It's 7 p.m. and someone is playing the piano. The guests are entering the Assembly Room through the sculpted marble doorway. The room looks like a Renaissance palace - the choir stalls, the carved wooden ceiling, the 16th-century tapestries hanging on the walls.
Two young women dressed in chiffon and lace mince by, one with a band of fake diamonds in her hair, the other with a red rose she picked from the gardens outside, both with white skin and pink, pink cheeks. They go to the carved wooden game box and take out the Parcheesi and the bingo and the decks of cards.
There's a fire in the monstrous French Renaissance fireplace at one end of the room, and the hall is soon heavy with the smell of perfume and burning pine. A maid flits by with an antique platter full of heady German cheeses.
On a small table inlaid with gold and lapis lazuli sits a set of green crystal glasses and a bottle of P. Garnier Sirop de Grenadine.
The night before, the host had fresh oysters flown in from the East Coast, and if you pass near the kitchen you know that tonight they're being fired with lots and lots of garlic.
The room is buzzing now, with beautiful people. The hostess, Marion Davies, is giddy. She's squeezing each guest on the arm and kissing this one and that on the cheek. She's dressed in a long black velvet dress, one shoulder bare, the other kissed with a cerulean blue silk scarf attached to the velvet with an 18-carat diamond clasp. One girl tells her the diamond clasp is lovely and Marion asks if the girl would like to wear it sometime.
The butlers, smooth and unsmiling, are starting to move faster through the room - to the piano at one end where some people are singing "Ramona," then back to the fireplace - with bottles of champagne.
One butler hovers over the group at the jigsaw-puzzle table, offering a Sevres plate of canapes, arranged - just so - in a cheese-caviar-cheese checkerboard design.
More people are singing now, and the music is competing with the crowd at the fireplace shouting at the standing figure who's blowing furiously through his mouth, acting out the name of a movie. "ONE STYLLABLE!" "WIND!" "NO! GALE!" He thrusts his arm in the air, glass in hand, and sprays the charades players with champagne. "RAIN!" someone shouts.
On the overstuffed couch Constance Talmadge and Bebe Daniels and Eileen Percy are giggling and planning outfits for a costume party next week. Clark Gable comes in late. He joins them on the couch and says he won't stuff himself with chopped onions and caviar and pickled herring and stuffed eggs tonight before dinner but he would like to try one of those bottles of Nuits St. George vintage 1878, and would one of them like to show him how to shimmy?
Marion runs out of the dining hall. She's laughing and she asks who the wise guy was that put honey in the salt shaker.
In the dining hall, the next room, the long banquet table is laid out with Blue Willow china and paper napkins and the candlelight dances against the rare tapestries, illuminating scenes from the life of Daniel the Prophet. Tonight the plates are turned face down. When the guests go in for dinner, when they sit in the 16th-century Dante chairs, leather seats and backs covered with Italian velvet, they'll turn the plates over and find gifts from Carter and Tiffany underneath.
It's 7:30 now, and the big room feels warm, even though the fog has come up off the Pacific Ocean, shrouding the hill, and the last few latecomers come in with beads of water in their hair.
Nobody hears the creak of the private elevator descending from the Gothic suite above the hall, but they all turn when Marion cries, "W.R.!" and runs to meet him.
He's taller than the rest, and he's wearing a brocade smoking jacket.He slips his arm over Marion's bangled shoulder, and makes his way through the room to greet everyone.
Elsewhere the country is mired in the Great Depression. But tonight, William Randolph Hearst is entertaining his guests at San Simeon.
"We didn't think of them as parties," says Adela Rogers St. Johns. "Parties were automatic. Being there was a party."
St. Johns, now 82, was Heart's favorite feature reporter for more than 40 years.
She covered the Lindbergh baby kidnaping the Edward VII-Wallis Simpson romance, and Huey "Kingfish" Long. She sneaked into the menonly Baseball Writers' Dinner. She roamed around Los Angeles in a torn dress with only a dime in her pocket while she researched a series of articles on unemployed women during the Depression.
She rested at the Hearst "ranch" at San Simeon. "I practically lived there."
St. Johns is at her Los Angeles hotel getting ready to watch television. She takes time out to talk about Hearst and San Simeon because "I just want to set the record straight. Mr. Hearst was the greatest newspaper editor that ever lived."
