Updated: Oct 3, 2019
“I would like to build something up on the hill at San Simeon. I get tired of going up there and camping in tents. I’m getting a little too old for that. I’d like to get something that would be a little more comfortable.”
— William Randolph Hearst
“William Randolph Hearst said this to the architect Julia Morgan,” Denise said.
Russ and Denise were seasoned guides, and tonight they were overseeing the matriculation of newly graduated docents at Hearst Castle. Enamored with the majesty and history of the place, the couple opted to throw a significant portion of their free time reliving the good old days of California opulence and excess. Everyone dressed in period clothing.
A week earlier, Russ brought his Schipperke, Bo, to Rory for his vaccinations. Impressed with the young doctor’s enthusiasm, he invited Rory and Katie to graduation night. Rory, in his usual ‘Hey, follow me, I’ve got a great thing going’ attitude, summarily invited René and Pelipa along. Russ took the faux pas in stride, remembering what he was like a long time ago.
“Would you like a glass of wine, Doc?” Russ offered Rory a drink. The catered affair offered beverages and hors d'oeuvres at either of two tables in the open-air temple. There were also two waiters circulating with the platters of treats.
“What’s the difference between guides and docents, Russ?” Rory asked.
“Guides are official. Except for special occasions like tonight, we wear uniforms, while the docents dress in period costumes. The guides wear gray slacks, white shirts, dark blue ties, and a blue blazer with nametags and State Park patches stitched on. The state pays us. The docents are volunteers who work five to ten hours a month.”
The group was mingling with others around the outdoor Neptune Pool under the ancient portico of the Roman Temple.
“This is a big gathering, Russ. How many people are in this class?”
“Only eight, but the party is open to their spouses and friends. This is also a yearly staff reunion, the culmination of the year. This is our night to recreate history. The park service replaced the old broken outdoor lighting system. We will offer year night time tours in the summer. We have selected more docents to accommodate the extra visits.”
“Would you like hors d'oeuvres?” A catering waitress displayed a tray of goodies.
“Sure,” Rory said.
“Right here at the Neptune Pool is where most of the tours start,” Russ explained as he pointed to the ancient temple facades surrounding the pool.
“Hearst bought entire pieces of antiquity. He purchased whole buildings, even temples, ordered them dismantled and brought them here. The wall behind us is the facing of a three-thousand-year-old Roman temple.”
“These night parties allow us to become part of the ageless dream,” Denise said as she joined her husband and Rory. “We love it when we can dress in the period and feel more a part of it.” Denise showed off her nineteen twenties style dress with the long fringe falling in several layers. Russ had a twenties style ‘zoot suit’ with a dark blue fedora.
Russ continued the Hearst Castle story. “After George’s death in 1891 in Washington DC, William Randolph’s mother, Phoebe, returned to California and restarted construction on a palatial residence in Pleasanton. For the project, Mrs. Hearst commissioned Julia Morgan as her architect. Her ideas impressed William Randolph.”
“I heard George Hearst, Billy’s gold and silver mining father paid for everything,” Rory said
“Yes and no, Doctor Evans,” Denise replied. “By the late 1800s money from mining was petering out. This castle on the hill was the brainchild of his son, William. The land was already in his family’s name, but San Simeon was a camping spot for them. Not until William Randolph made it big in the publishing business was he able to see his vision through. He was a self-made fellow, and I don’t think anyone called him Billy.”
“I bet his mom did,” Rory was into nicknames.
“But Denise, William’s father gave him his first newspaper…” Russ exclaimed.
“Wow, which one?” Rory interrupted Russ.
“The San Francisco Examiner. In 1887, when he was twenty-four.”
“But that’s like giving your son a million dollars when he leaves home. How did his dad get into the publishing business?”
“He won the paper in a gambling debt.”
“No shit! The man finds gold and silver in the mountains and then gains ownership of a San Francisco newspaper in a card game. Man, I wish I were there. Shoot, as long as I’m wishing, I’d like to be his son.”
“Wait, wait, William did do a lot of it on his own,” Denise persisted. “Shortly after being given the Examiner, William Randolph purchased another newspaper, the New York Journal, which would become the second in a long list of newspaper holdings he gained in the next decade of his life. At his peak, he owned over two-dozen newspapers nationwide. In fact, nearly one in four Americans got their news from a Hearst paper.”
