Hol­ly­wood’s hunger for tur­rets

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Architecture -

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

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