“Rosebud”… every film buff knows the reference. In the monumental 1941 film, Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane repeats the word on his deathbed, recalling the beloved sled so cruelly snatched from him during his impoverished youth. He was still obsessed with its loss, a loss that may have represented the loss of his mother’s love.
I hope you’ve never lost your “Rosebud.” But it you have, you might look for it at Hearst Castle.
Hearst Castle? It’s the fabulous estate built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst on the central coast of California. Most filmgoers acknowledge that it was Orson Welles’s inspiration for Charles Foster Kane’s mansion, “Xanadu.”
Today Hearst Castle is a National Historic Landmark (as well as a California Historical Landmark), and this year it’s turning 100 years old. When I learned of this milestone, I couldn’t help recalling my two visits to that extraordinary place.
It wasn’t always called “Hearst Castle.” Hearst inherited the original estate at San Simeon from his father (along with even more land and $11 million) when his mother died in 1919. Together with his architect, the pioneering Julia Morgan, they greatly enhanced it during a span of over twenty years.
Hearst himself later called it “The Ranch.” After he separated from his wife in 1925, he and his mistress, Hollywood film star Marion Davies, spent time at his mansion entertaining prominent guests from the worlds of politics, literature, and film. In addition to the mansion itself, Hearst acquired an enormous amount of priceless artwork and furnishings on an epic scale.
I first heard about Hearst’s mansion in the early 1970s when my soon-to-be husband (I’ll call him Marv) proposed that we drive up the coast from Los Angeles, where we’d met a few months earlier, to San Francisco and back. Marv said we could stop at “San Simeon,” and our stop there turned out to be a shimmering highlight of one of the most memorable trips of my life. Maybe that’s why I remember it so well.
We set out from LA on a beautiful sunny morning in mid-March. Driving north on Highway 1, we visited Danish-themed Solvang and beautiful Morro Bay en route to San Simeon.
When we arrived, we walked up to a fairly small entrance and joined a few other tourists on a tour of the mansion, where we learned a lot about Hearst and his mansion’s history. I knew something about Hearst from his role in U.S. history, especially his “yellow” journalistic efforts to embroil the U.S. in the Spanish-American War in 1898. But before we visited San Simeon, I knew very little about his personal life.
When the tour ended, we were able to explore the outdoor areas by ourselves. My photo album includes scenes of the two of us at “Hearst Mansion.” Unaccompanied and unbothered by any staff or other tourists, we roamed around, taking photos of each other, choosing backdrops like the gorgeous Neptune Pool and some of the exquisite outdoor statuary.
Just after leaving the Hearst Mansion, we drove through Big Sur and relished a memorable lunch at Nepenthe. This charming restaurant, which first opened in 1949, features an outdoor terrace offering a panoramic view of the south coast of Big Sur. The breathtaking view is still worth a stop.
The rest of our trip included equally memorable stops in Carmel and Monterey, as well as a celebration of my birthday in San Francisco. Visiting a couple of wineries in Napa, seeing friends in Berkeley (where Marv had spent five happy years as a grad student), and a trip down the coast to return to LA (via Andersen’s Pea Soup just off Highway 1 in Buellton) completed our remarkable trip.
But most unforgettable was our joyful decision to marry each other in a few short weeks.
Fast forward about 35 years. I returned to Xanadu…er, Hearst Castle, during a road trip with my daughter in 2008. This visit was very different. First, we had to enter through a sterile structure, the visitor center, which didn’t exist at the time of my earlier trip. In this dreary “holding pen,” we waited with a large crowd of other tourists until we were herded onto a bus, herded through the castle, and herded back onto a bus.
This new approach struck me as far too regimented. Although my daughter was delighted to see the castle and learn about its history during our tour, we had very little chance to roam around the grounds by ourselves when the tour ended.
With the castle’s 100th anniversary coming up, some positive changes are arriving on the scene. For example, the slate of tours has expanded to include tours with exciting new themes. Even better: Most tours now allow visitors free-roaming once their guided tour is over. This appears to be much like the roaming I remember from my first trip. Visitors can admire the grounds, including the Neptune Pool (recently renovated for $10 million), for as long as they wish. So it now promises to be a far better experience for visitors than the one I found wanting in 2008.
In my mind, Hearst Castle is inescapably linked with the movie Citizen Kane. That classic film looms especially large because it turned out to play an important role in my own life.
Marv and I had met on the campus of UCLA, where we were both working, and we had rented apartments in the same building on the fringes of the campus. Our lives, not surprisingly, often centered around UCLA.
One of our most remarkable dates involved a showing of Orson Welles’s film in a classroom building on the campus.
Sometime after we decided to get married, Marv asked me whether I wanted to see Citizen Kane. I immediately jumped at the chance to see a film I’d only heard about but never saw, even on late-night TV.
Marv grinned and said something like, “I think you’ll like it,” adding, “There’s a surprise in it for you.” That clearly piqued my interest, and I couldn’t wait to see it.
We took our seats in a bare-bones classroom and began to watch the film. It was fascinating from the start, beginning with the announcement of Kane’s death on the “March of the News” (patterned after the “News of the World,” a newsreel shown in movie theaters in the 1940s). The story then flashed back to Kane’s involvement in politics, the purchase of his first newspaper (soon followed by other papers), and his marriage to his first wife.
I was totally caught up in the storyline. Then came the surprise. A character named Susan Alexander suddenly appeared on the screen.
My birth name is not Susan Alexander. But I was never very fond of the last name (my father’s) I was given at birth, and I was planning to change it to Marv’s last name when we married. Now here was a character with the name I hoped to have.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t a totally positive character, and as the story moved on, she became less and less so. Abused by Kane, by the end of the movie she had become a pathetic alcoholic, engendering sympathy rather than antipathy.
I would have been happier to see a more positive figure with my future name on the screen. But what’s astonishing is how the character’s name has lodged in filmgoers’ minds.
During the decades since I married Marv and assumed her name, I’ve encountered countless people who, upon meeting me, mention Citizen Kane. I immediately know that these people (sadly, a dwindling number) have seen the film and vividly recall the name of Kane’s aspiring-soprano second wife, who was actually patterned after the wife of another tycoon, Samuel Insull.
I’ve always been happy that I took Marv’s last name and became Susan Alexander (even when I’ve been confused with other women who share my name). And I’ve never regretted being associated with a truly great film like Citizen Kane.
Do you have a “Rosebud”? I didn’t have a favorite toy that I lost during my childhood, so I’ve never obsessed over something the way Charles Foster Kane obsessed over his sled.
But if you have a “Rosebud,” I hope that you’re luckier than he was, and that someday you, unlike Kane, succeed at tracking it down.