Live Active Cultures
Seth Kubersky compares the legacies of William Randoph Hearst and Walt Disney
Published: March 17, 2011
In the last two editions of Live Active Cultures, I've taken you along on my cross-country tour of tourist traps, from rural Pennsylvania to surreal Anaheim. This week, we're concluding the travel trilogy with a trek up the central Pacific coastline along the legendary Pacific Coast Highway. It's a drive I highly recommend everyone take at least once - the epic ocean views are unparalleled, and the elephant seals snoozing in the sand at Piedras Blancas are more entertaining than seven SeaWorlds.
On my way from San Luis Obispo - site of the world-famous and gloriously tacky Madonna Inn - to the San Francisco Bay, I visited two monuments to pioneering men whose impact on modern media still reverberates. Admirers of William Randolph Hearst and Walt Disney can find museums honoring their heroes along the California shore. One of these men was an all-consuming titan who manipulated nations for his own enrichment; the other bestowed new forms of communication to millions. One museum is an official state park staffed by the government of California; the other is a private enterprise founded and funded by the honoree's descendants. One exhibition presents a history-denying whitewash of monumental maleficence; the other includes a sometimes-painful explanation of a famous man's considerable failures. If you're like me, you might be surprised to learn which one is which.
Visitors to Hearst Castle - formally known as the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument - are advised to go online and purchase tickets with their Visa cards well in advance. Even on a damp, drizzling Sunday, you're likely to find all spots on the half-dozen different tours of the grounds booked. Grab a seat on the introductory $24 tour and you'll be bussed from the state-run San Simeon welcome center to the top of La Cuesta Encantada - The Enchanted Hill - the mountaintop location of Hearst's opulent estate. For the next 90 minutes, you'll march over marble to marvel at the Caligula- worthy Jupiter pool (which was a filming location for Spartacus); a palatial guesthouse decadently decorated with Moorish tile; and the cathedral-like Casa Grande, home to a tapestry-festooned foyer and a dining room fit for Henry VIII (complete with royal scepter). Before departing, take a seat in Hearst's private theater for home-movie footage - featuring movie stars Chaplin, Grant and Garbo - that could easily be mistaken for outtakes from Citizen Kane, the Orson Welles classic inspired by this castle's king.
Don't forget to catch the IMAX-sized screen back at base camp, where you'll learn how Hearst's youthful romp through Europe inspired his imperial domicile and led him to collaborate with (read: maddeningly micromanage) pioneering female architect Julia Morgan during the four decades it took to construct the complex. The museum will tell you what a generous philanthropist and liberal patriot Hearst was, but nowhere will you find word of how this politically powerful monopolist manufactured the Spanish-American War to sell his newspapers, nor of his pro-Nazi apologia on the verge of WWII, nor of the millions of victims of the racist crusade against marijuana that his editorializing set rolling.
> Email Seth Kubersky