Wednesday, June 25, 2014


 Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California

Once upon a time, one of the richest and most powerful men in America built himself a castle. In the process, he practically dismantled Europe, crating up whole monasteries and medieval palaces and then reassembling them on a remote mountain top off the coast of California. And what a castle! It was not only his home, but a private museum filled with thousands of priceless antiques and architecture.

Hearst Castle: A Billionaire’s Pleasure Palace

On a recent weekend, my family and I drove from Los Angeles up the coast to Cambria where we spent the night at a rustic motel right across the street from one of California’s famous wild and untouched beaches. We had reservations for the following day to tour Hearst Castle, located 12 miles away in San Simeon. We wanted to be rested for what would be an all day experience, and even then, we wouldn’t begin to see it all.

We arrived early in the morning at the Visitor’s Center and were the first in line to clamor aboard one of the trams that would make the steep five mile trek up the mountain to the Castle. Hearst had chosen this impossibly remote place because his father George used to take him camping (on those rare occasions he spent any time with him at all) and their favorite campsite was the top of this steep mountain with its spectacular 180 degree view of the ocean. George Hearst, who made his fortune in mining, owned not only the mountain, but several thousand square miles of pristine California coastline as well. William Randolph, out of childhood nostalgia, decided to build a permanent camping site there, but one fit for a king.

An Awesome Al Roker Day!

I’d been to the Castle twice before and I knew the weather could be unpredictable. Being so close to the ocean it’s often foggy, windy, hazy or depressingly overcast. I hate taking pictures full of dull, grey skies so I crossed my fingers and made a silent prayer to the weather gods for a nice day. But what I got was something more—I got a miracle! There wasn’t a cloud anywhere to be seen: no California haze, no fog, no wind, no nothing. It was so clear, we could see for miles. We could not believe our luck.

(Al Roker, Weatherman for NBC, image courtesy of Google)

Even our guide was dumbstruck. Gathering us together for the tour, the first thing she said to us was, “I’ve never seen weather like this in all the years I’ve worked here! I don’t know who to thank for this incredible day, but…”

I started waving my hand and pointing at myself and hollered, “Me! You can thank me! I called my man Al Roker personally and requested it!” Al, you came through for me again!

 A spectacular day and equally spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean

The Castle

There are three available tours during the day and we’d signed up for two. The first tour took us through the main house, called Casa Grande; the second toured the grounds, visitor’s cottages and the two opulent swimming pools. As we wound our way through the Castle, our guide told us the extraordinary story of how and why it was built.

Before construction began in 1919, Hearst chose Julia Morgan as architect, designer and engineer to build his castle on a hill. The challenge for her was immense.  In addition to being a home, Hearst wanted to incorporate and showcase his collection of art and architectural salvage. To protect his priceless treasures against earthquakes, it needed to be built out of solid concrete, but it couldn't look like a bunker. Julia's task was to disguise it to look like stone, wood and other decorative materials. 

 Just a few of the priceless ceilings salvaged from palaces, monasteries and abbeys.

However, it was her knowledge of civil engineering that would come in most handy. Everything had to be shipped in, so before anything else, she had to have a dock built at the base of the mountain to accommodate large ships. Then the challenge was to get all that building material up to the top of a 1,600' rocky mountain that's out in the middle of nowhere. A road had to be constructed, five miles of it, snaking up the mountain with a grade capable of handling trucks piled high with ship loads of lumber, stone and concrete. The ridge had to be completely bull dozed, to flatten it and create terraces. Then truckloads of topsoil had to be hauled up so that acres of trees, shrubs and flowers could be planted. 

 Statuary in the gardens

Obviously, this task was going to take many years, and Hearst wanted to still “camp” there in the meantime. The original plans called for three visitor’s “cottages” to be constructed, each taking in a different view of the landscape. He and his family would live in one he called Casa del Monte, because of its view of the mountains, until the main building was completed. No expense was spared in these smaller homes either. Not as grand as the big house, they would still satisfy any Hollywood mogul anytime. All of the homes were designed in the Mediterranean style, including Casa Grande, Hearst’s name for the big house. Most Californians at the turn of the last century thought the style suited them the best. Laid back and informal, it invites cooling breezes and casual luxury. 

