- 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
Few men in recent history have been potentially more powerful—if, in the end, more frustrated—than William Randolph Hearst. Born to wealth, he forged a nationwide publishing empire and became in the process the biggest spender of his time. His name grew to be synonymous with “yellow journalism,” and his newspapers could make or break a promising political career, expose a gaudy scandal, create one where none existed, and even help start the war with Spain.
But for all his wealth, Hearst too often found that money could not buy the things he most desired. He dreamt of the Presidency (receiving 263 ballots in the Democratic convention of 1904, placing second to Judge Alton B. Parker), would have settled for the governorship of New York State, or at the very least, the mayoralty of his seat of empire, New York City. All eluded him.
By the 1920’s, Hearst was no longer young but still vigorous and full of ambitious projects. None was more grandiose than the building of his California palace, San Simeon, a fantastic undertaking that would occupy the rest of his life. For Hearst, it was a kind of dream castle, and it was complete with a dream princess. She was Marion Davies, the blonde ex-Follies girl who had become, with his backing, a movie star. Though they could never marry—Hearst had a wife and feared the repercussions of a divorce—they would remain together for more than three decades. The story of Hearst’s castle, his ventures in Hollywood, and his relationship with Miss Davies has been condensed from W. A. Swanberg’s biography, Citizen Hearst, to be published by Scribner’s.
With his once high hopes of political glory all but shattered, William Randolph Hearst in the mid-1920’s turned his formidable energies to other dreams that were equally as obsessive—the dream of becoming the foremost mogul of the movie industry (with Marion Davies as his star), and the dream of building castles. After 1926, although his legal residence remained in New York, he spent most of his time in California.
In Los Angeles he took a full floor at the princely Ambassador Hotel, which had gardens with oleanders, poinsettias, and cockatoos. At the sprawling Culver City studios of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer he became something like a king. The top man at the studio was pudgy Louis B. Mayer, a shrewd, ruthless egotist who had never hesitated to cozen competitors and friends alike in his rise to success, and who was not above demanding intimate favors from actresses in return for contracts. Mayer regarded Hearst with sincere although not disinterested reverence. In addition to the priceless publicity of the Hearst press, the arrival of Hearst and Marion Davies had brought MGM a splendor unknown even in that fairyland of glitter. Other stars made do with fancy dressing rooms supplied by the studio; but for Miss Davies’ use between scenes, a fourteen-room “bungalow” costing $75,000 and furnished with Hearst antiques was built on the lot.
Mayer knew a good thing when he saw it. Maybe Fox and some of the other studios had stars he wanted. But only MGM had William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. A former junk dealer who had entered motion pictures via the nickelodeons, Mayer was at first fearful of the impressive Hearst and his silver-spoon background. When he found Hearst genial and friendly, he was charmed. This was at a time when “Hollywood” was thought one of the world’s wonders, and visitors were frequent. Mayer saw to it that the important ones were sent to the Bungalow. Hearst was agreeable to being made something of a showpiece. He always greeted the callers pleasantly and treated them to collations prepared by the servants. When Miss Davies was on the set, however, he was there constantly, watching every move sharply, his mind teeming with ideas for improving her scenes. He took special pains to see that Miss Davies had the largest and most active publicity corps of any screen star.
With Hearst around, scenic effects had to be perfect, and time and money were spent to gain perfection. When Miss Davies was making The Red Mill, a complete Dutch village was constructed alongside an artificial canal, each house built to scale from photographs of an actual town in Holland. For winter scenes, an intricate piping system was built so that the canal was frozen with ammonia gas, even under the hot California sun, thick enough for several hundred cast members to skate on it. A thousand wooden shoes were manufactured for the players. But like most of the lavish productions in which Miss Davies starred, The Red Mill lost money, and exhibitors grew increasingly reluctant to take her films. At a Culver City sales meeting, Mayer gave one of his fiery pep talks and then asked if there were any questions.