“He must have liked the newspaper business,” Rory said.
“It was in his blood. Enrolled in St. Paul’s Preparatory School in Concord, New Hampshire at 16, William continued his education at Harvard where he showed the first signs of becoming a future publishing tycoon. At Harvard, he excelled in journalism and acted as the business manager of Harvard Lampoon. His election to the “Hasty Pudding” theatrical group revealed his talent and interest in drama. “Denise continued to defend her favorite tycoon. “Plus, it was his work in the theatrical group that led him to find his wife.”
“And his mistress,” Russ whispered in Rory’s ear.
“Russ, remember we cannot talk about that,” his wife remonstrated. “They have never proven it.”
“Like global warming?”
“Okay, Russ, go find someone else to talk to. I can manage the doctor’s Hearst education without you.”
Dismissed by his wife, Russ clinked his wine glass with Rory’s. “Ask her about the alcohol thing.” He whispered, then sauntered off to make nuisance elsewhere.
Sipping her chardonnay, Denise continued. “Construction began when Hearst inherited the family’s wealth. Hearst’s mother, Phoebe, died in the influenza epidemic, and William Randolph inherited this land and other Hearst properties and an estimated $11 million.
In 1919, William Randolph hired Julia Morgan to design the main building and guesthouses for his ranch in San Simeon. He instructed her to build ‘something that would be more comfortable’ than the platform tents they were using when they stayed here. Morgan’s classical training in Paris, her background in engineering, and her use of reinforced concrete suited her well for the project.”
“It was probably a dream job for her, designing modern structures to fit Mr. Hearst’s eclectic tastes, you know?” Rory said.
“Are you an art lover, Doctor Evans? Russ thinks he is, and his art wisdom increases the more wine he sips.”
“Oh no, not at all. Building a castle would be a cool puzzle, you know, building an entire complex to house priceless artifacts.”
“But it didn’t come all at once, Doctor Evans. They rebuilt this Neptune Pool three times. There were many do-overs.”
Katie walked up to them, smiling. Finding his free hand, she grabbed it and began swinging it. “I’m glad you’re a vet, or we would never have met, you know?” She kissed Rory on his cheek.
Denise held out her hand to Katie. “You must be the Doctor’s fiancée. Hi, I’m Denise Surber.”
“I’m Dr. Katie Reynolds; most people call me Dr. Katie. And you are Denise, the better half of Russ?”
Denise laughed. “For forty-eight years, now.” She pointed to Katie’s pearl necklace. “That’s a beautiful necklace, Dr. Katie.”
“Thank you! It’s my engagement necklace. After this comes the wedding ring, right Rory?”
“Yep.” He nodded, with a proud smile.
René neared holding a glass of wine in each hand.
“A little thirsty, René?”
“Rory, didn’t anyone tell you about the alcohol rule?”
“No, what is the alcohol rule?”
Troublemaker Russ returned, also holding a glass in each hand. He gave one to his wife as a peace signal. He knew it was okay when she smiled, nodded, and accepted the new glass for the empty one.
“Hearst had a thing about drinking alcohol, he banned it here. Remember, this was during Prohibition. It was illegal to handle and consume alcohol for non-medicinal reasons.”
“Hearst wasn’t a drinker, Russ.” Denise still tried to steer the conversation the politically correct way.
Russ toned down his volume so as not to draw attention. “It didn’t matter who you were, if you got drunk they sent away you.”
“Well, he was obeying the law.”
“Bullshit,” Russ mumbled. “He lived a double standard.”
“Okay, it may be scandalous, but why is it so surprising?” Rory asked. “I think anyone who is this privileged can do whatever they want. They will find a mistress.”
“Why do you say that,” Rory?” Katie was pretending to be nervous about her soon to be husband. “Why would a fellow not be there for his woman, the one he promised to love forever when they married?”
“I don’t know, Katie. I’m not rich, and I surely don’t want to try the experiment on you. These guys were miserable, they never found themselves, that was the point of the books. I’d have to be an author to understand it. But for us, honey, you’re all I need and want. I won’t be looking for anyone else, I promise.”
