The Seduction of a Bungalow: William Randolph Hearst

Hearst Castle, San Simeon, CA

Hearst Castle, San Simeon, CA

The Hearst Castle (90,000+ square feet) was built on “La Cuesta Encantada” (“The Enchanted Hill”), the ranch William Randolph Hearst inherited.

The Hearst Castle began with Hearst’s desire for “a bungalow” retreat on the site where a tent had always been his preference on vacations there.

William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) was interesting in so many ways. He attended an exclusive boarding school in New Hampshire and was expelled from Harvard for mischievous behavior, like sponsoring spontaneous beer blasts on Harvard Yard and having potty chambers containing the photographs of professors he didn’t like delivered to their homes and offices.

After Harvard the young Mr. Hearst was given a job by his father, George, in the Hearst family newspaper business. He rescued the San Francisco Examiner from near failure by hiring some of the very best journalists of his time. He purchased other large city newspapers in Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, and New York. He built the Hearst family business into a newspaper, radio, and television news and entertainment empire.

The young Hearst was a maverick and political progressive. He appears to have been a man of conscience. He worked for the end of child labor, championed the causes of organized labor, allied himself with progressives, and, as shown in a film viewed at the end of Hearst Castle tour, called for the redistribution of wealth in America.

“The distribution of wealth is just as important as its creation. Any man who has the brains to think and the nerve to act for the benefit of the people of the country is considered a radical by those who are content with stagnation and willing to endure disaster. If you ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is, “You are.”

Twice elected to the United States House of Representatives (1903 and 1907) as a Democrat, Hearst sought his party’s nomination for President in 1904 but was sorely disappointed that his hero, Williams Jennings Bryant, would not support his nomination. He was narrowly defeated in candidacies for Mayor of New York City (1905 and 1909) and as candidate for Governor of New York (1906). In his second bid for Mayor, he ran as candidate of a short-lived a third party of his own creation, the Municipal Ownership League, formed to defeat Tammany Hall’s stranglehold on the NYC Democratic Party.

By the time of his last run at political office – his bid to become the Democratic Party candidate for the U.S. Senate seat in New York in 1922, backed by Tammany Hall – he had become know for “yellow journalism” whose chief journalistic opponent was Joseph Pulitzer.

“In 1934 after checking with Jewish leaders to make sure the visit would prove of benefit to Jews, Hearst visited Berlin to interview Adolf Hitler. Hitler asked why he was so misunderstood by the American press. ‘Because Americans believe in democracy,’ Hearst answered bluntly, ‘and are averse to dictatorship.’ Hearst’s Sunday papers ran columns without rebuttal by Hermann Göring and Dr. Alfred Rosenberg.” (Brechin, “Imperial San Francisco”, 1999, University of California Press, cited on Wikipedia)

In 1935, John Spivak described Hearst’s “current efforts to scare up the ‘Red’ bogey as one of the first steps in preparing the country for Fascism. Hearst, with his chain of newspapers reaches millions of readers. Just before he started his anti-Red drive he returned from a visit to Germany where he had conferred with Hitler and other Nazi leaders. Shortly after his arrival home he stated in a front page editorial that this country need not fear Fascism, that Fascism can come only when a country is menaced by Communism.” (Source: John Spivak, New Masses, Feb. 5, 1935. Hitler asked Hearst ”

Throughout it all, Hasrst found respite in the lovely hills that quickly rise 1600 feet above the Pacific Ocean shoreline up a winding road in San Simeon, California. As a boy and young man it was his favorite place, a place of extraordinary natural beauty where he was alone.

In 1919, Hearst decided to forgo the camping that had been his practice. He hired Los Angeles architect Julia Morgan to design a modest bungalow.

How, then, did a bungalow turn into a 90,000+ square foot castle that was still expanding when Hearst died in 1951? How did the bungalow retreat become the lavish quarters that hosted George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Calvin Coolidge, not to mention the host of other high-profile guests from the entertainment industry, newspaper, magazine, radio/television magnates like himself?

