. While wine was not restricted, hard liquor was not allowed on the premises.
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 his escapade.
The Battle Over “Citizen Kane“
Hearst’s life and the history 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 went 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 sensation. The New York Times film critics 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 Publishing Tycoon
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 began 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 Beverly Hills house on August 14, 1951, at the age of 88, with Marion Davies at his side. It seems that not even the very rich have figured out a way to cheat death!
Who Owns the Hearst Castle Today?
In 1958 the Hearst Corporation donated the Castle and its gardens to the State of California. A commemorative plaque at the castle reads: “Presented to the State of California in 1958 by the Hearst Corporation in memory of William Randolph Hearst who created this Enchanted Hill, and of his mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, who inspired it”.
The castle was opened to the public for the first time in June 1958. At the time of W.R. Hearst’s death the Castle was still unfinished and it has never been completed.