Chapter 30: The Grandeurs of San Simeon

Summary: Aggie and Frank become regulars at the Hearst Ranch parties, with guests that include all the major MGM stars. Frank is inspired to write a new play, which is quickly optioned. A new polo field is installed at nearby Uplifters Ranch, and the Dazeys begin buying polo ponies so they can join the fun.

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 One morning, I had a phone call from Miss “Bill” Williams, Marion Davies’ secretary. “Miss Davies would like you and your husband to come up to the Hearst Ranch for the weekend,” she said.

I’d heard many stories of that fabulous place, and the first thing I thought about, after I’d accepted the invitation, was my wardrobe. Nothing I owned seemed good enough for the grandeurs of San Simeon. I took a three-hour lunch and had Olaf drive me to downtown Los Angeles to the best clothing shops. And shop I did–a new polo coat, three sports dresses with little felt knock-about hats to match, and two evening gowns. More clothes, handbags and bathing outfits added to the pile, plus a spanking new set of pigskin luggage. I eased my conscience by telling myself these were business expenditures. I couldn’t go to San Simeon improperly accoutered and disgrace my star, could I?

Miss Williams said reservations would be waiting for us at the station. She met us there, and asked whether we wanted one drawing room or two. Thinking of my clothes-spending spree, I quickly said, ”One.”

”Just as you wish,” said Miss Williams. “Of course, you understand Mr. Hearst pays for everything.”

Two drawing rooms for one married couple! I gasped at the extravagance. But this was only the beginning. When we boarded the train, we found that two observation cars and a whole luggage car had also been reserved for the Hearst party. And in one of the observation cars, an elaborate buffet supper with champagne was being served.

As we were drifting off to sleep that night, Frank murmured, “I may like all this, but I don’t approve of it.” (Editor’s note: Frank’s comment may refer to “yellow journalism,” a style of writing that boosted the Hearst newspapers’ revenues through sensational stories, or it could refer to politics. Both are mentioned in Chapter 28 prior to the first dinner party with Hearst and Davies.)

A few of the notables on the train were Irving Thalberg, Harry Crocker, Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels, Louella Parsons, Irvin Cobb, Jimmy Swinnerton, King Vidor, Eleanor Boardman, Princess Bibesco and her son, the fuzzy hair Tony Asquith, and Elinor Glyn, over from England to view the filming of “It” for Clara Bow and MGM’s startling “Three Weeks.” Also along were some young men and girls who were just bit players or “extras.” King told me that Marion always had a sprinkling of these at all her parties, perhaps because they’d played in a picture with her and she’d thought they’d be fun, but also because she knew they could do with some luxury and good food.

San Simeon! What a Walt Disney fairyland castle that was! As we rolled up the twisting five-mile drive from the gates, the swirling sea mists cleared, and there, far above us, rose great stone walls and battlements, lustrous and beautiful in the morning sun.

Harry Crocker, who was in the car that took us from the station, prepared me a little for what was coming. “Mr. Hearst brought every stick and stone of the buildings over from Europe. He goes shopping for old castles, and buys a whole one at a time, including its furnishings. Look…” he nodded to the side of the road where some giant, oddly shaped packing cases were standing. “That’s probably a castle he hasn’t unpacked yet.”

In the mosaic courtyard in front of the main castle were smaller “guest castles.” Frank and I were given an enormous room in one of these, containing a huge canopied bed that had once belonged to Cardinal Richelieu. I was laying out my new clothes, trying to decide which outfit would be most worthy, when Bebe Daniels waltzed into the room.

”Oh Aggie,” she cried. “What did you bring all that junk for? “

”Don’t you like them?” I asked. “Aren’t they dressy enough?”

Bebe grinned and picked up a red velveteen suit. “I think this is cute. But up here we only wear riding clothes or blue jeans in the daytime.” She tossed my lovely red outfit back on the bed.

”How about dinner?” I asked “Surely they dress for dinner!”

”No. Marion doesn’t go for that,” said Bebe. “Just wear a sweater and skirt or some dinner pajamas.”

She left and a few minutes later a maid came with an armful of riding clothes, blue jeans and “dinner pajamas,” those all-in-one teddy bear affairs of flowered silk or linen that were coming into fashion at the time. All my frenzied shopping has been for nothing. That evening, I walked through the great cathedral-like door of the castle into the vaulted dining room, with its ancient refectory table and its seven Goblein tapestries, in borrowed clothes.

“Hey Aggie,” Frank whispered. “Don’t look so poor mouth. You fit in all right. Look, they’ve got paper napkins.”

