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Buffet Line at the Castle


The guests were among the Hollywood elite and, one would assume, accustomed to doing what they wanted, when they wanted. But when they spent the weekend at Hearst Castle, they stuck to its legendary owner's schedule--especially when it came to meals.

The Hearst family donated the castle portion of the Hearst estate to the state of California 40 years ago this summer, and its longtime housekeeper, Ann Miller Lopez, recently reflected on what those weekends were like.

Lopez joined the housekeeping staff Jan. 15, 1946, and continued running the household long after the state took over. In fact, she lived at Hearst Castle for 38 years, longer even than William Randolph Hearst.

Frequently there were as many as 35 visitors on weekends, including business associates of the media and film company mogul and Hollywood friends of his longtime companion Marion Davies.

Bing Crosby was a favorite of Lopez's, but she enjoyed all the notable guests she met--David Niven, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Zasu Pitts, Van Johnson, Louella Parsons. Among her responsibilities was greeting the guests, getting them settled in their rooms and explaining the daily routine and house rules.

The three daily meals were served in the refectory, a room 72 feet long and 27 feet wide with a 27-foot-high carved wooden ceiling from Italy and a massive French Gothic fireplace. The guests ate at three antique convent tables placed end to end down the center of the hall.

Breakfast, a casual meal, was served between 9 and 11 a.m., Lopez said. Guests could order almost anything they wanted and enjoy coffee, juice and fruit while it was being prepared. Hearst had a tray brought to his room each morning but extended the same room service to guests only if they were ill. Lopez said the staff was known to bend the rule once in a while for one of his sons--but rarely.

The midday meal was served at 2 p.m. To alert those on the grounds, the butler stepped outside the front door and rang a brass cowbell. Hearst expected his guests to line up promptly for the buffet selections, Lopez recalled, but once seated, they were attended by the butler.

Cocktails were served in the Assembly Hall beginning at 7 p.m. Drinks were mixed by the butler--there were no open bars in the castle. Stories vary about how many drinks the guests were permitted, but Lopez said alcohol wasn't limited as long as people conducted themselves appropriately.

Hearst and Davies, often accompanied by Hearst's dachshund, Helena, typically joined their guests at 8 p.m., entering through a small door in the north end of the room. This was "his" end of the room, Lopez said.

The group moved into the refectory for dinner at 9 p.m. Hearst always sat at the center of the table, directly across from Davies. The most important guest was seated on his right.

Wines from his extensive cellar were served with dinner. Lopez said that when Niven was a guest, he often selected the wines and instructed the staff about how they should be handled and decanted.

After dinner, there usually was time for a game of billiards or cards before a movie was shown at 11 p.m. A driver brought a new feature film from Los Angeles each day. Lopez said it was shown to staff members earlier in the evening, but those involved with serving dinner were welcome to attend the guest presentation.

Hearst never stopped thinking of his Central Coast estate as "Camp Hill," the place where he camped out with his family in the late 1800s. The castle may have replaced the tents, but commercial bottles of catsup and mustard shared the tables with giant silver candlesticks, and paper napkins were used with the gold-trimmed Blue Willow china.

Menus from the 1930s and '40s show surprisingly simple American fare. It wasn't unheard of for Hearst to fly in lobster or other delicacies for his guests, but for the most part, the food served was raised on the 275,000-acre ranch.

Hearst, who liked his beef well aged, had a walk-in refrigerator built solely for aging the cattle slaughtered on the ranch. Poultry raised at the ranch included chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, guinea hens, partridges, geese and ducks. Hearst's favorite dish was pressed duck, cooked very rare and squeezed in a silver press.

Vegetables were grown on the grounds, and acres of orchards produced nuts, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, tangerines, pears, apples, apricots, plums, peaches, nectarines, figs and avocados. The estate also raised its own berries, persimmons and kumquats.

The kitchen staff included a chef, assistant chef, pastry chef and dishwasher. A separate chef cooked for the employees. The spacious kitchen was well equipped for the time, with four large walk-in vegetable coolers below it in the basement, an ice maker, deep-freeze and five-gallon ice cream freezer.

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