It was a relaxed and happy place, St. Johns says. "We swam, played tennis, went horseback riding.
"Mr. Hearst loved to laugh. We all did. It probably doesn't sound too funny now, but we all howled when we were watching a movie and the pet spaniel started barking each time anything happened to Marion on the screen."
At the long banquet table, the dining room like a monastery, Hearst's 40 or so guests - writers, editors, dukes, senators, people from Hollywood - engaged in "witty, brilliant conversation." There you might find President Coolidge, Winston Churchill, Charles Lindbergh, Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Carole Lombard.
"It was better than your average conversation today," St. Johns says. "We talked about politics, the New York theater, we'd argue all the time about sports, who the best tennis player was . . ." Bill Tilden!! Helen Wills! Bill Tilden! MAY BUNDY . . . .!
In the middle of dinner, St. Johns says, Charlie Chaplin, maybe dressed as Napoleon, and Marion, as Empress Josephine, would get up and do a blackout routine. The lights'd go out . . . a spotlight falling on a rare piece of antique silver . . . then on one of the tapestries . . ." It was a whole guided museum tour; they always did things like that."
Occasionally, St. Johns says, the Hollywood types had their own ideas about who should have been given which part in whose movie. But she adds, emphatically, "If there were ever any hard feelings or jealousies, people were certainly better mannered than to mention it in front of Mr. Hearst.
"When you're sitting in front of those tapestries - one he paid half a million for, the other worth more than a million - the atmosphere has to be different from the corner saloon!"
(When Norma Shearer got the part of Marie Antoinette in an MGM spectacle, a part that Hearst wanted for Marion, Hearst, in his anger, moved Marion, dressing room and all, from MGM to Warner Brothers, and according to legend, banned the name of Norma Shearer in all the Hearst papers.)
Adela Rogers St. Johns was older than Marion and some of her young Hollywood chums. She was a Hearst favorite, in some ways an equal. She could sneak up behind Colonel Willicombe, she says, Hearst's portly and powerful secretary, and tell him he ought to be dressed in Cardinal's robes. When Hearst - "the Chief" - had a new story idea for her, he'd elbow his way across the Assembly Room, plate of caviar in hand, and corner her to talk and plan - "Mr. Hearst always gave me my assignments directly." Marion would sneak up beside them, ask what in God's name they were so serious about and Hearst would drape his arm over Marion's shoulder and continue talking to St. Johns.
It's with authority and affection that St. Johns calls Marion's young Hollywood friends, frequent guests at the ranch, "kids."
"Some of the kids," she says, were sitting around the phonograph in the big room one evening, listening to a screeching, grating song called "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal, You." Over and over again they played it, clapping, singing along with chorus, whooping it up with high-school-pajama-party abandon.
"Enough!!" cried Hearst. He strode over to the record machine, took the record off, and dashed it in a thousand pieces.
"And I don't blame him," says St. Johns, laughing. "It was a terrible song. Terrible words. Awful music."
One night Eileen Percy, Bebe Daniels and a few other "kids" sneaked out into the fog and dressed the statuary on the San Simeon grounds in bras and panties. They'd been hitting the gin in the basement, it seems, and thought the prank would be a scream.
"Mr. Hearst wasn't thrilled," St. John recalls. "He moved their place cards down to the end of the table away from the rest of us - but they were just kids."
Incidents like that, though, she adds, were rare. Because if you drank too much, or misbehaved, you were old - and it was never quite clear by whom - that your bags would be waiting for you.
"And nobody," says Adela Rogers St. Johns, "wanted that to happen."
Cary Grant was once asked to leave.
Grant, at 72, is as debonair as he was in "The Philadelphia Story." His voice is like honey and he's always tan. Grant explains the no-nonsense rule at the Hearst ranch:
"Nobody ever told you that you had to leave. It's just that your bags would be packed. My bags were waiting for me."
Here's how it happened:
Grant and Hearst's son, Bill, borrowed a friend's airplane and decided to play dive-bomber by blasting the hangar in the lower field at San Simeon with brown paper bags filled with flour.
