Maybe it was the Hollywood homes featured in my last post or the ongoing worldwide celebration of Orson Welles 100th birthday? Whatever the reason, I spent a great deal of contemplating William Randolph Hearst and his massive hilltop estate at San Simeon last week. As any classic film fan worth their salt knows, the newspaper mogul once played host to many Hollywood stars and starlets at Hearst Castle and his life was brilliantly satirized by Welles’ in CITIZEN KANE (1941). For better or worse, the film has forever colored our view of Hearst as well as his mistress, actress Marion Davies, while his home remains a mythical Xanadu currently opened to the public as a state run museum that I once had the pleasure to visit.
I was at the impressionable age of 10 or 11-years old when I got the opportunity to explore Hearst Castle and the experience left an undeniable mark on my young mind. My late grandmother, who lived a short distance away in Goleta, California, planned the trip and I knew nothing about the place until we arrived at the entrance where I was bombarded by guide books and picture postcards that featured familiar faces from the movies I’d grown up watching. Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Bette Davis and Clark Gable were just a few of the recognizable celebrities that had once graced these hallowed grounds while participating in private sporting events and attending extravagant parties.
As my grandmother and I made our way by tour car towards a massive fog shrouded structure sitting high atop the Enchanted Hill with an impressive view of the Pacific Ocean, we were greeted by exotic animals including prancing zebras and proud peacocks. And when I finally got an eyeful of the palace that William Randolph Hearst once called home, I was immediately bowled over by its sheer size and grandeur.
The vast property Hearst Castle sits on stretches out for miles in every direction and is nearly half the size of the state of Rhode Island. Let that sink in for a moment! And the castle itself, which represents 28 years of labor and cost tens of millions of dollars to build, is actually made up of multiple castles of varying size that contain more than 145 rooms including 60 bathrooms, 58 bedrooms, 18 sitting rooms and 41 fireplaces. William Randolph Hearst really liked fireplaces, which Orson Welles humorously mocked in Citizen Kane.
While I was touring the luxurious grounds with a group of 20 or so other astonished souls I became utterly mesmerized by the opulence that surrounded me. My poor grandmother spent most of the trip ordering me to “Stay with the tour group!” and “Don’t touch that!” but her stern warnings were mostly ignored. I quickly decided that I didn’t ever want to leave and as we ambled past the Roman pool, medieval dining hall, immense library and Hearst’s private movie theater draped in red velvet, I began to plan how I might escape my grandmother’s watchful eye. With a little ingenuity I imagined that I could live In Hearst Castle forever if I remained undetected by groundkeepers and tourist guides. My plan was to conceal myself during the day and enjoy the pleasures of my new home at night when the place was empty (I assumed). Isolation be damned! I was sure that I’d never get bored with my own theater and Hearst’s massive library at my disposal.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to come up with a successful dodge and evade strategy during my brief time there so my ambitions were squelched but I’ve never forgotten Hearst Castle and the magical spell that it cast on me. I return there in my dreams and it remains one of the most fascinating and beautiful places I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit. Once you’ve spent some time there it’s easy to understand why Hollywood royalty, along with renowned literary figures and world leaders, coveted an invitation to visit San Simeon during the 1930s.
Since my visit many years ago, I’ve enjoyed reading about the numerous parties and events that took place at the Hearst estate particularly during its heyday when it wasn’t uncommon to see Robert Taylor and Dick Powell playing a game of tennis on one the large courts or spy Carol Lombard and Joan Crawford lounging around the outdoor pool. During this period, Hearst also had a 110-room “beach house” built on Santa Monica’s Gold Coast for his paramour, Marion Davies, and the couple hosted extravagant parties and weekend retreats at both locations. Theme parties were a particular favorite with Hearst who enjoyed disarming his guests by insisting they come in costume where they could mingle without the burden of fashion and formality getting in the way of all the fun.
