We head up the road this week to Hearst Castle at San Simeon, which ranks right up there with Disneyland as one of California’s premier tourist attractions. Somehow that fact alone puts the place into proper perspective. Media magnate William Randolph Hearst’s castle is a rich man’s playground filled to overflowing with artistic diversions and other expensive toys, a monument to one man’s monumental self-importance and, some would say, equally impressive poor taste. A man for our times.
Wealthy and powerful Hearst, founder of the Hearst newspaper chain, was also the apparent subject of the greatest American movie ever made, Orson Welles’s 1941 Citizen Kane, though these days even Welles’ biographers say the movie was actually about the filmmaker himself. Yet there’s something to be said for popular opinion. “Pleasure,” Hearst once wrote, “is worth what you can afford to pay for it.” And that attitude showed itself quite early. Son of George Hearst, who owned Nevada’s Comstock Lode silver mine and the rich Homestake gold mine in South Dakota, little William asked for the Louvre as a present for his 10th birthday. One scene in the movie, in which Charles Foster Kane shouts across the cavernous living room at Xanadu—Hearst’s estate in the movie—to attract the attention of his bored young mistress, endlessly working jigsaw puzzles while she sits before a fireplace as big as the mouth of Jonah’s whale, won’t seem so surreal once you see the castle.
Designed by Berkeley architect Julia Morgan from 1919 to 1947—Hearst changed his mind, constantly—the buildings themselves are odd yet handsome hallmarks of Spanish Renaissance architecture. The centerpiece La Casa Grande alone has 100 rooms (including a movie theater, a billiards room, two libraries, and 31 bathrooms), all adorned with silk banners, fine Belgian and French tapestries, Norman fireplaces, European choir stalls, and ornately carved ceilings essentially stolen from continental monasteries. The furnishings and art Hearst collected from around the world complete the picture, one that includes everything but humor, grace, and warmth. As Citizen Kane’s fictional girlfriend Susan said, in the movie: “Forty-nine thousand acres of nothing but scenery and statues. I’m lonesome.”
If at all possible come for a tour in winter or spring when the hills are emerald green. From the highway far below, Hearst Castle appears as if by magic up on the hill. (Before the place opened for public tours in the 1950s, the closest view commoners could get was from the road, with the assistance of coin-op telescopes.) One thing visitors don’t see on the bus ride up the hill is William Randolph Hearst’s 2,000-acre zoo—“the largest private zoo since Noah,” as Charles Foster Kane put it—once the world’s largest. Survivors of Hearst’s exotic elk, zebra, Barbary sheep, and Himalayan goat herds still roam the grounds.
The four separate regular tours of the Hearst San Simeon State Historic Monument take about two hours each. If you really must see it all, plan a two-day stay in the area or come back again some other time. Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. Lots of stairs, though there are accessibility accommodations. Spring and fall weekend Evening Tours feature docents in 1930s attire, making it easier to imagine Hearst entertaining the countless Hollywood and other celebrities who regularly visited. (And regularly got lost. Hearst himself handed out house maps.) Given that Hearst cohabited the castle with his mistress, actress Marion Davies, some of his rules seem strange—such as, unmarried couples were not allowed. And David Niven once remarked that, with Hearst as host, the wine flowed “like glue.” After that, Niven was the only guest allowed free access to the castle’s wine cellar. See Hearst’s art collections on both the Holiday Twilight Tour and the semi-private Art of San Simeon Tour.
And while you’re wandering, think of just how challenging this project must have been for the architect, Julia Morgan, who supervised the execution of almost every detail of Hearst’s rambling 165-room pleasure palace. Morgan loathed publicity, disdained the very idea of celebrity, and believed that architects should be like anonymous medieval masters, letting the work speak for itself. Her work with Hearst departed dramatically from her belief that buildings should be unobtrusive, the cornerstone of her dazzling but equally unobtrusive career. “My style,” she said to those bewildered by the contradiction, “is to please my client.”