Hearst Castle was the inspiration–or object of satire–of Orson Welles’ Xanadu in Citizen Kane. A tour of its interior and grounds makes it quickly apparent why the owner and his oddball tastes became targets of parody.
Xanadu itself was after an ancient Mongol city in China (Shangdu), the summer capital of Kublai Khan, visited by Marco Polo, and made famous by the opium-induced poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It has become an elusive, fantastical place re-created by Romantic imagination.
Figures of wild men, purchased lock-stock from Europe, adorn the fasçade of the entrance. Such antique spoils from decaying castles and churches embellish the modern steel-reinforced concrete foundation, reflecting the vivid fantasies of its owner.
Despite the gaudy mish-mash of Old World opulence, William Randolph Hearst referred to his hilltop California home as “The Ranch.” On the long dining table of the aptly named Refectory, he served hot dogs with ketchup, mustard, and paper towels, among dour monastic décor.
Statues of the Madonna and Child stand on opposite sides of a wall in its medieval dining room. Mary, bearing the child Jesus, the exemplar of motherhood, is a fitting figure to stand guard in this domestic space–the Christian goddess protecting the virtues of family.
The movie theater, on the other hand, where Hearst entertained, is lined with Roman nymphs bearing branches lit with fruits. They illuminate your path along dark aisles of blood-red carpeting, into that modern-day sublimation of Pagan antiquity–the ambiguous visual pleasures of Hollywood.
The surrounding grounds are surprisingly cheerful, attuned to the California sunlight, which slants into the gold and blue of the Roman pool. None of that musty antique-shop junk. Instead, neo-classical sculptures of smooth clean lines adorn the gardens, such as Antonio Canova’s Three Graces. Gratiae in Latin, Charites in Greek (where we get “charisma”), the Graces epitomize beauty, charm, creativity. They are huddled in tender caress, their bone white delicacy dispelling the stifling air of the castle.
Xanadu, for Orson Wells, represented the megalomania and manic aquisitiveness of its builder, an overcompensation for a lost childhood. What else is Hearst Castle, built amidst the desolate, rugged coasts of California, but an articulation of some unresolved obsession?