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 R Hearst. Hearst Castle holds many secrets and unpublished anecdotes, but perhaps the most intriguing one is its own story.
THE FASCINATING 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.
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 was she embarrassingly untalented, but she also had a stutter! However, 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 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 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. 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 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. 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 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 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.
Nice briefing, but some inaccuracies. Marion Davies was the biggest hit in the Ziegfeld Follies NYC when he met her in 1915. The myth of her being talentless has been busted for years. WATCH her movies. (The Patsy #1 silent/Five & Ten, Blondie of the Follies, or Ever Since Eve for talkies). Her stutter didn’t come out when acting in talking, but that wasn’t even till Marianne 1929 & forward. The movie Citizen Kane did the damage to her legacy reputation, in which Wells apologized to her for doing so. He wrote the forward in her autobio, admitting she wasn’t the character in Kane, but a very talented actress & comedienne. Hearst was an alright chap, too. He & Marion took good care of each other. He bought the land in Santa Monica from Will Rogers, but Marion paid to build her own mansion on the location. A job rescued by Julia Morgan after they fired the first architect. Some of my favorite places to be are Hearst’s Ranch “Castle”, and Marion’s Guest House in Santa Monica. The Castle is still closed since Covid. 😢 I check in every week. Also, she wasn’t by his side when he passed. He was almost gone, Marion was freaking out & the Dr. dosed her to sleep. She woke, he’d passed, no sign of her love, his son’s, or any evidence they were ever there. She never got to say good bye after 36 years together & was not welcome at the funeral, as his wife was there. 😢 She joined him 10 yrs later after a crap marriage to a mean dude, & a painful battle w jaw cancer. They’re together again though. May they rest in peace & fun with each other. 😇❤️😇
Thank you for this detailed comment, Tina. Really appreciated.
The story of Hearst Castle is really amazing, isn’t it? We enjoyed our visit there as well, though it was 20+ years ago! That entire portion of the California coastline is stunning, and to find and tour such a castle along the route is a pleasant surprise. Such opulence!
I love this area of California and have visited Hearst castle twice. It’s fun to imagine Old Hollywood lounging around the pool. I hadn’t realized he was so strict with guests
Such an interesting story of the Hearst Castle. I hope that I can give it a visit one day. I don’t know why his wife didn’t let him go. He didn’t care about what others think of him. At least he employed the first female civil engineering graduate to design his home 🙂
His wife didn’t want the stigma of a divorcee. She was not a woman with a lot of clout (a former Vodeville actress). Her only chance to “stardom” was being his wife, lol!
What amazing opulence. I really wonder what makes you want to build something quite like this, but I guess everyone has their own way of enjoying life. Interesting read- Thank you!
This is in California? I have not heard of it before but it looks amazing. Hearst Castle is definitely the product of building the dream. It’s so over the top.
I was so excited to see this blog post. We are in St Luis Obispo right now. And hoping to visit the Hearst Castle tomorrow if the weather holds. As a female Civil Engineer, the fact that Julia Morgan designed this would be draw enough for me. I did not know this was the home for him and his mistress. Plus another home in Santa Monica and a castle in Wales. I am not sure we will have time to explore the vastness of this property on a stop on our way to Monterey. What a fascinating story. Thanks for the most timely tease!
There are actually a few tours offered at Hearst Castle, but you will have to decide for one or at the most two. Seeing everything in one visit it’s difficult, you are right.
Harvey (H-Bomb's Worldwide Karaoke)
I’ve been to Hearst Castle and it is stunning. My favourite parts were the pools – both the Neptune one and the indoor one. I had forgotten that the place was unfinished – it makes you wonder what could have been added that it didn’t have already! BTW, WR Hearst’s father George has a fascinating life story in his own right – a man who made a fortune in gold mining and went on to become a U.S. Senator.
Yep, quite a family the Hearsts, right?
Jenn and Ed Coleman
I never knew the connection between Citizen Kane was an homage to Hearst. It’s fascinating how one man can amass to much money, power, and influence and what they choose to spend it on. Creating your own fiefdom seems to be his desire, complete with what amounts to his royal court.
Yea, I guess you are right.
That was quite the history lesson, thank you very much. I can almost imagine the old movie stars lining up to eat in the grand hall, eagerly awaiting their one drink! The photos are stunning and all the more beautiful knowing the history of the landscape. The history of Citizen Kane and Hearst is very interesting, I certainly learned a lot. Thanks for sharing!
I’m glad you found my article interesting. Thank you, Stevo.
I loved visiting Hearst Castle as a kid and have been meaning to take mine. Such an interesting story behind the man, the lifestyle and the estate.
I’ve never visited Hearst castle. What a man; what a story! It looks so over the top!
Yea, indeed. A very charismatic figure.
Amazing. I have been to the Hearst castle but I never knew the history behind the man. I guess when history paints a man larger than life, some of the details get shuffled off to the side.
he reminds me of mad king Ludwig on Bavaria, spending absurd sums on home so elaborate and costly they seem like follies to day’s visitor. i would still like to to see it for myself one of these days, though.
The comparison is justified, Eileen. The only difference is that W.J.Hearst knew how to make money, so besides the ones he inherited he also was able to make a lot more that he was spending.
Jessica @ Independent Travel Cats
Love Hearst Castle and you got some lovely photos! Last time I was there with Laurence they didn’t have the outdoor pool filled and we had gray skies, but the first time was so lovely. Love the tour there and the grounds are so beautiful – we were lucky to see the zebras last time I was in the area.
Thanks for your comment, Jessica. The pool was empty on our visit this time also, but I used a photo we took on a previous visit.
Didn’t know the story about the castle, but your photos are gorgeous, it looks like an amazing place to visit.
It is an amazing place to visit, Vlad. Hope you’ll get to see it someday.
That’s quite an inheritance, even by today’s standards. Wonder what I’d do with 40,000 acres?
I’d be happy with that inheritance too, Marcia.
Enjoyed reading about the story behind the opulent house of Hearst.
Michelle | michwanderlust
I remember reading about Hearst Castle in San Simeon when planning my trip along the Pacific Coast, but sadly didn’t get to go. Opulent is the word! It’s obvious that vast amounts of money was spent on this house. Loved the way you described his life. I haven’t watched Citizen Kane but I heard it was boring! Not sure how true that is. Have you watched it?
Yes, I watched it. It’s about W.R. Hearst’s life, with very few differences. Compared to today’s movies, it may seem boring, but it’s actually a great cinematic achievement for its time.
What a very interesting read! A friend and I made a road trip there back when I still lived in California! Such an amazing house! #TheWeeklyPostcard
So much opulence! And quite an intriguing story to go along with it. I always enjoy your photographs and historical accounts, Anda! 🙂
Debbra Dunning Brouillette
Incredible article and photos, Anda! You had to do a lot of research for this one! When we were there the outdoor pool was empty so you were fortunate to see it and get the photos. How did you manage to get photos of the rooms with no people in them? Would love to back and see more that we didn’t get to tour.
I stayed at the head of the group so I stepped into each room before the rest of them did. Thanks for your comment, Debbie.
Suze - Luxury Columnist
Such a fascinating read, Anda – the house is certainly over the top but it’s good that he employed the first female civil engineering graduate to design it
Yea, I thought about that too, Suze. In those time hiring a female was quite something.