- 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
After dinner, Hearst and his guests would troop into his private theater, where they would sink into luxuriously deep seats to see newsreels and pre-release feature pictures before anyone but a few movie executives had set eyes on them. The movie was a nightly ritual attesting to the intensity of Hearst’s interest in what Hollywood people called “The Industry.” Whenever he became absorbed in something, his involvement went far beyond what in normal people would be called fascination. In his quiet way he went hog-wild. This had happened to him in photography, love, collecting, journalism, politics, architecture, aviation, and Americanism, but in none of these was his concentration more acute than in the cinema. It had disappointed him, for Miss Davies had never quite gained the pinnacle, nor had he won top eminence as a mogul. But he was still trying. At San Simeon he enjoyed the films, but he also watched them sharply to see what competitors were doing and to pick up ideas that might be useful.
After the movie, which might end around 1 A.M., Hearst went to work, disappearing via the elevator to his Gothic study above the assembly hall. Here, surrounded by a king’s ransom in rare books and manuscripts, he had a rack containing the latest editions of all his newspapers and magazines, which were flown in daily. He could not read them all every day, but he kept a close watch on each of them within a week’s time, and would send memos of approbation or reproof that always began, “The Chief says....”
Miss Davies often joined Hearst in his nocturnal work sessions. She had talked shop with him for so long that she had an intelligent grasp of the business, and he respected her opinions. It would be 4 or 5 A.M. before they retired to their bedrooms in the Celestial Suite, a third-floor apartment at the base of the towers which commanded a sweeping view of the Pacific and the Santa Lucia Range. Hearst’s and Miss Davies’ rooms were connected by a large sitting room with a covered balcony overlooking the terrace. The master slept on a massive bed of black carved wood, once owned by Cardinal Richelieu. On the wall were pictures of Senator Hearst and Phoebe Hearst, along with a handsomely framed quotation from Bulwer-Lytton’s Lady of Lyons describing a paradise on earth and headed, “A Description of La Cuesta Encantada, the Home of William Randolph Hearst.” Adjoining was a bathroom with black marble fixtures and gold-plated hardware—not solid gold, as some insisted.
Some derided Hearst, a septuagenarian, for surrounding himself with cinema people, most of whom were less than half his age. Actually, the majority were Miss Davies’ guests. He indulged her whim, gave her everything, as a tribute of love and also in payment of a debt he could never settle—his failure to marry her, his theft of her bourgeois “respectability,” a loss she felt keenly for all her exterior gaiety.
She and Hearst had intended to marry, but the odds against them had proved too great. Hearst doubtless could have secured a divorce had he sought one with determination. However, Miss Davies herself came to oppose the idea because she liked his sons and recoiled at the unpleasantness that such a suit would cause. She and Hearst had become reconciled to the unsatisfactory solution, though they well knew that their relationship was one of the movie colony’s choicest sources of gossip. There was a widespread—and mistaken—belief that they had children, and much speculation as to who and where the children were. Annoyed by such stories, Miss Davies would occasionally astonish guests by referring with apparent gravity to “my son by Coolidge.”
It was apparent to close friends that Hearst was all too aware that she was half his age and a striking beauty, and that her affections might stray. She was now a millionaire in her own right. Since he had no legal hold on her, she was theoretically as free as air. Instead, she remained steadfast to Hearst despite the occasional embarrassments she suffered, one of them being a Los Angeles radio evangelist who kept assailing the pair for their liaison. Had she chosen not to be loyal, she undoubtedly could have driven him mad with humiliation. As one of her close friends remarked, “She held his peace of mind in the hollow of her hand, she knew it, and yet she never took advantage of it.”
The Hollywood people, although not easy to astonish, were impressed by the vast scope and expanse of everything at San Simeon, a place like a great movie set come to life. Hearst owned his own airfield. He owned 10,000 beef cattle, a splendid dairy, a poultry farm, and one of the top horse farms in the country, which bred Arabians, Palominos, Morgans, and Appalusas. At San Simeon alone were thirty-five Hearst cars. Mrs. O’Brien, the housekeeper, estimated that it cost about $6,000 a day just to run the palace when there was a full complement of guests. The mere job of logistics in bringing in horsemeat for the lions and tigers, fish for the polar bears, and lettuce, carrots, apples, and nuts for other animals was a formidable one. To the rear of the castle was a long, low cottage occupied by a staff of half a dozen secretaries and teletypers who kept the Chief in touch with all his newspapers and other interests. There was also a radio operator to keep arriving Hearst planes posted on weather conditions.