“Yes,” said one of the salesmen. “I would like to ask why do we handle the pictures of Marion Davies?”
To Mayer, this was near-treason. Nonplused for a moment, he spoke of Miss Davies’ artistry, of her friendship with Hearst, and of the valuable publicity the Hearst press was giving all MGM pictures. This set him off on a ringing speech about the greatness of Hearst. He told how Hearst’s father had survived hardships in the gold-rush days to end up with honors and a seat in the Senate. As he traced Hearst’s own history, from his turbulent boyhood to his ownership of the nation’s greatest chain of newspapers, Mayer became carried away by his own enthusiasm.
“This,” he told the salesman, “is what I want to impress upon you gentlemen. This is the spirit that has made America great. We live in a land of opportunity! God bless America!”
His eyes dampened. “Does that answer your question?” he demanded.
“Yessir,” the offending salesman said hastily.
While most critics agreed that Miss Davies did not have talent of the first rank and that her acting was often studied, it is likely that Hearst unwittingly destroyed the gay spontaneity that made her so charming in real life. He viewed her as his own creation. He was insistent about her roles. He wanted her to play nothing but romantic young heroines and to appear in a succession of gorgeous or appealing costumes before spectacular sets. He could make directors tear their hair, stopping action and cameras as he went up with suggestions for making Miss Davies appear to better advantage.
Although Miss Davies was nearing thirty, Hearst constantly attempted to deny her maturity. She had to fulfill his virgin image of her. Occasionally she grew restive under this restraint. She had a wistful feeling that she could portray certain dramatic roles, and once even tried to coax him to let her play Sadie Thompson in Rain. Hearst threw up his hands in horror. He would never permit her to play a prostitute.
Miss Davies’ screen career was his property, but she had her way in most other respects. She called Hearst “Pops,” and in her uninhibited way would tousle his hair and fling affectionate insults at him, which amused him greatly. Ilka Chase, who had a role in one of the Davies pictures, noted Miss Davies’ attractive habit of blinking as she stuttered, and her informal attitude toward Hearst, whom everybody else on the lot treated with deference and some awe. Once, when she was having lunch with a group of friends at the Bungalow, she telephoned Hearst, who was in Mayer’s office, urging him to join them. “Oh, c-c-come on over, W. R.,” she said, “and I’ll give you a b-b-big k-k-k-kiss.” She hung up, saying pleasantly, “The old b-b-bum,” and Hearst dutifully made his appearance.
While it would be an exaggeration to say that he mistrusted her, it was noted at the studio how excessively he worried about her when she was out of his sight. It was usual for him to telephone frequently to assure himself that she was where she was supposed to be, a surveillance that she took with good humor. Once, when she was in conference with a writer, Hearst telephoned. She passed a few words with him, then said cheerfully to the writer, “Well, Hearst come, Hearst served.”
As the great castle he was building at San Simeon was a good two hundred miles from Hollywood, and too far for daily commuting, Hearst planned another more convenient to Culver City. Mayer, Will Rogers, Joseph Schenck, Harold Lloyd, and others of the elect had built mansions along the beach at Santa Monica, making it the gold coast of filmland, and here Hearst chose to erect a pile that made his neighbors’ places seem like summer cottages. Seventy-five woodcarvers worked for a year on the balustrades alone of the Hearst-Davies home. As at San Simeon, Hearst followed a practice of building to accommodate antique rooms he had imported bodily from Europe. The main dining room, the reception room, and the drawing room, each more than sixty feet long, all came from Burton Hall in County Clare, Ireland. Most of the thirty-seven fireplace mantels had been taken from stately English homes. A rathskeller on the lower level had been an inn in Surrey, dating back to 1560.
Hearst’s penchant for display was everywhere manifest. It was said that the main building of the Santa Monica house had more columns across the back than the Supreme Court building in Washington; they reflected in a 110-foot swimming pool lined with Italian marble. (The Pacific Ocean was on the other side of the house, but it was impossible to keep the sea at an even temperature.) The mural wallpaper in the Marion Davies suite alone cost $7,500, and for a small plot owned by his neighbor, Will Rogers, Hearst paid $105,000. He wanted it for a tennis court.