The entertainment at San Simeon was as informal as the clothes we wore or the napery on the table. We played ping-pong, guessing games, and charades. And then someone got the idea that we ought to shoot a picture. Two ace cameramen were rushed up from the studio. Irving directed for the first and, I believe, last time. Every guest and Mr. Hearst and Marion, too, were worked into the truly star-studded cast. I play the role of a dog, and accused Irving, ”That’s just what you would do to a writer!”

After this, there were many visits to San Simeon. At one, Beatrice Lillie, out from New York, was a guest. She didn’t know that Mr. Hearst maintained a private zoo that rivaled Central Park’s. In fact, about all Bea knew was that super-handsome Jack Gilbert was giving her a sirocco-like rush. But he had to have his fun, too. Keeping her attention on him, he drew her close to the lion’s cage. The great beast leaped at the bars and let out a mighty roar not more than a foot from Bea’s neck. Poor girl! Up in the air she leaped, so high that when she came down she hit on her behind. The expression on her face would have stopped any Broadway show. It almost stopped her romance with Jack. It took the fascinating fellow all of 15 minutes to make her forgive him.

Before long, the private pullmans and observation cars were in the discard. Cabaret singer Raquel Mueller was performing in Los Angeles, and Marion wanted to take a party of us to hear her on a Friday night. If we stayed to the end of the concert, it would mean we’d all be late for the northbound train to which the Hearst private cars were usually attached. Solution: a private train that wouldn’t have to start until Marion’s party was ready, and we could all sleep later the next morning. It would take us up north and then wait until we were ready to go back to Hollywood again. What a great feeling to have a whole train wait for two, three, or sometimes five days! I always wanted to ask Mr. Hearst, but never had nerve, “Why doesn’t the money run out?”

At one of the ranch parties was our old friend, Bert Lytell, with his new wife Claire Windsor, whose fragile blonde beauty was admired by everyone as it is to this day. At mealtimes, Frank and Bert sat together at one end of the long dining room table. It was the custom during both lunch and dinner for George, the wine waiter, to pace slowly around the table, pausing to fill any glass that was empty. As Frank put it rather crudely, George “hit you about four times a meal.” On George’s tray was a white wine and a red, and always champagne. As George made his first round at lunch, I saw Bert and Frank exchange startled glances. Then their heads went together in earnest discussion. As soon as lunch was over, they came rushing up to me, and drew me apart from the rest of the guests.

”Aggie, did you see the label on that red wine?” Burt asked. “It was Château Lafite, 1878.”

“The taste–the bouquet–ineffable!” gloated Frank.

“And we don’t think anybody else in the party really appreciates it,” said Bert.

“Some even took champagne instead.” Frank looked at me accusingly. “It’s a crime to waste that nectar on people who have no idea what they’re drinking. We have to do something about it, Bert.”

And, monkeys that Frank and Bert were, they did. For a suitable tip, “good old George“ was persuaded to begin his libations at their corner of the table and also to end up with them. Thus they were ”hit” twice on every round. After each meal they come from the table reeling slightly but smug in the consciousness that they’d done their duty by the ”grande vintage.”

Except for light cocktails before dinner and the wine served at meals, there was very little drinking at the Hearst ranch. Liqueurs or brandy might be served after dinner, but that was all. Occasionally a guest would arrive with a bottle or two tucked away in a suitcase, but he or she would never be invited again. And anybody who was obviously inebriated was likely not be around the next morning.

Once a very exalted noblewoman I’ll call the ”Princess X” got hold of a bottle and did some private and serious drinking. I was on the tennis courts when Marion raced up, shrieking with laughter.

“Guess what?” she gasped. “P-p-princess X has got her head stuck in the toilet.” It seemed that the princess had drunk herself sick and had fallen headfirst into what can truly be called ”an awkward situation. “

On Sunday morning of the “Château Lafitte” weekend, I was tugging on my riding boots when I noticed that Frank was slouched in a chair. His mouth was open and he was staring at the carved beams of the ceiling with what I thought was a particularly stupid expression.

“Hey lazy!” I called. “Don’t you think you’d better start getting ready?”

“What for?” he asked. “Not going to ride today or play tennis either.”

“Oh, so that red wine finally caught up with you?”

“Nonsense! Never felt better in my life. It’s just that I’m going to start a new play.”

“But why here and why now?” I asked. “Don’t you have plenty of time to write at home?”

“In a way I do. But to write anything good, you’ve got to want to write. And, well, I just haven’t felt like it.”

“And now in the middle of all the fun you do feel like it?”

“Yes. There’s something about being up here, on the top of the world, with everybody being so darn nice to me that makes me feel good.”

“Hmm,” I said, thinking of the whole year in which Frank had written absolutely nothing. “So you don’t feel good at home?”

