San Simeon photos by Juan
After a recent conference in Vegas, our friend Juan took a road trip to San Simeon, California to see the Hearst Castle. The hilltop palace was built by William Randolph Hearst, the American newspaper magnate who was the model for Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. (More recently it was the location of a Lady Gaga music video.)
Hearst was not amused, and did everything in his power to suppress the film. He tried to stop the studio from screening it. Failing that, he forbade all his newspapers from mentioning Citizen Kane, and ordered them to smear Orson Welles.
Citizen Kane did decently at the box-office and got some Oscar nominations, but it should have been Huge. Much of what we take for granted in cinema today was invented by Welles and his collaborators, notably cinematographer Gregg Toland. Orson Welles was 25 when he made that movie, and it was his first (though he was already a stage and radio sensation, having caused a panic with his War of the Worlds broadcast). He cited sheer ignorance as the source of his nerve—”There is no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession that you are timid or careful.”
Ironically, Hearst is largely remembered today as the inspiration for Citizen Kane, one of the greatest, most influential films in history.
Kane reflects on his life. Reflects, get it? Citizen Kane screenshots from Movie Images.
But Welles’s career was badly wounded by the Hearst propaganda, and for the rest of his life he would have trouble getting movies made. Charles Foster Kane was a man who had gotten everything he wanted, and then lost it all—the same could be said of Orson Welles.
The Roman pool at Hearst Castle, not to be confused with the outdoor pool.
“The castle is a bit sad now that it is devoid of glamorous people,” Juan reports. “The most frequent guest was supposed to have been Clark Gable, who visited 42 times.”
“The longer you stayed, the farther away you sat from Randolph Hearst, who was always seated at the middle. P.G. Wodehouse had to leave when he found himself at the end of the long table one night.”
Compare the actual dining room with the one in the film. The movie version is practically minimalist.
“The conceit of the guy was not in building a castle but in building it on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere and giving it the comforts of a modern home. Indoor plumbing, lighted tennis court (first in California), heated swimming pools. Imagine the infrastructure of water, sewage, electricity that had to be built. Highway 1 had not been constructed yet so the castle was extremely isolated and difficult to get to.”
The library of the man who invented yellow journalism.
“In the late 1930s, Hearst owed $127M and had to downsize a lot. The family wanted to donate San Simeon to UCLA but the cost of maintenance was too much to bear (and there was no endowment for upkeep).”
The ornate ceiling. Hearst bought a lot of art from impoverished European nobility to furnish his castle.
“Paul Getty wanted to buy it and break up the art collection; the family refused. So it ended up with California government. I guess they had to do it as part of the estate settlement.”
Does that window give you the urge to confess?
“Randolph supposedly left control of his company to Marion Davies (his mistress, who was friends with Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay of Citizen Kane after he’d been barred from the castle for drunkenness), but she handed it back to the family.”
“I doubt that we will ever see something of this scale built ever again.” (Don’t count out the nouveaux riches just yet.)
The connection between William Randolph Hearst and Philippine history: During the Cuban revolution, Hearst and his newspapers inflamed public opinion against Spain, and this was one of the factors that led to the Spanish-American War. Which ended with the Philippines becoming a possession of the United States—a precursor of Vietnam and Iraq.
Citizen Kane was our godfather.