Hollywood’s hunger for turrets
Adrian Tinniswood on William Randolph Hearst and the rich Americans who coveted our castles
In the summer of 1925 Alice Head, the managing director of Good Housekeeping magazine in Britain, received a telegram from her boss in California:
WANT BUY CASTLE IN ENGLAND PLEASE FIND WHICH ONES AVAILABLE STDONATS PERHAPS SATISFACTORY AT PROPER PRICE BUT PRICE QUOTED SEEMS VERY HIGH SEE IF YOU CAN GET RIGHT PRICE ON STDONATS OR ANY OTHER EQUALLY GOOD HEARST
The newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst had begun to think about acquiring a country residence in Britain in the spring of that year. The leading contender was St Donat’s, an imposing medieval fortress 20 miles west of Cardiff (the distinction between England and Wales was lost on Hearst). That summer, he bought it.
Why did Hearst want a castle? Although he didn’t broadcast the fact, he liked the idea of a place where he and his mistress Marion Davies could entertain after their annual European vacation. Their guests included Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George, Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, a young John F Kennedy and an elderly George Bernard Shaw, who is rumoured to have said that St Donat’s was “what God would have built if he had had the money”.
But perhaps Hearst’s real reason for buying an “English” castle had more to do with finding the right setting for his collection of British and European art treasures, which was growing rapidly. At his peak, Hearst accounted for a quarter of the world’s art market.
“Need ancient atmosphere at St Donat’s,” read one of his many telegrams to Head. On another occasion he urged her “always to add old things” rather than making new. “We shall just increase [the castle’s] historical interest,” he told reporters in 1930, “by bringing tapestries, ceilings, panelling screens, pictures – every one of which will be genuinely antique.”
Some were more genuinely antique than others. Hearst’s bed, for example, was said on rather slender evidence to have been the one in which Charles I slept before his defeat at the Battle of Naseby. Other items were of more certain provenance, albeit of doubtful taste – thumbscrews, an executioner’s sword and other instruments of torture. But the majority of contents amassed for St Donat’s were of the best quality and in the best taste: portraits by Zoffany and Sir Thomas Lawrence, furniture by Chippendale, Brussels tapestries and neoclassical sculpture. St Donat’s was not a re-creation of a Welsh castle, or even an English castle. It was not a Hollywood set. It was a museum.
Hearst was far from being the only American to disrupt the social and architectural fabric of upper-class life in Britain. In the late 19th century, an unholy alliance was forged between socially ambitious mothers of heiresses from New York or Chicago and impoverished English aristocrats, who were happy to offer a title in exchange for a hefty dollar dowry. The poster girl for that discordant entente was Consuelo Vanderbilt, the daughter of a New York railway magnate and the reluctant wife of Sunny Spencer-Churchill, ninth Duke of Marlborough. Consuelo spent 11 years lost in the marble halls of Blenheim Palace, surrounded by blank-faced servants and condescending in-laws, before her marriage collapsed in 1906. Dinners with her husband were painful affairs, she later recalled. “As a rule neither of us spoke a word. I took to knitting in desperation and the butler read detective stories in the hall.”
By the Twenties, the tenor of