Hearst’s Hot Seat

     SAN LUIS OBISPO – In the 1930s, celebrities visiting media magnate William Randolph Hearst knew when they were on the hot seat.
     They felt the heat.
     Guests at Hearst’s famous abode in San Simeon – the inspiration for the palatial estate in “Citizen Kane” – gathered nightly at Hearst’s long wooden dinner table. But the more a celeb wore out his or her welcome, the farther they were seated from the host – and closer to the large fireplace at the other end.
     As a result, say Hearst Castle tour guides, Harpo Marx, after finding himself at the far end of the guest list, coined the phrase “on the hot seat,” to signify being on the way out.
     In recent years, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Lady Gaga and other celebrities have visited the landmark, which was donated to the state in 1957. But while today’s celebs tour the castle for a peek at ego-driven excess (as well as architectural beauty and museum-quality art), the heyday for famous guests occurred when Hearst was still around to host them, from the 1920s to the ’40s.
     San Simeon, more than 200 miles from Los Angeles, was far from a typical Hollywood haunt. But the grandeur of Hearst’s 56-bedroom pad drew up to 30 guests a night. Hearst fancied his place as a retreat for movers and shakers, who could swim, play tennis, ride horses and visit his private zoo.
     In return, they had to be interesting.
     Hearst’s homemade movies show a few famous guests, including Charlie Chaplin and Carole Lombard. By the castle’s own count, visitors included Greta Garbo, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Winston Churchill, Cary Grant, Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes.
     But Alan Bond, a former sheriff’s deputy and longtime private investigator in San Luis Obispo, has a more thorough log of Hearst’s guests: two autograph books that once belonged to Bond’s father.
     Because the road to the castle was difficult in those days, celebs often laid over the day before in Pismo Beach or San Luis Obispo. For decades, Pismo Beach, known for its brothels and liquor, was the butt of Jack Benny jokes – in a wink-wink, what happens in Pismo stays in Pismo kind of way – because of celebrity stories about the place.
     That explains an inside joke from a 1958 Yogi Bear cartoon in which a hunter approaches Yogi and says, “Say, haven’t I seen you someplace before?”
     “I don’t know,” Yogi answers. “Ever been to Pismo Beach?”
     The straight-edged hunter quickly responds, “Heavens, no!”
     Celebs looking for a less rowdy time stayed at the Anderson Hotel in San Luis Obispo, where Bond’s grandfather owned a barbershop.
     There Bond’s father, Courtney, then a teen, encountered dozens of celebs, from H.G. Wells and Marlene Dietrich to Jack Dempsey and the Three Stooges.
     The two autograph books he carried contain a Who’s Who of Hearst visitors: John and Lionel Barrymore, W.C. Fields, the Andrews Sisters, Joan Crawford, Harold Lloyd, Henry Fonda, Jack Benny, Duke Ellington and Edward G. Robinson.
     Along with his signature, Harpo Marx drew a loose rendering of himself with a harp. Walt Disney drew Mickey Mouse and Pluto.
     Lesser-known signatures came from Daisy and Violet Hilton, Siamese twins who toured the Vaudeville Circuit, and Fanny Brice, the inspiration for Barbara Streisand’s character in “Funny Girl.”
     Some signatures were accompanied by a newspaper clipping reporting the celeb’s visit to Hearst’s place.
     Courtney Bond eventually became a Disney illustrator, before switching careers to become a San Luis Obispo police officer. Alan Bond was just five when his father was killed in a work-related accident in 1952.
     His mother gave him the autograph books when he was 20.
     “She basically said, ‘Here, you might want to use this as your retirement some day,” Bond told me a few years ago.
     Bond has considered offers, but he still has the books.
     Tourists can still see the famous hot seat, but the fire burns only on special occasions – and in Hearst lore.

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