Not even the crash of 1929 and an ever-worsening depression checked Hearst’s furious spending. He had gone through panics in 1893 and 1907, and probably saw no reason why this one should be any worse. It did not seem to enter his mind that the Depression could affect him personally to any degree. His inborn optimism excluded that kind of doubt. He had never saved a dime for a rainy day. He had been one of the world’s biggest spenders, and he continued in that role, a colossus marching straight for the abyss.
Hardly a month passed that did not see Hearst increase his realty holdings. By now he held title to almost $50,000,000 in New York real estate alone. In Wales, he poured a fortune into the one genuine castle he owned, St. Donat’s. The mortgages he was meeting were vast. He was advised against this, but his financial men had always advised him against overextending himself and he had come to regard their warnings as the groundless fears of little men.
Miss Davies’ beach palace at Santa Monica was finally finished, at a cost of $3,250,000. With the antiques, silver service, and objects of art Hearst installed in it, its estimated worth was $7,000,000. In the great dining room he added a touch of his own—a dozen full-length oil portraits of Miss Davies as she had appeared in When Knighthood Was in Flower, Janice Meredith, The Red Mill, and the other screen roles on which he had lavished almost as much attention as she. A smaller castle at Wyntoon, in far northern California, had recently been destroyed by fire, and he was planning a better one there. But when all was said and done, it was San Simeon that was nearest to his heart, the childhood dream that he was realizing with his energy and his millions.
After Miss Davies and his wife (with whom he remained friendly), the most important woman in Hearst’s life was a schoolmarmish lady who wore Queen Mary hats, horn-rimmed glasses, and old-fashioned, rustling clothing. This was Miss Julia Morgan, the architect and Beaux Arts graduate who had been a friend of Hearst’s mother. Together Miss Morgan and Hearst had worked on San Simeon since 1919. She had dedicated her career to the fulfillment of his dream—not entirely a hardship, for she grew wealthy at it. Hearst was fond of her. San Simeon was the supreme challenge of his life, and when she came down from San Francisco for a few days he would give her his undivided attention to the neglect of whatever guests were present.
It was almost as if Hearst subconsciously realized that his newspapers were trashy, his political life a failure, even his motion pictures not entirely successful, and was determined that San Simeon, if nothing else, would be an enduring monument to his greatness.
When he and Miss Morgan had started, Camp Hill was an almost treeless eminence rising two thousand feet above the Pacific. The sentimental Hearst had renamed it La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill) and had erected on it four Spanish and Italian edifices containing treasures from all over the world and surrounded by a paradise of horticulture. The three “guesthouses,” each of them palatial in size and grandeur, were finished first—La Casa del Monte, La Casa del Sol, and La Casa del Mar. Now, in 1930, the pièce de résistance, the king of castles—La Casa Grande— towered over the three smaller ones. It was not finished, and in fact never would be.
Since 1919 there had always been from 25 to 150 men working at San Simeon. Here Hearst sought perfection regardless of cost. Once as he drove up his six-mile-long private road from the highway he was dissatisfied with his impression of one of the subpalaces as he gained the top of the rise. Although it was well along, he had it torn down and rebuilt some distance away. With Miss Morgan he had pored over drawings of the twin towers that would surmount La Casa Grande and had approved the final plans. When the towers were completed, he was unhappy about them. They were too stark, too severe. The towers were torn down at great expense and replaced by the fretwork-ornamented ones seen today.
As in his newspapers, Hearst sought impact and sensation in his architecture. He shunned the sedate, the calm, the classic. He loved the ornate, the baroque, the medieval, and San Simeon became an architectural representation of his own character. It was significant that after Hearst left New York and became a Californian again, his political hopes in ashes, he renounced his sober black fedora and broadcloth and took to wearing noisy plaid sport jackets, colorful Hawaiian sport shirts, and two-toned shoes.
