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An Imperial Portrait


After spending $40 for two 75 minute guided walks through some of the 165 rooms and guest houses of La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Mountain), I learned what Gore Vidal already knew about tasteless millionaires: “The more money an American accumulates, the less interesting he becomes.”

In the first decade of the 20th Century, after forging a new style of sensationalist journalism in the 1890s, William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) served two terms in the House, and then aspired unsuccessfully to be Mayor and Governor of New York and President of the United States. Failing to win electoral backing, Hearst built his own intimidating and more formal kingdom: vast media holdings and personal castles.

Hearst hired Julia Morgan, a classy architect, to arrange the imported cathedral ceilings and Roman columns. Morgan added taste and talent to Hearst’s accumulation habit. His hotel-sized kitchen and the royally-proportioned dining room gave me hunger pangs, the kind Hearst must have experienced whenever he saw a valuable object that belonged to someone else.

The Castle at Sin Simeon, located on 240,000 acres about midway on the coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco, now belongs to the State of California. His father, mining mogul George Hearst, had inhaled vast California landscapes and seascapes for less than $1 an acre. When Hearst died, his family learned how expensive maintenance would be and they ceded the gloomy and ornate mansion to the State.

As the bus driver carefully navigated the sharp curves on the winding, narrow road away from the coastal highway, I tried to conceive of what might have motivated this eccentric man to erect the palace that loomed high above us, like a set from a Dracula movie. At age ten, the precocious Hearst started collecting expensive art. A decade later, Harvard expelled him for bringing a mule into the Dean’s office with a pejorative reference attached to it. As he used the newspaper business to build on his father’s already impressive fortune, his pranks turned downright vicious: like trying to start a war.

In 1895, Hearst bought the New York Morning Journal and spent lavishly to win a circulation war with the New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer. He lowered the paper’s price to a penny, increased the number of pages, added more comic strips and, ironically, out sensationalized Pulitzer, who had begun the “appeal to the base instincts” style journalism. Hearst’s front page featured headlines like “Spaniards Rape American Women in Cuba,” – not true — to paint Spain as the blackest of hats in its war to prevent independence in Cuba. Hearst wanted the United States to go to war and used his newspaper shamelessly and successfully to manipulate public opinion for intervention.

He liked big events, like wars, and big buildings to live in and to invite adoring guests. Hearst instructed Julia Morgan to join each bedroom with a bathroom so that Jean Harlow would not have share a toilet with Harpo Marx. Cary Grant, the tour guide informed us, made thirty four visits to the Castle during that period. Cary remarked that the Castle “was a great place to spend the Depression.”

In those economically bad times, millions lived without indoor plumbing and waited on bread lines while Mary Pickford cheerfully played tennis with Charley Chaplin at Hearst’s private courts. Gary Cooper swam laps in the Castle’s tiled pool of dreams. Harpo did acrobatics in the Castle library. Why not, since Hearst’s vast collection of books looked unread!

The guide showed us the movie theater where guests watched first run films after dinner. We missed the bowling alley – that would have been Tour #3. The State dismantled Hearst’s private zoo, a place to retreat when looking at famous people got boring.

The Castle tours left me with an overwhelming desire to consume. Had Hearst’s ghost infected me? Instead of grazing at the greasy hamburger-hotdog-French fry stands that the State offers to tourists at the bus station below the Castle, I ate pumpkin fudge that the State also markets to those who realize that the cure for looking at overindulgence is practicing it.

As I ate more disgustingly sweet fudge, I concluded that the Castle tour had taught me to behave like Hearst himself: reject the adage that “enough is enough.” Indeed, the first sugar aftershock stirred my brain maliciously.

Hearst lived much of his life in this bizarre and incongruous place with his mistress, actress Marion Davis, until he died. His children, from his wife, Millicent, whom he never divorced, and his grandchildren also enjoyed spent times staring at the infinite number of imported gewgaws, ornate engravings and tiles in almost every room?

