My wife — who’s temporarily living in Atlanta these days — came to visit us here in Southern California for my birthday (which was April 26).
We decided I’d take a few days off so we could drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to Hearst Castle.
Yesterday, I told you about the drive north, the scenic views and our visit to Morro Bay.
We left off with that photo, above, of Sharon and myself, taking a selfie in front of a large colony of molting elephant seals at Piedras Blancas, just a few miles from the infamous “enchanted hilltop” castle built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
Our tour tickets were for 6 p.m. It was only 3 p.m., but we decided to head on to the visitors’ center. We’d be there hours early, but at least we’d be out of the rain.
These cute little telescopes at the visitors’ center allow you to put in a couple of quarters and view the castle itself, atop the next mountain.
However, no one was spending any quarters on this day. The cloud cover was so low that you could barely see the base of the mountain, much less the top.
One of the things we did with all our spare time was take in a movie about the building of the castle.
There is a small museum there in the center where you can learn more about the life of Hearst and his media empire.
Hearst — not surprisingly — was a bit of a control freak. I don’t think that was uncommon in those days.
In 1937, Hearst nearly lost his newspapers because of debt that had mounted over the years of the Depression. This chart showed the newspapers he owned over the years.
His first was the San Francisco Examiner, which his dad gave him in 1887. The deal: Turn the paper around and you can keep it.
Hearst turned the paper around and added to the holdings. One thing Hearst is known for is the titanic war he fought with Joseph Pulitzer for readers in New York City. It was this battle that led to the invention of the term “Yellow Journalism” — not because of the color of old newsprint…
…but because of a comic strip called the Yellow Kid.
They even had an ancient copy of the Examiner on display there.
Nowadays, of course, the Hearst empire is much smaller. Among the papers the company owns: Four in Connecticut, one in Houston, one in San Antonio and the San Francisco Chronicle.
But wait — the Chronicle? What happened to the Examiner?
In 2000, the Hearst company bought the Chronicle. It then sold the old Examiner to a private family, which turned it into a free-distribution tabloid. Hence, the switcheroo.
Sharon spotted a stack of Chronicles in the gift shop and marveled over their small size.
While I pored over Hearst’s newspaper history, Sharon enjoyed the magazine exhibits. Among his holdings, at one time: Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan.
I was fascinated that the museum spent so much space on honoring Hearst’s wife, Millicent Willson, a former chorus girl and the mother of his five sons.
A large portrait of Millicent hung on the wall of the museum.
However, the exhibits say, Millicent preferred the East Coast. She spent nearly all of her time in a large mansion Hearst owned on Long Island.
Hearst rather famously lived in his castle with movie star Marion Davies. There were several mentions of her in the museum…
…but always with regards to her movie career and the Hearst-funded films in which she appeared. There was no mention at all — that I could find — of their nearly-30-year live-in relationship.
Another thing you won’t see mentioned anywhere in the visitors’ center or the castle itself: A reference to Orson Welles’ cinematic satire of Hearst and his life: Citizen Kaine.
Finally, 6 p.m. rolled around. It was time for our tour to begin.
The parks service makes available a number of tours covering a number of specialized routes within the estate. We had chosen what is called the evening tour: A recreation of what a typical night might have been like for one of the many celebrity guests Hearst invited to his “enchanted hill.”
That was his official name for it. Usually, Hearst just called it the ranch.
We piled into a bus that drove the five miles or so up twisting roads to the top of the mountain. Members of Hearst’s prized cow herd dodged the bus a number of times.
I sure wish we had seen better weather Friday evening. I can only imagine what the main building — Casa Grande — would have looked like dry and in sunlight.
The tour typically begins with a look at the famous outdoor Neptune Pool. However, the pool is drained at the moment: The estate is supplied by water from natural springs, but — thanks to the drought — those springs are running at about one-sixth normal strength these days. Therefore, they’ve chosen to stop refilling the pools and fountains here.
Plus — ironically — it was raining. So we were given only glimpses of the pool.
The pool cost Hearst more than a half-million dollars, we were told. He had it completely built, demolished and rebuilt three times before he was happy with it.
Instead of the pool, we were given tours of all three guest houses, each named for the direction in which they faced: Casa del Mar (House of the Sea), Casa del Monte (House of the Mountain) and Casa del Sol (House of the Sun).
I won’t pretend that I can tell the three guest houses apart, now, even in my pictures. This would be the side facing the main house. The other side of the guest house faces off the mountain.
This is yet another of the guest houses.
The evening tour group split into three smaller groups so it’d be easier to move around and to hear our guides. We went into all three of the guest houses.
Each of the houses had its own personality and decor. But all had a central sitting room, where guests could mingle in the afternoons after their activities wound down but before heading over to the main house for dinner.
No expense was spared for decor or furnishings. The amount of detail was just astounding.
Each guest house contains a number of bedrooms. Some of the bedrooms — like this one — seemed a little plain, compared to the sitting rooms. But that’s OK: Some of the rooms gave me a definitely sensory overload.
