A Guest at the Hearst Castle…Stepping Back In Time
With the opulence and grandeur of a palatial European estate, the Hearst Castle is perched high atop a hill overlooking San Simeon and the Pacific Ocean. The castle is the creation of newspaper publisher and tycoon, William Randolph Hearst. Located on Highway 1, half-way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the estate combines art, architecture and magnificently manicured gardens. Its history reads like a sultry romance novel; combining love, hate; wealth and scandal.
The home and grounds, donated to the State of California by the Hearst Corporation in 1958, have since become part of the California State Park System. Even after many visits, I continue to put a tour of the Hearst Castle on my list of things to do when visiting California. I seem intrigued by the history of the estate, its residents and many guests.
On scheduled tours of the property, docents do a fine job of interpreting the architecture and describing Hearst’s personal art collection on display throughout the castle. Interjections providing insight into the personal life of William Randolph Hearst allude to his scandalous affair with screen star, Marion Davies, and the grand parties attended by film greats from the golden days of Hollywood. Visitors are left to read between the lines about the happenings on the “Enchanted Hill” during those weekend retreats.
Because of public interest in touring the estate at night, the parks department offers evening tours during certain time of the year. I experienced an evening tour during the last Christmas season. On this occasion, docents dressed in period costume and acting as former guests, interacted with visitors on the tour.
From outside the visitor’s center at the base of the hill, all eyes were drawn up to the sight of the completely illuminated castle, soaring into the heavens above. The darkness of the surrounding night sky made the estate seem even more spectacular. The tour began with a bus ride up the winding hill while music from the 1920’s and 30’s played. If you let your imagination take over, you might even feel like you were transported back in time, following in the footsteps of guests arriving from Los Angeles for an extravagant weekend at the Hearst Castle.
Once off the bus at the main entrance to the castle, the group moved to the Neptune Pool area, where women clad in furs engaged in intimate conversation with their leading men while couples danced under the starlit skies. It is said that Mr. Hearst kept a selection of fur coats in a climate-controlled storage area in the basement; offering them to those ladies who found themselves a bit chilly during their visit. The current pool, in its final version as seen today, boasts Italian inspired colonnades and statuary. Our path took us through gardens and terraces illuminated by walkway lighting, creating a certain ambiance in the stillness of the crisp December evening. Once inside, we visited guest quarters and saw docents dressed as young Hollywood starlets preparing for the evening gala.
Other party-goers engaged in a lively game of billiards. The Billiard Room displays Flemish tapestries depicting hunting scenes and the room has a 15th century Spanish ceiling.
Ascending the staircase, the tour visited Mr. Hearst’s private quarters, which occupies the entire third floor of the main house. This area is a treasure trove of Hearst’s personal collections of centuries-old paintings, statues and textiles, most of which he purchased on his yearly trips to Europe. It is interesting to note that William Randolph Hearst was not a particularly religious person; however, his collection included many pieces of sacred artwork.
The Library is home to nearly four thousand books. Fragile ancient Greek vases line the perimeter of the ceiling area of the room. The two-hour tour concluded at the Roman Pool. This indoor pool, inspired by ancient Roman baths, is laviously decorated with hand-made blue mosaic tiles, infused with 18-karat gold and made for Hearst in Venice. Greek and Roman inspired marble statues stand watch over the pool area within the golden glow cast by illuminated marble lamp posts.
The Hearst Castle is the dream of William Randolph Hearst, built on land he inherited from his mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst. During 1919, Mr. Hearst contracted San Francisco native, Architect Julia Morgan, to design and oversee construction of his estate at San Simeon. Over the next 28 years, Julia Morgan became involved in all aspects of building the castle consisting of 165 rooms; 127 acres of gardens, pool, terraces and walkways; three guest houses and the largest privately owned zoo in the world.
His marriage to former Broadway actress Millicent Wilson in 1903, provided William Randolph Hearst, five sons: George; William Randolph, Jr.; John; and twins Randolph and David. Hearst and his wife became estranged from each other after Hearst took on an extra-marital affair with Hollywood actress, Marion Davies. Millicent Hearst lived her own life in New York City with her children; one that was totally subsidized by William Randolph Hearst. Millicent never divorced her husband and continued to live apart.
In 1917, William Randolph Hearst met Marion Davies, a Broadway star and film actress. Hearst was older than Davies by some 30-plus years. They began a 32 year love affair during which time Marion remained Hearst’s closest companion. In her book, The Times We Had, Davies divulges intimate details of her life with William Randolph Hearst. During those years, the couple entertained some of Hollywood’s greats like Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard and Barbara Stanwyck. Political leaders and other notorious guests included Winston Churchill, Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes.
The events of this particular evening tour last December were reminiscent of those during one of the weekend galas frequently hosted by Hearst and Davies during their days at the “La Cuesta Encantada” (The Enchanted Hill). I came away with a better understanding of the history surrounding the home and the characters in this epic tale of love, hate, wealth and scandal. A visit to the Hearst Castle is well worth a trip from either San Francisco or Los Angeles. The surrounding area along Highway 1 offers some of California’s most dramatic coastline and marine sanctuaries including areas for viewing the elephant seals.