- 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
Most of the guests arrived on Friday night. A private railroad car, or sometimes a whole train, would be reserved for them, though special friends were whisked up to an airfield on the ranch in Hearst’s eight-passenger Fokker plane. Hearst, always the specialist in impact, would have floodlights turned on his castle so that the arriving pilgrims could spy the twin towers from miles away on the coastal highway. Conservatives might quarrel with the architecture, but few denied that San Simeon was impressive. Sometimes, fog would wreath the lower slopes of the Enchanted Hill, and visitors coming up the six-mile driveway through thick mist would suddenly emerge to see the illuminated Casa Grande looming over them like a fairy-tale illustration by Maxfield Parrish, and be struck by an eerie sensation that none of this could be real. Adding to the eeriness was the zoo, the largest private wild animal collection in the country, containing thirty species of carnivores and seventy of grazing animals, which included everything from elephants, tigers, and water buffaloes down to ostriches, yaks, and chimpanzees. The dangerous animals were caged. The antelope and other herbivores were given freedom of a large tract that included part of the driveway, sealed by button-operated electric gates. Always tender toward animals, Hearst gave his chauffeurs stern orders to drive slowly. The driveway bristled with signs reading “Animals Have the Right of Way,” and “Reckless Driving Will Not Be Tolerated.”
Life at San Simeon was strictly casual within a few set rules. Since Hearst’s own hours were scheduled, the routine revolved loosely around his well-established habits. Guests were free in the morning to sleep or explore the facilities of the estate. They could order any kind of breakfast they wanted from a bill of fare as varied as that of a large restaurant. Hearst and Miss Davies never appeared until an hour or so after noon, when luncheon was served buffet style. The master was the most magnanimous of hosts, proud of his barony and eager for his guests to enjoy it to the full.
The tennis tournaments at San Simeon were legendary, taking in everyone from the veriest dubs to such experts as Bill Tilden, Helen Wills, Fred Perry, and Alice Marble, who were often guests. Hearst himself had taken up tennis in an effort to keep down his weight, and had grown remarkably skilled although he remained virtually motionless. Once Miss Davies sought out Dick Powell and said, “Pops wants to play tennis, and you’re elected.” Powell had brought no tennis gear with him, but found that from a large equipment room he could take his pick of shorts, shoes, and a racket of just the right heft to suit him. He contemplated “going easy” on the lord of the manor but discovered that this was unnecessary. Hearst never ran. He never picked up a ball that passed him, leaving this to the ball boy. But he gave his whole attention to the game, and he was uncanny at placement. “He was then past seventy,” Powell later commented, “but he beat me.”
This was perhaps as well, for Hearst hated to lose at tennis or anything else.
An excellent swimmer, he made frequent use of his two pools (one of them indoors). Never was he far from his work. Sometimes he would come up from submergence in one of the pools, spouting like a porpoise, to find an aide waiting with a news teletype. He would look it over, give an order, and return to his swimming. There was a telephone at the edge of the outdoor pool. There were telephones scattered around the grounds, hidden in slabs of stone or sheltered by trees. No one ever counted the number of telephones inside the four hill-top palaces. The incoming and outgoing calls kept three Hearst-employed telephone operators busy. Visitors sometimes amused themselves by estimating how many families could live in luxury on what Hearst spent for his telephone bill alone.
Probably he was most famous for his picnics, which required preparation equivalent to a safari. On one of them, the guests took off by horse while Hearst’s ranch hands loaded sixteen pack mules with provisions, champagne, caviar, sleeping bags, Japanese lanterns, and cooking utensils which were carried miles over rugged trails to the picnic spot. Mules also carried the instruments for a hillbilly band Hearst had hired for the occasion. Even in his seventies, Hearst was a splendid horseman who enjoyed these overnight affairs to the fullest, although many of his younger guests, less inured to the rigors of riding, returned to the castle exhausted.
Hearst’s schedule invariably called for a late-afternoon siesta. He would descend from the Celestial Suite on the third floor by his private elevator (which was hung with paintings), and dinner would be served around nine. One—just one—cocktail was served before dinner. Hearst imposed stringent rules about liquor, not only because of his own puritanism but because he knew that otherwise there would be trouble in the convivial movie-newspaper crowd. Servants were forbidden to serve liquor at any but the stated times and in the stated quantities, but there were evasions and there was bootlegging. One guest recalled Errol Flynn literally staggering in to the dinner table, unnoticed by Hearst, who was busy in conversation. Miss Davies, along with her close friend Carole Lombard and others, evolved stratagems for evading the one-drink rule.