- 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
Statisticians could have a field day totting up the total of Hearst’s expenditures for housing himself, his family, and Miss Davies. The figure would have to include construction or purchase costs, improvements, land and gardens, and art acquisitions actually used in the dwellings. No one ever knew how much he spent on San Simeon, and the estimate of $40,000,000, which seems inflated, might be scaled down arbitrarily to $30,000,000 to give him the benefit of the doubt. The beach house cost him a total of $7,000,000. His wife’s Long Island castle cost $400,000, with no allowance for furnishings and art. St. Donat’s cost him $1,370,000, while Wyntoon probably ran no more than $1,000,000. This makes a rough total of $40,000,000, which still does not include such huge expenditures as the New York real estate he owned, or the smaller houses he purchased in Beverly Hills, or his long-time rental of a floor at Los Angeles’ Ambassador, nor would it include such odd items as Miss Davies’ splendid “bungalow” at MGM, or the acreage he bought on the Grand Canyon after enjoying the view and planning a residence which he never got around to building.
At eighty, Hearst still had his own good teeth, a plenteous thatch of gray hair, and a good appetite; he used glasses only for reading. He continued to play a little tennis in his slow-motion way, enjoyed croquet and swimming, and occasionally went for a canter. But his favorite role was that of the Chief. Editors who hoped that the Old Man would retire, as any reasonable patriarch should, and stop bothering them, were disappointed. He could no more stop editing than he could stop building. He still summoned executives to San Simeon for conferences and made them cool their heels until he was good and ready.
Hearst continued to wield an iron hand. Sometimes in his isolation at San Simeon, his utterances had the ivory-tower ring that came with ignorance of local conditions and problems, but often they were sharply pointed, both in sense and phraseology. They ranged from disquisitions on whether Hatlo’s cartoon box was better on the sports than on the comic page to discussions of what to do about Walter Winchell, the Broadway columnist who was setting himself up as an analyst of world affairs. And always they gave the editor the feeling that the Chief was looking over his shoulder, never quite satisfied, forever applying pressure, pressure, pressure. Undoubtedly his eternal surveillance robbed his editors of spontaneity. But the Chief could not stop being the Chief.
Although Hearst and Miss Davies always remained devoted, they could not escape a tinge of regret at the tricks that time could play. When they first met, Hearst was in his vigorous, masterful fifties, while Miss Davies was hardly more than a girl. Now, although he was amazingly spry, he was nevertheless an octogenarian, while she still brimmed with comparative youth in her forties. They were more than a generation apart. His tall frame had weathered and bent under hurricanes no other man ever withstood. Miss Davies’ figure was still slim, her blonde hair still ungrayed, her blue eyes still sparkling. The thirty-odd years that separated them had been easily bridged back in the days of Wilson and Harding. Now, in Roosevelt’s third term, they were a barrier. Hearst, who loved life and hated to grow old, hated it all the more because of Miss Davies’ youth and tried to hold back the years by wearing hand-painted neckties and green suits. Still his eyes followed her wherever she went, as if—more conscious now of the gulf of years—he were afraid of losing her.
They still followed the routine of showing movies at night, some of them pre-release. But often now, because he enjoyed it so much, they showed Miss Davies’ earlier pictures. He could sit by the hour, watching When Knighthood Was in Flower, Janice Meredith, Peg O’ My Heart , and The Red Mill. Tears came to his eyes as he watched the scenes he knew by heart—scenes he had helped fashion himself. Each of them pounded him with a hundred recollections of irretrievable youth. The days of the unforgettable Follies, with Marion dancing in the front row … The days when he still had hopes of becoming President … The days when he had no doubt that Miss Davies and he together would scale the last, glittering height of cinema glory … The gay trips through Europe with a dozen frolicsome companions … The nights on his yacht with the late Florenz Ziegfeld, the late Joseph Urban, the late Will Rogers, the late Arthur Brisbane, and so many others who were now merely memories of an era that could be recaptured only on film. He had failed in much that he had set out to do, and yet he could reflect that he had had a lot of fun trying. But for Hearst, who loathed failure, who wanted so badly what he wanted, the pleasure he took in watching the Davies films must have been tinctured with pain.
In 1944, his sons and executives came to San Simeon to celebrate his eighty-first birthday. They all waited for him in the vast assembly room, and when he came in they began singing “Happy Birthday.” Hearst’s grandson “Bunkie” noted that “his face lighted up and when they had finished he did an ‘Off to Buffalo’ winding up with a hand outstretched like an old-time vaudeville hoofer. It broke the place up.”