“Look here Aggie! You’ve got to job at the studio, and you’re pulling it off in fine shape. I’ve got a job running the house and the kids, and I’m a bum at it. I’ve got no right to kick about anything.”

“But what is there to kick about? We’re young and rich. Why, we’ve got everything! Do you mean to tell me you’re not happy?

Before Frank could answer, Marion popped in. “The h-h-horses are ready,” she said. “and W.H.’s going along. That m-m-means we start on time.” I hurried off with her, leaving Frank staring into space.

Pola Negri and Rudolph Valentino were at the house party and rode with us that morning. They were involved in what the fan magazines hailed as “the romance of the century.” They always dressed in the same color scheme. That morning Pola wore beige riding jodhpurs, a black and white plaid waistcoat, a white shirt and a yellow tie. So did Valentino. This dress-alike sentiment touched my romantic heart. I hurried my horse to catch up to them. I wanted to hear what these “great lovers” talked about to each other. But not a word did either of them utter, not even when we went through a lovely glade where tall, heavily branched fir trees made a soft twilight. We came out of the glade onto a broad, grassy mesa. Mr. Hearst held up his hand and we gathered around him.

“Let’s have a gallop,” he said. “I’ll lead.”

For 200 yards or more we raced up the gentle rise of the mesa. Then Mr. Hearst’s hand went up as a signal to stop. The rising ground had suddenly come to an end and below was a sheer, very deep arroyo. As we pulled up our horses, there were squeals of surprise and alarm.

Mr. Hearst turned to us, smiling. This was one of his favorite riding stunts, he said. He had first galloped up to this great cleft with his father when he was just a young boy on a buckskin pony. As he spoke of those boyhood days, I thought his eyes were warmer than I’d ever seen them before. Now I began to understand why he had crowned the old homestead with the grandeurs of San Simeon, why he had added thousands of acres until from the very top of “The Castle” the eyes could fall on no spot of ground that was not part of “La Cuesta Encantada.”

On the way home I tagged after Pola and Valentino again. Still these great lovers did not exchange a word or more than one or two looks at each other. Well, anyway, it had been a wonderful ride. If I thought about Frank at all, I was glad he would at last be writing a play.

As usual with Frank, once he started writing, he wrote quickly. In five or six weeks “The Gentleman” was finished. At the time, Glenn Hunter, starring in
Merton of the Movies,” was the surest “box office bet” in the country. Somehow, with success all around us, it seems only natural that Frank’s play should be snapped up at once for Glenn. Only one hitch. Glenn was under the management of Hugh Ford and George Tyler. Tyler was in Europe, and it was Ford who made the advance payment. He didn’t want any publicity put out about it, as he planned to surprise Tyler with it on his return to America. Anyway, with “Merton” so successful, it would be some time before Hunter could appear in ”The Gentleman.”

Frank had been going over to San Fernando Valley a couple of times a week to ride horseback with young Arthur Train. One afternoon, on a dirt field near the stables, a scrub game of polo was going on. Frank was given a mallet and put in for a round, called a chukker,

“With my third stroke I scored a goal,” he told me. “What a game, Aggie! What a game!” Soon Frank was going into these scrub games two afternoons a week. They were limited to four chukkers each and the rent for a pony was only a dollar a chukker, so it did not seem extravagant. Not extravagant at all. Then one afternoon he came to pick me up at the studio with that peculiar glint in his eye that told me he was excited about something. As we drove home, he came out with it.

“The Uplifters Ranch in Santa Monica Canyon is putting in a polo field,” he said. “Will Rogers and Hal Roach are behind it. And Snowy Baker, the Australian athlete and horseman. A swell bunch! If I join, I could play with them instead of taking that long drive to the valley.”

“Why sure, Frank,” I said. “You’ve got to join.”

“But with that outfit, there won’t be ponies to rent. I ought to have one of my own so I can get in at least a couple of chukkers a game. I’ve heard of a honey of a little mare for sale. Gentle, too. You could ride her after you got home from the studio. And I’ll teach you to stick and ball.”

“Sounds heavenly,” I said. “Get that horse before somebody else does.”

Thus, with one horse for both of us, we started our career in polo. Polo isn’t just a game. It’s an incurable, irresistible disease. As might have been foreseen, our one horse ”polo string” multiplied.

“If we got another pony,” said Frank, “I could play more than half a game.”

“And maybe I could work into the girls’ practice games,” I seconded enthusiastically.

So Number Two was purchased. But who wants to play just part of a game of polo? The purchase of Number Two only led quickly and inevitably to the buying of Three and Four.

(Editor’s note: At least one page is missing from this chapter, but you can draw your own conclusions as to the acquisition of an expensive hobby by the Dazeys.)

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