On vacation, when you see the open spaces of the world, breathe forest-scrubbed air and hammer your credit cards to within an inch of their lives, you feel young again. You make big plans. You vow, right there at the wheel of the rental car, to repudiate your small, crabbed existence, to do something bigger and bolder and far, far more expensive. There's hardly a man in America who hasn't, on vacation, turned to a spouse or girlfriend or boyfriend or random hitchhiker and said, "One of these days, I'm gonna be a rancher."
Yes, a rancher! With acreage to the horizon! You'll practically live on a horse. You'll ride through your fields, fix the perimeter fence and supervise the ranch hands as they herd the cattle and collect their eggs and whatever else it is that people do on ranches.
We all dream. And here in San Simeon, on California's central coast, is one man's very big dream. It's called the Hearst Castle, or sometimes just San Simeon, but newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst had his own name for it: the Ranch.
Hearst was the quintessential shameless American, unafraid to spend money profligately, to shove his political weight around, to start foreign wars (Spanish-American in his case), to date showgirls less than half his age, and to use his great power and wealth to cavort with celebrities. Aesthetically, his castle is borrowed from Old Europe, or, more precisely, purchased. He insisted that his Hollywood houseguests dress up in costumes on the spur of the moment and put on a play. He had a private zoo, complete with grizzly bear. Gold leaf made the indoor pool tiles shine for his glittery swimmers. Ah, the ranching life!
The castle and its grounds required something like 300 staffers, including 40 gardeners. Cocktails were served at precisely 7:30 in the Assembly Room (attendance required unless you had a doctor's note), followed by dinner from 9 to 11 in the dining room, then movies in the private theater with the caryatids resembling Hearst's mistress Marion Davies.
If you had to put a label on the builder of this place, you wouldn't think "rancher," but rather "emperor" or "Caligula wannabe." The castle is jammed, nook and cranny, with priceless antiques, paintings, tapestries, but the tour guide notes that the Hollywood guests never remembered the decor; Cary Grant reported that he was focused entirely on a mole on Carole Lombard's back.
Personally, I was stunned to see that the man didn't have a porch. He had a little balcony outside his bedroom window, and, of course, various plazas and a giant outdoor pool with Greco-Roman columns, but no porch, not even a little screened-in affair. If it were my ranch I'd have a porch, with a stuffed chair, an electric skeeter zapper, a metal washtub for iced beverages, a little radio for catching the ballgame, two jumbo bowls for the dog's food and water, a fancy clothesline that lets you reel the clothes in and out without hardly moving from your chair, and a fly swatter hanging on a nail, nice and handy. Plus a big, wide dirt parking area right at the foot of the porch, so friends could drive up, pulling a bass boat, and talk without having to get out of their pickup. But different people have different tastes.
No question, Hearst built an amazing, fantastic, heroically ridiculous place. The tour guide doesn't mention that it was also a house of cards. How could Hearst afford this fantasy? He couldn't. He used other people's money. Biographer David Nasaw writes, "The Chief had learned early and well the first tenet of the new consumer age: that there was no shame being in debt." Hearst passed on much of the operating cost of San Simeon to Hearst Corp. A business expense, he said. But by the late 1930s, the media empire owed millions to creditors, Hearst lost control of his company, and many of his treasures went to the auction block. The parties at San Simeon were never quite the same.
What most of us know about Hearst we gleaned from Orson Welles and his great movie "Citizen Kane." I kept wondering where Hearst collapsed and muttered "Rosebud." We all invent stories about ourselves, but we never fully own them. Charles Foster Kane and his dark castle, Xanadu, seem real, while William Randolph Hearst and San Simeon seem a bit implausible and unconvincing -- a stage set, a lot of props and facades. Pure make believe. Even when you see this place with your own eyes, you think it's only a movie.
Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.