Should you key-up pictures of the Hearst Castle’s Neptune Pool on its website, you’d see its glimmering, Klein-Blue depths. You might imagine it playing home to similarly Technicolor events: Charlie Chaplin taking a backflip off Adonis’s granite buttocks; Harpo Marx tanning his pale belly on a stretched-rubber chair; Errol Flynn massaging his corns.
And you’d be right, more or less. Hearst Castle is an imperious presence atop San Simeon hillside, all ice-cream turrets and church gates looking ripped from Rodin. It served as the West Coast fortress for Hearst’s media empire, which established him as one of the twentieth century’s wealthiest tycoons. (During the 1920s, one in four Americans read a Hearst newspaper.) It also served as a phantasmagoric stage for an array of celebrities and media folks. Hearst disdained the stiffness and aristocratic leanings of the East Coast, and found Hollywood stars and politicians more candid and gritty. Guests included Gary Cooper, Buster Keaton, Howard Hughes, Barbara Stanwyck, and Winston Churchill.
In December 2015, I was visiting Hearst Castle while trekking from Southern to Northern California, on a winter break from a graduate English program. At the time, I had been straddling two newly atomized fields: freelance journalism and academia. Journalism was becoming increasingly reliant on a constellation of bloggers and part-time fact-checkers. Academia was also manifesting its years-long slide into precariously flexible positions. The increasing reliance of universities on adjuncts—exempt from the protections, benefits, and stability of full-time and tenure-track faculty—had been broadcast in alarming op-eds.
Hearst’s imposing stature, rendered concrete in the Castle, was unusual in the present day to say the least. He would be humbled, somewhat, during the Depression years. But his brand name has carried on to the present day as Hearst Communications, which owns Esquire, Elle, and Town & Country, among other publications. Hearst, who welcomed disparate creative influences to his castle, would no doubt have enjoyed the company of the twenty-first century freelancers who cluster in coffee shops, soaking up the ambience.
You sense you are approaching a historical barrier as you cross over into the Hearst zone from Highway One. From the turn-off leading into the Castle’s base camp, you can barely see the parapets, keeping its exclusiveness somewhat intact. The formality and prestige of its original denizens, however, had noticeably changed. Rather than the gallant dinner attire of its celebrities—recalled by an available twilight “evening tour” led by docents in period clothes—the current demographic was beleaguered Californian. More Tevas and cargo shorts than sport coats and wool trousers. The trek up the hill to La Cuesta Encantada—Hearst’s term for the Castle’s hilltop, meaning “The Enchanted Hill”—was taken in a tram guided by Alex Trebek’s narration replete with lilting Spanish pronunciations. From the window you could see meandering zebra, the remnants of Heart’s private zoo, at one point the largest privately owned in the world.
At the designated meeting place atop the hillside for the beginning of the tour, the Neptune Pool was empty. It had been recently drained in acquiescence to California’s mounting water crisis, and because the cracks at the pool’s bottom were leaking and required care. The look of the empty pool was lunar, more nakedly evoking the imagery of a bygone utopia. The year before, Lady Gaga—the name unfamiliar as croaked by our tour guide, whose delivery had the velocity comparable only to Timothy “Speed” Levitch from the 1998 documentary The Cruise—had temporarily filled the pool for use in an elaborate synchronized swimming sequence for her video “G.U.Y.” The tour guide deadpanned something about his certainty that she was in fact well known.
We made our way up the exterior staircases leading from the Neptune Pool, taking in the full grandeur of the vantage point. Each angle to the mountains outward a carefully framed image. These landscape’s design was highly conscious, devised by Hearst in tandem with his long-time architect, the pioneering Julia Morgan.
As we entered the main compound of Casa Grande, our tour guide made it evident that the structure of the building was meant to facilitate social organization. In the Assembly Room, we were informed Hearst’s own presence was often carefully abstracted from the proceedings; he favored the role of orchestrator. This followed from cocktail hour drinks, to dinner, to the evening film screening. He was perceived as a shy man, comfortable in the scrum of a crowd. Abstemious himself, Hearst set the limit at two cocktails per guest before dinner, and wine during the meal was closely monitored. The effluvium of crowd noise and bubbling conversation was often, to Hearst, seemingly a pleasant background thrum—muzak meant as ambiance.
Proceeding into the dining room, dubbed the “Refectory,” the décor befits a medieval king. Our tour guide reminded us that, in homage to the unpretentious, the antique table bore condiments still in their original bottles. Paper napkins were also preferred to cloth. Fittingly to the grand and presentational atmosphere, guests were sometimes called to speak or perform.
P.G. Wodehouse described humorously how one could track their fall from favor by how they slipped further away from Hearst and his mistress and co-host Marion Davies at the table’s center; his own slide pushed him so close to the edge that “he should have been feeding on the floor.”
The guide also informed us that Hearst would excuse himself from company after the prescribed film to his Gothic Study (his centralized work space by the mid-1930s), moving about the upper floor like a tweedy apparition. The study would serve as his command center—he spread his papers on the floor “in long military lines,” evaluating them and sending messages to his squadron of editors. His mistress Marion Davies, herself the subject of Heart’s careful distance, had sleeping quarters on the same level but separate from Hearst’s. A strict house rule entailed “No sexual intercourse between unmarried couples,” yet as actor David Niven recalled, the prohibition was strange for a man openly living with his mistress, and Davies herself averred their exemption. (Violators would find their bags packed and waiting for them in the front courtyard.) Since meeting Hearst, Davies had been a constant presence and companion for him. Following a breaking point in Hearst’s open relationship with Davies in 1926, Hearst’s wife Millicent held her own residence in New York City. The burbling conversation elsewhere in the house, where guests were spared from business, would presumably fuel Hearst’s own thrumming commercial conceptions.
