- 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
The San Simeon gardens, breathtaking in their beauty and scope, were estimated to have cost a million dollars. On one occasion, Nigel Keep’s gardeners worked all night under floodlights so that the next morning, Easter Sunday, the guests were amazed to see the castle surrounded by thousands of blooming Easter lilies. This was the sort of lordly surprise Hearst delighted in. Once, on a trip, he smelled a daphne. Charmed by its fragrance, he telephoned Keep to plant a circle of daphne all around the castle—which Keep did by cornering all the daphne available at California nurseries—$12,000 worth.
In total cost, San Simeon dwarfed George Vanderbilt’s palace in North Carolina, Biltmore, and the Rockefeller estate in Westchester, as well as all other American mansions, and was seriously compared with Versailles and Frederick the Great’s Sans Souci. It represented one man’s revolt against history, a kingdom that was hermetically sealed against the republic that surrounded it, an oasis of riotous extravagance existing in a desert world of WPA and FERA. But this was a way of life that could not continue for long, and the only thing that held it together even now was the iron will of the master. How long he could wall out reality as it existed in the rest of the United States, and in his own newspaper offices, depended entirely on his resources—and these, although no one knew it, were almost gone.
By 1937, the day of reckoning was at hand. The castles, the Van Dycks, the tapestries, the swimming pools, the grand tours of Europe, had taken their toll. The Hearst organization was staggering under a load of debt to stockholders, newsprint companies, and twenty-eight different banks. Frantically it tried to borrow more money.
Whose fault was it that the Organization had been allowed to drift into ruin before anything was done? No one but Hearst’s. He was the Chief, the boss, the man whose word was final. Although he had been warned many times, he was the one who insisted on investing $50,000,000 in New York real estate at high mortgages, on maintaining papers in New York, Chicago, Omaha, and elsewhere that lost millions annually, on spending an estimated $50,000,000 for art, and on living generally like a Bourbon. He had blithely led the world’s largest publishing combine from riches to wreckage. But there was something more than mere folly in the way he had marched straight into catastrophe with his eyes open. There was that same old Hearst weakness, the overconfidence, the refusal to face up to unpleasant reality that was a part of his megalomania, his kingly assurance that he could do what no one else could do and get away with it—a state of mind that verged on irrationality.
Hearst had to face reality now. It was obvious to everyone in the Organization that the man who had led it into trouble was not the one to lead the way out. In June, 1937, Hearst, said to be thoroughly frightened, went to New York and relinquished financial control of his publishing enterprises to his friend of almost forty years, Clarence Shearn. Shearn, who had once battled the trusts with Hearst, had so far forgotten his dislike for big bankers as to become a counsel for the Chase National Bank, holder of some of the Hearst notes. For the first time in a half century, the Chief was not final boss, although he retained technical editorial control of the Organization.
The total debt was a whopping $126,000,000. There was doubt that bankruptcy could be avoided. Shearn worked with the urgency of a physician over an expiring patient. He began doing what Hearst would never do—liquidating the losing newspapers that were draining the firm’s lifeblood. Hundreds of men were thrown out of work, hundreds more received pay cuts, but there was no help for it. Hearst himself took the biggest cut of all, from $500,000 a year all the way down to $100,000.
The year 1937 was the beginning of a long nightmare for Hearst. The things he loved—power and possessions—were torn away brutally in a process that became even more urgent and relentless as time went on. Perhaps the cruelest blow of all came when he and Miss Davies were forced to drop their movie enterprise.
Eighteen years earlier he had vowed to make her the nation’s top star and himself the greatest mogul of the films. He had failed, and some said he had lost $7,000,000 in the process. Only those who understood how much he had wanted success in this, and how confidently he had expected it, could realize the extent of his bitterness and humiliation at shutting up shop in the Hollywood he had meant to rule. If ever Hearst threw one of his famous tantrums, stamping around in a rage, shrieking in his high voice, and breaking things, he threw one now.
Shearn and a “Conservation Committee” composed of top executives in the Organization had also been eyeing the square block of Hearst art warehouses in the Bronx. There, a thirty-man staff guarded a fortune in European art objects that the Chief obviously would never use. Among the accumulations of decades were some 10,700 crates containing the stones of a Spanish monastery—a $500,000 investment that could not be said to be producing a fair return. The Committee did not know whether a monastery was salable, but they were certain that millions of dollars’ worth of other objects in the warehouse were, and a sale would help satisfy some of the creditors plaguing the Organization.