“Miss Morgan, I would like to build a little something on the hill at San Simeon. I get tired of going up there and camping in tents. I’m getting a little old for that. I’d like to get something that would be more comfortable … keeping it simple.”
– William Randolph Hearst
William Randolph Hearst was 51 when he decided to build something “simple” at his ranch in San Simeon. Hearst was already a wealthy newspaper mogul with a vast media empire. He and his wife, Millicent, had five grown sons.
At a stage in life when most men plan their retirement, Hearst partnered with architect Julia Morgan to design an epic castle to honor the California landscape. Along with his mistress, actress Marion Davies, Hearst made visits to the castle a glamorous getaway for their famous friends.
Hearst had fallen in love with the California coast as a boy. He grew up with an appreciation for the wildlife and majestic scenery.
He recalled, “I love this ranch. It is wonderful. I love the sea, and I love the mountains and the hollows in the hills and the shady places in the creeks and the fine old oaks and even the hot, brushy hillsides. It is a wonderful place. I would rather spend a month at the ranch than anyplace in the world.”
Hearst had seen much of the world. When he was only 10 years old his mother, Phoebe, took him on a 1½-year tour of Europe. Phoebe was fond of travel and wanted William to be exposed to the art and architecture of other cultures. It was a seminal trip for a young boy who was already close to his mother.
When Phoebe died, she bequeathed him the 48,000 acres that his father had originally purchased on the California coast. Hearst later made the largest acquisition of all, buying 153,000 acres of adjoining ranchland to the northeast. By 1925 the ranch encompassed nearly 250,000 acres.
Hearst’s quest to construct a few “simple” bungalows would span 27 years, and it was never entirely completed. He would make countless trips to Europe to furnish and decorate the many vast rooms. This was in addition to warehouses he had already filled with antique paintings, sculptures and furnishings.
Morgan was the ideal architect to bring Hearst’s castle to life. She was one of few female architects at the time, and the first woman to graduate from the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She had the engineering and aesthetic training to construct what Hearst envisioned, as well as the authority to command a largely male staff.
And while she was often at odds with him for his disregard for timing and budgets, she respected his wishes and had the fortitude to carry them through. The famous Neptune pool featured in the film Spartacus was rebuilt three times, and Hearst would often ask her to incorporate entire ceilings or interiors he had disassembled from Europe.
While the East Coast had the English- or French-inspired estates of the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, Hearst and Morgan agreed that the castle needed to be designed in the Spanish style. Hearst was especially fond of the architecture he had seen along the coast of Spain. The red roofs set against the striking blue of the sea and sky created the dramatic impression he was after.
As for the interior, the goal was to house his massive art collection and provide a one-of-a-kind setting to entertain his guests. During its heyday in the ‘20s and ‘30s, Hearst Castle served as a resort, museum and playground. The guests included a nonstop conga line of politicians, authors and celebrities.
In addition to his publishing empire, Hearst also ran a film studio and tried his hand at politics. He was primed to woo luminaries to the property. Regular Hollywood royalty included Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin, Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer. American presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill also enjoyed stays at the castle.
However, despite gold sinks, marble pillars and luscious landscapes, Hearst and Davies made sure the castle retained its spirit as a campsite. Dinner was served on fine china with crystal glasses, but there were paper napkins and plastic bottles of ketchup and mustard at each setting.
Sleeping in was frowned upon, and guests were expected to be active throughout the day. Horseback rides and hikes allowed guests to explore the vast grounds. There were tennis courts and pools for the athletic set.
And everyone got a glimpse of zebras or other exotic animals that occupied Hearst’s private zoo. It is said that Winston Churchill had to pause during one of his constitutions for “giraffe crossing.” Descendants of the original zoo are still spotted on the property today.
Hearst was a generous host who wanted to share the wonder of his home and its location with his guests. But he was also a strict “counselor” with rules that were to be followed. Lollygaggers and drinkers were not allowed to stay and often flown off the property.
Dorothy Parker failed to adhere to the one-drink maximum and left a bawdy poem in Hearst’s guest book in response. David Niven was rebuked for bringing his own liquor and keeping the bottles under his bed (an antique owned by Cardinal Richelieu). Apparently Cary Grant and Hearst’s son, Will Jr., flew a small plane over the grounds and bombarded it with sacks of flour. Grant returned to find that his bags had been packed.
Although Hearst had been part of Hasty Pudding Theatricals while at Harvard, he was kicked out for pranking one of his professors. In his older years he would view his guests’ behavior as juvenile and disrespectful. No matter who they were, antics were not tolerated—unless they were requested.
Davies and Hearst’s costume parties became legendary events. Hearst would often command his guests to perform a skit in just under an hour. In true Hearst fashion, he had costumes from his studio on hand, and he would film the skits.
Some of the themes included a “Kid Party” where guests dressed as babies or children. Civil war couples mingled with Arabian sheiks in the “Your Favorite Character From History” party, where guests were directed to impersonate historical figures. Hearst must have enjoyed the sight of Chaplin dressed as Napoleon, doing pratfalls by the pool.
They also held a “Come as Your Favorite Movie Star” party, where celebrities were told to swap identities. Marion threw a circus-themed party for Hearst’s 75th birthday, where Bette Davis famously dressed as a bearded lady. Hearst shot many home movies during this time, and he appears quite happy and relaxed in them.
Hearst wanted to throw a grand party, and in many ways that is what drove him. Hearst Castle is more than an architectural phenomenon, cultural landmark or museum. It was designed to celebrate the stunning California coast and the many ways to enjoy it.
California continues to lure people from around the world who admire the weather, varied terrains and iconic architecture. Although Hearst’s vision was bound to remain unfinished, it was a simple goal after all.
Written by Zoe Alexander