Far away from my usual stomping ground of Europe, on the other side of the Atlantic in fact, is the imposing private dream home of William Randolph Hearst. Perched on a hillside overlooking the opaque, jade green waters of the Pacific Ocean is the white wedding cake confection variously known as Hearst Castle, San Simeon or in Hearst’s words ‘La Cuesta Encantada’ the enchanted hill. A spectacular building weaving numerous architectural styles into one gloriously idiosyncratic property.
HEARST spared no expense in creating his perfect castle on this piece of rugged California coast. Antique oak panelling came from a baronial manor in Ireland. Sparkling white Carrara marble came from a palazzo in Italy. Statues, tapestry, paintings and timber were imported from London, Paris, Rome and Naples. These luxurious items were the bounty of numerous trips to Europe where the young Hearst accompanied his mother on a series of private ‘Grand Tours’ designed to discover and learn about the history and cultural heritage of the Old World. It was fashionable for wealthy Americans to travel to Europe to discover the history, art and culture of the ‘old country’ from the early 19th century onwards. Writers like Mark Twain documented their own ‘Grand Tour’ experiences in the fabulous book ‘The Innocents Abroad’ a brilliant record of Twain’s travels which included drama, observation, humour and proper down-to-earth comedy. You can read more about the ‘History of the Grand Tour here. Young William and his mother travelled on several ‘Grand Tours’ of Europe which for them were also buying trips where Hearst and his mother would acquire vast quantities of antiques and art to ship back to North America. In fact on one occasion they returned from Europe with so many purchases that new warehouse space had to be found.
AS AN ONLY CHILD – As the only child of a man who had quite literally discovered a silver mine and his abstemious wife, it would be reasonable to assume that young William had been born with a silver spoon inserted firmly in his cute little mouth. It is certainly true that he was born into a household of enormous wealth. However it wasn’t until the death of his mother, when Hearst Junior was in his fifties, that he finally had free rein to spend his vast inheritance as he wished. Whilst his mother was still alive the purse strings were kept firmly tied. It is no coincidence that the lavishing spending at San Simeon started in 1920, the year after his mother’s death.
WHEN the younger Hearst inherited the entire family fortune, he was already a successful newspaper man. He had modernised and developed the San Francisco Examiner paper – introducing gossip, scandal and salacious stories with great success. His response to complete financial freedom was to start developing Hearst Castle at San Simeon. Over a thirty year period he created a vast sprawling mansion representing almost every architectural style from Classical Greek and Roman to Spanish Baroque. He employed the renowned architect Julia Morgan on the San Simeon project from 1920-1950. The result was a fairy tale castle of immense proportions, with a highly decorated, white marble facade, towering above the Pacific Ocean, and also known as ‘La Cuesta Encantada‘.
By the time Hearst Castle was completed there were more than 160 rooms and at least one hundred acres of gardens and terraces. There was a private zoo, filled with exotic animals, including a herd of zebras. This was a house built to impress. At weekends Hearst would host elaborate house parties where he entertained Hollywood stars. Guests were flown from Los Angeles north along the stunning Pacific Coast to San Simeon in Hearst’s own private plane. Imagine the short flight over the ocean, and then catching a glimpse of Hearst’s incredible property sprawling below. The house also had two impossibly beautiful swimming pools. There was a Roman classical pool outside, known as the Neptune Pool. It was lined with colonnades and temples. Whilst inside a vast blue and gold pool reminiscent of a tale from ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ sparkled with decadence and charm.
Today a visit to Hearst Castle enables the visitor to step back in time to the 30s, 40s and 50s and to experience this ‘fantastical’ family home with its Hollywood associations and money-no-object lavish interiors. Hearst Castle was the setting for numerous Hollywood parties and events, hosted by Hearst and the actress Marion Davies. Davies was Hearst’s lover for many years. In fact the Hearst story fascinated the British actor and film maker, Orson Welles. So much so that he produced, directed and starred in the film Citizen Kane (1941) about the life of William Hearst and Marion Davies.
REAL LIFE STORIES – These real life stories fascinate us and continue to fascinate us for generations. William Randolph Hearst was a business man, newspaper owner and the heir to a vast fortune. He was also adept at self-promotion. When he returned to New York after one of his many trips to Europe, there was a ship waiting in the harbour to welcome him home. Was it filled with well-wishers delighted to see the great man back in America or was it a publicity stunt of his own making? Certainly he loved the limelight. He had political aspirations too and was a life long Democrat – he served rather inactively in the House of Representatives from 1903-1907. His real passion was always for newspapers, sensationalism and Hollywood stars!
LADY GAGA – I’m sure that Hearst would have been delighted by Lady Gaga’s decision to use Hearst Castle as the location for a recent music video. For him San Simeon was a unique place of prestige and parties. A place where business and wealth met Hollywood. This is a perfect example of the enduring appeal of a property like ‘La Cuesta Encantada’. Lady Gaga chose the exotic, beautiful indoor pool with it’s blue and gold colours and fabulous sparkling surfaces. This pool often called the ‘Roman Pool’ is sublime in it’s magnificence. A place of exceptional beauty.
It is confirmation too that we all love stories ‘real life stories’ and that we appreciate and admire those that have gone before us. Private homes and personal spaces always make the best and most interesting museums. Hearst Castle was one man’s dream and his own truly unique legacy lives on here at San Simeon on the Pacific Coast Highway. A monument to extravagance, originality and pastiche. After all we each have only one life and in the case of William Randolph Hearst he saw no limits in terms of the legacy that he would leave behind.
- Julia Morgan was a prominent architect who had a long and productive career. She studied engineering in California before heading to Paris to study at the prestigious l’École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts She was one of the first women to be admitted to their architecture programme. When she returned to California she became the first woman architect to be licensed in the state. During her career she designed hundreds of buildings. She is probably best known for her long association with William Randolph Hearst. She worked on the Hearst Castle project for 3 decades from 1920-1950. Morgan died in 1957.
- Hearst Castle at San Simeon in now part of the California National Parks Department. A visit is strongly recommended. Hearst Castle The tours available are fascinating and very professionally run.
- The Hearst Corporation continued to own and run the San Francisco Examiner newspaper until 2000.
- Whilst driving the Pacific Coast Highway don’t miss the town of San Simeon where there is an enormous and rather smelly sea-lion colony! Visit San Simeon, California
- For more examples of private homes, that are now museums, giving a fascinating insight into the people that once lived there, have a look at: London, Venice, Loire, California – True stories, real lives, private homes to visit
- For numerous articles on Italy, The Alps, British Isles, History, Art, Food & Wine please investigate further: www.educated-traveller.com
- Happy Reading!
- Written: October 2018
- Updated: August 2020