- Historic Sites
Lord Of San Simeon
In his old age, William Randolph Hearst did a stately pleasure dome decree, and yet the secret river, youth, escaped him
August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
Few men in recent history have been potentially more powerful—if, in the end, more frustrated—than William Randolph Hearst. Born to wealth, he forged a nationwide publishing empire and became in the process the biggest spender of his time. His name grew to be synonymous with “yellow journalism,” and his newspapers could make or break a promising political career, expose a gaudy scandal, create one where none existed, and even help start the war with Spain.
But for all his wealth, Hearst too often found that money could not buy the things he most desired. He dreamt of the Presidency (receiving 263 ballots in the Democratic convention of 1904, placing second to Judge Alton B. Parker), would have settled for the governorship of New York State, or at the very least, the mayoralty of his seat of empire, New York City. All eluded him.
By the 1920’s, Hearst was no longer young but still vigorous and full of ambitious projects. None was more grandiose than the building of his California palace, San Simeon, a fantastic undertaking that would occupy the rest of his life. For Hearst, it was a kind of dream castle, and it was complete with a dream princess. She was Marion Davies, the blonde ex-Follies girl who had become, with his backing, a movie star. Though they could never marry—Hearst had a wife and feared the repercussions of a divorce—they would remain together for more than three decades. The story of Hearst’s castle, his ventures in Hollywood, and his relationship with Miss Davies has been condensed from W. A. Swanberg’s biography, Citizen Hearst, to be published by Scribner’s.
With his once high hopes of political glory all but shattered, William Randolph Hearst in the mid-1920’s turned his formidable energies to other dreams that were equally as obsessive—the dream of becoming the foremost mogul of the movie industry (with Marion Davies as his star), and the dream of building castles. After 1926, although his legal residence remained in New York, he spent most of his time in California.
In Los Angeles he took a full floor at the princely Ambassador Hotel, which had gardens with oleanders, poinsettias, and cockatoos. At the sprawling Culver City studios of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer he became something like a king. The top man at the studio was pudgy Louis B. Mayer, a shrewd, ruthless egotist who had never hesitated to cozen competitors and friends alike in his rise to success, and who was not above demanding intimate favors from actresses in return for contracts. Mayer regarded Hearst with sincere although not disinterested reverence. In addition to the priceless publicity of the Hearst press, the arrival of Hearst and Marion Davies had brought MGM a splendor unknown even in that fairyland of glitter. Other stars made do with fancy dressing rooms supplied by the studio; but for Miss Davies’ use between scenes, a fourteen-room “bungalow” costing $75,000 and furnished with Hearst antiques was built on the lot.
Mayer knew a good thing when he saw it. Maybe Fox and some of the other studios had stars he wanted. But only MGM had William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. A former junk dealer who had entered motion pictures via the nickelodeons, Mayer was at first fearful of the impressive Hearst and his silver-spoon background. When he found Hearst genial and friendly, he was charmed. This was at a time when “Hollywood” was thought one of the world’s wonders, and visitors were frequent. Mayer saw to it that the important ones were sent to the Bungalow. Hearst was agreeable to being made something of a showpiece. He always greeted the callers pleasantly and treated them to collations prepared by the servants. When Miss Davies was on the set, however, he was there constantly, watching every move sharply, his mind teeming with ideas for improving her scenes. He took special pains to see that Miss Davies had the largest and most active publicity corps of any screen star.
With Hearst around, scenic effects had to be perfect, and time and money were spent to gain perfection. When Miss Davies was making The Red Mill, a complete Dutch village was constructed alongside an artificial canal, each house built to scale from photographs of an actual town in Holland. For winter scenes, an intricate piping system was built so that the canal was frozen with ammonia gas, even under the hot California sun, thick enough for several hundred cast members to skate on it. A thousand wooden shoes were manufactured for the players. But like most of the lavish productions in which Miss Davies starred, The Red Mill lost money, and exhibitors grew increasingly reluctant to take her films. At a Culver City sales meeting, Mayer gave one of his fiery pep talks and then asked if there were any questions.
“Yes,” said one of the salesmen. “I would like to ask why do we handle the pictures of Marion Davies?”