One reason why San Simeon was difficult and expensive was that it was not built from scratch to suit certain living needs, but was a mosaic of Hearst’s memories, inspirations, and possessions. In his card-index memory he had recollections of decorative schemes and arrangements he had seen in European castles and cathedrals and wished to incorporate in his own palace. In his New York warehouse and in huge basement crypts at San Simeon he had the antique accumulations of years—entire Gothic rooms, carved ceilings, choir stalls, paneling, staircases, corbels, stained glass, sarcophagi, mantels, columns, tapestries, a thousand other things—which he was determined to make a part of his castle. Thus, San Simeon was not only a vast construction project but also a complicated assembly job that kept Hearst and Miss Morgan in repeated sessions of close consultation. The castle was not so much a home as it was a museum, a setting for Hearst. The addition of a wing had given the Casa Grande alone more than forty bedroom suites, all filled with antiques and works of art. Miss Morgan was on an annual budget that allowed her to do so much work a year, and although the budget was generous there were years of work ahead.
Another huge expense was the crew of twenty or more gardeners under Hearst’s English horticultural expert, Nigel Keep. Many of the plantings had to be blasted from solid rock. A whole row of fully grown cypresses was moved thirty miles over the mountains from Paso Robles, and it cost thousands to move each of several oaks that were in the way of construction— Hearst could not bear to see a tree cut down. Once Miss Morgan sighted along a line of plum trees and shook her head. “That one is three inches out of line,” she informed Keep. His men moved it three inches.
Hearst kept eyeing the bare hill to the landward, where the reservoir was located. “Mr. Keep, that bareness bothers me,” he said. “Could you plant pines there?”
Keep knew better than to tell him something could not be done. “I can try, Mr. Hearst,” he replied, “but it will be costly.”
“Never mind the cost. Do it.”
A road had to be built through the wilderness and up the hill, and the pines had to be dragged on sleds by tractors. Though Keep shuddered at the expense, the job was finally completed.
Although Hearst and Mayer remained friends, both he and Miss Davies became increasingly dissatisfied with the roles she had been getting at MGM. The studio believed her talent best suited for light comedy, but she wanted more demanding roles. Many believed that Miss Davies, with her stutter, would be finished by talking pictures. But she trained hard with tutors and managed to make the leap, although some felt that there was a hesitation and lack of spontaneity in her diction.
Unfortunately for her dramatic aspirations, Miss Davies had to compete for stories with such stars as Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, and Joan Crawford, and the friction grew heated. When her contract with MGM ended, Miss Davies did not renew it. Instead, Hearst made a deal with the Warner studio in Burbank. It was somewhat like the end of a queen’s reign when the famous Bungalow was separated into three sections and hauled out of Culver City on its way to nearby Burbank.
Miss Davies’ move furnished Hollywood with gossip for months. Now she was queen at Warner’s, and it was said that she would soon emerge as a dramatic actress. Instead, she was starred with Dick Powell in a couple of light semi-musicals, Page Miss Glory and Hearts Divided.
Of an evening, the cast of the Davies movies would often be invited along with other movie and newspaper people to the beach house at Santa Monica, where Hearst would employ “name” bands and even join in the dancing himself. At one dinner party to which some seventy-five film notables had been invited, Miss Davies did not appear, for she could find nothing in her vast wardrobe to please her. She telephoned a dress shop proprietor, who unlocked her store and brought dozens of gowns for her to try on. Meanwhile, the agitated maid, who had turned on the water in the bathtub for her mistress, forgot about it as she helped with the dresses. The seventy-five guests waiting downstairs were aware that something was wrong when water began trickling down the dining room walls, hung with paintings of Miss Davies in her film roles.