Some of the party themes that Hearst and Davies came up with included a “Kid Party” where attendees dressed in child-like clothing and “Your Favorite Character from History” party that encouraged guests to impersonate famous historical figures. They also held a “Come as Your Favorite Movie Star” party where celebrity attendees were asked to swap identities and a special circus themed party was held for Hearst’s 75th birthday. The affluent newspaper baron may have been, as author William S. Burroughs once opined, “Monopolistic, acquisitive evil. Ugly evil. The ugly American. The ugly American at his worst.” And Hearst’s problematic legacy deserves a more critical eye than I can provide here, but the man sure knew how to throw a party. He also loved movies.
Hearst became an avid photographer after acquiring his first box camera when he was a young man. He went on to produce newsreels in 1914 and soon afterward he formed the animation studio, International Film Service, which created animated films based on comic strips published in Hearst owned newspapers. He also started producing feature-length films in 1914, including the wildly popular serial, THE PERILS OF PAULINE. When his attempts to merge with United Artists failed, he teamed-up with Adolph Zukor and the two men created Cosmopolitan Productions in 1918.
Cosmopolitan produced a number of notable films including HUMORESQUE (1920), WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER (1922), LITTLE OLD NEW YORK (1923), JANICE MEREDITH (1924) and LIGHTS OF OLD BROADWAY (1925). Many of these films featured Marion Davies, who originally met Hearst in 1916 while she was working as a Ziegfeld Girl. Hearst worked tirelessly to promote Davies and her films during these years and eventually merged Cosmopolitan Productions with MGM where he went on to produce other Davies’ features including THE PATSY (1928) and PEG O’ MY HEART (1933). He also had a hand in producing popular musicals such as BROADWAY MELODY (1929) and GOING HOLLYWOOD (1933). Hearst and Davies eventually ended up working with Warner Brothers where they continued making pictures including PAGE MISS GLORY (1935) and HEARTS DIVIDED (1936) until Davies’ retirement from acting in 1937. The actress never received the kind of fame and accolades that Hearst had hoped for her and the two retreated to San Simeon where they could focus on planning Hollywood parties instead of producing Hollywood films.
It’s worth noting that Hearst didn’t produce all of his films in Hollywood. He shot many home movies after he moved into Hearst Castle in 1925 and some of these shorts were actually staged dramas written and directed by Hearst himself. They featured his famous friends including Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Carol Lombard, Marie Dressler, and Gary Cooper along with Marion Davies. Actor and interior designer William Haines, who was one of Hearst’s closest friends and confidants, once said:
“I always felt that he (Hearst) was a frustrated actor. I don’t know it’s generally known, but when he was attending Harvard he was part of the ‘Hasty Pudding’ shows. He did everything – sang, played the banjo, did imitations and even learned to tap dance the buck and wing. In fact, he became so stage-struck that he even toyed with the prospects of an acting career. But this youthful ambition was quickly discouraged by his Victorian mother, Phoebe. She felt that acting as a profession was vulgar, if not a shade immoral.”
Haines’ revealing quote tells us a lot about Hearst and why he may have been so obsessed with movies and the people who made them. His obsession with movies definitely bubbled over into the building of Hearst Castle, which looks like a baroque Hollywood set and contains an impressive home theater. The fact that he kept his castle populated with Hollywood royalty also suggests he was a man living out a fantasy that he could afford to nourish and maintain. However, the Enchanted Hill isn’t just a bloated monument to an egotistical and greedy man with too much money; it is also a stunning tribute to show business and encapsulates all the glitz and glamor that we’ve come to associate with Hollywood’s Golden Age. Much of old Hollywood is gone now and every day developers are tearing down buildings or making them unrecognizable thanks to extensive renovations but at San Simeon, time seems to stand still and the ghosts of countless Hollywood stars and starlets still roam the grounds of Hearst Castle. In December the Castle will celebrate its 90th birthday. I don’t know if any special events are planned but if Hearst or Marion Davies were alive I’m sure they would throw one hell of a shindig there.