…And I thought Xanadu was just a terrible musical!
by Martin Hafer
This is an unusual column for Influx. Instead of recommending a particular movie or talking about film or TV happenings, I am recommending a road trip…a road trip that has a lot to do with the movies. Almost smack dab in the middle between Los Angeles and San Francisco (about a four hour drive from each) is a place that movie nuts will love…the William Randolph Hearst mansion once known as ‘Xanadu’ or today as the Hearst San Simeon State Park. It’s important to the movies in so many ways. Marion Davies, a huge star in the silent and early sound era lived much of her life there. It’s also the place fictionalized and re-created in the film Citizen Kane—a very false image of the place! Unlike the cold, empty, pathetic place you see in this film, the mansion was the place to be seen and vacation. Hearst and Davies welcomed the crème de la crème to Xanadu for decades. It was not unusual to see the biggest stars of the day hanging out at this very isolated place…such as Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and his wife, Mary Pickford. It’s because of this history and its connection to films that I strongly recommend you consider a trip to the town of San Simeon. It’s an amazing vacation spot…and the gorgeous Big Sur coastline is only a relatively short drive away. And, I find visiting this amazing place much more interesting and relaxing than my recent trip to Hollywood…a very, very crowded, somewhat seedy and difficult place for tourism.
Xanadu is the 11th largest mansion in the United States. But this alone is not what makes the place impressive. Hearst was, for a time, one of the richest men in America and he controlled a huge syndicate of newspapers. Because of that, it enabled him to travel Europe and when he saw something he liked, he simply bought it and had it shipped back to the States…much of which was eventually incorporated into the giant mansion he was envisioning. So, if he saw a lovely fireplace, room or even ancient Roman coffin…he bought them! This did result in a strange cacophony of styles…but it somehow works. Yes, the place is massive… but there is also an amazing intimacy about much of the mansion. So, while it has one of the most amazing swimming pools in America (unfortunately, it is undergoing some renovations at this time), it also had a dining room with ketchup on the table as well as many lovely smaller and very comfortable rooms because Hearst was a man loved to entertain. It was, after all, his home for much of his life, though he also shuttled between this and other homes because, after all, he could afford it. So, when temperatures got hot in Los Angeles, he and his celebrity friends could retreat to his hilltop palace on the coast. High temperatures rarely exceeded 80 degrees (about 26 degrees Celsius)…even in August.
Following Hearst’s death, the home was opened to the and is now a state park. It features an amazing gift shop, restaurant and magnificent tours of not just the exterior but inside the mansion as well. I recommend that you consider several days for this trip. A trip from Napa to San Simeon is what my wife and I did…and it was amazing. A few days in Sonoma sipping wine, a few days in Monterey enjoying the coast and admiring the town, a drive through Big Sur and then a couple nights in San Simeon….it made for an incredibly relaxing and beautiful trip for us and I can’t wait to do it again. Plus, seeing Hearst’s mansion really was a great way to end the trip…it simply is magnificent and filled with amazing movie memories. And, if this isn’t enough, there are also plenty of nice nearby wineries, an elephant seal rookery and lovely B&Bs. All in all, it’s a terrific place to visit…so lovely I can easily see why Hearst chose this for his hilltop retreat.