Russ continued about Hearst’s duplicity. “In 1903 William Randolph married a twenty-two-year-old actress, Millicent Wilson. He met her when she was sixteen, and he was thirty-four. By the time they married he was forty years old.”
“Quite an age discrepancy,” Katie said.
“My point exactly!” Rory exclaimed triumphantly. “If you’re rich enough, you can do anything you want.”
“Known as a Stage Door Johnny, he enjoyed hanging around backstage, sniffing out young talent, especially lady talent,” Russ snickered into his wineglass.
“That’s mean, Russ,” Denise said.
“Then why was he given the Stage Door Johnny nickname?” He persevered. “He first met Millicent in 1897. Her sister Anita chaperoned their first dates, and after a lengthy courtship, the couple married on April 28, 1903.”
“Long courtships sometimes happen, especially if the woman is beautiful.” Katie caught Rory’s eye. “Like ours, right, Rory?” She said.
Rory nodded wisely. “So big deal, a thirty-four-year-old fellow marries a twenty-one-year-old woman.”
“But he returned fifteen years later to find a second woman, who became his secret love.” Russ said.
“Who was she?”
“Marion Davies, an actress in Hollywood. He met Marion in 1918 when she starred in Cecilia of the Pink Roses, a film backed by Hearst. It was a year after Millicent delivered twins Randolph and David, their fourth and fifth children. I can only imagine how neglected this poor rich man felt, with his wife so preoccupied raising his five children.”
“So, Marion Davies was a fling, a temporary respite because he had too many kids?” Rory asked.
Russ shook his head. “It wasn’t temporary. He and Marion stayed close until he died. In fact, during the late thirties, hard times hit Hearst Corporation, and Marion gave William Randolph a check for one million dollars to save the company from collapse. So, you know she loved him. Evidently, everyone settled into an unspoken agreement.
To appease his wife, William publically banned alcohol and promiscuity at the retreat, also maintaining a double standard in other things. He also had a rule that prohibited his guests from bunking together. But he and Marion, while they had separate bedrooms, the carpet between their two rooms was well worn! Even today, we tour guides at San Simeon refer to Marion as Hearst’s “friend” or “companion.” We never call her his lover or mistress. But, if it weren’t for his never-dissolved marriage, she would have been his common-law wife, probably his legal one. Hearst spent the vast majority of his time with Marion, and it was she who sat with him as he lay dying. Undoubtedly, her position deserves some recognition. But even beyond her relationship with Hearst, Marion Davies was a fine actress and generous, fun-loving woman.”
“You’re in love with Hearst’s dead mistress, Russ!” Denise exclaimed.
“Maybe so,” he admitted. “Feel lucky I am living his affair vicariously, dear wife.” He paused, beaming with righteous vindication. “Some say Marion was a complicated alcoholic. She was a party girl, despite Hearst’s attempts to prevent her from drinking. But thanks to her, Hearst Castle often rang with laughter during star-studded weekends in the 1920s and 30s. Though some accused Marion of alcoholism, she had an incredible career, a healthy if unique relationship, and good fiscal sense despite the gin. She knew how to have fun.”
When the wine petered out, the guests became restless. Russ noticed. “Are you ready for a tour?”
“Sure,” Rory replied.
“Wait.” Katie grabbed his arm. “Rory, did you get permission to have René and Pelipa join us?”
Russ looked over with a questioning look.
“Is it okay with you, Russ?” Katie asked politely, irritated Rory hadn’t done so already.
She caught René and Pelipa’s attention and waved them over.
“Absolutely,” Russ said as Denise nodded her head.
“What about that statue? It looks like the centerpiece of the pool.” Katie pointed to an alcove displaying a majestic goddess, standing naked and tall on a seashell, fussing with her hair.
“That’s Venus Rising. Hearst commissioned it.”
The alabaster marble sculpture was pure white, and it mesmerized Katie.
“What is it, Katie?”
“Huh? Oh Rory the sculpture speaks to me.”
“In ancient history, Aphrodite and Venus was the same goddess. Aphrodite came from Greek legends and became Venus in Roman stories. Still, it was the same person, arising from the waves, the sea foam off the western end of Cyprus,” Denise said.
