Lord Of San Simeon


To Mayer, this was near-treason. Nonplused for a moment, he spoke of Miss Davies’ artistry, of her friendship with Hearst, and of the valuable publicity the Hearst press was giving all MGM pictures. This set him off on a ringing speech about the greatness of Hearst. He told how Hearst’s father had survived hardships in the gold-rush days to end up with honors and a seat in the Senate. As he traced Hearst’s own history, from his turbulent boyhood to his ownership of the nation’s greatest chain of newspapers, Mayer became carried away by his own enthusiasm.

“This,” he told the salesman, “is what I want to impress upon you gentlemen. This is the spirit that has made America great. We live in a land of opportunity! God bless America!”

His eyes dampened. “Does that answer your question?” he demanded.

“Yessir,” the offending salesman said hastily.

While most critics agreed that Miss Davies did not have talent of the first rank and that her acting was often studied, it is likely that Hearst unwittingly destroyed the gay spontaneity that made her so charming in real life. He viewed her as his own creation. He was insistent about her roles. He wanted her to play nothing but romantic young heroines and to appear in a succession of gorgeous or appealing costumes before spectacular sets. He could make directors tear their hair, stopping action and cameras as he went up with suggestions for making Miss Davies appear to better advantage.

Although Miss Davies was nearing thirty, Hearst constantly attempted to deny her maturity. She had to fulfill his virgin image of her. Occasionally she grew restive under this restraint. She had a wistful feeling that she could portray certain dramatic roles, and once even tried to coax him to let her play Sadie Thompson in Rain. Hearst threw up his hands in horror. He would never permit her to play a prostitute.

Miss Davies’ screen career was his property, but she had her way in most other respects. She called Hearst “Pops,” and in her uninhibited way would tousle his hair and fling affectionate insults at him, which amused him greatly. Ilka Chase, who had a role in one of the Davies pictures, noted Miss Davies’ attractive habit of blinking as she stuttered, and her informal attitude toward Hearst, whom everybody else on the lot treated with deference and some awe. Once, when she was having lunch with a group of friends at the Bungalow, she telephoned Hearst, who was in Mayer’s office, urging him to join them. “Oh, c-c-come on over, W. R.,” she said, “and I’ll give you a b-b-big k-k-k-kiss.” She hung up, saying pleasantly, “The old b-b-bum,” and Hearst dutifully made his appearance.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that he mistrusted her, it was noted at the studio how excessively he worried about her when she was out of his sight. It was usual for him to telephone frequently to assure himself that she was where she was supposed to be, a surveillance that she took with good humor. Once, when she was in conference with a writer, Hearst telephoned. She passed a few words with him, then said cheerfully to the writer, “Well, Hearst come, Hearst served.”

As the great castle he was building at San Simeon was a good two hundred miles from Hollywood, and too far for daily commuting, Hearst planned another more convenient to Culver City. Mayer, Will Rogers, Joseph Schenck, Harold Lloyd, and others of the elect had built mansions along the beach at Santa Monica, making it the gold coast of filmland, and here Hearst chose to erect a pile that made his neighbors’ places seem like summer cottages. Seventy-five woodcarvers worked for a year on the balustrades alone of the Hearst-Davies home. As at San Simeon, Hearst followed a practice of building to accommodate antique rooms he had imported bodily from Europe. The main dining room, the reception room, and the drawing room, each more than sixty feet long, all came from Burton Hall in County Clare, Ireland. Most of the thirty-seven fireplace mantels had been taken from stately English homes. A rathskeller on the lower level had been an inn in Surrey, dating back to 1560.

Hearst’s penchant for display was everywhere manifest. It was said that the main building of the Santa Monica house had more columns across the back than the Supreme Court building in Washington; they reflected in a 110-foot swimming pool lined with Italian marble. (The Pacific Ocean was on the other side of the house, but it was impossible to keep the sea at an even temperature.) The mural wallpaper in the Marion Davies suite alone cost $7,500, and for a small plot owned by his neighbor, Will Rogers, Hearst paid $105,000. He wanted it for a tennis court.

Not even the crash of 1929 and an ever-worsening depression checked Hearst’s furious spending. He had gone through panics in 1893 and 1907, and probably saw no reason why this one should be any worse. It did not seem to enter his mind that the Depression could affect him personally to any degree. His inborn optimism excluded that kind of doubt. He had never saved a dime for a rainy day. He had been one of the world’s biggest spenders, and he continued in that role, a colossus marching straight for the abyss.