On the six-mile drive up to Hearst Castle, a public address system blasts bus passengers with music from the Roaring ‘20s: trilling saxophones, waa-waa trumpets, simple tunes and lame syncopation. Then a crackle of annoying static breaks in, followed by the sandpapery voice of an old-time announcer:
“Hearst Castle Radio is on the air! Decades in Review!
“It’s 1919, and the end of the decade sees changes in the states, the nation and the world!
“Dateline: San Simeon, California. Along the rugged coast of central California, noted newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, 56, makes plans for improving his sprawling ranch by building something more comfortable than the tents he and his family have used over the years.”
The bus riders listen raptly, as if they had gathered around an old wooden Zenith radio on a Sunday afternoon. Private conversations stop, and everyone falls under the spell.
“1920! Hearst replaces tents with cottages. Concrete work is completed on three guest houses, which occupy the traditional Hearst family campground high in the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In the news: The 18th Amendment-Prohibition-takes effect.”
Obviously, the passengers are supposed to feel as if they had signed on for an excursion through history, into an era when gangsters had cachet, movie stars were truly glamorous and a free-spending publishing baron could summon the world’s elite to his lavish, overdone, art-filled house.
The state of California, which now owns Hearst Castle, makes an admirable effort to flesh out the rococo old manse by conducting evening tours on Fridays and Saturdays with costumed characters simulating the carefree lifestyles of the rich and famous, circa …
“1923! Water, water everywhere and San Simeon has plenty to drink! A one and one-half-million-gallon reservoir is built south of Camp Hill to provide water to the growing estate … Dance marathons are the rage!”
“1929! Hearst Castle visited by luminaries from stage, screen and politics. This year’s guests include Winston Churchill, Mr. and Mrs. Louis B. Mayer and Louella Parsons. Stocks rise to new heights and then plummet. … Some speculators jump out of windows as stocks continue to fall. As the decade ends, the full effects of the October disaster are still not known. …”
At this point, another, calmer speaker, presumably the official voice of the California Department of Parks, takes over the sound system. Hearst Castle is a state historical monument and revenue-producing tourist attraction, drawing some 650,000 visitors a year.
“Those are the decades that were,” the mild voice croons. “Just ahead is a bright, new decade. And what better place to begin the 1930s than here at W.R. Hearst’s magnificent hilltop estate?”
No one has an answer for that, so a male guide in a straw fedora ushers the passengers off the bus and hands some of them over to another guide, Mova Verde, who led the way toward the outdoor Neptune Pool. Verde wears a severe blue uniform that might have belonged to a Depression-era customs inspector, but her eyes glint with mischief.
In the waning light provided by a bright-orange Pacific sunset, she gestures toward the pool, its water clear as bootleg gin, its terraces slathered in marble and statuary - some of it ‘30s Moderne but most of it purchased from dealers specializing in Greco-Roman antiquities. The effect must have been exactly as Hearst and his architect, Julia Morgan, intended back in the ‘20s: a scene of unimaginable luxury, a pool that would overshadow even Hollywood’s brightest stars.
Across the way, in silhouette, three women sit chatting at a table beneath a colonnade. Wearing 1930s dresses and skull-hugging chapeaux, they function as part of the tableau vivant that the park system has arranged for its weekend-night guests. Residents of nearby towns eagerly volunteer for this duty and pose free of charge.
For half the year, Hearst Castle visitors of today must do their imagining in the daytime, choosing among four tours, each one covering a different aspect of La Cuesta Encantada (“The Enchanted Hill”). In spring and fall, out come the costumes for the special weekend evening tours.
But even in the daytime, guides make a valiant effort to pump up the glamor. One morning, Laney Brouwer ushered her group to poolside and conjured up a tantalizing scene: “Winston Churchill might be floating around the center of the pool in an inner tube with a cigar in his mouth,” Brouwer said. “The Marx brothers might be doing a little water ballet for you near the shallow side. And you might see Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel. She, of course, would be at the deep end.”
