"Ketchup and mustard on a 17th century table from Italy," chuckles Jim Allen. "That's old world and new world, isn't it?"
It is, and it's more than that, too. Allen and I stand in the long dining room at Hearst Castle, aforementioned 17th century table stretching to the horizon beneath ceilings that scrape the heavens. William Randolph Hearst did few things small. Did I mention the dining table stops short of a fireplace originally constructed about the same time Columbus sailed for France?
For reasons beyond good fortune, I have been afforded a back door tour of Hearst Castle with Allen as my guide. Touring Hearst Castle with Jim Allen is a bit like wandering backstage with Mick Jagger. Currently the Castle's director of marketing, Allen has been at Hearst Castle for 29 years. Better still, this hasn't dimmed the man's enthusiasm one bit. As we stand in the vast dining hall, Allen provides an animated discourse on the adjacent Assembly Room where guests like Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes, Greta Garbo, and Charlie Chaplin gathered to hobnob before dinner. The guest list at the newspaper magnate's dinner parties comprised a who's who of statesmen, movie stars, scientists, explorers, and, my personal favorite, paper boys.
As Allen talks I bob my head in the universal sign of rapt attention, but I confess I only half listen. Gazing at the long table, set as if for dinner tonight, it's not hard to imagine the paper boy squirting ketchup willy-nilly about his plate while beside him Churchill employs all his diplomatic skills to refrain from looking horrified.
So young fellow, are you enjoying the pommes de terre à la sarladaise?
The potatoes taste a little funny to me, sir.
Ah. Well yes. I suppose they might. They are roasted in duck fat.
They're kind of like French fries.
Yes, I suppose they are. We call them chips in England.
Chips are better with ketchup, sir.
Mmmmm. When you're done with that, I'll have a dollop myself.
Of course I am making all this up. The conversation between Winston Churchill and a San Francisco Chronicle paperboy could have gone in any imaginable direction. Lord knows the repartee exchanged between Howard Hughes and Harpo Marx. But the point is clear. William Randolph Hearst amassed enough wealth to do things Donald Trump can't even imagine, but at heart the man was egalitarian.
Here in the dining hall, Allen has fallen quiet, too. Perhaps he is hearing conversations of his own. Finally he gives an affirmative nod. "Hearst broke down social strata," he says. "He was definitely a Californian."
Allen continues the tour. We wander past crystalline swimming pools, marble columns, secret doors, delicate flowers, and towering palms, the products of a man whose vision brought to fruition a home one part ranch, one part European castle upon a granite hilltop that required every shovel of topsoil be shipped in. Hearst's collection of artifacts is beyond comprehension; the grandeur of the buildings in which they are housed, equally so. The estate's main house, aptly named Casa Grande, has 38 bedrooms, 30 fireplaces, 14 sitting rooms and 42 bathrooms, neatly highlighting man's priorities. Said rooms are brimming with Spanish and Italian furniture, Oriental carpets, Renaissance vestments, Flemish tapestries, third century Roman mosaics, Egyptian statures, Greek vases, and Tiffany lamps. Believe me, you walk with your elbows tucked in (although Harpo Marx purportedly did somersaults in the library with actress Marion Davies). The grounds are trod by zebras. Tim Burton has less imagination. As Allen succinctly puts it, "Most people don't tour through here and say, 'Who cares?'''
Yes, Hearst's Castle is opulence beyond scope, yet the man himself possessed a hearty lack of pretense. Purportedly Hearst's 1919 instructions to famed San Francisco architect Julia Morgan were straightforward. "Miss Morgan, we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something."
William Randolph Hearst certainly had his critics. His newspapers and his reporters were accused of routinely inventing sensational stories, faking interviews, and running phony pictures, beating some of today's news outlets to the punch by a hundred years. Like many wealthy personages, he could sometimes be out of touch. He once dispatched a reporter to the Ojai Valley to capture a wild grizzly to be named Monarch, in keeping with his newspaper's logo, "Monarch of the Dailies."
But historians always quibble about the famous after the fact. In my mind, the fact which matters is simple, simmering beneath the flamboyant life and stunning acquisitions of William Randolph Hearst like a steady flame. Hearst built his fortune on newspapers and the belief that those inky pages were the underpinning of a free and open democracy. He peopled his dinner table in the same fashion.
There is much to be said for a place where a paperboy can advise a head of state on matters of seasoning and taste. We could use more of that in this world today.
Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.