 Casa del Mar, guest house facing the Pacific Ocean

Hearst, the Back-story

Obscenely wealthy, W. R. was a billionaire in today’s money many times over. He got his start right out of college by becoming publisher of the San Francisco Examiner which his father owned. He discovered he loved the publishing business and started buying newspapers all over the US, which he used to voice his opinions and promote his political aspirations. Enormously influential, he knew everyone, from Presidents to kings. He could have anything that money could buy, but in the end, there were two things he couldn’t have: the Presidency and a divorce from his wife.

William Randolph Hearst always had an eye for the ladies, specifically show girls, much to the chagrin of his mother. He wasn’t much to look at, but he was rich and emanated power like an aphrodisiac, having no trouble attracting beautiful women. Against his mother’s wishes, he married Millicent, a chorus girl in 1903 and fathered five sons. But, as it often happens, he soon fell deeply in love with someone else--a very popular film star, Marion Davis. Millicent, being a Catholic, refused to give him a divorce, so he and Marion lived together openly for the rest of their lives.  Hearst’s glorified camp ground perched high on a remote California hill gave Marion and him the privacy to live and entertain their friends; friends who just happened to be the cream of Hollywood and Europe.

 Dining room where guests are provided with bottles of mustard and catsup. After all,
it was glorified camping!
Hollywood’s Home Away From Home

Most of Hearst and Marion’s friends were Hollywood types, actors, directors, studio owners etc. Hearst himself produced movies, mostly to showcase Marion, and they both felt the most at home with people from the film industry. Famous faces like Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, and Gary Cooper were frequent visitors. Churchill, Lindbergh, the Kennedy’s, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor also enjoyed the lavish accommodations. 

Billiards room decorated with medieval tapestries, fireplace and ceiling.

 Guests could use the huge library lined with priceless Grecian urns, attend the
full sized movie theater, or lounge in one of the many sitting rooms.

Among the several things provided for these famous people to enjoy while staying at the Castle were two Roman sized heated swimming pools. One is an indoor pool and is so opulent it takes your breath away; the other is outdoors and looks like Caesar swam there. There were miles of covered riding paths, a wild animal zoo, and several discreetly hidden places to sit and have some privacy. A Hollywood style movie theater played first run films every night, plus a fully stocked library and a billiards room provided the entertainment.

 The outdoor pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean

The heated indoor pool. Check out the hand carved marble railings.

The were two things Hearst would not tolerate, however: drinking too much and unmarried guests engaging in “hanky-panky”. Single men and women were strictly segregated and watched to make sure there was no sneaking around. Any attempt to break the rules meant a permanent ban from the Castle; ironic especially since Marion was a sad alcoholic and she and Hearst were not married.

Hearst the Hoarder

His mother, Phoebe Appleton Hearst, was William’s constant companion and influence as he grew up. It was she who introduced her young son to art and high culture on two tours of Europe. Perhaps in trying to recreate the wonder of those trips, Hearst began to buy everything he could get his hands on. He read art catalogs like dime store novels and purchased at least something every day. Soon he amassed warehouses full of art treasures, antiques and whole buildings: abbeys, monasteries, palaces and parts of palaces. But hardly any of this would end up in Hearst’s Castle. He preferred to buy all new stuff which he brought in by private rail cars. He bought medieval amour, the rooms of an entire seventeenth century French cloister, a sixteenth century fireplace, dismantled stone by stone to be reconstructed in one room of the Castle. He bought boat loads of furniture, tapestries, statuary, and the finest collection of Greek urns in existence for his library and much, much more.

Hearst's study where he ran his publishing empire and shopped for antiques every day.

 Hearst's bedroom

Old Buildings, New Life

Whether we can call Hearst a hoarder or just a compulsive shopper, in the end, he and others like him became conservators of these priceless treasures for us.  After WWI, all of Europe was for sale. Impoverished nobility had to liquidate everything they owned and wealthy Americans like Hearst bought it all up and shipped it to the U.S. Hearst had warehouses full of whole monasteries and abbeys, sometimes even forgetting where they were. Two of them eventually found new homes, one in California and one in Florida.

In 1931, W. R. bought a Spanish Benedictine Abbey for use in one his homes. As it often happened with him, he ran out of funds and ended up donating the dismantled pile of stones to the City of San Francisco to reconstruct into a museum. Unfortunately, the stones lay forgotten for years and many of them were damaged and lost. Finally in 1994, the stones were donated to the Brothers of the Abbey of Clairvaux for their new church. Last summer, my good friend, Kay took me to see it.

