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Hearst Castle: The Californian Xanadu of the real 'Citizen Kane'


By the time William Randolph was born, grand displays of wealth were something of a tradition in the Hearst family. After making his millions in the California Gold Rush, his father, George Hearst, bought up huge swathes of land, purchasing about 30,000 acres of Rancho Piedra Blanca and the entirety of Rancho Santa Rosa in 1865. In the final years of the 1910s, his son, a politician, newspaper publisher and businessman in possession of an enormous fortune, decided to follow in his footsteps. With enough money to make his dream residence a reality ten times over, William Randolph Hearst set about crafting a palatial mansion of Xanadu-esque proportions.

Nestled in the verdant Santa Lucia Mountains, La Cuesta Encantada, or ‘the Enchanted Hill’, lies five miles above San Simeon Bay in Northern California. Work commenced on the lofty residence in 1919, shortly after Hearst founded the International Film Service, an animation studio created to turn the popular comic strips he controlled into an even more lucrative money-spinner. By the time the palace was finished in 1947, Hearst had become the owner of an extensive news empire and established himself as a prominent – if self-serving – politician.

With his enormous stature and penchant for brightly coloured suits, Randolph Hearst was one of the most recognisable public futures of the 1920s and ’30s. These days, however, he is far less known than his cinematic representation Charles Foster Kane, from Orson Welles’ pioneering masterpiece Citizen Kane. The 1942 drama opens with a scene inside Kane’s Xanadu residence, a gothic castle worthy of Dracula himself. While it might all look a little overblown, Hearst Castle is more extravagant than Welles was able to imagine. The residence was created by Julia Morgan, the first woman allowed to study architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Designed to contain Hearst’s extensive collection of classical statues, antiques, Old Masters, ancient artefacts, and the odd complete building, the house eventually grew into a Meditterannea style palace featuring 165 rooms, 61 bathrooms, 41 fireplaces, a tennis court, a stable, a private zoo, an outdoor 81-foot long Roman Pool, and an indoor pool with Prussian blue walls and shimmering gold tiles.

Hearst’s “little hideaway” has played host to all manner of distinguished guests over the years. Despite being intended as a family home for Hearst, his wife Millicent and their five sons, it wound up as a party pad for members of high society in the 1920s and ’30s. Hearst invited Hollywood’s brightest stars to Hearst Castle, including Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers. In 1931, the British novelist P.G. Wodehouse – then working as a Hollywood screenwriter – was also invited for a short stay in one of the estate’s guest houses. Familiar with the bizarre ways in which the aristocracy liked to spend their money, Wodehouse wrote a brief description of the residence: “The ranch,” he wrote in a letter, “Is about halfway between Hollywood and San Franciso. It is on top of a high hill, and just inside the entrance gates is a great pile of stones, which, if you ever put them together, would form an old Abbey which Hearst bought in France and shipped over and didn’t know what to do with so left lying by the wayside.”

Wodehouse’s letter hits on one of the most salient aspects of Hearst Castle; that it remains unfinished. It’s as though, somewhere along the line, Hearst got bored and wandered off. Another notable guest of Hearst Castle, Winston Churchill, summed up Randolph when he called him “a grave simple child – with no doubt a nasty temper – playing with the most costly toys.” Arguably, Hearst only learned the true value of money when he started to lose most of it. After the stock market crash of the 1930s, he was forced to sell some of his businesses, relocating to a far more humble abode in Beverly Hills, where he died in 1951. Today, Hearst Castle is open to the public. Indeed, it recently re-opened following a period of closure and is currently celebrating 100 years. To find out more, visit the Hearst Castle website.

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