"We got up to the top of the hill and plastered it. We had no idea it would make such a tremendous noise, but you could see it - flour flew up everywhere. When I got back my bags were waiting for me. That was a sign that Mr. Hearst didn't thinkit was such a good idea."
But, Grant says, that didn't mean you wouldn't be invited back. And Cary Grant was, often, to spend weeks at a time there between pictures. He arrived at the ranch one night after everyone else had left, and it was only he, Marion, and Hearst at the dinner table. "And do you know what we did all night?" says Grant. "Sang Cockney songs."
Grant used to get angry, and still does, he says, when people criticized Hearst for being rich. "It was a time when there was grace in the world, and manners," he says. "Mr. Hearst had money, and he shared it with people - not just monied people, the famous, the names that get in print."
Grant's uncle owned a small shop near Bath, and he sold a fireplace to Hearst. "For years that was a great topic of conversation in our family - my uncle's claim to fam."
And, says Grant, "I'd get angry when some of his guests would criticize a plain, dull chromium clock (Hearst) had, which didn't fit in with the decor of his place. But Mr. Hearst loved it, because someone had given it to him as a gift of appreciation.
"Can you imagine anyone being so rude as to criticize a chromium clock?"
Young and bubbly, the butterfly kid, actress Sally Blane is running through the Assembly Room to join Marion and some other girls playing charades in the adjacent morning room. She hears Hearst's voice. She stops and listens. He's talking on the phone. Through a translator.To Adolf Hitler.
"You said you wouldn't do that," bellows Hearst voice.
"Sie sagten, Sie wurden das night tun!" echoes the translator's voice.
"But that was before any of us knew who Hitler was," Sally Blane says now, in a breathy giggle.
As a teen-ager Blane danced at the Cocoanut Grove - "I won the Cup!" - and she played her first movie part, as a dancing extra, when she was 15. She started going to the Hearst ranch when she was 17.
"But when you're 17," she explains, "you really don't know how wonderful it was. I was invited to the ranch, I think, because I was young, unmarried, and happy. They always wanted to have young, pretty, cuddly girls there."
Sally Blane was one of the starry-eyed ingenues - uneducated, unmonied, naive as they were about anything beyond beaux and hairdos - who found themselves gaping as they fingered through Marion's diamond necklaces and ruby and sapphire bracelets, "the kinds of things," Blane says, "that you dream about as a child."
She was one of the young people who, by a quirk of happenstance, ended up sitting at the banquet table listening to arch capitalist Hearst argue politics with arch socialist George Bernard Shaw.
"But of course," Blane says, "I was mannered enough never to add anything."
Blane was one of the "kids" St. Johns spoke of, who ruffled Hearst with "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal, You."
"We were all goofballs then," Blane says, "and the ranch was like one big wonderful playground."
Marion Davies, Fairbanks, harry Crocker, even Hearst, she says, were continually concocting skits and games. They'd ask someone with two left feet to get up and do the Charleston, or they'd tie someone's feet together and ask him to waltz. They asked Sally Blane to recite a speech from Shakespeare - "I didn't knoow a word of Shakespeare, but that was the fun of it." After dinner they'd go to Hearst's private movie theater, lined with hollow-eyed, gold-leaf caryatides. They watched old movies, current movies, or feature previews. ("They always showed Marion's movies," says Blane). If the movie was good, or if Marion was on the screen, they'd clap and cheer. If the movie was dull, she recalls, some of the joker-types would get up to do a vaudeville act,, an impromptu speech, or a lampoon of the film. Everyone loved it. And after the movies they'd kick off their shoes and dancetill they dropped. "It was gaiety," says Blane, "to the nth degree.
Director King Vidor went to Naples this fall, where he received a Vittorio de Sica award for his contributions to the film industry. Vidor has directed moree than 50 films, among them, "The Big Parade," "The Crowd," "Hallelujah," and "Duel in the Sun." The success of "The Big Parade" in 1925 made him one of the sought after Big Guy directors of the time, and after "the Big Parade" Hearst wanted Vidor to direct Marion - which he did, in "The Patsy," "Show People," and "Not So Dumb."
King Vidor is talking about Hearst and San Simeon from his San Luis Obispo County ranch in a phone interview. He has a cold and apologizes for his raspy voice.
