Hearst Castle: A House Fit for a Mistress
He was a 56 year old publishing magnate. She was a 22 year old silent film actress and comedian. It is believed they met long before the affair began, but once they became an item, their names would forever be linked. Despite the age difference and his being married, at some point he became so infatuated with her that he created a film production studio and bought a theater for the sole purpose of enhancing her career. Through his efforts, she became the most promoted film actress of her day and some film historians believe that this harmed her career in the long run. She became more well-known for their relationship than for her talent.
Together, they became the inspiration for a critically acclaimed movie, perhaps one of the finest ever made, Orson Wells’s Citizen Kane. He brought so much pressure to bear through his wealth, connections, and publishing empire, that Citizen Kane was not a commercial success and all Wells’s got at the time of release for his trouble was a tarnished reputation. From about 1919, they lived together openly, first in New York City and later in California in the castle he built. For a time, their life together was a social whirlwind of lavish parties attended by the rich and famous. When his fortunes took a serious downturn during the Great Depression, she sold stocks, bonds, and jewelry in order to save him from bankruptcy. When he died 1951, he left her 170,000 shares of company stock in addition to the 30,000 shares previously set aside in a trust for her.
According to Lita Grey, Charlie Chaplin’s second wife, the young woman would have married the old man despite his many personal faults because he made her feel valued as a person. Of course, the settlement his wife demanded was more than he was willing to pay, so they lived together without benefit of a legalized relationship as long as they were together. They were William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies.
The history of Hearst Castle stretches back to George Hearst, Randolph’s father. George Hearst came from humble origins in his native Missouri, but by his death in 1891, he had become a multi-millionaire. The source of his fortune lay in mining, including the three largest claims in American history, the Comstock Load in Nevada, the Homestake gold mine in South Dakota, and the Anaconda copper mine in Montana. He also understood the financial advantage of what is now called vertical integration whereby he controlled all aspects of production. Two years after Randolph’s birth in 1863, George purchased the 48,000 acre Piedra Blanca Rancho near San Simeon, California. In subsequent purchases, he added the adjoining Santa Rosa and San Simeon Ranchos.
George did not limit his ambition to ranching and mining. Between 1887 and 1891, he served as a senator for California. During this time he acquired the San Francisco Examiner in repayment for a gambling debt. This would become the foundation for his sons’ publishing empire.
Randolph inherited a considerable amount of land when his father died in 1891. In the years afterward, he added to his holdings until he owned around 250,000 acres of California. His mother died in 1919 leaving him 14 miles of Pacific coastline. That same year, he decided it was time for a grand mansion commensurate with a man of his great wealth and position. He hired architect Julia Morgan to design and build his dream on a hill from which he would be able to survey all that he owned. Julia is an interesting character in her own right, having been a graduate in civil engineering from UC Berkley and the first woman to graduate with a degree in architecture from Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Together, they created an estate and Spanish Colonial Revival mansion built to Hearst’s specifications that would house his world class art collection. He called it La Cuesta Encantada, Spanish for Enchanted Hill. It would be the inspiration for Citizen Kane’s Xanadu.
He and his legal family moved in at Christmas, 1925, but his wife did not stay. She returned to New York and Marion moved in. When Randolph and Marion left the estate for the last time in 1947 due to his fragile health, it was still unfinished though the house already had 165 rooms and the grounds comprised 123 acres of gardens, terraces, pools, and pathways. Today the estate is managed as a California State Park and major tourist attraction.
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.