There was one incurable drawback to the beach house: it was finished. Hearst, a frustrated architect, occasionally tore out a room or two just for the pleasure of redesigning them and installing more paneling from Europe. But this gave only limited scope for his compulsion to build. He had a splendid time constructing a “Bavarian village” at Wyntoon—three great buildings plus several smaller ones, facing a green studded with statuary and a fountain imported from Bavaria. But this, too, was almost finished.
He was happiest at San Simeon, for there he was like an eager painter with an acre of canvas only half-filled. Over weekends, and when Miss Davies was between pictures, they hurried to the castle (they called it “the ranch”), to which they invited house guests by the hundreds.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Some art dealers looked down their noses at the spectacle of objets d’art sold like underwear or notions. Some Hearst-haters sneered that the Old Man, who had always catered to the mob, had found his true element in a department store. People from Hell’s Kitchen as well as Park Avenue came to gape at the array of wonders. Even the Spanish cloister was on sale there, through the medium of pictures, the stones themselves remaining up in the Bronx. A titled guide with a distinctive foreign accent was on hand to impress the mink trade. Gimbel’s advertised “Bargains in Del Sartos and Broadlooms,” stressed the chic of wearing a Hearst necklace, and invited one and all to use the easy-payment plan. The sale, which went on for almost a year, was a smashing success even though no one was interested in the cloister. Those who bought a door knocker, a scarab, a canvas, or a set of fire tongs were probably not aware that they were doing their bit to save the Organization from bankruptcy.
One of the many signs that Hearst had been the dealers’ greatest angel was Van Dyck’s portrait of Queen Henrietta, for which he had paid $375,000. At Gimbel’s it was reduced to $157,500, still did not sell, and later was knocked down to a mere $89,000.
Soon after America entered the war, Hearst closed San Simeon and moved to his northern California castle, Wyntoon, for two years, winter and summer. This was done for two reasons—to save money, and because there was a feeling that the Japanese, angered at the fifty-year-long Hearst campaign against the “yellow peril,” might appear in submarines and shell San Simeon, which made a fine target from the bay. Unlike San Simeon, where the horticulture was artificial, Wyntoon, with its 67,000 acres of virgin timber, was nature in the raw. Its big stone-and-timber castle, The Gables, and its three smaller (but still large) subcastles, stood on the banks of the swift McCloud River, surrounded by 200-foot firs. Hearst, who had built the three-unit “Bavarian village,” named the houses The Bear, Cinderella, and Angel House, and retained a staff of artists to paint on them suitable illustrations from fairy tales.
Miss Davies, hating Wyntoon, had a scornful name for it—“Spittoon.” It was 250 miles north of San Francisco, lost in the wilderness, and in wartime it was impossible to people it with the throngs of guests that made San Simeon merry. In desperation, she took up backgammon. Hearst himself, preoccupied with his work, was not visibly oppressed by the solitude. What hurt him more was the shortage of ready cash, his inability to buy paintings and other attractive things.
Ironically, it was the war that Hearst had so insistently warned America to avoid that rescued his publishing empire. Circulation rose, advertising boomed, and this, plus the heroic efforts of the Committee, saved the Organization. Hearst rose like a phoenix from the ashes of defeat. He and Miss Davies left Wyntoon for good. The Old Man was so anxious to regain full control that he sued in federal court to oust Shearn from his position of financial power. The court refused, for although the Organization was now a going concern, there were still debts outstanding, and until these were settled the suzerainty of Shearn could not be ended without the consent of the banks Hearst hated so fervently.
Back at San Simeon again, he cracked the whip over his editors, defended America against all comers, and flung himself into his last architectural orgy—the completion of another wing of the Casa Grande. After what was for him an interval of horrid penury, he had money to spend. Adding another wing was not strictly practical, since he was building rooms that would never be used. But his cellar vaults under the castle still bulged with spoils from Europe that he itched to transform into useless living space that suited his own rococo idea of beauty. Building materials were almost unobtainable in wartime, but he pulled strings, paid enormous prices, and got them. “We must finish the job,” he said again and again.