"Hearst," says, Vidor, now 83, "was the last of the great emporers. Here was a guy," he says, "who was running 200 newspapers and Lord knows how many magazines. He'd be playing tennis on the court above the indoor swimming pool. The phone would ring. ("There were phones everywhere.") There'd be some senator on the line. The score would be love-30. "Tell him to wait," Hearst would say.
Hearst was famous for curbing his guests' liquor intake while Hollywood and newspaper people were famous for non-stop swilling. From the bog of Hearst lore come stories like the laddddies sneaking extra glasses of champagne in the girls' room, hard-core drinkers leaving bottles of hard liquor in the hampers. Says Vidor, "He'd serve gin and orange juice and champagne, but that was about it. Some of us would like to have a bourbon or a scotch."
So a group would gather in Vidor's room for a scotch before dinner. Or for a bourbon after dinner. Or they'd tip the butler and go for a bourbon in the basement. Or for a scotch in the kitchen.
Hearst columnist Harry Crocker might have made a trip or two to the basement before he decided, according to Vidor, to amuse the guests one night by setting up a table full of glass-ware and announcing he was going to dive over the table, glass and all, and land on a pile of pillows on the other side. Everyone gathered around him, clapping. He heaved his chest. He dove.
"He missed," says Vidor. "Glass shattered everywhere."
Crockerr always did tricks like that, Vidor explains. "Sometimes he'd pick up a phonograph record, look at it, and say, "Mmmmm. This is a gooooood record.' Then he'd take a bite out of it. Chew it all up.
"The crowd loved it. We were always laughing."
But they didn't laugh when the Chief got mad. One evening, Vidor recalls, Marion got up on the piano to dance - "It was the Charlestonn, I think." The Chief came in. Marion slipped. The crowd gasped. The Chief glowered. A dizzy Marion fell into someone's waiting arms and everyone sighed.
"We knew we'd never do that again," Vidor laughs. "Any area where she'd hurt herself was o-u-t."
King Vidor found out what it meant to cross the Chief one time when he drove up to San Simeon late at nigh, brimming with enthusiasm for a surehit gimmick he had for a comdey script. It included having Marion hit in the face with a custard pie. Hearst blanched. End of conversation.
A few days later Vidor ran into Hearst at MGM studios, went up to greet him, and Hearst look straight through the director and walked past without a word. Hearst soon settled the problem by killing the idea. And Vidor was invited back to the ranch many time after.
"It's funny," he says. "I never found Hearst hard to talk to. Many people did." At the banquet table one evening around Thanksgiving, King Vidor, director Edmund Goulding and some others were discussing the origin of the turkey. Did it originate in America? someone asked. "I don't know," Vidor said. "Let's ask W.R."
"Let me ask him," whispered Goulding. "I want to have something to talk to him about."
But on the other hand, says Vidor, Hearst could toss of his shoes with the rest of them and wing a dance on the floor. He liked to Charleston. He loved to tap dance. "You know." Vidor says, "he was a pretty good dancer."
King Vidor remembers the San Simeon picnics with squab and turtle soup butlers everywhere, and limousines for those who didn't like ridding horses. On special occasions, he says, like Christmas and Easter, Hearst would bring up carloads of gifts, leather suitcases full of shirts, ties, everything from the best men's stores in Los Angeles, and fur capess for the women.
"The whole thing was like . . . " he says. "It was a fine time . . . I still have that suitcase he gave me around here someplace . . ."
It's 3:30 a.m. A few paling embers in the fireplace cast a thin light on the lumpy form asleep on the couch. In a few minutes one of the housekeepers will ocme to wake him up and shoo him off to the bungalow he's been assigned to sleep in. The garbage bin in the kitchen is full of oyster shells. On top, the empty bottle of Nuits St. George, 1878. All the lights on the hill are off, except the one from the Gothic suite above the Assembly Hall. A faint sound of water splashing comes up from the swimming pool below. The quiet. The tall figure steps out on the balcony of the Gothic suite and surveys the foggy grounds. From one of the guest houses comes a muffled laught. The sound of glass breaking. A few titters. Then quiet. The figure turns around slowly and goes inside and the last light on the hill goes off. William Randolph Hearst is going to bed. Godd night.