SAN SIMEON, Calif.— The nearby Hearst Castle, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is a spectacle worth visiting. It is perched on 240,000 acres of a high hill overlooking the Pacific.
But as a journalism historian and journalism history teacher for five decades, I detest William Randolph Hearst. He was first with the worst. He defied a newspaper’s first principle: the truth in the news.
But the truth was of no concern to him. Circulation and listenership were all that mattered. His American empire, the largest in the world, included 28 newspapers, the five major magazines and 73 radio stations. His “yellow journalism” invented sensational stories, faked interviews and ran doctored pictures.
Myth has it that Hearst started the Spanish-American War in 1898. His illustrator, Frederic Remington, supposedly telegraphed him saying everything is quiet in Cuba so he wanted to come home. Hearst reportedly replied: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
Never happened. But the fable illustrates how Hearst distorted the news.
Julia Morgan, great architect who designed the castle, was hampered by Hearst’s constant changes, which undermined her genius. Hearst did the same thing with his newspapers. If in Chicago he would order four changes in the bulldog edition before it went to press. (Bulldog is newspaper terminology for the first edition).
Hearst had the castle built as a monument to himself.
His mistress, Marion Davies, rightly lambasted him in the film “Citizen Kane,” taken from a biographer’s book title, “Citizen Hearst.” Davies told him with a winning stutter: “All you do is talk about your g-g-god-damn circulation.”
Hearst boosted her career almost daily in his papers although she could not sing on pitch.
“Citizen Kane,” starring Orson Welles, is one of the great American films. It is marred, however, by frequent reference to the phony “rosebud” theme. (Rosebud was the name Hearst gave his sled in childhood.)
Hearst, angered by Welles’ unflattering portrait, used his enormous influence to halt RKO’s release of the movie. Fortunately, he failed.
As for the Hearst Castle, there is not a single room in the palace that is comfortable. Too grandiose, too lacking in taste as with so much of the art Hearst bought in Europe.
A 500-year-old tapestry, “The Deer Hunt,” is an exception. It enlivens the sitting room with a vibrant green in contrast to the browned-out, dull tapestries hanging nearby.
In the entrance visitors are shown a 30-minute propaganda film about how magnificent the palace is. In the castle store none of the many critical books on Hearst are available. Nor is “Citizen Kane.”
The beach at San Simeon compensates. The ocean breakers constantly roll in, crashing on the beach. Pelicans fly overhead. Sandpipers and willets scurry after prey along the beach.
Driving north, we stopped at Seal Rock. About 10 seals were basking in the sun. A pair was making love in the nearby water, tenderly pushing each other’s nose.
Continuing north to Monterey, we stopped to watch an elk herd. A bull elk with a huge rack was herding the females while their kids stood by patiently. We drove along Route 1, a twisting, hazardous, narrow road requiring the skilled driver we had.
Monterey. Steinbeck country. John Steinbeck, author, “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men.” Excellent novels made into good films. Finally, I-80 and home.
Home! What a joy to be home after journey’s end.
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. (firstname.lastname@example.org)