Ironically, one of the gathering places most representative of the Golden Age of Hollywood is not in Los Angeles but almost 250 miles north. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst built his illustrious castle, "San Simeon," as a labor of love, not only for lover Marion Davies, but to art and culture in general. Though it is now best remembered as being the influence for "Xanadu" in the Orson Welles masterpiece Citizen Kane, this house holds none of the movie's dark nature. Basing the construction on the breathtaking architecture he fell in love with on his constant trips abroad, Hearst built quite the collection of structures: the main house, guest houses, swimming pools, tennis courts, not to mention the far reaching exteriors of the outdoor property that included lush gardens and a playground for assorted wildlife. He invited his beloved Marion to finally come and see his new creation in 1924, having refused her admission until it was ready. Of course, it would never really be "ready," as Hearst was always adding to it, improving upon it, and tinkering with it. Bebe Daniels, Ben Lyon, and Constance "Dutch" Talmadge were also invited to this initial visit. As these movie stars' jaws hit the floor at the grandeur before them, it was certain that this place-- this glamorous and expansive "ranch"-- would become a welcoming abode for the Hollywood elite.
San Simeon was a representation of Hearst himself (right), with design and decor of impeccable taste and worldy knowledge but also an assortment of eccentricities. The interior and exterior of the buildings were filled with historical relics and priceless antiques. Genuine pieces of ancient European structures were dismantled, shipped across the Atlantic, and implemented into every corner and crevice of San Simeon. Authentic tapestries, famous paintings and sculptures, and only the grandest of furniture filled the lush rooms. Though the architecture would at first appear intimidating, with the main building resembling a chapel more than a home, the warmth and color applied to the rooms provided a very welcoming vibe. Because of this, Star of the Month William Haines was tongue tied and fascinated when he was invited up for the first time. In fact, Billy would become a frequent visitor to San Simeon, as he was close friends with Marion. Since he had a keen eye for interior design and a great love of antiques, he took to Hearst's artistic knowledge like a moth to a flame. Hearst loved sharing what he knew with Billy, indulging him like a son, answering his questions, and in turn taking his suggestions too. Certainly, the possibilities of design became apparent to Billy during his frequent trips, wherein he soaked in every nuance, every shade, every corner of Hearst's famous home.
However, for every luxury, there was also an absurdity. Hearst was a powerful, knowledgable, but eccentric man in many ways. Thus, despite the fact that San Simeon was Party Palace as far as Hollywood was concerned, he allowed no liquor on the premises. While many honored this rule, let's be honest, the majority found ways to break it, including Marion (left), who had many crafty hiding places for her booze. Her niece, Pepi Lederer, was also a frequent guest, and got into many scrapes with Hearst when her behavior indicated that she and her friends, including Louise Brooks, had been imbibing. Marion always got them off the hook, though.
However, Marion couldn't always have everyone's back, and people would quickly learn how close they were to being kicked out by how far they were seated from Hearst at his huge dinner table. If you were seated next to or across from Hearst, you knew you were in good. If you found yourself nearing the end, it was either because you had done something to tick Hearst off, or else he was getting sick of you and trying to tell you to move along. One person that even Hearst couldn't stay mad at was the lovely Jean Harlow, though she did make him blush on one occassion. She came to dinner in one of her typical, slinky dresses-- also typically lacking her undergarments. Hearst asked Marion to suggest that Jean put on something more "appropriate." Jean complied, went upstairs, and returned to dinner with a coat on over her dress, which she jokingly refused to remove. Dinner was an interesting experience for all invited, because it also indicated Hearst's attitude toward germs. He found linen napkins unsanitary, so there was no tablecloth at the lengthy table and paper napkins were used with the rest of the dinnerware. A ketchup bottle was also always handy.
Though Hearst could at times come off as imposing, most close to him looked on him as a little boy. Though his eyes could become piercing when his anger was (rarely) evoked, in general he was shy and fun-loving. He too had a great love of animals. One day, Marion came upon him in a distraught state: he had discovered that a mouse he was nursing back to health had died. The grounds of San Simeon also supplied a home for various wildlife, and Hearst had essentially created his own zoo. However, the majority of the animals were running free, so he wouldn't let his guests wander off onto the property alone. On his land, one could find lions, tigers, elephants, deer, zebras, etc. He eventually had to put up a sign telling visitors "Don't Tease the Monkeys," for after Marie Dressler (left) did so, a monkey threw a little... something in her face.
