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A Boy and his Castle

Originally published in the Lonely Planet guide to California

It’s certain that absolute power combined with unlimited wealth accounts for some of the most heinous architecture in all of history. Witness the Orwellian hell dreamed up by mobsters in Las Vegas, or the warped grotesqueries visited on Germany by those mental midgets of the Third Reich. Great wealth and taste are mutually exclusive: the filthily moneyed should be drawn and quartered if ever they’re heard to utter the word: ‘blueprints’. But build their piles they will, a\` la Trump, and the rest of us just have to put up with their monumental droppings.

But occasionally these lurid legacies in concrete and Carborundum are of such a scale and lunacy that they become oddly endearing. Witness Hearst Castle, where a spirited ‘little boy’ with unlimited ‘building blocks’ went quietly off his nut. No one in the kingdom of William Randolph Hearst ever said, ‘Uh, Bill… Don’t you think a hundred rooms might almost be enough?’ Nope. Bill’s rooms propagated like spastic spores until they reached 165. Their combined impact seems to have been designed by an architectural firm formed by Dolly Parton, Louis XIV and the Three Stooges. But hell, it made Bill happy. 

Born into great wealth in San Francisco, Hearst was 10 years old when his mother took him on a grand tour of Europe. There, he developed his lifelong appetites for art and culture. But taste? Perhaps he missed Paris…. He then went on to Harvard and journalism. Grasping his father’s {Examiner} newspaper in 1887 and developing a $20 million fortune, he proved a genius at making enemies. The mere mention of his name made politicians as twitchy as chipmunks in a mustard gas attack. His papers covered stories – true or not – that others wouldn’t touch. And if there were no stories, well… Headlines like ‘Spaniards Rape American Women in Cuba!’ (which didn’t happen) helped launch the Spanish-American War. Didn’t bother Bill and, boy, did he sell a lot of newspapers!

    Hearst eventually built a tremendous empire of more than 50 papers across the US and then turned his attention to building his ‘private home’. The mere sound of its name – La Cuesta Encantada or, the Enchanted Hill, should have sent the local elephant seal colony swimming for Japan. He hired architect Julia Morgan to turn his fancies into reality. Reality simply frog-marched off a cliff. Morgan should have headed off with the seals.

       Continually jerked around by Hearst amongst various wings and salons, her work soon took on surreal proportions. It had to house, after all, Hearst’s lust for art – and his girlfriend, Hollywood actress Marion Davies. As Hearst hauled in cathedral ceilings and Roman columns, Morgan did her best to rake his accumulation into something habitable. Bill and Marion wooed Hollywood’s elite to weekends where they played tennis and cavorted in grottos amidst the chaos. And if ever things got a little banal, why, they all just drove off through Hearst’s zoo – tootling the disoriented ostriches and giraffes who must have thought they were in a bad movie.

        When Hearst died in 1951 – his reputation as bon vivant extraordinaire secure throughout the realms of the rich – his enormous unfinished project mercifully ended. He was, finally, nothing at all like the embittered ‘King Lear’ portrayed in {Citizen Kane}, the Orson Welles film reportedly based on his life. Oddly enough, reports from Hearst’s last years reveal a man who seemed, in spite of his bizarre excesses, serenely content. It is unknown if the giraffes shared that opinion.

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