Sunday, February 1, 2009

Hearst "Castle," or, where the money went

The five mile driveway from Hearst's harbor to his "house,"with the private airport still owned by the family.

San Simeon, CA - One of the more extraordinary state parks in the U.S., if not the world, has to be Hearst Castle, the palace that William Randolph Hearst built for himself on the family ranch he inherited from his mother.
Technically, it is a State Historical Monument, but it comes under the park system and is run like one.

If your idea of a state park is a campground, metal boxes to protect your food from animals, and lots of trees and hiking trails, forget about it. This place is about how the ultra rich spend their money trying to make a beautiful place even more so. You can decide if Hearst made it better, or somewhat tacky.
After almost 30 years of living in California, Pat and I made it a priority this year to visit this beautiful and unusual castle Hearst built in the latter decades of his life. It was, our tour guide said of Hearst building this place, his hobby. It kept him busy, and entertained him in his old age.The main "house" was far to large to get into a picture without an airplane.

It is the location, and the spectacular views, more than the castle, that really impressed us.
Hearst's father made a massive fortune in the silver mines of Nevada in the 1800s and bought thousands of acres of land, including huge ranches here. At one time they stretched for 50 miles along the California coast, they camped here for vacations, and the Hearst family still owns most of the ranch and coast lands surrounding the castle and environs.
Hearst the newspaper mogul, know as "W.R." to friends and "Chief" to his employees, was born into a enormously wealthy family led by a successful but usually absent father and a doting mother. His education was spotty, but polished by numerous "grand tours" of Europe where he caught the collecting bug and acquired a taste for rich decorations.
Hearst's father gave him the San Francisco Examiner which he had accepted for a gambling debt, and hoped it would keep the son out of trouble. It didn't, but young Hearst built the largest newspaper and magazine empire in America with that beginning, and made an even bigger fortune.The main living room, this shows about one-third of it, is where the family children played touch football on rainy days.

What this park is really about, for me anyway, is a era in American history when massive fortunes were made by a very few people, and they had to decide what to do with the money when they got older. After buying a seat in Congress, but failing to buy the governorship or presidency, Hearst built himself a castle. He filled it with celebrities who came when he called, and entertained himself by building, tearing down, rebuilding, and acquiring more stuff.The dining room served the rich, famous and politicians

The tour guide was full of detailed information about Hearst and the place, and did a great job. I came away thinking he admired Hearst, despite his arrogance and questionable business and political tactics.
Biographers have been less kind, but then tour guides are not expected to harp on the sorted details when the family still lives close by. Hearst was not a good husband in the traditional sense. He provided his wife, a dancer he met when she was a teenager, with a rich and famous lifestyle but lived most of his years publicly with his mistress, a movie star barely mentioned during the tour.The outdoor pool, decorated with some imported art and some reproductions.

One of several guest houses.

The indoor pool, with touches of gold leaf, was too scary for some guests so the employees used it.
If you are wondering what I think of all this, here it is:
-- It is a great state park, well run and kept, and shows part of American history we should know and understand;
-- Hearst was arrogant, spoiled, egotistical part looney and part genius. He was not a great journalist, but he knew how to make money;
-- The castle sits on some of the most beautiful land in the United States, and is surrounded by thousands of acres even more spectacular still in family hands. It is preserved as a cattle ranch and will not be developed, which is a good thing even though I suspect the corporation got a tax break for doing that;
-- The park staff does a wonderful job, and every Californian should visit this place.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if the current owners of all that land -- the Hearst Ranch -- would donate it all to the state or the U.S. for a park so the public could actually explore California as it once was-- open and wild and spectacular. The current situation is pretty good, but the land remains a ranch raising cattle, with lots of signs telling the public to stay away.
Most of the coast of California is in the hands of corporations or a few rich families. The public sees it from the road or through narrow windows called "beach access," and some of the agreement calls for more access, which is good, but it could be so much better.
It would be one of the best parks in the state, do honor to the family, and in a small way pay back all those workers who toiled for generations for the Hearst Corporation and created all that wealth.
Maybe now is a good time for the next step.

There's lots more available at:
A New York Times story about the land status in 2003:
The current Hearst organization:
The state park:

1 comment:

Mary said...

Nice blog! Great commentary and beautiful pics. I happened upon it doing some research on W.R. Hearst for a college class I'm taking. The links were helpful. Thanks.