Of all the places celebrities partied during Hollywood's Golden Age, one of the most popular was more than four hours north of Tinseltown. Movie stars and others among Hollywood's most famous drinkers often attended parties at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, CA, owned by publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst. While Hearst's enormous hillside estate may have inspired the somber epic Citizen Kane, what went on behind the walls of the real castle had a more playful and fun tone - at least until Hearst ran out of money.
Born in 1863 to parents made wealthy from mining, Hearst built his empire by first taking over the San Francisco Examiner newspaper. His paper gained popularity thanks to its sensational writing, bold headlines, and dramatic stories. Eventually, Hearst bought newspapers across the country, making him one of the wealthiest Americans of the time. One of the mogul's biggest hobbies involved the new industry of moving pictures, and Hearst befriended many of the burgeoning film stars - Hollywood's elite - inviting them to visit Hearst Castle throughout the 1920s and '30s.
In a rather unexpected celebrity will, Hearst bequeathed his property to his long-time mistress when he died in 1951, but she ultimately returned it to his family. Today, the California State Park system owns the estate and allows public visitors to share in the secrets and shenanigans of Hearst Castle history.
Though Prohibition began in 1920 in the US, William Randolph Hearst didn't let it stop his guests from enjoying their stay at his California mansion. Below the main building, he built a wine cellar with room for 10,000 bottles, and secured it with a lockable iron door. He wanted his guests to have a good time, but kept their partying within reason, setting limits on how much they could drink. Hearst once asked Dorothy Parker to leave after she had one drink too many, and did the same for David Niven, whom he caught hiding smuggled bottles of liquor under his bed.
Through his newspapers, Hearst revealed his stance against Prohibition, as he believed it inspired organized crime and thought authorities couldn't completely enforce the law. Though he admitted he enjoyed light drinking, Hearst hated when people became drunk. His newspapers held a contest in 1929, encouraging people to submit their best ideas on how to repeal Prohibition with a $25,000 reward. Regardless, Prohibition ended four years later.
Hearst Castle became known for its costume parties, with themes carefully picked by William Randolph Hearst. He even selected costumes for his guests, and paid seamstresses and tailors to create the garments by hand. One party's theme of dressing up like favorite movie stars caused celebrities to swap identities for an evening. Another party invited attendees to dress like children, and the "Your Favorite Character from History" party led Charlie Chaplin to dress up as Napoleon Bonaparte.
The locations for the parties often included a 110-room house on the beach, which Hearst built for Marion Davies. The couple used the house to throw Hearst a huge, circus-themed birthday bash when he turned 75. Bette Davis came as a bearded lady and mingled with 2,000 other invited celebrities, such as Clark Gable and Gloria Swanson. The party also featured a full-sized merry-go-round, which required a wall be torn down for it to fit. Since money appeared no object, Hearst simply had the wall rebuilt after the party.
Since Hearst Castle is about 225 miles north of Hollywood, traveling to the estate took time. While some celebrities arrived via train - or occasionally in an entire car or train reserved especially for them - others used William Randolph Hearst's private airstrip to fly. Hearst owned an eight-passenger plane to bring guests to his home, often turning on floodlights to light up his estate in the grandest way possible.
He built two runways on his property with different orientations to allow takeoffs and landings in poor weather. Hearst also took advantage of his airstrips by requesting pilots bring him a copy of each of his newspapers every day. In addition to learning sports scores and allowing guests to read their film reviews, Hearst liked to read and critique his papers. Though the airstrip moved about a mile north in 1946, what was previously the hangar currently functions as the visitor center.
Receiving an invitation to stay at Hearst Castle translated to being accepted as an important person. Katharine Hepburn claimed she always regretted turning down William Randolph Hearst's invitation, perhaps not realizing he only gave people one chance to accept.
Hearst expected visitors to take advantage of the activities on the grounds, encouraging swimming, tennis, horseback riding; he also wanted them to join him at dinner. Visitors noted their stay was winding to a close when their assigned seats at the dinner table moved further away from the host.
Thanks to Hearst's love of movies, invitations extended to many celebrities, including Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Bob Hope, Joan Crawford, and the Marx Brothers. Of the guests, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and Charlie Chaplin were regulars, as they would frequently hang out on the estate. Hearst didn't limit his invitations to movie stars, asking political figures such as Calvin Coolidge, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt to visit, as well.