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  • Alexander Wilburn

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure dome decree..."

Citizen Kane (1941) opens with a warning — a stark close-up of a sign painted in bold capital letters, "NO TRESPASSING," and yet that is what Orson Welles both invites us and guides us to do. Through midnight mist and marsh, his camera travels through the private lands of Charles Foster Kane, his Gulf Coast citadel perched high in the top right corner of the screen, growing large in its gothic shadow. This is Xanadu, a mountainous fairytale castle. In its double lancet window, a single light remains on, glowing in the dark, the bedroom — the deathbed — of Charles Foster Kane. Here lies the dying American magnate of thriving yellow journalism.



“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure dome decree” the film reminds us, reciting the words of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem that the Romantic writer called “a vision in a dream.”


“Today, almost as legendary is Florida's Xanadu — the world's largest private pleasure ground,” the radio broadcaster tells us in the wake of Kane’s death as the screen shows us its splendor.


“Here, on the deserts of the Gulf Coast, a private mountain was commissioned and successfully built. One hundred thousand trees [and] twenty thousand tons of marble are the ingredients of Xanadu's mountain. Contents of Xanadu's palace: paintings, pictures, statues, the very stones of many another palace, a collection of everything, so big it can never be cataloged or appraised.”

Hearst Castle - La Cuesta Encantada


Kane’s Xanadu is of course based on Hearst Castle, an equally mountainous fairytale creation William Randolph Hearst called La Cuesta Encantada or The Enchanted Hill. Instead of Florida, William Randolph Hearst built his “Xanadu” on the Pacific coast of San Simeon, a Californian village on the bay, first settled by the Spanish, with high turquoise waves and bulbous elephant seals splayed out on the sand. The towering palace fit for a tycoon of Hearst’s measure was designed by American architect Julia Morgan (no connection to the robber baron family). Morgan held the distinction of being the first female architect licensed in California and the first female student to graduate from The Beaux-Arts de Paris. For local history buffs, Beaux-Arts is the same French grande école where architect Joseph D. Leland studied before he was hired in 1927 to design the Norman-inspired Hill House on Beaver Dam Road in Taconic, Connecticut, better known colloquially as The Scoville Mansion.


Through the Roaring Twenties, the bright stars of Hollywood traversed up the elevated 1,600 feet to The Enchanted Hill, swimming in the Neptune Pool, an expansive outdoor bath lined with Roman columns and sculptural odes to the Birth of Venus. Hearst made his home a hoarded toy chest of priceless possessions, an endless mish-mash of European inspiration, grabbing at anything that had ever caught his eye.


1. William Randolph Hearst. 2. Clark Gable (far left), Carole Lombard, producer Mervyn LeRoy (standing) & Hearst (seated, far right) at the famous circus party in 1938.


What British humorist P.G. Wodehouse famously wrote of his time at the real Xanadu could practically best any fictional description Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz could pen:


“The ranch is about halfway between Hollywood and San Francisco. It is on the top of a high hill, and just inside the entrance gates is a great pile of stones, which, if you ever put them together, would form an old abbey which Hearst bought in France and shipped over and didn't know what to do with so left lying by the wayside. The next thing you see, having driven past this, is a yak or a buffalo or something in the middle of the road. Hearst collects animals and has a zoo on the premises, and the ones considered reasonably harmless are allowed to roam at large. You're apt to meet a bear or two before you get to the house. The house is enormous, and there are always at least fifty guests staying there. All the furniture is period, and you probably sleep on a bed originally occupied by Napoleon or somebody.”


Doge's Suite - Hearst Castle


William Randolph Hearst did his best to halt the production and release of Citizen Kane, fearing its damning portrayal of the rise and fall of America’s once great media tyrant. Though Kane’s death opens the film, Hearst was still very much alive. He had created the country’s largest newspaper chain, but he had almost narrowly escaped bankruptcy, and by the end of the 1930s nearly defaulted on his magnificent castle’s (also magnificent) mortgage. By Citizen Kane’s release in 1941, after the long stretch of the Depression, Hearst's vast newspaper and media fortune seemed to be from another time, and even more so today. How could one man build a fantastical palace off of print media? But Hearst was, if not the inventor, then perhaps the perfecter of sensation, of fake news, scare tactics, and misinformation intertwined with dramatized narratives and splashy pictures.


Heart gave us this memorable quote about publishing:


“News is what people don't want you to print. Everything thing else is advertising.”

But in our contemporary age of Elon Musk’s attempted Twitter acquisition and Mark Zuckerberg’s data harvesting through Facebook, Heart's legacy reminds us — to paraphrase from Frank Herbert's Dune — that he who controls the spread of information, or misinformation, controls the world.


In 2015, Variety reported that Citizen Kane was screened for the first time at the private theater in Hearst Castle, "74 years after its initial release." Steven Hearst, a Vice-President of the Hearst Corporation, said that while he holds tight to the claim that Orson Welles' magnum opus is not an accurate representation of his great-grandfather, “enough time has passed for the family to acknowledge the artistic achievement of the film.”


Orson Welles & Dorothy Comingore in scenes from Citizen Kane.


See Citizen Kane, the final film in our series to celebrate 125 Years of The Lakeville Journal, at The Moviehouse on Wednesday, September 14th at 6:30 PM. Guests are encouraged to arrive at 5:30 and enjoy a drink at the bar. Before the film: Special Guest Professor Joshua Glick of Bard College School of Film & Television Arts will provide insight and an overview of the film and conduct a Q&A afterward. Information & Tickets

Alexander Wilburn is the newly appointed Compass Editor of The Lakeville Journal’s Arts & Entertainment Section. He has served as a member of the Development Committee for The Lakeville Journal Foundation's 125th Anniversary Celebration Series, and a member of the Gala Planning Committee for the Journal’s final summer event — The Newsprint Jubilee, on Saturday, September 17th. For more information on The Foundation and the Newsprint Jubilee visit www.lakevillejournalfoundation.org

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