- 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
Was Mr. Hearst willing? He had to be. It must have been like tearing his heart out, but his newspapers still came first, and he authorized the disposal of two-thirds of his art holdings.
The art world pricked up its ears, for this would assuredly be the biggest sale of treasure in years. It was known that Hearst had plenty of junk, but he also had innumerable objects of great value. Among the paintings to be sold were canvases by Rembrandt, Hals, Rubens, and Van Dyck. In addition there were sixty rare tapestries, countless pieces of furniture, majolica and Hispano-Moresque ware, and a host of other items including more carved and paneled rooms lifted complete from palaces and European country estates than had ever been gathered together before. Although Hearst had used scores of them at San Simeon and Santa Monica, he still had more than fifty left over. The sale was put in the hands of the New York firm of Parish-Watson & Company, which hastened to lease a five-story building so that it would have room to display a small part of the array.
The fight against insolvency was not a matter of months but of years—a siege, a tense, day-after-day defense against importunate creditors and angry stockholders. Sometimes the battle seemed lost, but Shearn and the Committee managed to stave off collapse. They sold seven of the ten Hearst radio stations, three more newspapers, scrapped the magazine Pictorial Review, and put his Welsh castle, St. Donat’s, on the market.
St. Donat’s was one of the Chief’s fancies that made the figure-minded gasp. Although he had paid only $120,000 for it originally, he had spent an estimated $1,250,000 to restore and modernize it, a total of $1,370,000. Since he had personally occupied it for a bare four months, it could be said that his rental there came to $342,500 a month or about $11,400 a day. But no buyer appeared for St. Donat’s. It remained a white elephant, eating up good Organization dollars for maintenance, until the British government requisitioned it for use as an officers’ training center at the outbreak of the war.
The hard-pressed Hearst borrowed $1,000,000 at five per cent from his friend “Cissy” Patterson, the Chicago heiress who leased the Washington Herald from him. He borrowed another $1,000,000 without interest from Miss Davies, whose financial condition at the moment was better than his. Whether he swung other private loans is unknown, but it appears that he used the money to help the Organization, not for his own personal expenses. He was now living a bit less like a king and more like a powerful baron. He bought no art. Construction at San Simeon came to a temporary stop. He wanted badly to build a modest subpalace in a sequoia grove near the castle, but the Committee could not see that this was essential to his well-being.
“Do you know,” Hearst said plaintively to his cousin, Randolph Apperson, “they won’t let me build it.” Apperson noted that he appeared like a small boy who had been refused a perfectly reasonable request.
New troubles plagued the beleaguered Committee. In the old days, Hearst’s bargaining power as the world’s largest user of newsprint had enabled the Organization to stabilize the price at around forty dollars a ton. Other publishers who snickered at Hearst’s financial woes soon discovered that they were directly affected by them. Hearst was still using newsprint by the thousands of tons, but since the Organization owed millions to Canadian paper producers, it was no longer in a position to bargain. The price of newsprint rose to forty-five dollars, to fifty and higher, costing the Hearst chain alone an extra $5,000,000 a year. Canadian newsprint and banking interests were in a position to foreclose, but the Committee managed to coax the Canadians into extending credit. Scratching for money, it found that trying to sell the Hearst art collection, with its thousands upon thousands of items, through art dealers was like trying to pour water through a pinhole. Art dealers were not big enough, and ordinary people did not go to them. Then someone had an inspiration—department stores! A part of the collection was shipped to stores in Chicago, St. Louis, and Seattle, where the sale was so brisk that an even greater such operation was planned.
In 1941, at Gimbel’s in New York, boys’ clothing, infants’ wear, and other goods were removed from the fifth floor so that the 100,000 square feet of space could be devoted to the Hearst collection. Hand trucks and four-wheelers rolled in with the art objects Hearst had gathered over decades in Italy, Germany, Spain, France, and elsewhere. He had collected in no less than 504 distinct categories. For the first time, the public got a visual inkling of the scope of his purchases. Parts of the collection had already been sold, and yet Gimbel’s two-acre fifth floor was jammed to the ceiling. Even this was far from all of it, since the Bronx warehouse still contained thousands of crated valuables, and of course Hearst was keeping the best third of the collection for himself.