Note the dress laid out on the bed, for the benefit of the guest. Hearst flew his guests — typically Hollywood celebrities, but often sports or even scientific heroes — here in a private plane and took care of their every need. They didn’t even have to bring clothes if they didn’t want to.
Here’s some of that ornate detail I mentioned. In the ceiling of that bedroom.
Notice that most of these bedrooms have a nice view of the mountain.
Not that we could see anything in that dense cloud cover. But on a nice day, the view would be glorious.
I was a bit envious of the desk in that room. I started to ask the tour guide if Hearst supplied wifi to his guests, but then decided I didn’t want to spent the rest of the evening banished to the tour bus.
This guest bedroom was one of the gaudier ones we saw, with ornate wall coverings and a rich-looking carpet.
In case you’re wondering: No flash photography is allowed on the tour, so I had to shoot everything with natural light. That became more difficult as the night got progressively darker. In some rooms, I couldn’t shoot anything at all.
But then, at times, I was able to pull out some detail. Like the Spanish-influenced ceiling carving of this sitting room.
Hearst’s guests would dress for dinner and then gather for conversation in the sitting rooms. Hearst didn’t like drinking, so he discouraged it from the guest houses. The actor on the left, here, is slipping a few swigs from a hip flask.
Hearst began building his castle here in 1919, but his prime entertaining years here were from the late 1920s until his health began to fail in 1947. Therefore, the actors were all dressed in depression-era finery.
When the signal was given, it was time for Hearst’s guests — perhaps two dozen at any given time — to leave their guest houses and walk over to Casa Grande, the main house. On the way there, they’d pass some of the antique sculptures he had collected and scattered about on the grounds.
These appear to be lions of some sort.
This one is of a nude girl — note the hairstyle, pretty much identifying her as a 1920s’ “flapper” — hanging out with a baby centaur of some sort.
This is a replica of a famous old piece called the Three Graces — basically, the daughters of Zeus.
Don’t look now, but Thalia — the Grace on the right — has made it to second base with Euphrosyne.
And this statue is a German statue called Europa.
Hearst certainly liked his naked women, didn’t he?
And again, we should have been able to see the sun preparing to set over the Pacific Ocean. But no such luck: All we could see were the layers of clouds below us.
It was finally time to enter the castle itself.
The tour goes into great detail about the woman who designed this place to cater to Hearst’s changing whims: Julia Morgan, who had made her name rebuilding San Francisco after the great Earthquake there. Morgan and Hearst had gone back-and-forth for years — literally — trying to settle on a style for the estate.
The result is a bit of a mixture. You just saw the grand front of the main building. But the back part of that same building looks very plain and much more modern.
A fountain out front features yet another nude female statue. This one appears to be grappling with sea creatures.
The guide pointed out this little ramp on the front of the fountain.
Hearst’s dog fell into the fountain so many times that they finally had to install a ramp so he could climb out on his own.
I just couldn’t get over the amount of detail around the main entrance. It’s almost as if some granite carver was given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted here, so he just kept going and going with no restraint at all.
As designers, y’know, we all know overdesign when we see it. And that’s overdesign.
I must admit, though, the building was an imposing presence.
We walked past the front entrance — where, I presume, most of the guests would enter…
…and went inside via a side door to what Hearst called his Assembly Room: An enormous room that served as his primary living room for guests in the main building.
Occasionally, we were told, Hearst would have the furniture moved out and hold ballroom dancing here.
The enormous 16th-century tapestries and statues overshadow the primary function of the room. How could anyone unwind in this environment?
Wisely, there are little sections where — if one can use her imagination — a guest might be able to imagine she’s in a normal-sized living room. Or, perhaps, back in the sitting room at the guest houses.
We were told that guests would hang out here, chat, play cards or work jigsaw puzzles. Hearst and Davies loved jigsaw puzzles, they told us.
Scattered around were reproductions of several of Hearst’s newspapers featuring headlines of the day.
Jean Harlow’s husband, Paul Bern, killed himself just two months after they wer married. That newspaper would have been dated Sept. 6, 1932, just to give you an idea of the time frame the evening tour attempts to model.
Whenever he was ready, Hearst would appear via a secret elevator door hidden in the wall and ask his guests to move to the refectory, or dining hall.
The long table looks a lot like something you’d see in a cartoon. Hearst and Davies would sit near the center, facing each other. The newest guests would sit immediate beside them. The longer a guest had stayed at the castle, the further away they’d sit.
Up to 40 guests could be accommodated at the table.
There were exceptions to the usual protocol. Our guide told us that Harpo Marx would stay here from time to time. Davies was fond of Harpo, but Hearst couldn’t stand him. So he’d have Marx put on the very end — as far away as possible and still be in the same room.
The enormous tapestry, the 26-foot-high ceiling and the flags give you the feeling you had stepped directly into a medieval castle.
Next door, to the dining hall, of course, is the kitchen.
A staff of 11 worked in here, working on meals for the guests and various activities. Hearst really liked his guests to eat together. No room service in the guest houses was allowed, we were told.
Looking at this area gave me the idea: Forget Downton Abbey, this place would make a great TV series.
Check out the golden birds that serve as handles on the hot and cold faucets.
