Sunday, January 26, 2014

Hail to the Chief! A Weekend at Hearst Castle


Something about William Randolph Hearst just doesn't add up. One of the 10 richest people in the world in 1919. Bankrupt and 125 million in debt just 18 years later. How fast can one man burn through a fortune? And not just the inheritance. For half a century The Chief worked 18 hours a day, 7 days a week running 94 (count 'em, 94) different companies, and brought in an average of $50,000 a DAY for the stockholders. 

Oh wait - there WERE no stockholders: It was all his. And it wasn't enough. All the energy, all the power, all the influence, and all of Mom's Millions wasn't enough for Willie. Why? Because moguls just wanna shop. And W.R. took the concept of shopping to pathological extremes. 

What did he buy? Oh, stuff. Art & knick-knacks. White sculptures of white people. Big thick books with no pictures. Miscellaneous festoonery. Household furnishings, mostly. Did I mention the houses? He had seven in all, each with a different theme. Amongst others there was the suits of armor castle in Wales, the Hemingwayesque fairytale lodge near Mt. Shasta, the art deco party palace in Santa Monica, and, farthest away, the frumpy Long Island estate to enclose the crabby wife.
Diving platform at the indoor pool.
Hard to imagine inflatable pool toys floating here.


Oh, and "The Ranch" out in San Simeon, to house the medieval stuff - and the hot blonde chorus girl.

A trip to the "California-Hearst-San-Simeon-Historical-Monument-to-the-Bottomless-Checkbook-State-Park" is a fascinating study in cultural contrasts. 

No, not the art; the tourists. The furnishings are certainly neck-snapping enough in their time-warping juxtapositions, but it was my fellow gawkers who provided the most fun that weekend.

And the square footage of La Cuesta Encantata is only slightly larger than some of these tourists. The sweatshirts in the gift shop came in three sizes: XL, XXL, and "Midwest". This is our hardworking sturdy peasant stock of farmers? They could barely waddle from their multi-ton Winnebagos to the tour bus. 

A cracked (and then discarded) fireplace cover that now resides in the
waiting area (A/K/A "Fudge World") at the bottom of the hill.
Granted, between the two there is the snack bar, the coffee & danish nook, the ice cream cart, and the fudge stand. A caloric gauntlet. And the fudge, for one, is excellent. Don't ask me how I know that.

We Santa Cruzans thought that the tour bus seats were plush and roomy until we saw one of these sans-a-waist Nebraskans swing in like an Apollo splashdown, completely fill the seat, and then also overflow onto the armrests. My, was that the suspension groaning?

When the castle was being built in the 1920's the five miles from the bay to the hilltop was traversed via a long line of Ford trucks. With the steep grades and the enormous payloads of building materials the trip took five hours. Yep! You CAN do math: 1MPH. Nowadays the road is paved and the engines are more powerful, but the speed seemed only slightly faster than it was during the groaning twenties: Those pasture people must put away a lot of Whoppers.
Ocean view from the top of La Cuesta Encantata.


And on one trip they were tipsy as well. There are excellent tours at night now, and we ascended with a large group of large retirees who had had a second carafe with dinner. Bikers are less noisy than a gaggle of sloshed senior citizens. 

The tour busses feature recorded narration with background music, but we only heard a few words because our Modern Maturity Mob insisted on singing whatever song was playing. I've never heard "Sentimental Journey" belted out in so many keys simultaneously. The tour guides, waiting at the top, had some strained smiles as they heard the Chardonnay Express approached.

In all we took 3 of the 5 tours, and all were excellent. Each has a theme (gardens, upstairs, night, unfinished projects, and basic highlights), but all include the pools. Yes, the human fascination with viewing water continues unabated. We pay the money to see the bling-bling, but our older genetic map still gets the most satisfaction from knowing that there is a water source nearby.
See? Water. Happy now?

What do you see on a given tour? Well, that again depends on what part of your brain is engaged. If your retinas are relatively unattached you see lots of shiny, sparkly patterns: What fireworks must look like to a raven. There is so much stuff to see in every room, and its all so exquisite, and its all so overwhelming after a while. You just go gaga. Between tours I found myself happily decompressing by staring at a tree for a long while, or some french fries.

But there is a danger to all of this shinypretty: what if your brain IS engaged? Well then you enter a room and notice that -
  • the 15th Century Flemish oil painting is hanging from 
  • a wall covered in 18th Century Italian flocked wallpaper.
  • Next to the painting is a 19th century armoire made from Mexican hardwood.
  • On top of that is a small collection of 12th Century Chinese fans.
  • Overhead is a suspended ceiling from 16th Century Germany,
  • and on the floor is a woven carpet runner from 19th Century Philippines.

 It all makes absolutely no sense at all, there are over a hundred rooms of it on display, and if you look at it with cortex in place you. will. go. bonkers.
I don't know the name of this sculpture,
So I'm just gonna call it "Ow-wee"

No danger of that from our fellow tourists, the Midwestern Masses: They weren't looking at the furnishings at all. They were looking at the tour guide as she rattled off her spiel. Were they being polite? Were they all deaf and reading lips? (That would explain their singing, at least.) Is this some sort of hooked-on-phonics feature?

People! You are surrounded by some of the most beautiful items on the planet, you paid good money to take this trip, and now here at ground zero of your vacation you ignore it and watch the nice lady recite her lines about all the stuff that is BEHIND YOU!! 

I'll bet that some of these folks missed everything - except the four meat buffet that night.

Best part for me was the ceilings, especially on the night tour. Suspended ceilings are rare things, and almost completely unknown in Brand New America. Even the concept of a decorated ceiling seems to have died with Queen Victoria. We've had a hundred years of American decorating now where no one seems to remember how to look up.

The "Study". (Try not to look too closely.)
So. Hearst Castle. For decades shunned by the Arty museum crowd as just a great big pile of antiques arranged by a guy with no knowledge of art, culture or history. A sentiment that is wrong, incidentally: Hearst had a vast knowledge of all of the millions of items that he bought. He just didn't give a flying care about cohesion.

Or appearances apparently: Recall that the frumpy wife and kids were off on Long Island so he could shack-up (sorry: castle-up) with Marion Davies, an actress of no little non-talent. And yet all of the stars who visited The Ranch, married or not, were made to reside in separate quarters, quarantined by gender. Meanwhile he and Marion shared a pair of sumptuous bedrooms separated by a sitting room dominated by an enormous Catholic Crucifix. (A-hem....!)

Hearst Castle, and its enormous bus loads of tourists are very inspiring. The castle
"The Ranch" yeah......right. Sure. Whatever.
inspires me to perhaps never go shopping again, and the loaded tourists inspire me to take a nice long bike ride.

As soon as this fudge goes away.

Angus McMahan
angusmcmahan@gmail.com
@AngusMcMahan

(All photos from the Authors Collection)











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