City of San Luis Obispo
By Donna Polizzi
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 California on the spectacular Pacific Coast Highway.
We have 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’s I’m guessing you haven’t heard before.
But first, a few basic facts. William Randolph 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 twenty years younger than him. They had five boys.
I probably don’t need to tell you how insanely successful William Randolph 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. He is quoted as saying “News is something somebody doesn’t want to be printed; all else is advertising.”
In 1919, William 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 patron of UC Berkley, which was one of the places that Julia studied. William and Julia spent 28 years and $36 million dollars building the magnificent 127-acre Spanish-Mediterranean, 165 room estate. He also spent another $50 million, yes 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, it really should be on your bucket list. You will feel as if you entered the heyday of the roaring 20’s and 30’s. 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 hill, 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 twenty-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 employee at the Castle 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 her head back and said: “Oooohhh geez…where do I start?”
Joan proceeded to share… “There was a time when Cary Grant flew in an airplane with William Jr. over the castle and threw sacks of flour over the castle. Yes, I’m saying that Cary Grant “flour- bombed” Hearst Castle. William Randolph Hearts 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. He 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. William was once again expelled from Harvard for sending engraved silver chamber “pots” to his professors.
Joan Baker also shared “One time, Harpo Marx was a guest here at the castle. 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 Harpo’s prank and Hearst’s displeasure at the shenanigans.
The Hearst family willed the castle to Berkley University but they couldn’t afford its maintenance. Then the family bequeathed the castle and 282,000 acres in 1941 to the California Parks Authority. The family maintains ownership of the lands of the cattle station.
William died on August 14, 1951, in Beverly Hills, California.
It isn’t always shared but interesting to know that Hearst left everything to Miss 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 and miss the fact that Heart Castle sits high on the hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We know this because Dennis Mopes, an employee that I talked to at the castle stated “It’s crazy how people look down at San Simeon Beach and ask “What lake is that?” Hmmmm….
When I left Hearst Castle, I went from sublime elegance to unsightly elephant seals. I made a stop at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal rookery on Highway 1, seven miles north of San Simeon. I had no idea that Elephant seals grow to 16-20 feet in length and weigh between 6800 and 8800 pounds each. They live eighty 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 Keys2TheCoast.com Keys 2 The Coast is a free travel resource, that gives honest recommendations based on personal experiences to help uncover “Local treasures to Wine, Dine, Explore and more” on the California Central Coast. Go to Keys2TheCoast.com and let the adventures.)