I just got back from a quick drive down to San Diego and because I have come to think of the 300 mile I5 slog from Stockton to the Grapevine as mind-numbing (literally, other than the Harris Ranch near the middle for a nice steak) – there is literally nothing. I’m trying to decide which is more boring – this or driving across the Texas panhandle on I40. At least there you have Amarillo and The Big Texan (if you can eat their monster 72 oz steak it’s free! Pepto-Bismol included!). Years ago, I used to think of the 500 mile drive to San Diego as long but certainly doable; these days I like to break it up.
Particularly with LA traffic. Used to be you could time it to be there outside of rush hour, but these days it just seems like it is bad – and worse. A couple of years ago, I hit Los Angeles area at about 1600 and it took me literally 4-5 hours to traverse the LA – and Orange County – area. First thing in San Diego I had late at night was a martini at Anthony’s on the waterfront. Now closed.
Anyway point is, these days I like to take the roads less traveled. Make the journey an adventure too.
So when I left San Diego, getting through Los Angeles Sunday morning (which wasn’t too bad by LA standards), I went up US 101 along the coast, through Ventura and Santa Barbara up to San Luis Obispo. From there, I decided to drive along my favorite road, CA 1, turning west into San Simeon the 40 miles or so, and staying overnight in San Simeon.
The next morning I would drive that road, which hugs the coastline and is world famous for scenery. The most scenic part in my opinion is the 100 mile stretch between San Simeon and Carmel.
Leaving San Simeon, you can look up the hill to your right and way up in the distance – 1,600 feet up – one can see what is obviously a very large complex. And right by Hwy 1 around that location, along with steers you may see—some zebras! The zebras are the descendants of the large zoo Hearst kept for visitors.
From 1919 to 1947, this complex was a very special place. Mr. Hearst, or “W.R”, officially called it La Cuesta Encantada (Spanish for The Enchanted Hill). More informally, he called it simply The Ranch. And you could consider this the world’s most impressive ranch house. W.R’s father, George, was a world-renowned mining engineer who made a huge fortune in places like Virginia City, NV and the Black Hills of South Dakota. And he liked to buy land. At one time the Hearst family’s ranch was over 400,000 acres along the central California coast, and inland. And George decided to give young W.R. an ailing newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner. W.R. proved very adept as a newspaper editor, and eventually owned dozens of newspapers and radio stations around the country.
There will probably never be another estate like “Hearst Castle”. Oh sure, with so many billionaires these days there are probably estates just as big (the main house is 68,500 sq feet with a total of over 90,000 sq feet for all of the buildings). However, Mr. Hearst was a lover of antiques, and he had buyers all over the world buying antiques that are a part of the estate.
But what truly made this unique? It was the visitors that came here. Everyone from Winston Churchill to Clark Gable to Charles Lindbergh. The Irish playwright G.B. Shaw quipped that “This is what God would build, if He had the money”. Carole Lombard was supposed to have a wicked sense of humor and nearly unbeatable at the billiard table.
They didn’t come singly but you might see a dozen notable guests – or even more. Imagine seeing Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, and NYC mayor Jimmy Walker, all lounging around the Neptune Pool.
Mr Hearst wanted interesting people, and he wanted them to have fun. They had an open-ended invitation with no date to leave, although most got the hint the further they were seated from Hearst and his longtime companion Marion Davies at the dining hall.
They would start seated near Hearst and Davies, and the longer they stayed, the further they were seated. If you stayed long enough to get to the end, hopefully you got the hint. There were miles of trails for horseback riding, one could see his personal zoo, tennis, swimming, and a dozen other possibilities.
So how did one get an invitation? If you were a Hollywood star, you or your agent would get a call from Hearst’s personal secretary on a Wednesday afternoon, saying that “Mr Hearst would like to have you as a guest at his ranch for this weekend”.
Now, there were a couple of unspoken rules. If you ever turned down the invitation, you were never asked again. Story is Katharine Hepburn, upon getting an invitation wondered why she’d want to come up to feed hogs or rope cattle, and turned it down. Supposedly she was never invited again.
If you did accept, you were allowed up to 2 cocktails before dinner, with no bringing of liquor permitted. David Niven was caught with a bottle of booze in his room. After dinner he returned to find his bags packed outside his room and escorted off the premises.
