Being a guest at Hearst Castle was a fascinating experience for me as I’m sure it must be for the millions of visitors who come year
after year from around the world.
The Enchanting Castle sits high on the golden hillside in San Simeon along the spectacular Pacific Coast Highway. We’ve all seen the newspapers, watched the movies, read the books and heard the stories about William Randolph Hearst, the eccentric media tycoon, and his architectural masterpiece that holds stories untold.
I’m about to tell you about a bit of mischief that you may not have heard before.
But first, a few basic facts. Hearst’s father was a millionaire whose fortune was made during the 1849 Gold Rush and his mother was a schoolteacher. In 1903, he married Millicent Willson, a showgirl who was 20 years younger than him. They had five boys.
I probably don’t need to tell you how insanely successful Hearst was or about the empire he built. It’s noteworthy to tell that his recipe for journalistic success was the pursuit of printing sensational stories on scandals, sex and crime. That was a bold and controversial move in the Golden Years.
“News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising,” he was quoted as saying.
In 1919, Hearst hired Julia Morgan as his architect to build what he originally called La Questa Encantada. He was introduced to her by his mother, who was a patroness of UC Berkeley, which was one of the places that Morgan studied.
Hearst and Morgan spent 28 years and $36 million building the magnificent 127-acre, 165-room Spanish-Mediterranean estate. He also spent another $50 million on the largest private art collection held by one person. The castle also featured the largest private zoo in the world.
If you haven’t been to the castle, you really should. You’ll feel as if you entered the heyday of the roaring 1920s and ’30s.
I was spellbound and delighted by the architecture and art. The Egyptian artifacts are some of the oldest pieces in the collection. The detail, history and ostentatious but beautiful art, Persian rugs and, my favorites, the white marble statues, sculptures and 17th-century paintings.
The gardens are spectacular and the air smells like citrus.
The view is indescribable from the top of the mountain, including the unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean. You simply must see it for yourself.
Now for some escapades and interesting stories that you don’t typically hear from historians, docents or tour guides.
Let’s talk about the hanky-panky. In 1917, Hearst gave his heart to Marion Davies, a 20-year-old showgirl at the time. His wife refused to give him a divorce, so they lived together as a couple for decades in the castle while Millicent lived on the East Coast.
After my tour, I sought out a long-time Hearst Castle employee to get some inside perspective and information on this enchanting mansion. When I asked Joan Baker if she could share something that wasn’t common knowledge, she threw back her head back and exclaimed, “Oooohhh, geez … where do I start?”
“William Randolph Hearst was not happy. When Cary Grant returned, his bags were packed and he was asked to leave.”
Young William’s mischievous capers began at an early age, so I’m surprised that his guest’s escapades weren’t better received.
The younger Hearst was often expelled from school for being a prankster. In those days, there was no indoor plumbing and people often put pots under their beds to relieve themselves at night. He was once again expelled from Harvard for sending engraved silver chamber “pots” to his professors.
“One time, Harpo Marx was a guest here at the castle,” Baker continued. “There are vaults under the castle and Harpo went down there in the middle of the night and took out a bunch of mink coats and dressed all of the statues throughout the gardens in fur. It snowed that night.”
The guests woke up to Marx’s prank … and Hearst’s displeasure.
The Hearst family willed the castle to UC Berkeley, but the university couldn’t afford its maintenance. Then the family bequeathed the castle and 282,000 acres in 1941 to the what is now the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The family maintains ownership of the lands of the cattle station.
Hearst died on Aug. 14, 1951, in Beverly Hills.
It isn’t always shared, but interesting to know that Hearst left everything to Davies, and she sold it all back to the Hearst family for one dollar. Many view their relationship as scandalous, others see it as a magnificent love story.
People come daily from around the world to visit, often missing the fact that Heart Castle sits high on the mountaintop with a commanding view of the Pacific.
“It’s crazy how people look down at San Simeon Beach and ask, ‘What lake is that?’” Dennis Mopes, a castle employee, told me.
I had no idea that elephant seals grow to 16-20 feet in length and weigh between 6,800 and 8,800 pounds each. They live 80 percent of their lives in the ocean and can live up to 22 years.
If you haven’t seen it yourself, it’s difficult to describe the comical way that these massive marine mammals traverse the beach. I can only portray it as Jell-O in an earthquake.
— Donna Polizzi is a regional travel expert and founder of Keys to the Coast, a free Central Coast travel resource providing honest recommendations on the best places that locals want to go. She can be contacted at email@example.com. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.