- 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
Some art dealers looked down their noses at the spectacle of objets d’art sold like underwear or notions. Some Hearst-haters sneered that the Old Man, who had always catered to the mob, had found his true element in a department store. People from Hell’s Kitchen as well as Park Avenue came to gape at the array of wonders. Even the Spanish cloister was on sale there, through the medium of pictures, the stones themselves remaining up in the Bronx. A titled guide with a distinctive foreign accent was on hand to impress the mink trade. Gimbel’s advertised “Bargains in Del Sartos and Broadlooms,” stressed the chic of wearing a Hearst necklace, and invited one and all to use the easy-payment plan. The sale, which went on for almost a year, was a smashing success even though no one was interested in the cloister. Those who bought a door knocker, a scarab, a canvas, or a set of fire tongs were probably not aware that they were doing their bit to save the Organization from bankruptcy.
One of the many signs that Hearst had been the dealers’ greatest angel was Van Dyck’s portrait of Queen Henrietta, for which he had paid $375,000. At Gimbel’s it was reduced to $157,500, still did not sell, and later was knocked down to a mere $89,000.
Soon after America entered the war, Hearst closed San Simeon and moved to his northern California castle, Wyntoon, for two years, winter and summer. This was done for two reasons—to save money, and because there was a feeling that the Japanese, angered at the fifty-year-long Hearst campaign against the “yellow peril,” might appear in submarines and shell San Simeon, which made a fine target from the bay. Unlike San Simeon, where the horticulture was artificial, Wyntoon, with its 67,000 acres of virgin timber, was nature in the raw. Its big stone-and-timber castle, The Gables, and its three smaller (but still large) subcastles, stood on the banks of the swift McCloud River, surrounded by 200-foot firs. Hearst, who had built the three-unit “Bavarian village,” named the houses The Bear, Cinderella, and Angel House, and retained a staff of artists to paint on them suitable illustrations from fairy tales.
Miss Davies, hating Wyntoon, had a scornful name for it—“Spittoon.” It was 250 miles north of San Francisco, lost in the wilderness, and in wartime it was impossible to people it with the throngs of guests that made San Simeon merry. In desperation, she took up backgammon. Hearst himself, preoccupied with his work, was not visibly oppressed by the solitude. What hurt him more was the shortage of ready cash, his inability to buy paintings and other attractive things.
Ironically, it was the war that Hearst had so insistently warned America to avoid that rescued his publishing empire. Circulation rose, advertising boomed, and this, plus the heroic efforts of the Committee, saved the Organization. Hearst rose like a phoenix from the ashes of defeat. He and Miss Davies left Wyntoon for good. The Old Man was so anxious to regain full control that he sued in federal court to oust Shearn from his position of financial power. The court refused, for although the Organization was now a going concern, there were still debts outstanding, and until these were settled the suzerainty of Shearn could not be ended without the consent of the banks Hearst hated so fervently.
Back at San Simeon again, he cracked the whip over his editors, defended America against all comers, and flung himself into his last architectural orgy—the completion of another wing of the Casa Grande. After what was for him an interval of horrid penury, he had money to spend. Adding another wing was not strictly practical, since he was building rooms that would never be used. But his cellar vaults under the castle still bulged with spoils from Europe that he itched to transform into useless living space that suited his own rococo idea of beauty. Building materials were almost unobtainable in wartime, but he pulled strings, paid enormous prices, and got them. “We must finish the job,” he said again and again.
The Casa Grande offended classicists because of its extravagant presumption, its hodgepodgery of art and architecture, its violence to tradition, its excesses in decoration. But it suited Hearst perfectly. It was a proper monument to this man of extravagance, violence, and excess as no classic pile would have been.