I hadn’t realized the scope of Hearst’s acquisitions and it was utterly fascinating to see this extraordinary medieval building being resurrected in the middle of a California vineyard. We were free to roam around; to go in and out of the newly polished stones and take all the pictures we wanted. Later, we bellied up to the wine bar and drank a glass of New Clairvaux wine made and served by the Brothers.

If you are ever in the area, you really must see what the Brother’s have done with the old place and help them out with a donation to finish the project. Oh yes, and do have a glass of their delicious wine.

Built in 1141 in the remote Spanish countryside, the Cistercian monastery quietly thrived until Hearst bought it at an art auction in 1925. Like Clairvaux, he had it entirely dismantled; the stones were labeled and numbered, and then shipped to a warehouse in New York to sit and gather dust. Only after his death in 1951 was it allowed to be sold to two real estate developers who had a vision for this masterpiece of architectural design, Bill Edgemon and Raymond Moss. They had the monastery painstakingly reconstructed and restored on a plot of land in Miami. Again, it was well worth the effort because the result is magnificent. Interestingly, Kay’s mom dated Bill Edgemon until he passed away. By all accounts, he was a fine man.

The Spanish Monastery, image courtesy of Google 

***Good Read: "The Chief" by David Nasaw. An excellent biography of William Randolph Hearst. 
Next time: Cornwall and the Cotswolds, Quintessentially Quaint!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


 Monticello and Montpelier are a few miles from each other in the
Charlottesville, Virginia area. Map courtesy of  World Atlas.

Madison and Jefferson, Gentlemen Virginia Farmers

The entire two weeks I spent in New England, I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven. I visited places I’d only dreamed of seeing but was afraid I never would--places like Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Newport and Washington, D. C., just to name a few. But, thanks to Collette Vacations and my good friends, Pat and Bill in Boston, and Chuck and Paula in Baltimore, I saw everything on my wish list and more. Now, on the last day of this perfect trip, we saved the best for last.

Chuck, Paula and I got up early, packed up the car and drove south from Baltimore, Maryland 120 miles into the state of Virginia to see James and Dolley Madison’s Montpelier and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. They are located just a few miles from each other outside of Charlottesville, and together with Mt. Vernon, are the cream of Presidential homes.

Montpelier, Home of James Madison, Fourth President of the United States

I could barely contain my excitement as we drove through the rich Virginia landscape toward Montpelier. Turning off the main highway, the quiet country road seemed to melt away leaving only the awareness of verdant green pastures and vineyards that stretched out for miles. Finally, we pulled into a small graveled driveway and parked our car just a few feet away from a stately Federalist brick home, graced with a white columned portico. It was so peaceful, I could hear the breeze through the branches of the trees, proving once again that it pays to be the first in and the last out. You'll practically have these places all to yourselves!  

James Madison’s grandfather bought this Virginia land in 1723 and James' father built the home he called Montpelier a few years later. After James graduated from Princeton and made his reputation as one of the founding fathers and the author of the Bill of Rights, he married the widow Dolley in 1794 and added two wings onto the house they were to share. 

In contrast to the palatial mansions of European royalty, our leading families’ homes are quite modest, and uniquely American. Washington, Madison and Jefferson were wealthy but not ostentatious; their rooms tend to be small and functional rather than ornate. To cut costs at Mt. Vernon, for example, wood siding was made to look like stone and faux painting was used to turn common oak into marble.

James and Dolley Madison, President and First Lady

James and Dolley Madison were a powerhouse team in the White House: she, a charismatic social hostess and he, a small and serious intellectual with a powerful vision for his country. Together, they got things done in Washington. Madison was President during the War of 1812 but was out of town when the British attacked the Capitol. Dolley wanted to put cannons in every window of the White House, but when it was set afire, she only had time to grab the one thing she thought absolutely could not be destroyed—the portrait of George Washington. She ordered it taken out of its frame and rolled up, then she and a few servants threw it on a wagon and left the house with just the clothes on their backs. She was a woman I would have liked to have known.

 It didn’t take long to tour the home and after admiring the grounds for awhile, we got back into our car and drove to our B & B to have dinner and spend the night. The next day would be full. We planned to visit Monticello and then drive home.

Monticello, Home of the Third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson

Mt. Vernon and Montpelier, built originally by Washington’s and Madison’s fathers, started out as modest saltbox style homes. After acquiring the properties, Washington and Madison expanded the little houses by adding wings to both sides giving them a sort of stair step design.  Monticello, on the other hand, was designed and built by Jefferson himself, and is a magnificent home.

 This is actually the back of his home and the most picturesque.

