A number of power players over the years have yearned to “own” Hollywood. Lew Wasserman knew how to leverage talent to this end just as Rupert Murdoch understands the art of leveraging money and distribution muscle. But no one’s quest for Hollywood power was ever more imaginative, or bizarre, than that of William Randolph Hearst.
Like other megalomaniacs before (and since), Hearst loved show business (and showgirls) and yearned to control the studio system. It proved to be a frustrating journey. In the end, while Hollywood never welcomed Hearst to the center of power, the stars and studio kingmakers ultimately streamed to San Simeon, Hearst’s amazing “castle” north of Cambria, to bask amid his cathedral of kitsch.
Though Hearst never conquered Hollywood, his principal legacy resided in the cult of celebrity that he almost inadvertently initiated. In trying to establish his impact as a producer, Hearst’s magazines and newspapers proved to be the most powerful mythmakers of stardom. And an invitation to the Hearst Castle was the consummate badge of celebrity. Turning down an invitation, Katharine Hepburn famously said, was her biggest mistake in show business.
I started thinking about W.R. (as friends called him) the other day when I read that 50 years had passed since his amazing edifice had become a state park — a destination that attracts more than 5,000 visitors each day. It was in 1957 that a final disposition of his vast properties had been agreed upon.
Under the mandates, some 90,000 gorgeous rolling acres would remain as undeveloped state land, most of it as a cattle ranch, while a hundred-room hotel would be constructed near the ocean and 27 sites would be set aside for the Hearst family.
And W.R.’s grandiose edifice, where Charlie Chaplin once reigned as the court jester, and where guests like Churchill, Rudolph Valentino, Cary Grant, Helen Hayes and Jimmy Stewart once roamed, would welcome a steady flow of gawking tourists from Keokuk and Kankakee.
W.R., who died in 1951, would not have coveted the portly tourists, but he surely would have welcomed the intimations of immortality. A man of limitless appetite, “The Chief,” as his staff had to call him, started camping out on his family’s vast hilltop ranch long before his vision of creating his own Versailles took hold.
The two people most intimately involved in creating his Xanadu were women — his long-term mistress, Marion Davies, a former showgirl, and his remarkable architect, Julia Morgan.
Though W.R. kept referring to San Simeon as his country home, it exuded grandeur. Each of its 28 bedrooms reflected some ambitious design — a Lombardian walnut ceiling from Italy, a Cardinal Richelieu bed. Two 17th century Venetian crosses perched atop the castle towers. Crystalline indoor and outdoor pools (the outdoor pool was modestly called “the liquid cathedral”) were at the disposal of guests.
Hearst was an avid buyer of art and antiquities who scooped up everything from 16th century tapestries to entire ancient churches and would fill warehouses with his acquisitions. “He was a shrewd purchaser,” says Victoria Kastner, who wrote an opulently illustrated book called “Hearst Castle,” and who argues that, in retrospect, his taste in art has proven to be far more sophisticated than some of his detractors had suggested. What was once dismissed as a collection of kitsch is now gaining repute as a truly important, if unlikely, museum.
Surely San Simeon is nothing if not theatrical, which is the way The Chief intended it. Hearst was consumed by his media empire, but he was strongly drawn to movies. As early as 1919, he was grinding out serials and newsreels and making a dozen films a year. He desperately courted Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks when they were about to establish United Artists, hoping to become their financial partner. They were not interested. He next tried to lure Adolph Zukor, founder of Paramount, into a deal. That didn’t work either.
Early on, Hollywood sensed that Hearst was both a control freak and a maverick who would never understand the creative collaboration that filmmaking entailed. Though he ultimately left his stamp on as many as 120 films, none proved memorable, and he relentlessly tinkered with almost all — especially those involving Davies. He favored what was then called the “sin-and-succeed” genre of films for her — stories of “fallen women” who ultimately triumphed over adversity.
Studio chiefs like Louis B. Mayer understood Hearst’s media clout and welcomed him to industry functions while also coveting his invitations to masquerade balls and Christmas parties at San Simeon. At the same time they feared his mysterioso qualities. Rumors that he murdered producer Thomas Ince in a fit of jealousy exacerbated these fears (the charges to this day seem absurd). Hearst legends still provide grist for movies generations after “Citizen Kane.”
Significantly, amid all the grandeur of the Hearst Castle, W.R. himself seemed most relaxed in his ornate, 50-seat movie theater, where he would sit each night, surrounded by his mistress and his dachshund, his famous guests gathered behind him.
In a compromise to the Depression, which plunged him $100 million in debt, Hearst had sold two yachts to furnish his theater and substituted red damask for his previously ordered green Majorcan velvet to adorn the walls. (He’d overspent on a Canova statue of Venus and an 18th century Egyptian granite bust of the goddess Sekhmet that previous month.)
His guests would be fed regally, but with a one-drink limit (booze was kept in a locked safe) and the film, preceded by a Movietone newsreel, would start at 11 each night. Frequently, Hearst would become exasperated half an hour into a new film, pick up his phone and instruct the projectionist to substitute an old Davies feature.
Though he couldn’t control a studio, he could still decide what his superstar guests would see each night.