"Alright! Time to Party!" / by Jake Purcell

Hearst everywhere

Cash and the promise of some truly out-there ravings from the wealthy and opinionated William Randolph Hearst as his poor architectural choices and hundreds of millions of dollars of debt caught up with him have lured Brianna and me to California for ten research-heavy days. So far, not so bad! I took a cab directly from SFO to the University of California at Berkeley, where the Environmental Design Archives were about to close for the remainder of our trip. The archivist had generously agreed to let me riffle through the papers of Hearst architect Julia Morgan (more about her as often as possible) and concrete enthusiast Walter Steilberg (at least a recurring character) for a couple of hours, if only I could get there before closing. I do not recommend this effective but very expensive way of adding drama to historical research.

Then, we spent three days rummaging through the just so beautifully organized William Randolph Hearst papers at the Bancroft Library. An archivist told us to "have fun kids" and "woo party time!" as we left on Friday, which I would say was not how that day ended, though we did pay a breathtaking six-dollar cover charge to get into a gay bar at 10 p.m.

We're primarily in California to research the collecting habits of publishing magnate, would-be politician, and noted nationalist William Randolph Hearst and his many associates and organizations. Hearst brought a huge amount of architectural material from Europe to the U.S. and back to spiff up his New York apartment, the Hilltop residence at San Simeon, the fairytale-manor Wyntoon, estates in Mexico, and a castle in Wales. Finding, buying, shipping, and storing objects required a huge network of architects, engineers, advisers, buyers, overseers, secretaries, and accountants, especially since Hearst does not seem to have made much distinction among these various posts when issuing instructions. (The formation of two corporations, the International Studio Art Corporation and the Sunical Land and Packing Company, to iron out the process did help a little.) The papers of Hearst, Julia Morgan, and Walter Steilberg, as well as the research files of Morgan biographer Sarah Boutelle, reveal a lot of the nitty gritty of how decisions were made about what medieval buildings to buy and how to get them from Europe to the U.S.

So far, Hearst's papers have contained the usual combination of extremely banal (confirmation that affidavits were signed, people repeatedly asking if Hearst ever actually purchased that one thing and if so why can they not find it oh god where is it oh he never bought it), human dramas (a heartbreaking cold-call letter to Hearst informing him that his secretary has stolen the letter writer's husband), and unexpected side plots (Hearst's decade-long hatred for one of his employees, who somehow never gets fired). We'll be writing many of these up into blog posts in their own right, though probably not the one about the woman whose life was destroyed.

Tomorrow, we hop in a car and head a few hours south to San Luis Obispo. On the way, we'll stop by San Simeon, Hearst's castle, to see if we can find the warehouse (still full of historical treasures?) or the old, disaster-ridden bear pits. Wish us luck.