Daytime visitors enjoy touring Hearst Castle for a variety of reasons. Those interested in architecture and decoration can marvel at the extravagance and craftsmanship that went into Hearst’s Mediterranean Revival-style Casa Grande and its three luxurious guest houses.
Aficionados of art and antiques examine Hearst’s bewilderingly eclectic collection, ranging from priceless medieval tapestries and Grecian urns to Navajo rugs (none of it labeled, another reminder that this was an estate, not a museum).
In the milder months, amateur horticulturists file through the gardens, dazzled by the imported greenery, brilliant flowers and their improbably beautiful backdrop - the deep blue Pacific expanse of San Simeon Bay.
Once they had taken the train from Los Angeles or landed on Hearst’s private airstrip, what kind of experience could his famous visitors expect?
“Some of the guests said it was a great place to come during the Depression,” Verde reported. “The only things you had to bring were postage stamps if you were going to send mail out, and the only money you would spend would be for your long-distance phone calls.
“You were only invited once. If you turned an invitation down, you would not get another chance, so you tried to make the time. I understand that Katharine Hepburn always regretted that she turned down her one invitation.”
All day, the pampered swells could set their own agenda: tennis, swimming, horseback riding, strolling through the vast private zoo, or playing some billiards in W.C. Fields’ favorite room - the one with the magnificent 16th century Norman tapestry depicting a stag hunt. Although Hearst derided golf as an “old man’s game,” he would fly his golfer friends up to Pebble Beach for the day on his private trimotor plane.
At dusk, the host’s expectations became more rigid. He managed to convey a certain sense of rectitude by strictly controlling the liquor consumption, the dining hours and the indoor games (“no hanky-panky,” Verde noted).
Members of the tour group had arrived too early for dinner, so they could only imagine, with Verde’s help, how that part of the evening would go. “This was a ranch, and Mr. Hearst expected to have a very casual dining style,” she said. “This is where you got all your meals. There was no room service! He even used paper napkins, plain stoneware china. They would eat cheese and crackers here. Mr. Hearst liked poultry - from the poultry ranch down below, quail and pheasant and wild turkey. If you were here on Sunday, you got ice cream, Hearst’s favorite.”
A plain bottle of Heinz ketchup and a yellow jar of French’s mustard near the host’s mid-table place-setting underscored the informality of it all (“What! No Grey Poupon?” somebody cracked). Hearst’s choice of background serenades was equally plebeian.
They next trooped through the kitchen, a cold, hotel-style facility softened only by the ‘30s-era condiment jars and baking powder boxes (all props) that had been scattered about.
Upstairs, the guests walked past a few of the 38 bedrooms and 41 bathrooms (all of the latter featuring the latest in plumbing fixtures, the controversial “French Cascade,” or overhead shower). In one bedroom, an impeccably groomed middle-age man slipped on his suit jacket. In another, two women conversed, while another placed a phone call. The rooms were small, though lavishly appointed, but still a status rung below the quarters available in the three guest houses, which are mansions themselves.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: If you go Hearst Castle is virtually equidistant from Los Angeles and San Francisco (about 250 miles from either city) on California Highway 1 (Pacific Coast Highway) and near U.S. Highway 101. Daytime visitors may choose from four distinct tours lasting an hour and 45 minutes, each tour covering different features of the castle and grounds. Those cost $14 per person ($8 for children under 13) and leave every 20 minutes starting at 8:20 a.m. with the last tour leaving at 3:20 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Evening tours cost $25 ($13 for children). Those are conducted on Fridays and Saturdays from the beginning of March to the end of May and from the beginning of September through December. Tours start just before sunset, usually two on Friday and three on Saturday, spaced no more than 20 minutes apart. A gift shop, snack bars, ticket counters and a well-organized museum tracing the life and times of William Randolph Hearst are housed in a modern building at the foot of the 1,600-foot hill where the castle stands. Tour reservations are strongly recommended. Call Destinet at 800-444-4445, or write Destinet, 9450 Carroll Park, San Diego, Calif. 92121. Wheelchair accessible tours (ground floors and gardens only) must be reserved at least 10 days in advance by calling 805-927-2020.
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