The Casa Grande offended classicists because of its extravagant presumption, its hodgepodgery of art and architecture, its violence to tradition, its excesses in decoration. But it suited Hearst perfectly. It was a proper monument to this man of extravagance, violence, and excess as no classic pile would have been.
Statisticians could have a field day totting up the total of Hearst’s expenditures for housing himself, his family, and Miss Davies. The figure would have to include construction or purchase costs, improvements, land and gardens, and art acquisitions actually used in the dwellings. No one ever knew how much he spent on San Simeon, and the estimate of $40,000,000, which seems inflated, might be scaled down arbitrarily to $30,000,000 to give him the benefit of the doubt. The beach house cost him a total of $7,000,000. His wife’s Long Island castle cost $400,000, with no allowance for furnishings and art. St. Donat’s cost him $1,370,000, while Wyntoon probably ran no more than $1,000,000. This makes a rough total of $40,000,000, which still does not include such huge expenditures as the New York real estate he owned, or the smaller houses he purchased in Beverly Hills, or his long-time rental of a floor at Los Angeles’ Ambassador, nor would it include such odd items as Miss Davies’ splendid “bungalow” at MGM, or the acreage he bought on the Grand Canyon after enjoying the view and planning a residence which he never got around to building.
At eighty, Hearst still had his own good teeth, a plenteous thatch of gray hair, and a good appetite; he used glasses only for reading. He continued to play a little tennis in his slow-motion way, enjoyed croquet and swimming, and occasionally went for a canter. But his favorite role was that of the Chief. Editors who hoped that the Old Man would retire, as any reasonable patriarch should, and stop bothering them, were disappointed. He could no more stop editing than he could stop building. He still summoned executives to San Simeon for conferences and made them cool their heels until he was good and ready.
Hearst continued to wield an iron hand. Sometimes in his isolation at San Simeon, his utterances had the ivory-tower ring that came with ignorance of local conditions and problems, but often they were sharply pointed, both in sense and phraseology. They ranged from disquisitions on whether Hatlo’s cartoon box was better on the sports than on the comic page to discussions of what to do about Walter Winchell, the Broadway columnist who was setting himself up as an analyst of world affairs. And always they gave the editor the feeling that the Chief was looking over his shoulder, never quite satisfied, forever applying pressure, pressure, pressure. Undoubtedly his eternal surveillance robbed his editors of spontaneity. But the Chief could not stop being the Chief.
Although Hearst and Miss Davies always remained devoted, they could not escape a tinge of regret at the tricks that time could play. When they first met, Hearst was in his vigorous, masterful fifties, while Miss Davies was hardly more than a girl. Now, although he was amazingly spry, he was nevertheless an octogenarian, while she still brimmed with comparative youth in her forties. They were more than a generation apart. His tall frame had weathered and bent under hurricanes no other man ever withstood. Miss Davies’ figure was still slim, her blonde hair still ungrayed, her blue eyes still sparkling. The thirty-odd years that separated them had been easily bridged back in the days of Wilson and Harding. Now, in Roosevelt’s third term, they were a barrier. Hearst, who loved life and hated to grow old, hated it all the more because of Miss Davies’ youth and tried to hold back the years by wearing hand-painted neckties and green suits. Still his eyes followed her wherever she went, as if—more conscious now of the gulf of years—he were afraid of losing her.
They still followed the routine of showing movies at night, some of them pre-release. But often now, because he enjoyed it so much, they showed Miss Davies’ earlier pictures. He could sit by the hour, watching When Knighthood Was in Flower, Janice Meredith, Peg O’ My Heart , and The Red Mill. Tears came to his eyes as he watched the scenes he knew by heart—scenes he had helped fashion himself. Each of them pounded him with a hundred recollections of irretrievable youth. The days of the unforgettable Follies, with Marion dancing in the front row … The days when he still had hopes of becoming President … The days when he had no doubt that Miss Davies and he together would scale the last, glittering height of cinema glory … The gay trips through Europe with a dozen frolicsome companions … The nights on his yacht with the late Florenz Ziegfeld, the late Joseph Urban, the late Will Rogers, the late Arthur Brisbane, and so many others who were now merely memories of an era that could be recaptured only on film. He had failed in much that he had set out to do, and yet he could reflect that he had had a lot of fun trying. But for Hearst, who loathed failure, who wanted so badly what he wanted, the pleasure he took in watching the Davies films must have been tinctured with pain.