Did his grand daughter Patricia’s Castle experience link to her 1974 kidnapping and then supposed capitulation to the “Stockholm syndrome,” and thus her membership in the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA)?

This group of so-called revolutionaries supposedly brainwashed Patty and then transformed her from spoiled rich kid to bank robber. The non-descript heiress became Tania (named after the woman who died with Che Guyevara in Bolivia in 1967), a bisexual, gun-toting revolutionary spewing condemnation of the vile capitalist class.

After serving 21 months of a seven-year prison sentence for bank robbery, Patty regained her ruling class senses. To save her wealthy ass, she ratted out her Symbionese comrades, those she briefly loved and went on to star un-brilliantly in several films. In 1998, Bill Clinton gave her a presidential pardon.

When the SLA kidnapped Patty, her father, who inherited the San Francisco Examiner, might have wondered if his old man had somehow offended the Republic of Symbia. Did Patty’s participation in proletarian armed struggle offer a poetic epitaph for her conscienceless grandpa?

Or maybe, Patty’s flirtation with guns related to grandpa’s obsession with power – no matter how misused. After entertaining Mussolini’s mistress at his Castle, Hearst checked out the Nazis.

“I flew up to Berlin and had a long talk with Hitler yesterday,” he wrote in 1934. “Hitler certainly is an extraordinary man. We estimate him too lightly in America. He has enormous enthusiasm, a marvelous faculty for dramatic oratory, and great organizing ability. Of course all these qualities can be misdirected. I only hope that he and the Germans may have sense enough to keep out of another war.”

Journalist George Seldes attributed Hearst’s pro-Nazi stance to Hitler’s manipulation of the easily flattered – by power – media baron. Seldes reported that US American Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, said that “[When] Hearst came to take the waters at Bad Nauheim [Germany] in September 1934…Hitler sent two of his most trusted Nazi propagandists…to ask Hearst how Nazism could present a better image in the U.S. When Hearst went to Berlin later in the month, he was taken to see Hitler.”

Seldes also said that Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, cut a $400,000 a year deal with Hearst, which led him to “completely chang[ed] the editorial policy of his nineteen daily newspapers the same month he got the money.”

Hearst sued over such claims, but Dan Gillmor, publisher of the magazine Friday, told the court that “Promptly after this visit with Adolph Hitler and the making of said arrangements… plaintiff, William Randolph Hearst, instructed all Hearst press correspondents in Germany, including those of INS (Hearst’s International News Service) to report happenings in Germany only in a friendly manner. All of correspondents reporting happenings in Germany accurately and without friendliness, sympathy and bias for the actions of the German government, were transferred elsewhere, discharged, or forced to resign.”

Whether Hearst actually took Nazi money in return for good US press remains in the realm of cloudy biography. The extremely wealthy have ways to turn megalomania into eerie designs. Hearst’s accumulation addiction led him to overextend his own fortune. He had to sell part of his art collection and halt construction on the Castle.

When he died, Hearst still had enough money to hold on to his news empire. The film, “Citizen Kane,” showed Hearst as a victim of childhood trauma. In his adult life, he compensated for any slight by abusing power.

Hearst’s life exemplifies the sickness of empire – personal or national. Vast amounts of wealth warp sensibilities. Those who inherit, steal or even make money tend to think they can export their grandiose notions and magically solve the maladies of others. They call it democracy, of course, or the American way of life.

After two and a half hours of seeing the results of avarice, I grew weary of Hearst’s limitless appetites for power, women, and possessions. During the height of the 1930s depression, Hearst deposited $50 thousand a day into his account, from the largest publishing empire in history. But his spending habits on the Castle outstripped his income. He had to sell some accumulated treasures and stop expanding the mansion. Might this teach a lesson to those who run the US empire today?

Landau directs Digital Media at Cal Poly Pomona University and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. His new book is THE BUSINESS OF AMERICA: HOW CONSUMERS HAVE REPLACED CITIZENS AND HOW WE CAN REVERSE THE TREND.

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