Gurgaon 2022: U know you are back home when a cacophony of bird songs wakes you up with the first rays of sun. In my sleepy mental block the repetitive in-your-face ‘coo-ee’ of the koel, the tweet of the sparrow, the squawking of a mynah, the loud continuous trill of parrots as they swoop overhead are musical notes in varying degrees of pretence. They are anyday welcome to the everyday ‘home’ sounds….the blaring of horns, the vroom of motorcycles, the chattery jostling crowds of neighbourhood shopping centre, the traffic on the roads, the call bells and telephone rings, the ululating news anchors on the one idiot box in our home…Eight months in Canada (Toronto, Calgary) had rested my ears and now they are once again getting attuned to Indian settings.
I know I am back home when the luscious aroma of mangoes mingles with the cool air con blast. Mangoes are available the world over, but nothing to beat the taste & flavours Indian mangoes. Lines pop up ( I remember reading, probably New York Times), “MANGO not only rhymes with tango but also has the same aura of mysticism and music and generates much the same feeling of sultry excite‐ment. It is as perfumed as a tropical night and as cool as moonlight.”
As I sip my morning tea on the balcony, scrolling through the world news, a para catches my attention. The centenary celebrations of The Hearst Castle (celebrated its 100th year in 2019) that had been postponed due to Covid and now will be held in 2022.
Memories and recollections of the grandiosity of the architecture, the landscaped gardens and free-flowing hills still swamp the senses even after 13 years of visit.
I look around my simple three bedroom abode and feel content. A home is a home no matter the size or pretentiousness.
Sharing a piece I had written for IMPRINT, (Women in Publishing Society (WIPS) Hong Kong) 2009.
“Few places better capture the opulence of early–20th century California than Hearst Castle, the 165-room former personal estate of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. The property with its own theater, billiard room, beauty salon and pair of dazzling swimming pools….the Neptune Pool in particular, is the stuff of legends, with a Vermont marble basin and alcove as well as vast colonnades flanked by a quartet of Italian relief sculptures.” ~ Ashlea Halpern
Our 2009 road trip is memorable not only for the Castle visit but the drive along the iconic coast-hugging Highway 1. It was a dream fulfilled of being a voyeaur on one the most photographed and pictureque stretches of California’s Central Coast from Big Sur all the way to Santa Barbara.
Starting from San Francisco we halted at San Simeon, located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It was a bright clear day and perfect for a stroll on the beach to watch the sombulent sea lions lazing near the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. San Simeon and its neighbor Cambria are historically quaint seaside towns attracting tourists for their natural ambience, art galleries, gift shops and the chief attraction, the Hearst Castle.
As we drive up the winding road the Castle is visible, a speck, perched sixteen thousand feet atop a hill of the Santa Lucia Range. As we move closer the mystique builds up abetted by the panoramic view of the Pacific in the distance and the rolling private farms and meadows on the lands belonging to the Castle.
I am reminded of Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane, I had reviewed for my Film Criticism class at a summer course I took at Stanford University in 1975. The movie is supposedly a fictionalized version of the life and times of William Randolph Hearst with the Hearst castle presented as Kane’s castle ‘Xanadu’, a gloomy and self-indulgent folly. At time of release, Hearst had sought to ban the movie but somehow was not successful. The accompanying hoopla generated more fame for the movie than it merited.
Now after 34 years I was finally seeing the original castle. The first stop is at the Visitor Center. at the foot of Castle, to confirm our bookings for the Castle Tour. First time visitors are advised to book a tour in advance. There are different tours though I believe that the evening tour, when the castle is lit up and live actors impersonate the main protagonists, is interesting. The Centre houses the W.R. Hearst exhibit, food services, Hearst memorabilia, Museum gift shop and the National Geographic Hearst Castle Theater,
From the Visitor Center we were taken to the Castle by tour buses accompanied with guides. The 5-mile climb gives ample time to hear the verbal history of the Castle highlighting the surroundings that once housed the world’s largest private zoo.
