NOTE: Originally published on untapped sf. on November 7, 2011. This article has been re-posted with the permission of the author.
Contemporary audiences know William Randolph Hearst as the Orson Welles–created eccentric media magnate who holed himself up in his hilltop mansion à la the movie Citizen Kane. Others know him as the millionaire publisher of more than 30 newspapers, including the San Francisco Examiner, and creator of “yellow journalism,” the sensationalized, tabloid-style, hot-off-the-presses reporting of dubious veracity, made popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. And yet to many more, he is the father of contemporary media who held, at the time, the enviable power to make or break great men in the pages of newsprint. Hearst and his media empire were credited with creating public support for America’s military ventures in Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines; and yet he could not garner enough public support to win political office, running two unsuccessful campaigns for Mayor of New York City and Governor of New York. To the fascinated American public, Hearst was a series of contradictions; he was a playboy who had one great love. He was a sociable recluse, an ambitious slacker, a selfish giver, but always, a very public fascination.
1912 San Francisco Examiner front page on Titanic disaster: envisioning “How the Titanic would look if it stood on Market Street” Credit: Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley News
Now Hearst the Man is long gone, but the public curiosity remains, evidenced by the scores of people who visit Hearst Castle, an enormous mansion he built, that in many ways mirrors the contradictions of the man who spent half his life building it.
A few weeks ago, several friends indulged my romantic fascination for Hearst, and we took a leisurely drive along the scenic Highway Route 1 to San Simeon to investigate the palatial Hearst estate. A bus took us up the winding roads to the castle grounds, with Alex Trebek’s voice—that’s right, the guy from Jeopardy—as the audio guide whose task it was to wax lyrical about Hearst Castle and mispronounce “La Cuesta Encantada” over and over again.
Up, up, up the winding roads we went, past a couple zebras (more on that later) before we finally arrived, and Alex Trebek uttered his last mispronounced “La Cuesta Encantada” with relish. We stepped out of the stuffy bus and was greeted by a vision: an ornate castle partially obscured by trees and the sun’s glare.
Hearst and his architect, the revered Julia Morgan, worked on Hearst Castle or “La Cuesta Encantada” (“The Enchanted Hill”) as it was formally called (clearly that name never stuck) from 1919 to 1947. Despite those 28 years of work, parts of the residence are still incomplete today. When Hearst died in 1951, the Hearst Corporation donated the property to the state of California, and the castle is now considered a state park and art museum.
The tour guide warned us that no flash photography is allowed inside the castle and that we were to stay on the path at all times—the rugs have pressure sensors and will know when you step on them. Of course I made a silent vow to test the rugs’ recognition of my weight. (I know, how defiant.) And into the castle we went.
The rooms in the interior of the castle were both spectacular and at times, confoundingly tasteless. When it came to art, Hearst was an indiscriminate and almost omnivorous buyer who did not purchase art and antiques to furnish his home; rather he built his home to transfer his bulging collection out of warehouses. This seems to have to have led to the castle’s chaotic decor and main building’s twisty floor plan.
Hearst had a habit of buying centuries-old ceilings and fireplaces, which dictated the proportions and decor of various rooms. Sometimes these ornate and expensive ceilings were insufficient to fill in the allocated space; for example, in the dining room, or refectory as it was called, extra “bits” of plaster were molded to imitate the imported ceiling and fireplace, and fitted into the empty spots, not unlike a cheap jigsaw puzzle.
The result is both impressive and confusing. None of the rooms had any continuity or anything in common, except that they were all equally over-the-top in their decor. I felt like I was watching a drag queen do ballet; I just couldn’t draw my gaze away from the walls clumsily crowded with overlapping art tapestries, the loud ceilings and excessively ornate fireplaces.
The next stop on the tour was a screening of a short movie in the cinema room where Hearst used to entertain his guests every night at 11pm. We saw black-and-white home videos of Hearst and his eminent guests: Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant and Clark Gable were apparently frequent guests of Hearst and his wife, actress Marion Davies. As entertaining as the cavorting celebrities were, what struck me most about those home videos were the shots of animals roaming the grounds and the ranch roads leading to the castle. As it turns out, Hearst imported animals from all over the globe for the sole purpose of impressing, entertaining and amusing his guests. His 300-strong menagerie of polar bears, deer, ostriches, kangaroos, emu, camels and zebras, among other animals, made the Hearst collection the largest private zoo in the world. To ensure sufficient water supply for the animals, Julia Morgan was tasked with devising a gravity-based water delivery system capable of transporting water from artesian wells on the slopes of Pine Mountain, a 3,500-foot mountain seven miles east of the castle, to a reservoir on Rocky Butte, a 2,000-foot knoll less than a mile southeast from the castle. Most of the animals were donated or sold to zoos during times of financial difficulty in 1937, but there are still traces of the zoo in the form of zebras that roam the hills surrounding the castle. Children and tourists continue to be amused by them, and neighbors are, if this article is to be believed, extremely pissed off by them.
The zebras that roam the hill side are the last remnants of Hearst’s 300-animal zoo that included polar bears and kangaroos. Credit: David Johnson
Outside, we run into one of the highlights on the grounds, the Neptune Pool. The Neptune Pool patio features an ancient Roman temple front, transported wholesale from Europe and reconstructed at the site. As the story goes, Hearst, an inveterate tinkerer, would tear down structures and rebuild them until they suited his fickle tastes. In fact, the Neptune Pool was reportedly torn down and rebuilt three times over 12 years before Hearst was satisfied.
Not to be outdone by the Neptune Pool, there is a tiled indoor pool decorated with eight statues of Roman gods, goddesses and heroes. While seemingly inspired by the Roman baths c. 211, the intricate mosaic tiles on the walls and floors imitate a fifth-century mausoleum in Italy.
I was thinking about Hearst the man, as I strolled around Hearst the castle. According to our guide, he would invite scores of people to spend time at his residence (an invitation to the Hearst ground was hugely coveted in the 1920s and 30s, but he would spend scant time with any of them, coming downstairs for the occasional meal. The grounds of his castle span more than 90,000 square feet, but Hearst spent most of his time on a third-floor wing that was his designated personal chamber. He never swam in the Neptune Pool, nor did he ever touch any of the animals. Here was a man whose silverware probably cost more than I make in a year, but who would refuse to eat unless provided with cheap mini bottles of Heinz mustard, ketchup and A1 steak sauce in which to douse his food.
I wondered which of his expensive walls he punched after watching the unceremonious portrayal of himself and his eccentricities in Citizen Kane. I wondered if he saw himself in Fitzgerald’s pages as the lonely Jay Gatsby. I wondered what he wondered about when he strolled the grounds at night, as his guests enjoyed his flamboyant parties and absent hospitality.
Despite the over-the-top gaudiness of it all, there is something arresting about the castle and its grounds. In an inexplicable way, the magnificence at Hearst Castle is both tarnished and augmented by the ceremonial gaudiness of the decor. But beyond all that opulence is a quiet Gatsby-esque isolation that is truly fascinating.
Photography by Carlo De La Cruz.