April 24th, 2008

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50 years of celebrating the Castle

When Jane Alice Peters was a child, perhaps the future Carole Lombard -- like so many other little girls -- imagined what it would be like to be a princess. (Yes, they were doing this in days before Disney.) Like most little girls not named Grace Kelly, she never actually became one (although, like Kelly, she did become a movie queen), but Carole nevertheless spent a number of days in a real-life castle. And to do so, she didn't have to travel to a faraway land. In fact, she didn't even have to leave her home state of California.

All Lombard had to do was travel up the coast to San Simeon, where publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst had built (well, was actually in the process of building) one of the most fabulous residences known to man. Since the woman in his life, Marion Davies, was a film actress of note -- and a pretty good one, too, despite what you may have heard (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/64737.html) -- many of her friends in the movie community were invited to visit what Hearst always called “La Cuesta Encantada,” Spanish for “The Enchanted Hill," or "the ranch."

Hearst (1863-1951) was a legendary if controversial figure in American journalism. His newspapers emphasized sensationalism, but often also worked for public reform, particularly in Hearst's early years. He also founded a number of successful magazines (many of which still print today, largely outliving the chain's newspapers) and was active in motion pictures -- most for productions that had nothing to do with Davies. Hearst additionally was a noted art collector.

The woman with Hearst in the picture above, her face partially obscured by an oddly angled hat, is architect Julia Morgan, whose vision helped Hearst build his castle. Perhaps the leading female architect of her time, Morgan did many assignments for Hearst, including the old Herald-Examiner building in downtown Los Angeles.

Hearst Castle (which was never completed -- work stopped in 1947, after Hearst's deteriorating health forced him to leave) is fabulous; its many rooms contain all sorts of priceless art and architectural treasures from a wide-ranging array of sources. It can at times overwhelm you with its gaudiness...and yet, it all works, thanks to Hearst's sense of taste. In a way, he's the man Donald Trump always wished he could be.

This pool (there's also an indoor one that's equally stunning) is arguably the most famous part of Hearst Castle. It looks Olympian, as if it had been designed as a temple to the gods. (The pool was used as an exterior scene in the 1960 film "Spartacus.")

As stated before, Lombard was an occasional guest at Hearst Castle, as were many other celebrities, not just Hollywood folks. Here's a still from one of Hearst's costume parties, showing columnist Walter Winchell trading places with Clark Gable (who by now was used to playing a newspaperman):

Charlie Chaplin, shown regaling an audience at San Simeon, was another frequent guest:

For the past half-century, we common folk have been able to experience the joy and architectural brilliance that is Hearst Castle. In 1957, the Hearst family donated the ranch to the state of California, and the following year it became open to the public. It's become a major tourist attraction, and the anniversary is being celebrated in a number of ways.

Last week, a VIP gala featured Davies' silent gem "Show People" -- with a live orchestral score -- in the castle's movie theater, where guests used to watch the latest studio releases (sometimes before the public did).

Other events are coming up, too. On May 1, there will be a fashion show, "Going Hollywood" (taken from the name of a Davies film), and on May 31, enjoy gourmet treats, jazz music, a live auction and more at "Twilight On The Terrace." Both of those events cost in the $100 range -- but conversely, on Monday, June 2, all Hearst Castle tours are free.

If you join the group Friends of Hearst Castle (http://www.friendsofhearstcastle.org/) by Friday, you can receive a 10% discount on the above programs, as well as several others they sponsor. For more on the Castle itself, visit its official site at http://www.hearstcastle.com/.

I visited San Simeon in June 1989, taking three of the four tours then offered. I said at the time that if I'm blessed enough to reach heaven, I hope at the least it will be half as lovely as Hearst Castle. And I still feel that way.
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