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  • Writer's pictureClaire Butler

Classic Hollywood History of Hearst Castle

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

Far above me I beheld in the glow of the sunset… the castle. I had heard many descriptions of it, some flattering, some derisory, but I, personally, found it breath taking. It looked from the coast like a green oasis enclosing a white Spanish village, dominated by twin cathedral towers.

- David Niven

Once the most coveted ticket in Tinseltown, an invite to William Randolph Hearst’s grand Spanish Finca in San Simeon was a clear sign that you were head of the heap in 1930's Hollywood.

Mosaics in gold and blue adorn the walls of the indoor Roman pool at Hearst Castle

Media mogul Hearst collected people like he did fine art; carefully curating his dinner party guest list, with the help of his lover and glamorous hostess Marion Davies, cultivating an eclectic mix of high society, entertainers, politicians, intellectuals and comedians. With such a ravishing crowd, occasional drunken mischief and sexy shenanigans were inevitable.

When I visited Hearst Castle a few years ago, our tour guides were not very forthcoming on the salacious celeb gossip front, instead choosing to concentrate on how the building came to be built and the fine art and antiquities on show within it.

This was all fascinating, but I couldn’t help but wonder as I stared up at the ornate ceilings and priceless tapestries; who was doing what to whom amongst all this finery?

Origins of a dream - the history of Hearst Castle

Hearst’s father George was a silver mine owner who struck it lucky when he discovered enormous quantities of silver in Virginia in the early 1850’s. George headed west and bought large chunks of California with the windfall, including 40,000 acres near San Simeon, where he chose to build a modest house.

Hearst castle from the front with two towers overhead
The main house was known as the Casa Grande

It was at the Hearst's little hacienda in the hills that the adolescent William Randolph Hearst enjoyed carefree summers in the wilderness. As Hearst Jr built his media empire years later, he bought up even more land in San Simeon, in order to build his dream house. Set on a craggy hilltop, with 360-degree panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, his incredible monument became known as Hearst Castle.

Who was Julia Morgan?

In 1919 Hearst hired San Francisco architect Julia Morgan, the first woman to be granted an architect’s licence in California, to build his home. Their close collaboration on the project lasted from 1919 to 1947.

Morgan designed the Mediterranean Revival estate and filled it with art and antiques from Hearst’s vast collection. Alongside the house and bungalows, Morgan was entrusted with designing a zoo/game reserve which was to become home to lions, tigers, chimpanzees, zebras, camels and kangaroos.

Hearst formally named his kingdom ‘La Cuesta Encantada,’ meaning ‘The Enchanted Hill.’

Rules of the house

The three cardinal rules of a Hearst party, set by Hearst himself:

1. No drunkenness

2. No bad language or off-colour jokes

3. No sexual relations between unmarried couples.

"Life in this Hearstian empire," wrote the socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, "is lived according to the disciplinary measures laid down by its dictator."

Guest itinerary at Hearst Castle

o Guests would be greeted at San Luis Obispo station and chauffeur driven to the castle.

o During the day they would be encouraged to enjoy the many delights the estate had to offer, including horse riding, tennis (tournaments were regularly hosted by Fred Perry) and swimming in the Neptune or Roman pools.

Hearst castle tennis court surrounded by palm trees
Cary Grant and Charlie Chaplin once played tennis here

o Rainy days revolved around competitive games of The Landlord’s Game and later Monopoly (imagine playing Monopoly with William Randolph Hearst!) and solving jigsaw puzzles.

o Daily animal feeding sessions attracted guests, eager to watch the lions, monkeys and elephant eat their lunch.

o Some afternoons, Marion Davies would invite female guests up to her room to try on her evening gowns, encouraging them to wear them to dinner for fun. The dress code was never formal though, unless there was some special event or party going on.

o At precisely 7.30pm guests would meet for drinks in the Assembly Room. According to Cary Grant – “you’d get one weak martini, or two if you were quick!” Confirming that Hearst meant what he said about not wanting his guests inebriated.

Dining room table Hearst castle
The dining room at Hearst Castle. The 16th century tapestry behind the dining table once belonged to King Louis XIV

o Then it was onto the dining room at 9pm for dinner, where unpretentious food was served alongside typically American condiments and some of the world’s finest wines.

o After dinner guests would retire to the Billiard Room.

The Billiard Room

o Hearst would then screen a movie in his private cinema. Guests report a lot of Marion Davies movie screenings. Hearst had the films heavily edited to omit any racy scenes, which would leave him red-faced in front of guests.

Gossipy titbits on Classic Hollywood stars at Hearst Castle

While shenanigans at the castle remained chaste when Hearst was present, the out of sight out of mind mentality would quickly take over once he retired to bed. Cary Grant and David Niven told stories about how they would creep up and down the halls late at night to see who was still awake and up for continuing the party.

Cary Grant in 1939

Grant, a regular visitor to the enchanted hill (he loved the tennis courts), allegedly once flour-bombed the castle from an aeroplane for a giggle. When the charismatic actor returned to the castle, his bags were packed, and he was asked to leave.