Perhaps the better question is why? How is easy. He had the money. He paid for it.

Why is harder and deeper than how. Why would a man who loved to camp under the stars in the clouds overlooking the Pacific Ocean and his own land for as far as his eye could see give up the relative simplicity of a bungalow?

What happens inside a man or woman is always a mystery beyond human understanding at its fullest. We rarely understand our own selves, let along understand what goes on inside the hearts and minds of others. One can only guess at why, but the journey from the bungalow to a castle – or the dream of it – is not far from any of us, if truth be told.

Certainly a bungalow would do. And not just any “bungalow” but one designed by a brilliant female architect from LA (250 miles south of San Simeon). Even William’s bungalow would have been a castle for most Americans. His bungalow would have born little resemblance to the working-class bungalows of Queens, New York or Little Italy in Chicago. It would be a Hearst bungalow. But it would not be a castle.

Touring the Hearst Castle this week helped shed light on why the bungalow mushroomed into a castle.

Ours was a special two-hour handicapped-accessible evening tour. There were four of us with a docent to ourselves. My wife, Kay, qualified for the handicapped tour because she had broken her leg and needed a wheel chair. The other couple was paired, although neither of them was disabled. Long before they climbed aboard the bus, we had been fascinated with the man who seemed agitated that the ticket agents weren’t showing him special deference. Ticket agents are like that. They don’t care who you are. If you’re not next in line, you’re not next and that’s just the way it is, even a the Hearst Castle.

The couple climbed aboard our bus just as we were about to leave. The man, dressed in a black suit with black shirt and black shoes, continued to shake his head. His wife managed a smile our way.

On the tour, the man showed no interest in conversation, but asked lots of questions about Mr. Hearst’s rise to prominence and the fortune represented by the castle itself. He was intensely interested to learn how William Randolph Hearst ended up with a castle.

At the end of the tour, he handed me his business card. “I’m Mr. Excellence. and within five years my real estate company will be bigger than Century 21.”

The business card had two pictures – Mr. Excellent dressed in black, looking very serious; and a black silhouette of Super Man with an E on his chest complete with a cape.

“So where are staying?” I asked. “We’re not staying. We’re driving home tonight. (It’s 9:00 P.M.) “You live nearby?” “No, it’s about an hour south of LA, a five hour drive. We’ll switch off. No problem. We’ll sleep in late in the morning.”

So the man who now boasts of the fastest growing real estate company in all of California drives five hours at 9:00 P.M. instead of springing for a room on the plains below the Hearst Castle in Cambria or San Simeon? It seemed an incongruity, apparent to the inquirer, yet unapparent to the speaker.

More interesting was the question why. Why did Mr. Excellent feel the need to give us his business card and tell us how successful – how important – he was or would become? Why did the young conscientious William Randolph Hearst, the advocate for the redistribution of wealth, forsake his bungalow for a castle?

2 thoughts on “The Seduction of a Bungalow: William Randolph Hearst

  1. Tis for him to know, and us to wonder why – except maybe it became a retreat where he could privately entertain his ‘distinguished’ guests’ in a place of relative peace, quiet, and beauty that actually oushone the beauty of the building he put up.
    … Maybe meeting other’s needs and expectations???

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    • True. What interests me most is the spiritual journey from advocating the redistribution of wealth to total absorption in building a “yellow journalism” empire and from his (relatively) modest desire for “a bungalow” to the never-finished, always-more-to-build “castle”. At one point, according to the docent, Hearst expanded “the ranch” to 400 SQUARE MILES of property. His estranged wife (they never divorces, presumably because Millicent was Roman Catholic), a former NYC “chorus girl” moved back to NYC where she was highly revered by social justice people for developing and maintaining a food program for the poor. She went one way. He went the other to become “the most hated man in America”.

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