- 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
Hardly a month passed that did not see Hearst increase his realty holdings. By now he held title to almost $50,000,000 in New York real estate alone. In Wales, he poured a fortune into the one genuine castle he owned, St. Donat’s. The mortgages he was meeting were vast. He was advised against this, but his financial men had always advised him against overextending himself and he had come to regard their warnings as the groundless fears of little men.
Miss Davies’ beach palace at Santa Monica was finally finished, at a cost of $3,250,000. With the antiques, silver service, and objects of art Hearst installed in it, its estimated worth was $7,000,000. In the great dining room he added a touch of his own—a dozen full-length oil portraits of Miss Davies as she had appeared in When Knighthood Was in Flower, Janice Meredith, The Red Mill, and the other screen roles on which he had lavished almost as much attention as she. A smaller castle at Wyntoon, in far northern California, had recently been destroyed by fire, and he was planning a better one there. But when all was said and done, it was San Simeon that was nearest to his heart, the childhood dream that he was realizing with his energy and his millions.
After Miss Davies and his wife (with whom he remained friendly), the most important woman in Hearst’s life was a schoolmarmish lady who wore Queen Mary hats, horn-rimmed glasses, and old-fashioned, rustling clothing. This was Miss Julia Morgan, the architect and Beaux Arts graduate who had been a friend of Hearst’s mother. Together Miss Morgan and Hearst had worked on San Simeon since 1919. She had dedicated her career to the fulfillment of his dream—not entirely a hardship, for she grew wealthy at it. Hearst was fond of her. San Simeon was the supreme challenge of his life, and when she came down from San Francisco for a few days he would give her his undivided attention to the neglect of whatever guests were present.
It was almost as if Hearst subconsciously realized that his newspapers were trashy, his political life a failure, even his motion pictures not entirely successful, and was determined that San Simeon, if nothing else, would be an enduring monument to his greatness.
When he and Miss Morgan had started, Camp Hill was an almost treeless eminence rising two thousand feet above the Pacific. The sentimental Hearst had renamed it La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill) and had erected on it four Spanish and Italian edifices containing treasures from all over the world and surrounded by a paradise of horticulture. The three “guesthouses,” each of them palatial in size and grandeur, were finished first—La Casa del Monte, La Casa del Sol, and La Casa del Mar. Now, in 1930, the pièce de résistance, the king of castles—La Casa Grande— towered over the three smaller ones. It was not finished, and in fact never would be.
Since 1919 there had always been from 25 to 150 men working at San Simeon. Here Hearst sought perfection regardless of cost. Once as he drove up his six-mile-long private road from the highway he was dissatisfied with his impression of one of the subpalaces as he gained the top of the rise. Although it was well along, he had it torn down and rebuilt some distance away. With Miss Morgan he had pored over drawings of the twin towers that would surmount La Casa Grande and had approved the final plans. When the towers were completed, he was unhappy about them. They were too stark, too severe. The towers were torn down at great expense and replaced by the fretwork-ornamented ones seen today.
As in his newspapers, Hearst sought impact and sensation in his architecture. He shunned the sedate, the calm, the classic. He loved the ornate, the baroque, the medieval, and San Simeon became an architectural representation of his own character. It was significant that after Hearst left New York and became a Californian again, his political hopes in ashes, he renounced his sober black fedora and broadcloth and took to wearing noisy plaid sport jackets, colorful Hawaiian sport shirts, and two-toned shoes.
One reason why San Simeon was difficult and expensive was that it was not built from scratch to suit certain living needs, but was a mosaic of Hearst’s memories, inspirations, and possessions. In his card-index memory he had recollections of decorative schemes and arrangements he had seen in European castles and cathedrals and wished to incorporate in his own palace. In his New York warehouse and in huge basement crypts at San Simeon he had the antique accumulations of years—entire Gothic rooms, carved ceilings, choir stalls, paneling, staircases, corbels, stained glass, sarcophagi, mantels, columns, tapestries, a thousand other things—which he was determined to make a part of his castle. Thus, San Simeon was not only a vast construction project but also a complicated assembly job that kept Hearst and Miss Morgan in repeated sessions of close consultation. The castle was not so much a home as it was a museum, a setting for Hearst. The addition of a wing had given the Casa Grande alone more than forty bedroom suites, all filled with antiques and works of art. Miss Morgan was on an annual budget that allowed her to do so much work a year, and although the budget was generous there were years of work ahead.