A crusty ‘old’ guide welcomed us at the Castle and in her introduction made it clear that she would not be answering any political or scandalous details about the family.
Her ‘welcome’ was sidelined by the opulence and grandeur of the palatial exterior as we climb up the steps towards Casa Grande, the main house, and the Neptune Pool with façade imported from Rome. The pool is said to be remodeled thrice to satisfy Hearst’s whims. The pride of the Castle, the luxurious classical Neptune Pool was completed in 1936. It is 104 feet long, up to 10 feet deep, and holds 345,000 gallons of water. A Roman temple stands watch over the north end, along with multiple statues of mythical Roman figures. Long stone colonnades flank the poolside, offering shade and seating, and vintage dressing rooms stand as they did during Hearst’s time. Perhaps most notable, though, is the pool’s 180-degree view of rolling hills and ocean below.
The Neptune Pool was a much sought-after destination for film shoots by Stanley Kubrick to Lady Gaga.
We move on to the main house Casa Grande and our tour is limited to one part of the fifty-six bedroom, sixty-one bathroom and nineteen-sitting room house. The entire layout is humongous, surrounded by one hundred and twenty-seven acres of gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a movie theater, tennis courts, an airfield and a gravity-based water delivery system from nearby mountains. Looking at the tour group I think most of us were mentally calculating the labor and money costs in the transportation of men and material up the hills at a time when there were no paved roads.
It was an awestruck group that walked along the Esplanade and the gardens replete with marble sculptures. In the eighteen room guesthouse, the Casa Del Sol, we were shown four bedrooms, four bathrooms and sitting area and then taken to the ground floor of the main house, the Casa Grande.
Though a hot and humid day, the flowers too appeared listless, the grandeur of Spanish antiques, Flemish tapestries of the ‘Morning Room’ and the elaborate concentration on building details compensated for the energy sapping day. Our tour was limited to five rooms on the ground floor of the main house, the Assembly Room where William Randolph Hearst entertained his guests, the Refectory or the dining room, the Billiard Room with 1920’s billiard table and the private home theater still much in its original state. From here, we were marched to the Roman or indoor pool with blue and gold tiles, an architectural wonder straight out of an ‘epic’ film set.
The entire Castle is a pastiche of western and eastern architecture and truly is the ‘Enchanted Hill’, an appellation used by William Randolph Hearst. The present Hearst family resides in a Victorian Mansion hidden from pubic eye by an eucalyptus grove.
With its extravagant antiquities, architecture, and heritage, Hearst Castle welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
The Castle tour over, we returned to the Visitor Center to watch a documentary about the genesis of Hearst castle from a modest dwelling to a property of grand proportions. The opening scene pans to a boy infatuated with mist-covered hills along the Pacific coast. Young Hearst would accompany his parents to this camping site property and by the time he inherited the property from his mother, Hearst was in his fifties and tired of living in tents. He hired architect Julia Morgan to design a residence that would be a fitting tribute to his art and antique collections.
The documentary continues of how he sets about building a castle to incorporate the ideas absorbed during his Europe tour with his mother. The Castle was clearly a dreamer’s residence with timeless tapestries, rare books, strategically placed church benches along the dining area walls, intricately executed wood work ceilings and the world’s largest private zoo. In its heyday, Hearst Castle was the play ground of stars and political stalwarts such as Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Charles Lindbergh, the Marx brothers, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Bob Hope, James Stewart, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt Winston Churchill to name a few.
After William Randolph Hearst’s death the Hearst Corporation donated the property to the state of California and the estate opened its doors to the public in 1958. Today, it’s the only California State Park that is an art museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.
Towards end of tour I could not resist asking the our guide about ‘Citizen Kane’ and whether it was filmed here. She turned out to be a die-hard Hearst fan or a faithful employee because with a brusque reply denounced the film as piece of fiction. In a way she was right as ‘Xanadu’ was a Florida castle and Orson Welles was no William Randolph Hearst. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orson_Welles)