While constructing San Simeon Castle, William Randolph Hearst instructed his English agent to purchase some nonspecific castle somewhere in the United Kingdom.
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
William Randolph Hearst was building a castle in California–and then sent a very startling telegram.
On a hot California day in 1925 newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst drove to his construction project overlooking a bay midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. His mountainous 250,000-acre ranch was called Rancho Piedra Blanca–White Stone Ranch–and here as a boy and a young man Hearst had loved to camp, hike, and savor the glorious view down to the curving peninsula protecting the bay below. However, at age 56 Hearst had confided in architect Julia Morgan, “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.”* So in 1919 Morgan began designing something “a little more comfortable” that also met Hearst’s other more extraordinary specifications.
Hearst was delighted with the progress on the project. Nevertheless, on this particular day, August 13, 1925, he also took a few moments to send a cable to London. The recipient of the cable was Alice Head, editor of Hearst’s three-year-old British version of Good Housekeeping. She read the message multiple times to make sure she had not imagined it:
WANT BUY CASTLE IN ENGLAND PLEASE FIND WHICH ONES AVAILABLE STDONATS [sic] PERHAPS SATISFACTORY AT PROPER PRICE BUT PRICE QUOTED SEEMS VERY HIGH SEE IF YOU CAN GET RIGHT PRICE ON STDONATS OR ANY OTHER EQUALLY GOOD
The brief cable was stunning: in under forty words Hearst had authorized Head to see about the purchase of any English castle of good quality at an acceptable price. The request was probably unique in the history of the world; and, as a personal order from her American boss, it sent a dazed Head scurrying to turn her hand to the task.
Any observer standing beside Hearst at that moment would have been equally startled; because on this day when Hearst authorized the purchase of an English castle, he was overseeing the construction site of what would become the spectacular Hearst Castle. He fondly referred to his castle overlooking San Simeon Bay as “the ranch,” but he formally named it La Cuesta Encantata, The Enchanted Hill. It would cost over half a billion dollars in 2018 value and take thirty years to complete.
In the next post, let’s see why an American would buy a second castle.
Photo Credit: Free Image, Wikipedia
*Wilson, Mark Wilson: forward by Lynn Forney McMurray. Julia Morgan:
Architect of Beauty. p. 105
You may have, at some time, yearned to walk along a country footpath, clamber over a stile, and enter a new world that stirred your heart and imagination. Many of us have discovered England to be such a place: a nation honoring heroes, heroines, physical battles and spiritual quests, legends and whimsy, architecture and natural beauty.
This blog will introduce some of the stories, landscapes, and personalities to some of you; for others, this will be a place where you can add your own experiences of a land that has treated us as kindred (yes, we had that Big Quarrel in 1776) and inspires us with its history, art, and beauty. I will begin with some interesting information from my book-in-progress, The Downton Era: Great Houses, Churchills, and Mitfords; other posts may give travel tips or just be amusing.
Come join me in traveling the history and landscapes of Britain.
Photo credits: Nancy Parrish