Lord Of San Simeon


“Marion and I … head right for the little girls’ room,” the fun-loving Miss Lombard told a friend. “… That’s one place Hearst can’t get at us.”

Although Hearst would discuss obituaries with his editors in the line of business, he had an obsessive fear of death, and there was an unwritten law never to mention it in his presence. Hearst’s morbidity, his interest in scientific schemes for delaying the inevitable, were the reverse side of his love for life. He would be depressed for days by the death of an animal in the zoo. He was likewise plunged into gloom by the death of a tree. His janizaries went to great lengths to conceal the demise of anything near him. Once, when a crew of nurserymen planted a row of palms at San Simeon, and one of them died, they made haste to paint the yellowing leaves green, concealing the grim truth until Hearst left and the tree could be replaced. He carried this idiosyncrasy to extremes. Although the San Simeon forests badly needed thinning, and he loved fireplace fires, he would not permit any of his trees to be cut. He had firewood hauled from Paso Robles. Once Samuel Goldwyn, in leaving San Simeon, backed his car around and struck an oak. Hearst had the tree moved to safety at a cost of $5,000.

He liked to surprise his guests with special dishes and once chartered a plane to fly to Louisiana and bring back several barrels of shrimp. Dress was informal at dinner, which was served at the fifty-four-foot table in the Renaissance refectory under immense chandeliers suspended from the lofty, carved ceiling. Diners were given a menu, which also listed the moving picture to be shown that evening. Hearst sat at the middle of the long table, with Miss Davies directly opposite him and the more important guests surrounding them. The table accommodated forty diners, seated in great upholstered chairs with carved woodwork, from which they could gaze at colorful medieval Sienese banners or priceless tapestries and choir stalls while they enjoyed vintage champagne and paradisiac food. Hearst himself liked plain cooking and had a special passion for well-aged beef—he would not touch it until it had hung for twelve weeks.

Guests were surprised that in these baronial surroundings, where the china and silver were precious and attentive waiters were at one’s shoulder, the napkins were paper (of costly softness) and Worcestershire sauce and other condiments were set out in the bottles they came in. This was dictated not by economy but by sentiment. It reminded Hearst of the early days in the seventies and eighties when he came out to this very spot with his father and mother and picnicked in the open, and of the later days—still remote to his younger guests—when he brought his own wife and children to enjoy the same surroundings in tenthouses. The paper napkins and condiment bottles were memorials to his youth, and reminders that he was one of the most sentimental men alive.

Other evidences of his sentimentality were the mice that made the castle a playground. He could not bear to harm them. The butler was instructed to leave tidbits around so that they would not go hungry. Noninjurious wire-basket traps were set at night, and in the morning it was the butler’s first duty to carry the traps outside and release the mice. Hearst’s benevolence, however, did not extend to rats. At one period when a few rats invaded the palazzo, he permitted snap-traps, but he was almost in tears when a stray squirrel was caught in one of them, its leg broken. A Hearst car hurried the squirrel to Cambria, where a veterinarian set the bone.

Hearst’s ruthlessness was usually reserved for things in the abstract, people at a distance. Anyone hurt within his immediate ken, be it human or animal, enlisted his sympathy to such an extravagant degree that he seemed womanly and even ridiculous. A pinched finger aroused his tender solicitude. When his dachshund Helena died, he wept and had her buried under a stone engraved with the legend, “Here lies dearest Helena—my devoted friend.”

The master’s sentimentality was also evident in the special store he set by some of his possessions. He especially venerated his mother’s belongings. Occasionally, when there were many guests at San Simeon, Phoebe Hearst’s bed linen, with the huge monogram “F.A.H.,” would be used. It had to go on the beds of people Hearst approved as morally fit to use his mother’s sheets. Psychiatrists would have found much of the Oedipal in him. At San Simeon there were madonnas everywhere—madonnas in oil, in tapestry, in terra cotta, in marble.