Beautifully preserved and filled with Jefferson’s possessions, Monticello is alive with his presence, especially in his study and bedchamber.  His desk is surrounded by his famous inventions: the Polygraph, a machine that simultaneously made copies of what he had just written, and a book turntable he designed so that he could read several books at the same time (the original multi-tasker). And, giving us a glimpse into his active mind, sandwiched in-between his study and sitting room is his bed in an open sided alcove allowing him quick access to his desk at any hour of the night.

 Jefferson's Polygraph machine, yellow dining room, desk, entry way and his study/bedroom.
Images courtesy of Google.

Jefferson designed his home with large windows that not only let in the light, but brings the beauty of the gardens and lawns inside. The interior of the home is also filled with light thanks to several well placed skylights, giving it a comfortable and inviting warmth. I especially loved the dining room. Facing north, he designed it with floor to ceiling windows and painted it a sunny yellow making it the most pleasant room in the house.

As if to show where his heart was, the entry way is filled with his collection of Native American artifacts given to him by Lewis and Clark when he was President. Along with large maps of Virginia and the world are fossil bones and skins displayed as if it were a natural history museum. The home has many formal rooms for entertaining, but I absolutely loved the unpretentious quality of the entry way. Jefferson was a man of many sides.

 Monticello's extensive gardens and vineyards. 
The little brick building provided shade for his slave overseer.

The Two-Ton Elephant in the Room, Slavery

As much as I wanted to see these historic homes, I was distressed by what came with them: slaves’ quarters. I hadn't realized that along with being Presidents of the United States, Washington, Jefferson and Madison were first and foremost southern plantation owners and as such owned slaves. Although unpleasant, there was no attempt by the docents of these homes to gloss over the subject. They discussed the issue of slavery openly and the consensus was that owning slaves was unfortunately an acceptable practice at the time.

Besides the question of why slavery existed in the colonies at all is another subject, but why did these particular men continue to own slaves? These men, who were on the forefront of modern thought, who fought for freedom from tyranny and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Had they given any thought to the moral implications? Could they have possibly been unaware that Europe and England had begun to abolish slavery years before? However they rationalized owning slaves before the war, as Presidents they could no longer avoid the fact that slavery was wrong, thanks to being enlightened by men like the Marquis de Lafayette.  

Sadly, at the same time, there were louder voices demanding the continuation of slavery as an economic necessity. Feeling conflicted and powerless, each of the three Presidents decided it was too divisive and complex an issue to solve. To his credit, Washington determined not to perpetuate his part in it and freed his slaves in his will. Madison, although knowing he should, was unable to free his slaves over concern for Dolley’s financial welfare after his death. Jefferson was the enigma. Although abhorring slavery all of his life, he also feared a large-scale race war if all slaves were freed, and in the end, did essentially nothing. It was too big a can of worms and they all left it to future generations to deal with it.

 Outline of Montpelier's slave quarters for household staff.

A Great Place to Stay When You Are in the Area….

Before we ventured down into Virginia, Paula made reservations for us at a B & B called the Orchard House located in Lovingston, nearby to Monticello and Montpelier. Owned and operated by Richard and Deb Bulissa, it’s a charming old Victorian farm house nestled on top of a grassy hill overlooking a thriving vineyard. At the time we were the only guests, and after we settled in and Richard and Deb disappeared, it felt like we owned the place. We had the run of the house and felt free to help ourselves to the fresh cookies and drinks that seemed to appear out of nowhere, put our feet up and watch whatever we wanted on TV.

 Orchard House, a great place to stay while visiting Monticello and Montpelier.

The next morning, Paula and I got up early to enjoy the cool, crisp air. We took our hot steaming cups of coffee out onto the front porch, snuggled into the roomy rocking chairs and quietly enjoyed the green rolling Virginia hills blanketed by morning mist. Soon, breakfast was served, consisting of a divine homemade baked apple croissant, framed with fresh fruit and sausage. A delicious stick-to-your-ribs breakfast, it kept us satisfied all the way back to Baltimore.

Driving back was bittersweet. I’d been on a tremendous high the last two weeks, but now it was time to go home. To keep myself from feeling too sad, I began to plot my next adventure, which I hoped included more fun experiences with good friends. It truly doesn’t get any better than that.

Thanks, everyone, for a trip I will never forget!

**Good Read:  "A Slave in the White House" by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor. Included in the book is the entire text of "A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison"  written by Paul Jennings in 1865.

Next time: Hearst the Hoarder and His Castle