Friday evening you went to the Glendale train station with the other guests and rode in Hearst’s private railroad car up to San Luis Obispo. From there, you would be met by a fleet of limousines to take you along a dirt road the 40 miles to “The Ranch”.
I expect most guests, upon seeing this for first time on a Friday evening, would be awe-struck. You would probably be greeted at the front entrance by Marion, unpack in either one of his 3 “guest cottages”, or one of the many bedrooms in the main residence.
You would then go to the Assembly Room for a cocktail and conversation. After an hour or so, dinner would be announced. The next room was the “dining room”. With all of its formality, you would be surprised to see paper napkins and ketchup bottles on the table. Hearst desired this to remind him of his days as a boy, when he would come up to this hill and camp out. After all, this was a “ranch house”!
Hearst’s doctor told him in 1947 that he had to leave his beloved estate because of the altitude. I can imagine his thoughts leaving one last time with his chauffeur, knowing he would never return. He went to live in Marion Davies’ home in Beverly Hills and died there in 1951.
But the image I have had in my mind was a story told by a good friend of mine. His father was the business manager for one of the Hearst sons, and before the estate was ceded to the state in 1958, they had a meeting at this empty palace. I was thinking of the stories those rooms could tell…
By the way, the state of California initially didn’t even want it – considering it to be an expensive white elephant in the middle of nowhere. It has become by far their biggest money maker in the state park system. So much so that if you are planning a visit, make sure you call ahead or better yet buy your tickets on-line. I have come by on occasion surprised to learn the tours were sold out. People come from all over the world to see this.
A few final thoughts. There is so much more about Hearst Castle (the name the state gave it), but I hope that I have given you a good overview. I invite you to take a vicarious tour here.
Marion Davies is, to me, one of the more unappreciated actresses Hollywood has produced. She was Hearst’s companion for 30 years, and towards the end, saved the Hearst Corporation from bankruptcy with a personal loan to Hearst.
Charlie Chaplin considered her to be one of the world’s best comediennes. If you doubt me look at her 1928 movie Show People. It’s about a poor naïve country girl from Georgia who, with her father, come out to Hollywood in search of fame. She finds fame, and it is funny to see what fame does to her.
She had a self-deprecating sense of humor, and despite this movie being a silent movie (coming out a year or so before the “talkies”), the humor still comes through after 91 years.
The problem was that Hearst managed her career, and felt that being a dramatic actress was a step up from comedy. One of her first attempts of drama, Marianne, I thought was terrible. This film might be unique because it was first made during the silent era, then reshot in its entirety as a “talkie”.
In any event, I think she was far better as a comedienne than a dramatic actress. But she was pushed towards drama.
I think too as a person she was a kind and good soul.
You wouldn’t think visiting a cemetery would be an interesting thing to do in one’s free time, but a couple of years ago I visited Hollywood Forever, on Santa Monica Blvd in Los Angeles. It’s like a who’s who of the entertainment world there. And I saw Marion’s crypt.
Oh – and my drive up CA-1? Beautiful day. Because Highway 1 is bounded by rocks and cliffs on one side and cliffs and ocean on the other, I urge you to call CALTRANS before attempting it – at 1-800-427-ROAD. Enter “1” for the highway and then the Central California option.
It is frequently closed, particularly in the winter. You don’t want to drive 50 miles only to learn you can’t go any further and have to turn around. They have frequent landslides. In fact, I drove through a new tunnel when a small mountain moved onto the old road in the winter.
If you are going south to north (San Simeon to Carmel) a lunch at Nepenthe at Big Sur (20 miles south of Carmel) is suggested. The view is spectacular.
In a reminder of my impending geezerdom, I had the following short conversation with a server there. In homage to Lex, I will use the “Lexian form”.
YHC = Your Humble Correspondent
S = Server
YHC: “You know, Kim Novak used to live here for many years”
S: “Kim who?”
I hope you have a chance to visit “The Ranch” and drive this beautiful road.
Update 01/30/19 1302: If you want to learn more about Hearst and Davies, a wonderful autobiography by Marion, The Times We Had, should be on your reading list.
Hearst had a number of residences, among of which was a castle in the UK and a large complex in Northern California called Wyntoon. The castle is long gone, but Wyntoon is still owned by the Hearst Corporation and closed to the public. I believe though that “The Ranch” was his favorite residence.