When George Hearst came to the west to find his fortune during the California gold rush, he was one of the fortunate few who did. Among the countless things his earnings allowed him to purchase was a huge chunk of the central California coast. At one point he owned 45 miles of coastline. He purchased the beautiful, green, rolling hillsides for a cattle ranch and the land was ranched until his death. William Randolph Hearst, his sole heir, asked his mother if they could build some permanent buildings on the land. Until that point family members had visited the ranch regularly, living in tents and temporary shacks. His mother told him no - he would overdo and over jet. This was a mother who knew her son.
As soon as she died, the 58 year old WRH got to work. With the assistance of a female architect, he spent the next 28 years making his fantasy into reality. Fans of Downton Abbey know that after World War I, Europe's upper class struggled to maintain the lavish lifestyle they were born into. WRH took repeated trips to Europe, buying all their treasures at bargain prices. Many were incorporated into his new home. An Egyptian statue about 4,500 years old, was one of the first things guests saw as they pulled up at the entrance. The garden is decorated with ancient statues and sarcophagi and interiors have choir lofts and tapestries on the walls. He built a zoo on the grounds; the polar bears were among his favorites. Even today descendants of his zebra herd can be spotted from the highway.
Today the complex is known as the Hearst Castle and is owned by the California state park system, which has developed and organized the complex into a major tourist draw. San Simeon is an isolated spot on US 1, the scenic coastal highway. It's not easy to get there today and must have been much more challenging to visit and live in during the 1920's - 1950's, when everyone who was anyone savored a visit to this storied spot. It would have been nice to visit the castle on a beautiful day when we could see the ocean from its hilltop location, but the forecast is not great for the foreseeable future, so we headed to the castle, assuming that the lavish interiors could be enjoyed no matter the weather. Even in the fog the lavish gardens impressed.
When we were here last during our working days, we took the general tour, so we got online and booked an evening tour and the tour of the cottages and kitchen, which we had not seen. When Hearst first started construction here, he built homes for his wife and five sons that were gorgeous and made use of some of his plunder from Europe, but were not built on a castle scale. His wife did not enjoy living in such isolation and returned to high society in New York City. This left Hearst free to do as he wished and the family cottages became guest houses once he and Marion Davies, his Hollywood sweetie, moved into the grand palace. He was strict with his Hollywood guests who had substance abuse problems just as stars do today. He did not allow them to bring alcohol and served one watered down cocktail before dinner and wine from his lavish cellar with dinner. Prohibition apparently did not pertain to him. WRH was a workaholic and continued to manage his media empire from this remote location with the help of staff and thirty telephones installed all over the home and grounds. His main home was also a castle - in Scotland. To Hearst this place was always The Ranch.
As we toured the place my feelings alternated between being impressed and overwhelmed and being depressed and overwhelmed by all the heavy, ornate decor. The cottages with their smaller scale were easy to visit, but in the castle, you hardly knew where to look. The outdoor pool is not looking its best. In these days of drought it was leaking 5,000 gallons of water a day, so it is under repair. As the marble tiles are removed they shatter, so a new set has been ordered from the Vermont quarry that produced the originals. We will have to come back in two years, when the pool is finished. However, the indoor pool was more than enough. Guests used a battalion of changing rooms to put on the heavy wool bathing suits WJH supplied. The outdoor tennis court was painted a blinding white, which gleamed in the fog. It seemed like it would overwhelm on a sunny day. When Hollywood guests and the movers and shakers of the day received a precious invite from Hearst, they would take the train from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo and WRH would send a car to bring them the rest of the way. The journey was so arduous, they generally stayed for a week or more, indulging themselves in every way imaginable at a castle where anything WRH could imagine, became a reality.
It must be nice...