One winter evening, Harpo Marx thought it would be funny to dress the outdoor statues in mink coats that he stole from the Hearst vault. The problem was it rained that night. Neither Mr Hearst nor Miss Davies were very amused by the ruination of their furs at the hands of the mute Marx brother.

Screen heart throb and all American male Clark Gable was reluctantly roped into partaking in tediously long trail rides around the estate with Hearst by his side, according to his friend David Niven.

Actor Ralph Bellamy said of his first night at the castle; 'my wife and I woke up at 3am, thinking we could hear lions and tigers. Don’t be crazy I thought, unaware that Hearst had an entire zoo downstairs. When we got up the next morning, we were shocked to see a couple of lions in cages below our room, who had just arrived ready to be added to Hearst’s coterie.'

While dinner parties at the castle were always a casual affair, the Hearst family also loved to entertain on a grand scale and what better way to do that than a costume party? During these grand occasions the Hearsts brought in make-up artists and seamstresses direct from Hollywood to ensure costumes were authentic.

It was common knowledge that Marion Davies had a drinking problem and asked guests to hide drinks in the toilet for her to hide the amount she was drinking from Hearst. One night at dinner, she dropped her purse and a bottle of gin fell out and smashed on the floor. ‘My new perfume,’ she nervously joked.

Charlie Chaplin's anecdotes were dull, according to Hollywood raconteur David Niven

On another occasion, David Niven was delighted to discover that the great Charlie Chaplin would be joining them for dinner. After the novelty of dining with the Little Tramp wore off, Niven memorably wrote in his memoirs of his astonishment at the dullness of the great man’s stories. In the end, Niv couldn’t wait to get to bed.

Wise cracking satirist and writer Dorothy Parker was said to have received her marching orders after being caught cavorting with an unnamed male at the castle. Proving that Hearst enforced his rules rigidly.

While Hearst (somewhat ironically given the above), lived openly with his young lover, he also had a wife who lived in New York. When Hearst hosted British Prime MInister Winston Churchill and his brother, son and nephew, Churchill reported that Mrs Hearst entertained them on the Friday evening at the castle. They were then chaperoned to Santa Monica in the morning to be hosted by Marion Davies in her beach side residence on the Saturday night.

Actress and socialite Patricia Van Cleeve was a regular visitor at the castle, and was always introduced as Marion Davies’ favourite niece. But rumour has it, she was actually Hearst and Davies’ biological daughter, something she alluded to before she died in 1993. Adding fuel to the fire, Van Cleeve is one of the only people to have married at the castle, tying the knot with author Arthur Lake in 1937.

Pool parties at Hearst Castle

The Neptune Pool and Roman Pool were popular recreation spots for guests at ‘the ranch.’ Douglas Fairbanks Jr played water polo in the Neptune Pool. Johnny Weismuller, Olympic gold medal winning swimmer and star of Tarzan, also swum in there.

Esther Williams reported in her autobiography that the Fabius Pool set from her movie Jupiter’s Darling, designed by art director Cedric Gibbons, was based on the Neptune pool at San Simeon.

The dreamy Neptune Pool

Nowadays it’ll cost you a cool $950 to swim in either pool at the castle. In a genius move, the Foundation at Hearst Castle organised a series of exclusive pool parties in summer 2019 to raise money for the continued upkeep of the estate. The plan was to do this again in 2020 but Covid-19 put a stop to that. Hopefully these special events will make a comeback soon.

A sad end

When Hearst died, he left Marion the San Simeon estate and she promptly sold it back to the Hearst corporation for a measly $1. “It wasn’t about the money” she said.

On the last night before the castle was gifted to the State of California as a national park, David Niven was invited to a sombre New Year’s Eve get together organised by Bill Hearst. It was supposed to be a celebration, but the group were haunted by the ghosts of what the castle once was. The group decided to call it a night before the clock had even struck midnight.

Actors who have stayed at Hearst Castle: Lionel and John Barrymore, Ralph Bellamy, Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Dolores del Rio, Marie Dressler, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, Buster Keaton, Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Harpo Marx, David Niven, Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer, Barbara Stanwyck, Norma Talmadge, Robert Taylor.

Movie industry heavyweights who have stayed at Hearst Castle: Irving Thalberg, Hedda Hopper, Howard Hughes, Louella Parsons, Louis B. Mayer, Hal Roach, Irving Thalberg, Jack Warner.

Other luminaries who laid their heads down at the castle: Franklin Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Airheart, Albert Einstein, Calvin Coolidge and Winston Churchill.

Last word goes to everyone’s favourite gossip goddess (sorry Louella!) Hedda Hopper:

A visit to the Hearst ranch was a ticket to Never Land, never has there been such a place, and never will there be again.”

Sources used for this post/further reading:

- Bring on the Empty Horses by David Niven

- Hearst Castle: The Biography of a Country House by Victoria Kastner

- Cary Grant by Marc Elliot

- The Million Dollar Mermaid by Esther Williams

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