Taking the Pacific Coast Highway from LA to San Francisco is something I’ve always dreamed about. Years ago a friend also told us about the insane and beautiful Hearst Castle, which is along the way. So Al and I stayed in the sleepy little village of Cambria (population 6032) for two days specifically to go and visit the “house” perched on a high golden hill overlooking the tiny town of San Simeon.
As a boy, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst went camping every summer with his family on this sunny spot. His wealthy businessman father had bought the land and hundreds of acres around it. When his mother died and he inherited it, William decided to build something a little more permanent. He hired legendary Californian architect Julia Morgan, and so began 30-odd years of building, renovations and sourcing of prized European sculptures, paintings, tapestries, furnitures and ceilings.
Winding our way up the road, the guide pointed out where Hearst kept his animals – he created the world’s largest private zoo – and when we finally reached the top it was at least five degrees warmer. This is why the Hearst family had chosen this spot. Even when the icy fog rolls in on the California coast, Hearst Castle rises above it, bathed in sunshine and warmth. No wonder Hearst called it “the Enchanted Hill”.
Impressive from the outside, inside we were witness to 14th-century Moorish ceilings, carefully shipped over from Europe and installed in various sections of the 75-room “house”. Flemish tapestries and Roman marble statues from 700 BC also graced the living rooms.
Hearst’s bedroom obviously had the best view and was right next door to the quarters of his mistress, actress Marion Davies. While his wife stayed on the east coast, William and Marion lived together in the castle for decades, entertaining everyone from Charlie Chaplin and Cary Grant to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
Upon his death in 1951 Marion inherited 51% of Hearst’s estate, but she gave it all to his family. She was a wealthy woman in her own right, being a savvy investor in property, and had even lent Hearst a million dollars when he was in financial difficulty (which he never paid back). That’s pretty classy.
Of course, I kept thinking about Citizen Kane the whole time we were touring the estate. The similarities are there, yet they are quite superficial, Marion being nothing like the wife in that film. Another difference is that the castle is quite obviously unfinished. Hearst was constantly changing his mind about things (as multi-millionaires are wont to do) and asking Julia Morgan to add a room here and extend one there.
Yet this constant work-in-progress now attracts over a million tourists a year to see the priceless gems Hearst surrounded himself with. Say what you like about the man, but I can’t see anyone going to tour Trump Tower in 60 years time.