The married Hearst first met Marion Davies when she was a teenage showgirl in New York. In 1918, he formed a movie studio, Cosmopolitan Pictures, to produce and promote Davies’ films. She quickly became a screen favorite, starring in lush period pieces as well as comedies. Davies and Hearst, who would remain together until his death in 1951 (though they never married), entertained lavishly in their many homes. Davies may have made a name for herself as the ditzy star of lightweight fare, but off screen she was a savvy businesswoman who amassed a fortune through shrewd investments in California real estate. When Hearst’s empire began to crumble in the 1930s, it was Davies who came to the rescue of the man she affectionately called Pops, writing him a check for $1 million.
Hearst Castle once housed the world’s largest private zoo.
Located on a parcel of land that at one point was nearly half the size of Rhode Island, Hearst’s lavish spread in San Simeon, California, was an all-consuming passion for the publisher. In 1919, he hired Julia Morgan, a civil engineer and the first woman licensed to practice architecture in California, to work on the project. Together, Hearst and Morgan would spend nearly three decades designing the main house, dozens of outbuildings and even a private zoo—the largest in the world at one point. The compound’s eclectic style, which mixed Spanish Revival with older Renaissance and Baroque elements, was constantly in flux. Buildings were repeatedly torn down and rebuilt to suit Hearst’s ever-changing demands; the famed Neptune Pool was rebuilt at least three times. Construction continued for 28 years until Hearst, in ill health, left the compound in 1947, but it was never fully completed. While most of the hundreds of animals in Hearst’s menagerie were resettled elsewhere, others remained on site, and their descendants can be seen roaming the grounds and nearby lands today.
“Citizen Kane,” the film based on Hearst’s life, was initially a flop—thanks to Hearst himself.
Directed by 24-year-old Hollywood wunderkind Orson Welles and co-written by Welles and screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, “Citizen Kane” offered up a not-so-thinly veiled look at the life (and loves) of the Hearst-like media magnate Charles Foster Kane. While many critics now consider the movie a cinematic masterpiece, the reaction was far different when it first came out in 1941. Well aware of Hearst’s power, influence and temper, the filmmakers completed “Citizen Kane” in secret—on the lot it was simply known as project RKO 281. When Hollywood got wind of the film’s contents, the response was swift and furious. It wasn’t Welles’ portrayal of the ruthless Kane that truly infuriated Hearst; rather, it was the negative characterization of the Marion Davies stand-in that really sent him over the edge. He forbade his newspapers from running promotional ads for the film (dooming it at the box office) and pressured his fellow studio moguls to rally to his cause. The executives—no fans of the brash, arrogant Welles—happily complied. In fact, MGM head Louis B. Mayer offered to pay RKO Studios $842,000 if they would agree to burn the film’s negative. Luckily for film buffs, the studio refused, but the damage had already been done. “Citizen Kane” was shown in just a few theaters and barely broke even. While it was nominated for nine Academy Awards, it won just a single statue, and it would be more than two decades before the film’s reputation recovered.