In 1944, his sons and executives came to San Simeon to celebrate his eighty-first birthday. They all waited for him in the vast assembly room, and when he came in they began singing “Happy Birthday.” Hearst’s grandson “Bunkie” noted that “his face lighted up and when they had finished he did an ‘Off to Buffalo’ winding up with a hand outstretched like an old-time vaudeville hoofer. It broke the place up.”
Conchita Sepulveda, an old Hearst family friend who had become society editor of the Los Angeles Examiner, arrived at San Simeon for a visit on August 6, 1945. Hearst met her on the terrace, but he was not his usual pleasant self.
“A terrible thing has happened,” he said, his face grave.
“What is it?” she inquired.
“They have dropped an atomic bomb on Japan.” He was visibly upset. A prediction he had dashed off thirteen years earlier—“The next war will be a terrible story of the … horrifying destructiveness of modern agencies of war”—had come true. The gentle, human side of Hearst was stricken at the thought of a bomb so frightful that it killed thousands of people, even though they were Japanese. He had indeed come a long way. The man who was born before the Battle of Gettysburg, who had seen the first railroad built across the nation and had taken more than a week to cross it as a boy on the same railroad, who had cheered the air age and feted Lindbergh, had now lived to see the atomic age.
A page of more personal history was torn away when Miss Davies decided to sell her beach house, which was little used now. It was difficult to keep it staffed with servants, and the tax drain was heavy. The place was almost as much of an anachronism as San Simeon, for there were few in 1945 who could afford such an establishment. It brought only $600,000 when it was sold to a real estate operator who planned to convert it into a private beach club. The price was almost exactly what its thirty-seven imported fireplaces had cost. The silver, porcelain, furniture, and other appointments were auctioned in New York, bringing another $204,762.
Hearst had to give up his tennis and now swam only occasionally, but his teletype instructions to his editors were as pithy as ever. He seemed in a perpetual chill and wanted all the castle fireplaces going full blast. But if he felt the aches of old age, he did not complain. He had never been a complainer.
Public opinion had mellowed somewhat toward Hearst, although some liberals would never forgive him. March 4, 1947, marked the sixtieth anniversary of the day back in 1887 when, as a pink-cheeked young man, he had officially taken over the San Francisco Examiner from his father. Republican Senator Arthur Capper rose in the Senate that day to deliver a eulogy, praising Hearst for his work for labor, woman suffrage, and peace.
Throughout Hearst’s career, said Capper, he had found “a human factor that especially marks him. Nothing engages his sympathy so quickly as the helpless on earth; nothing inflames his anger so much as wrong to those helpless.”
At the same time, Republican Representative Edith Nourse Rogers eulogized Hearst in the House where he had served as a congressman four decades earlier, saying, “Whenever the term of public servant requires a synonym, I believe it will be Hearst.”
Possibly the old man’s heart could not stand the shock of hearing praise emanate from both houses in Washington. Shortly afterward, he suffered a painful seizure. It was diagnosed as auricular fibrillation, a serious heart condition. He recovered partially, but he would never be a well man again. His physicians warned him that he must no longer stay at remote San Simeon. He must move to the city where he could be under the care of a specialist.
Hearst wept as he made the last trip down the Enchanted Hill—through the electrically opened gates, through the zoo—on his way to Los Angeles. One can picture him turning his head on the coastal highway to catch a last glimpse of the far-off twin towers on which he had spent thirty millions—the towers that represented his youthful dream of triumph and mastery, now shattered by age. He was only mortal after all. He knew he would never come back.