Hearst’s modulated interactions are poignant. Marshall McLuhan, in his 1964 text Understanding Media, makes an aperçu about how, as lines of communication stretched further and further, there was a lessening in sensitivity. Hearst seemed the position embodied, the mass-media man with taxed emotional nerves—a dimmed power plant. He at one point had nearly 100 different telephones distributed around the property, even hiding one behind a tree to wow hikers with his supernatural ability to divine sports scores.
Hearst’s peculiar tendencies seemed oddly allied with a burgeoning new work culture back in New York. The rampant proliferation of “co-working” spaces had crafted a lifestyle-oriented office environment that was meant to splice a dorm-room hothouse environment with a three-dimensional social network. That is, one effectively rented a public desk or office to share space with others in a more imbricated, permeable fashion. At organizations like WeWork, which has been valued at $20 billion, subscribers worked cheek-by-jowl with other co-workers for a different way of stimulus and interaction predicated on not-quite-closeness. I wondered if the overheard conversation makes it into the various workers’ products, like bedroom noise in a dream.
Temporarily away from urban life, I would read articles about the next extension of co-working, called co-living. These were often billed, against the wishes of their offerers, as “dorms for grown-ups.” Like the built-in networks at co-working spaces, co-living spaces likewise offered benefits ranging from planned activities via chat room to a college R.A.-like “house leader.” There was a similar hope for shared creative and social frisson. Dissenters could say we were one step closer to living in tubes or file drawers—or, worse, limiting privacy and autonomy for a feeling of being connected to, but perhaps not part of, a communal organic whole.
The tour ended somewhat unceremoniously at Hearst’s tennis courts which, while offering glass insets at the net-line to give light to the gilded Roman Pool beneath, seemed more like a Mar Vista condo offering.
The fortresses of California tycoons always struck me as having an alien gaudiness to them. Rather than clustering together in a designated furrow of millionaire’s rows, in Manhattan, or Newport, say, like the Astors and Vanderbilts, they built their complexes distant from their fellow captains of industry. Hearst was perhaps most emblematic—his castle feels like an independent world when perched atop his land holdings and mountaintop. At the time, guests would train from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo, then travel ninety minutes over dirt roads in limousines to reach San Simeon. The castle’s construction bore a transcontinental mixture of the Spanish Colonial Revival popularized in California and “the architectural grandeur of Europe.” In this independence and eccentricity, Hearst’s castle also seemed to hold a kinship with Henry E. Huntington’s residence and gardens in San Marino, a structure that evoked to me Daniel Plainview’s palatial estate from There Will Be Blood. At The Huntington Library, which the modified museum and research center is now called, there is an open-air loggia with Beaux-Arts columns, surrounded by palm trees, where a Hollister-branded version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems poised to break out at any moment. As if homing in on its subliminal SoCal strangeness, the museum featured from 2015-2016 a collaboration with LA artist Alex Israel, who fixed neon-glow wetsuits amongst 18th-century tapestries, and unreal pastel gradients behind classical sculpture. Both Hearst and Huntington’s estates embody a frontier ethos of solitude and self-determination, cast in the foundry of fantasy without shape or limit.
The castle was a model for Citizen Kane’s Xanadu, the mansion that serves as opulent get-away and eventual self-imposed prison for newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane, who is based largely on Hearst. Kane’s arc is Shakespearian, as only after his public crash, and full withdrawal into a stifling fortress of wealth and control, does he realize his true desire for an unadorned simplicity, recalled in his childhood sled “Rosebud.” He dies alone, after his second wife leaves him—a stark contrast to Hearst, who was temporarily bailed out by a million-dollar loan from Marion Davies and remained close with her until his death. Posthumous cataloguers sort the dead Kane’s belongings, throwing what is deemed worthless into a furnace—including the prized Rosebud—more grimly invoking Hearst’s heaps of treasure. Xanadu in Welles’s formulation is meant to evoke Samuel Coleridge’s “stately pleasure dome” from “Kubla Khan.” Both Hearst and Khan have in their own way “drunk the milk of paradise.” Hearst’s indulgences, however, were less self-immolating and more pleasingly neutral. The divisions of Hearst Castle, listed in individual glory on his website, seem luxurious in a way that now connotes a Club Med resort: the main residence Casa Grande, the adjoining residences Casa del Monte, Casa del Sol, and Casa del Mar, the Roman Pool, and so on.
Yet, the exposure of Hearst’s financial troubles, occurring parallel with Citizen Kane’s controversial creation, recast his Noah’s Ark–like system of properties and objects in a slightly more perverse light. The tour resolves with discussion of Hearst’s fall and precipitous financial decline during the Depression era, spurred in part by Hearst’s negligent regard toward spending. As if cutting off his own jeweled hand, he was forced to sell-off over half of his art collection and pieces from his various cavernous houses. Even in his reduced state, which entailed being taken on as editorial director of his papers, receiving a starkly diminished salary, and mortgaging San Simeon to his rival, he still planned further improvident expansions to his castle. Hearst had recovered by 1945, but the castle remains a testament to expansion at any cost; he rendered in stone and wood what might today be the ballooning valuation of a pre-IPO start-up, pushing all available resources into the fullest rendition of an imagined, colossal self.
It would be curious to see where Hearst’s interests would have fallen should be still be alive today. Would he resemble Jonah Peretti or Ezra Klein? Instead of Churchill and Chaplin, would he call on Thiel and Musk? Would Hearst Castle 2018 be more like a giant illuminated Apple store, a glass cube on the hill? Or, perhaps it’d simply look like a manic co-worked coffee shop, tables of Noguchi-like construction lined with laptops? Something tells me he might’ve preferred to end up more like Charles Foster Kane, crash and all.