Hearst Castle has been through some changes in recent years. While the fairy-tale building has remained unchanged for more than 70 years, frozen in time as a scene of Roaring Twenties glamour and excess, it is now inhabited in the evening by many of the guests, who are socialising, showing off the most elegant fashions of 1928, and enjoying the California vistas just as they were doing in the heyday. If you approach them, they are happy to introduce themselves – and in some cases, you might recognise their names. Many were famous back then.
Famous guests at Hearst Castle
Of course, these “guests” to Hearst Castle are merely actors. But then, that was often the case. The film stars – from Chaplin to Garbo to David Niven – were friends and colleagues of the owner, William Randolph Hearst, and the hostess, Marion Davies.
A tycoon and a film star, they were very famous in their time. Now, their names remain in the spotlight, as visitors flock to this peculiar attraction.
Hearst was the Rupert Murdoch of his time. Like Murdoch, his mother was a noted philanthropist, but he himself was better known for his acquisitions. Like Murdoch, he took his father’s media mini-empire and turned it into an international behemoth. Like Murdoch, he was a known for his staunch political opinions, starting as a populist and gradually becoming a right-wing crusader. Like Murdoch, he entered the movie business, back when it was as new and exciting as pay TV was for Murdoch.
Whether Murdoch will leave the same legacy as Hearst, however, depends on whether any of his houses will attract as many visitors. In a nation that seems to open the homes of every famous person from the past to public scrutiny, Hearst Castle in California is perhaps one of the two most worthwhile.
Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s retirement home in Virginia, is worth seeing for its hi-tech (at the time) engineering and glimpses into Jefferson’s interests, proving what a versatile genius he was. On the other side of the continent, Hearst Castle also provides a glimpse into the mind of its owner. (The excesses of Hearst Castle might also help us to learn why, despite making millions each year, he was often on the verge of bankruptcy.)
San Luis Obispo
Palatial though it is, Hearst never considered this to be his castle. That was St Donat’s, an authentic, medieval castle in Wales. Hearst Castle was part of his “ranch”, built on 100,000-square-hectare family property in the middle of nowhere.
It is attached the San Simeon, a tiny town built for the workers, which now has a few tourist motels. The nearest airport is in San Luis Obispo (SLO, to its friends), 75 kilometres away.
When making the pilgrimage, this author stayed a little closer, in the relaxed and friendly coastal town of Morro Bay, halfway between SLO and San Simeon.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Hollywood A-list would take taxicabs from San Luis Obispo train station, emerging on the Hearst property after several hours. (Unless they could fly, of course. Charles Kingsford-Smith, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart were among the guests.)
It would have been worth it. For a while, if you were lucky enough to be invited, this was where the best Hollywood parties were held (albeit a good 300 kilometres from Hollywood itself).
This was where “everyone who’s anyone” in Hollywood would go for a dip in one of the pools or a play a few games in the billiards room, surrounded by valuable artwork or elaborate, Romanesque architecture.
It was where Hearst mingled with various notables (Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, the Duke of Windsor), and where screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, according to legend, heard some of the gossip (including the sordid tale about what “Rosebud” really meant) that made its way into Citizen Kane, a movie based vaguely on Hearst’s life. Indeed, Kane’s dark and miserable palace of Xanadu was partly modeled after Hearst Castle, complete with the huge private zoo and art gallery. As Kane’s second wife moans in the movie: “Forty-nine acres of nothing but scenery and statues. I’m lonesome!”
Fortunately, this is one way in which the two castles differ. Hearst Castle is a bright and glamorous abode, where guestrooms were as good as anything in the most charming luxury hotels.
For all his flaws, Hearst was not as dark a figure as Kane. Julia Morgan, one of the most daring architects of the time (she was a woman, for a start), worked closely with Hearst for 27 years to bring his vision splendid to life.
The centuries-old textiles, engraved Spanish ceilings and faux-classical bronze sculptures, which Hearst purchased habitually, can now be officially classed as “priceless”.
Hence, the building is bequeathed to the State as an historical monument. Not merely a castle, but an art gallery and a museum. The guestrooms are now only for show.
Despite Murdoch’s ties with the stars (inviting Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman to be his children’s godparents), he was never as close to anyone in the movies, or perhaps anywhere else, as Hearst was to Hollywood comedienne Marion Davies.
The flamboyance of Hearst Castle has much to do with the bubbly and fun-loving actor, as she hosted the Hollywood elite, staging elaborate fancy-dress parties. Photos from these times suggest that even Hearst enjoyed himself. It is unlikely that we will ever see Murdoch dressed as a cowboy or a Dutch clog-dancer. Also, like many of today’s stars, Davies had a generous nature, ensuring that at least some of Hearst’s millions went not to extravagant homes and artwork, but to charity.
While her fans might prefer that her acting talents were better known, the guides at San Simeon speak highly of Davies as “the love of Hearst’s life”. (His wife comes second-best, though they never divorced). No small praise, as they speak of Hearst with fondness, as an “art collector and newspaper publisher” (notice the order). While his empire isn’t what it used to be, Hearst Castle certainly is. Apart from the zoo, it remains preserved, as in its heyday. The actors, in their Roaring Twenties garb, look perfectly at home.
Mark Juddery visited Hearst Castle at the invitation of Visit California and United Airlines.
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