SAN SIMEON, CALF. — It has been called "The Enchanted Hill" and a great many less favorable things. Depending upon the viewer's perspective, San Simeon -- the vast and mind-boggling castle built between 1919 and 1947 for William Randolph Hearst -- is either a majestic and unbelievable fairy tale spun from an American dream, or a dreadfully overblown bastardization of classical style laden with plundered treasures.
Whatever your view, Hearst's home just north of Morro Bay is a spectacle of the first order. Declared a California State Historical Monument and opened to the public in 1958, San Simeon offers a glimpse into the grandiose way American royalty -- in Hearst's case, a media czar who doted on the Hollywood set -- lived and entertained.
A recent culinary tour of the California State Parks-operated museum reveals that, as a private host, Hearst was every inch the quirky character that legend has painted the public man.
Nelle Lyons, a state-employed guide, shared tidbits as she led us through a tour of Hearst's private rooms and kitchens.
Beneath a ceiling taken from a 16th century Renaissance monastery, salt and pepper shakers shaped like Donald Duck were passed back and forth over a 300-year-old table in the great refectory dining hall. At breakfast, ancient silver adornments surrounded bottles of Heinz ketchup.
Shirley Temple and Cary Grant, Loretta Young, Clark Gable, Carol Lombard, Betty Davis, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin -- the list is an endless who's who of film giants -- were among the guests who sparkled at San Simeon. Hearst produced films as well as newspapers, and his love of the cinema extended to those who appeared before the camera. In its day, Hearst's spectacular estate 200 miles north of Hollywood was the scene of some of the nation's most celebrated theme events, such as gold rush-era '49ers parties, "kiddie" events (adults dressed like tots), circuses and endless costume affairs.
Hearst stood front-and-center. Legend has it that actor David Niven, upon meeting the pear-shaped Hearst bedecked in a brilliant green suit, later declared his encounter as being "like shaking hands with a very friendly avocado."
In a setting that included unspeakable treasures, host Hearst could be generously benevolent or notably parsimonious. Oak trees were hung with little green boxes concealing telephones from which a guest could call for iced tea or lemonade, Ms. Lyons said.
But the help was pointedly instructed: Except in cases of illness, absolutely no breakfasts in bed. He eschewed suchpampering.
A terrace above one of the vast marble-lined pools was created to accommodate non-swimming guests; hors d'oeuvres, but never meals, were served there.
Ten to 20 guests were usually accommodated. The main building alone includes 24 guest rooms, in addition to outlying cottages.
"Hearst liked a good party," Ms. Lyons says, "and he apparently felt more comfortable when he was entertaining a crowd."
Typically, guests stayed three to four days, but some lingered. During the war in Europe, one of the Rothschilds enjoyed hospitable sanctuary for some two years.
"[Hearst] never told you the duration of your welcome," Ms. Lyons says, "but as your place card at dinner was moved farther and farther from Hearst's seat, you got the hint."
At the heart of Hearst's hospitality was a pair of main kitchens -- pale yellow-green tiled rooms decorated with floral insets -- which the master of the estate often frequented.
By day, 19 to 25 members of the household staff bustled through, seeing to the appetites of guests, Hearst and his companion Marion Davies. But late at night, guests who survived an evening's revelry might witness Hearst whipping up portions of his signature dish, Welsh rarebit -- little more than a rich cheese sauce fortified with beer served over toast.
More than 70 years after its inception, the culinary area remains an intriguing glimpse into haute hospitality, right down to the fixtures.
Brass birds top faucets in deep industrial-size sinks. Cabinets filled with ornate molds for gelatins and ice creams cover walls. One hundred place settings of Booth Co.'s Old Blue Willow design once occupied space in the pantry, now down to a few settings still on display.
European-style cuisine was not part of the fare. According to a preface in "The Enchanted Hill Cookbook" (Blake Printing and Publishing, 1972), written by Hearst's second son, William Randolph Hearst Jr., "There were a minimum of dishes done in a fancy French or Italian style." Ms. Lyons says that "ranch style" was more the mode, including roast beef, turkey or steaks.
Liquor was poured judiciously. A single cocktail before dinner was Hearst's unspoken rule for his guests. For his part, Hearst doted on beer and wine, as his spacious cellars reveal.