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Big man, huge home, tall tales

The Hearst-obsessed guides who lead visitors through his castle have a daily diet of glamorous history, surly guests and 1,700 stairs.

October 03, 2004|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

San Simeon, Calif. — George CARTTER discovered the Florenz Ziegfeld connection two years ago in a used bookstore. For years it had been suspected -- Marion Davies was a former Ziegfeld girl after all -- but never verified. But here it was, in a book about Hollywood, a photo of the legendary showman in front of the main house of Hearst Castle.

"We had figured he had visited," Cartter says, his voice bright with excitement as if this startling revelation had occurred just yesterday, "but there was no proof. Now we could add him to the official guest list."

And to Cartter's already extensive Hearst Castle file. Cartter is a Hearst Castle guide. Like many of his 100 colleagues, his official State of California classification is "permanent intermittent" -- he works year-round but never a full 40-hour week -- but his commitment to William Randolph Hearst and his San Simeon residence is pretty much round the clock.

With just 7 1/2 years on "the hill," Cartter, 56, is a relative newbie; most guides have 15 or more. Every year, they lead as many as 900,000 people through the gardens, living quarters and guest cottages of the former media mogul, highlighting the many points of interest: the 19th century neoclassical Venus that belonged to Napoleon's brother, the carved teak cornice that outlines Hearst's private floor, the ketchup bottles on the four remarkably long and formal dining tables in the refectory.

It is as unlikely an occupation as the castle is a residence, with no real job requirement beyond a high school diploma or equivalency, six months of public speaking training, and a willingness to learn as well as instruct. Not surprisingly, many of the guides are retired teachers and amateur historians, but the list also includes former journalists and waiters, an aerobics instructor, even a firefighter. Cartter came by way of a radio news job in Santa Maria, fascinated by one of the "few places in the West where you can walk through a powerful person's house and talk about his stuff."

For all the splendor of the surroundings, this isn't exactly a cushy job -- the hours are irregular -- only nine of the guides are truly full time; the pay is not high, the temperatures can hit triple digits, and the house, being a state historical monument, is not air-conditioned. On a busy summer day, a guide can talk for five hours, stand on concrete for six and climb 1,700 stairs. John Porter, a local rancher who has worked summers as a guide for 33 years, says he goes through a new pair of shoes every summer.

"People tell me I have a play job," says Beverly Brockington, who has been on the hill for 15 years. "But it is physical work and requires you to be open to all people, to be tolerant of all people."

Guides must cope with all sorts of wildlife and not just whining toddlers and surly tourists. The hills are home to deer, foxes and coyotes. All sorts of spiders, including tarantulas, scuttle across the patios and stone railings, and often early groups disturb the occasional bat or snake.

Diane Kosarko recently made the mistake of walking backward, a tour guide no-no, and stepped on a California king snake. The worst thing was, Cartter says, "everyone was much more concerned about the snake than they were about Diane."

But as with many of Hearst's long-ago guests, once here, none of the guides can imagine leaving.

"Glamour, scandal, power, every sort of art from ancient Egypt to Art Deco," says Mary Kocher, who has worked on the hill for 12 years, "there is nothing that we don't have."

Kocher is a painter who says her goal in life is to be a renaissance woman. "So where else would I work?"

History meets glamour

It remains an unlikely vision, those telltale turrets, red tile roofs and palm trees cresting the golden hills of the Central California coast like some fantastic pirate ship or a low-flying cloud city. A mile or so south, the town of San Simeon briefly clutters Highway 1 with motels and cafes, but the hilltop house Hearst commissioned and architect Julia Morgan designed in the first half of the 20th century remains pretty much smack dab in the middle of nowhere and perpetually unexpected.

Hearst Castle has been many things to many people -- a lover's retreat for its master and his mistress, an ongoing hobby for an obsessive art collector, a seat of power and influence, an A-list destination for Hollywood luminaries and, in the last 25 years, one of the most profitable state parks in California.

Three separate tours are offered throughout the year; from April to October, visitors can take a fourth tour through the grounds and wine cellar; and in the spring and autumn on Friday and Saturday nights, there's an evening tour, which includes docents in period dress.. At peak attendance, during the late 1980s, a million people annually came to see the over-the-top opulence on the estate that was renamed Xanadu in "Citizen Kane," Orson Welles' famous and formidable interpretation of the man who invented the media empire.

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