“And what do they call the people underneath her seashell?” Rory wondered. “They look like mermaids at her feet.”
“Both mermaids and mermen,” Russ said. “You can tell the mermen from the mermaids.”
“How?” Rory asked.
“Mermen have two tails as opposed to the ladies, who only have one.”
“Oh, I see, one, two, three, four, five six mermaids, and two mermen, right?”
“Yep, that’s a good ratio!”
Russ ascended the right stairwell of the Neptune Pool. “Let’s get going.”
As the group proceeded up the concrete stairway designed by Julia Morgan a century earlier, Denise turned to help with cleanup before she followed. Katie stayed to help her.
“You’re here for a tour. Go catch up, Dr. Reynolds.”
Seeing Rory and Russ at the top of the stairs she hurried to the first stair to join them and grabbed the stone railing she felt a kind of tug and stopped. When she looked up, she was very close to the Venus figure, and it held her motionless. She stood there for a long time.
Waiting for Katie Pelipa and René paused midway, their hands on the stone railing.
Russ and Rory were waiting at the top of the stairs animatedly discussing the castle.
“Hearst was living in New York and intent on becoming a politician. He lived life on a grand scale, Doc, and expected to be president. That’s why he stayed in New York, for political reasons.”
“President of the United States?”
“Oh, yeah, he wanted to be president. But after a while, he realized this would never happen, and he returned to California. Still, he maintained big dreams, plus he had unlimited wealth. So, he bought and built castles.”
“There are two Hearst Castles?”
“There is Doc. This one, in California, he built for his family. And he bought and refurbished another castle in England to give Marion as a place to raise their baby.”
Katie remained transfixed, unable to understand why the statue mesmerized her so. Her mind went blank, she became lightheaded and dizzy, and grabbed the rail with both hands. There was a ringing in her ears and, as it grew louder, the dizzying whirlwind worsened, and her knees buckled.
Denise and Pelipa saw Katie swooning and rushed to help. Denise came up the steps and grabbed Katie around the waist. Pelipa pulled Katie’s hands from the railing, threw an arm over her shoulder, and they guided her off the step.
“I’m sorry, you guys. I’m usually not this fuzzy after a peyote tepee.” But she knew this differed from the peyote, entirely different.
“What do you feel, Katie?” Pelipa asked.
“I’m not sure. It feels like something is calling me from somewhere. Oh God, I hope I don’t have to go back to the rez,” she mumbled, shaking her head. “It’s something I can’t handle right now.”
“Hey, what’s going on down there?” René rushed down the steps, thinking it was Pelipa. “What happened? Are you okay, Pelipa?”
“Katie fainted René,” Pelipa said.
“René,” Denise pulled him to the side. “Get a glass of water from the wait staff.” She waited until he was out of earshot and placed her hand on Katie’s forehead. “Is everything okay? Do you want to sit down?”
“No, I’m fine. It was a momentary thing.” Katie leaned heavily against the railing.
“Here’s your water, Katie.” René rushed back.
She stood sipping it. Noticing everyone at the bottom of the stairs, Rory bounded down the steps. “What happened, Katie?”
“Nothing, honey. I think it’s a reaction to the MSG we had on our way here. I think that’s all it is.” She wanted to allay his, and her fears. “I’m all right, hold my hand up the stairs. I must stay away from Chinese food.”
“Umm hmmm, help me up the stairs.”
“I was like that when I was pregnant, Doctor Katie.” Denise offered.
“No, things are normal down there, menses-wise,” Katie chuckled. Her sense of humor returned as she recovered.
“Do you want to go on, Doctor Katie?” Russ asked.
She smiled and nodded.
He looked at Denise. “What do you think?”
“Okay, but let’s go slower. Don’t scatter out so much, Russ.”
Russ stopped at the top of the staircase. The group ahead of them was moving too slowly. “Let’s take the tour in reverse,” Russ decided. “Follow me.”
“Do you think it would be okay?” Denise said worriedly. “It’s totally off protocol.”
“Yes, Denise.” He started out slowly until Rory caught up with him, wanting to know more about the girlfriend. “What were you saying about his mistress, Marion?”