While visiting the construction site of his fabulous San Simeon Castle, William Randolph Hearst sent his English agent, Alice Head, a brief telegram initiating the purchase of some nonspecific castle somewhere in the United Kingdom. What could possibly draw his interest to a generic English castle when he was already assembling a castle over which he had entire design approval; at a beloved coastal location near the center of his California business operations; with a size and structure that would quite comfortably house his European art, furniture, and architectural collections?
The provocative magazine that fired Hearst’s imagination was the very genteel Country Life, a quintessentially English magazine for aristocratic readers. In the 1920s Country Life was THE great judge of upper class English taste. The magazine often opened with the “Girls in Pearls” feature: the studio portrait of a debutante whose marriage had recently been announced. Then, within the magazine itself, nobles could read elegant gossip about their fox hunts, their yachting competitions at Cowes, their parties, and their grouse-hunting in Scotland. A favorable profile of a great country house or garden in this magazine could make or break a family’s worthiness to be part of the highest social sphere in England.
The April 2, 1921, issue of Country Life included an article about a remarkable collection of medieval arms housed in the Welsh castle St. Donat’s. The article would have remained just a fusty description had the author Francis Henry Cripps-Day not pointed out the one cultural treasure that William Randolph Hearst did not possess and had not even understood before. It was a prize that would be beyond the reach of most men in the world–and, hence, became an irresistible quest for Hearst and men like him. As Cripps-Day passionately rose to champion the cause of armorial collecting, he wrote the lines that caused Hearst to stop and reorder his passions. Cripps-Day firmly stated that the arms in St. Donat’s were magnificent because they provided “the actual and personal setting to the scene which the imagination is trying to reconstruct.”
What did that mean?
Hearst had certainly collected warehouses full of historical and artistic objects that were the envy of many great museums. But the context–”the actual and personal setting” at Hearst Castle–of these treasures, he had to admit, was new and a mixture of many architectural styles. His California castle La Cuesta Encantata was–by Cripps-Day’s standards–a second best mixture. Only genuine objects in their original setting had the highest value; and Hearst’s American castle, no matter how wonderfully designed, would always be inauthentic: a faint echo rather than a powerful authority.
In mulling over this article, Hearst apparently felt a metaphorical gauntlet hurled down before him–and he picked it up. He would no longer just be a collector of armor, furniture, paintings, and sculpture: he would buy authenticity itself.
So, regardless of his stated indifference as to a specific castle and despite his
businessman’s instinct to look for the best bargain, Hearst trained his sights on that very castle in the west of Wales about which he had read: St. Donat’s.
Next time: Americans’ bittersweet love affair with Old Wealth and England.
Photo credit: St. Donats Castle courtesy of Wedding Day Wales