Most notorious, however, are those expensive, extravagant San Simeon parties. Quite often, WRH and Marion would decide to randomly throw a costume-themed party, and they would thus invite all of their favorites up to the ranch to partake. Cowboys and Indians, Favorite Historical Figures, Circus Clowns... there was no telling what characters a random night would introduce. Actors, directors, politicos, royalty, anyone who was anyone would hop on a train to San Simeon for the chance to rub elbows and cut a rug. At these fetes it was common to see Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow and William Powell, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, Gary and Rocky Cooper, Charlie Chaplin, John Gilbert, Leslie Howard, etc, etc, etc. While on one corner of the room Hedda Hopper and Norma Shearer would be getting into a fight over Norma's obtrusive Marie Antoinette costume-- which was so wide that she had to be accomodated with extra seats-- Hearst would be tap dancing up a storm on the other. While Billy Haines and Clara Bow made out under the piano, Gloria Swanson would be playing her infamous pranks on the assorted male guests, which usually ended with them being hit in the face with a bag of ice. Anything and everything went, for as long as people could stand... But they had better know that if they weren't up and ready for breakfast the next morning at Hearst's specified time, they weren't eating! Most just stayed up all night so as not to miss the grub, then passed out by the pool until the next round of parties started again. Others, like Harpo Marx, hitchhiked home.
Hearst's expenditures didn't end here. He also built Marion a beach house-- beach mansion, more like-- in Santa Monica where more of the same continued. It contained 10 guest rooms complete with 10 living rooms, 15 bathrooms, 12 staff rooms, and a pool with a bridge. Erected in 1926, it lasted until 1960, when it sadly became a parking lot. Her dressing room at MGM was equally impressive, being more of a bungalow: it possessed 14 rooms and cost $70,000 all told to build. When her contract at MGM was up, her bungalow was simply moved to her new studio, Warner Bros. San Simeon, however, remains right were it was.
Now property of California State Parks, this sophisticated pleasure dome is open for viewing to the general public. I had the great pleasure of visiting in the summer of 2009, and it must be said that none of this structure's grandeur has diminished. I took tons of pictures (as seen above) as I ambled about in a near daze. I must say, that even the great Biltmore Mansion in Asheville, NC was not as impressive to me as San Simeon, (but perhaps that is because of its Hollywood ties, which I clearly prefer). Different tours are available, so one trip won't do it. Upon your first visit, I recommend that you do the standard tour, which takes you through the first floor of the house and gardens, but definitely go back for a more thorough glimpse of the upstairs rooms. They don't make 'em like this anymore, which I guess is good considering that it would be considered a viscious waste of money. Yet the beauty is definitely worth your appreciation, and the nostalgia you feel for a time left behind remains as poignant as the still startling architecture. As you wander the hallways, it is easy to see why so many of the celebrity elite were drawn here-- to this distant house upon a hill, far away from the glaring Hollywood lights, where they could roll up their sleeves, relax, and laugh easily with their friends. San Simeon provided devilish fun that was still somehow innocent and offered a getaway for those in the spotlight who normally could never seem to find escape. I recommend you try to escape here too.
When Hearst fell on hard times, he was forced to give up San Simeon. It was one of the hardest things he ever did. The home held such memories, but even moreso it held so much of Hearst himself-- his greatest dreams and his greatest loves. He put his heart and soul into it, and never quite finished what he set out to do. Indeed, certain areas are still not completed, and windows lacking glass have been filled in with cement. Upon his final day at San Simeon, he packed up his last belongings and made the trek down the long hill and back to reality. Pausing halfway down, he stopped to gaze up at his silent creation, once so alive and brimming with excitement. San Simeon now stands up in the distance, looking down on the Pacific, and winking at passers by. A mystery swirls around it, beckoning drivers to make the voyage up and recapture some of the high times and misdemeanors the golden age of Hollywood has left behind.
Visit San Simeon today HERE.