November 15, 2012
Today is my 52nd birthday. Christof congratulates me, apologizing that he doesn’t have a present. Every single day of this trip has been like having a birthday and Christmas rolled into one. What more could I possibly wish for?
We pack up quickly and are on the road by 8:00 a.m. because we want to be in LA tomorrow, grabbing a coffee, and what looks like a homemade cinnamon bun, at a mountaintop place. Although it’s deserted, masses of picnic tables bear testimony to an ability to cater to crowds during high season. From the guard rails of a look-out, we watch uncountable masses of elephant seals lying piled up on top of each other, playing and sparing, or hopping along the beach in comical seal-style. Some loners nap in solitude away from the crowds, enhancing their sleep by covering themselves in a blanket of sand with a flick of their fins.
A box of pamphlets in the parking lot asking for donations educates us. Although elephant seals have a home-base, where they breed and give birth, most of the year is spent out at sea. The pups weigh 60-80 pounds at birth, females grow to be about twelve feet long and weigh 1,800 pounds. Males can weigh up to 5,000 pounds, growing to an amazing sixteen feet!When road signs for Hearst Castle appear, I tell Christof that my birthday wish is to stop and visit it. He agrees. While waiting for the departure of the next tourist bus to take us up the mountain, on a winding road too narrow and unsuited for tourist traffic, we see a forty-five minute film about William Randolph Hearst’s life. His happiest childhood memories are of camping on this land with his family during summer holidays. As a ten-year-old boy, he was taken on a year long Grand Tour of Europe where his interest and passion for art was enkindled. He started a collection of Spanish and Southern European art, increasing it yearly and filling numerous warehouses with treasures.
In his fifties, he decided to build a castle on top of the mountain he had loved as a child to house and properly display his stored collection of art. He hired Julia Morgan, a forty-seven-year-old architect from San Francisco, to plan and design it.
Although he told her he was building ‘a little something’, they had ample time to develop a firm partnership during the twenty-eight years it took to complete the project. Solid enough to withstand the stresses of building, and rebuilding, no small feat since reenforced concrete was the material used to withstand earthquakes, they were united in the process of realizing a common dream for almost three decades.
Upon completion ‘The Ranch’, as Hearst modestly called it, hosted exquisite parties graced by top Hollywood stars and prominent people of the time. Hearst loved activity. Besides riding, swimming, tennis, and pool games, guests were asked to put on impromptu theater presentations after dinner in his private theater, often with less than an hour to prepare for the performance.
Christof found the Hearst castle appalling, an incongruent and inharmonious mixture of styles and art forms. I saw the Hearst Castle as more than just a wealthy man’s whim. True, he inherited both money and land from his father, but how many wealthy sons go on to expand and enlarge their inheritance?
Starting his career with the San Francisco Examiner, a failing newspaper inherited from his father, he built a massive media empire that included twenty daily newspapers and magazines; Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Harper’s Bazaar were among them. At its height, Hearst publications were read by one in four American households. He was a controversial figure, initially imitating Joseph Pulitzer’s style, known as ‘yellow journalism’ based on comic strip figures of the day. Yellow Journalism’s aim was to sell newspapers and used large frightening sensationalist headlines, pictures and cartoons, faked interviews and false information, to grasp public attention. It was more effective and successful than painstaking research and balanced reporting.
Later Hearst used his wealth to gain the upper hand of the market, eradicating Pulitzer in the process. He lowered the price of his New York Journal to half of what Pulitzer’s The World cost, and lured away his best journalists and illustrators by offering them better salaries.
Although Hearst was a successful, if ruthless businessman, he was a political failure. He spent two million dollars running for a presidency he didn’t win. Too ambitious to fill the elected office he did win – to the House of Representatives – he simultaneously ran for both the offices of mayor and governor of New York, while managing a growing media business and was not reelected again.
He married Millicent, a show girl who gave him five sons, the daughter of a woman who ran a notorious New York brothel. Although they became estranged, the couple never divorced, and went separate ways. Hearst openly lived with another showgirl, Marion Davies, shocking and angering his contemporaries by openly flaunting accepted moral standards.
I think that he deserves acknowledgment for the thought, resources and energies invested in building his castle. Realizing a project of this scope, taking a dream and making it reality is, in my opinion, admirable. The castle was given to the State of California when he died, and is now a State Historic Park, but the cattle ranch still belongs to the family. We had a delicious Hearst ‘hormone and antibiotic free’ hamburger for lunch.
Strong winds brought in the rains through which we drove for the rest of the afternoon and evening. The missing birthday present, still on Christof’s mind, causes him to stop at Staples so I can run in and ask if they have a Kindle Paperwhite. The new eReaders that have background lighting and a technique in which the letters are supposedly like real ink on paper are so popular they are back-ordered until Christmas. Christof hopes that in an agricultural area where reading is not a priority, there might be a chance of finding one.
The Kindles are sold out, and because I don’t want to disappoint Christof, I ask the salesman if I can buy the display model. He thinks that I can. . . until the manager appears and says the salesman doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Seeing our faces fall, he asks us which direction we are traveling in, and checking his computer finds a Staples with two Kindles 1 1/2 hours away! Unable to believe our luck, we drive straight through to Camarillo, where two Kindle Paperwhites are reserved and waiting for us.
After checking into a Hampton Inn, we sit on the clean white duvet covers, drinking wine and eating Knäckebrot and Guacamole (who cares about crumbs in a hotel room?) while downloading books onto our new readers. Imagine, all you have to do to buy a new book is to connect to wifi, click a button that looks like a shopping cart, and once your account is set up, type in the name of book you are looking for. Most titles are available digitally. You can browse the literature you are looking at, downloading samples or if you want to purchase, one quick click on the word ‘buy’, prominently displayed under all titles, and in less than a minute the book somehow magically appears on the tiny light reader covered by a digital ribbon, a sign that the book is new and unopened. The shopping cart connects the customers directly to Amazon, the only place Kindle owners can shop.
I feel like Rip Van Winkle, waking up to a world that developed while I was asleep. As the owner of an iPad and a Kindle there is no doubt that I have finally – as a former classmate pushing me to leave ‘snail mail’ behind and to register for an email address once put it,
– ‘Gotten into the millennium’.