Hey, fake beer! My favorite!
Fake food was scattered around the kitchen — after all, this is no longer a working kitchen. I enjoyed the fake apple pie sitting in front of the very real window.
By another window was a period telephone and a small tray nearby holding fake — but authentic-looking — telegrams.
I couldn’t resist checking out what the telegrams said. This one would have dated from the period in which Hearst publishing empire fell on hard times: The War Dept. is offering $2 million for 154,000 acres of the ranch surrounding the castle.
From there, we headed upstairs to visit some of the castle’s more intimate areas. On the way, I happened to notice the low-hanging clouds had finally lifted.
That’s the Pacific Ocean out there, in the distance.
We walked down a long corridor populated with more guest rooms — these were for Hearst’s most special guests. Sometimes, we were told, Hearst would bring in editors or officials from his publishing empire. This gentleman plucked away on a period typewriter to simulate a working vacation by one of Hearst’s journalists.
In case you’re starting to wonder: The estate has a total of:
- 56 bedrooms
- 61 bathrooms
- 19 sitting rooms
- 127 acres of gardens
Our next stop was Hearst’s library, where his prized collection of antique books and Greek pottery resided. Most of these collections were liquidated in 1937, but 156 of the Greek vases — each more than 2,000 years old — sit atop shelves around the top of this room.
The actors were dancing — We were told Hearst loved the dances of the day, including the Charleston. These folks were not doing the Charleston. But they sure looked grand.
The 80-foot-long library itself was incredibly gorgeous. At its peak, Hearst’s collection consisted of more than 5,000 books. Most of what’s here are now are placeholder books, I gather.
Next, we went across the hall to Hearst’s private office. Papers from his empire were flown in via private plane. He’d stand with the papers spread out on this table, mark up the papers with notes in the margins and then have them flown back to the respective editors.
Oddly enough, this room contained more books than his library. More than 7,500 books were housed in the shelves built into the walls here.
On the far end is a portrait of a 30-year-old William Randolph Hearst, painted in 1893.
Outside the office is this large unit holding newspapers from the height of the Hearst empire — 29 newspapers and 15 magazines.
Again, I suspect most of what we’re seeing there are reproductions.
Nearby is the master bedroom suite. This room — relatively modest by the standards we’ve seen throughout the estate — is Hearst’s own room.
It’s really not until you look upwards that you’re floored. By his ceiling. Heh.
There’s a nice sitting room outside that bedroom.
Again, I was just stunned by the ceiling. This reminded me of the interior of an old sailing ship. Or a cathedral.
Standing there in Hearst’s master sweet and listening to the tour guide, I found myself distracted by the window. Or, rather, by a ray of sunlight streaming through the window.
It had finally happened: The sun finally graced us with its presence.
The tour left Hearst’s bedrooms and traveled back up a long, open-air corridor. I paused to shoot a picture of the next mountain over.
Finally, we got a feel for what the view must be like from atop Hearst’s “enchanted hill.” I took a few more steps down that corridor, however, to find the sun setting over the Pacific.
Wow. You know, that was almost worth it.
Our evening narrative picked up downstairs in the billiards room. After dinner, guests would come down here to play pool or smoke.
I tried to shoot the French tapestry filling the wall to the left of that picture, but none of them came out. What a pity — the tapestry is the oldest in the house, dating from 1500.
After a time there, Hearst would direct his guests to the movie room. This was just about the size of a typical multiplex theater of today, but with plush seating.
Oversized Greek temple-like statues kept watch over the guests and also lit the way out.
The tour guides sat us into bleachers behind the main seating area and ran a newsreel from Hearst’s Movietone News Service.
Therefore, we got a chance to hear him talk. I would have imagined Hearst to have a rich, booming voice, but that’s not he case. His voice is a bit reedy and nasal. I was reminded of the way Daniel Day-Lewis played Abraham Lincoln.
Interesting factoid No. 1: William Randolph Hearst and Daniel Day-Lewis share a birthday: April 29.
Interesting factoid No. 2: Hearst owned a movie studio, but he frowned on the idea of filming at his castle. Even after his death — when the State of California inherited the place — they won’t honor petitions to film here.
We left the main building — giving me a chance to fire off another exterior shot or two…
…walked past the back part of the main house…
…and all the way to a building behind the main complex. Inside, we found the second of the castle’s great swimming pools, the Roman Pool.
It was very, very dark in here and, therefore, extremely difficult to take pictures. Note the blown-glass, hand-placed tiles on the wall and even on the floor of the pool.
The pool features a small alcove off the the side. You can’t see it here, but there’s a small diving platform atop that doorway.
All this was built between 1927 and 1932, beneath the estate’s tennis courts. Without disturbing them.
From there, they loaded us back onto the buses and took us back down the hill to the visitors’ center.
Elapsed time of the evening tour: More than two hours. Number of steps we went up or down: 308, I’m told.
The center was long closed down when we arrived back there. As we were climbing into our car, I happened to note a brightly-lit object in the distance, above the visitors’ center.
That’s the castle — a little jewel, sparking on a newly-cleared night, atop the enchanted hill.