Friday, February 15, 2008

Glittering Soirees and Bestial Orgies

And what a weekend it was. Our trip to Cambria, California, a quiet seaside town exactly equidistant from LA and SF. Our aim was twofold: to visit Hearst Castle, and to see the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas beach.

The dictionary says a rookery is "a breeding place or colony of gregarious birds or animals, as penguins and seals". This feels like lazy science to me. Small, flightless birds and large floppy marine mammals don't have much in common. Leave rookery to the penguins and find a new name for the elephant seal breeding grounds. When I got to the fourth meaning of rookery, I felt better: "A large, crowded tenement house." There is definitely something Dickensian about the conditions at Piedras Blancas, where in December of every year, 7,000 blubbery bodies take over a quarter mile of beach. (Come to think of it, it's a little like Rehobeth Beach, Maryland on labor day weekend).

At close to 3 tons, the male elephant seals are honking huge, but that's not where the name comes from. All elephant seals are born with cute round faces and big doe eyes, but around 3 years of age, the male's nose start to grow until it become a massive, floppy appendage dangling over the seal's mouth like a truncated trunk. The older, meaner and more dominant the male, the more pronounced the proboscis. While the adult females resemble plus-sized harbor seals, the males look like extras from the Star Wars bar scene.

The reproductive life of the elephant seal is a very odd odyssey. The males and females meet up once a year, at the very same beach. (12 of just 15 known "rookeries" are on the California coast). By the time the females arrive, they have been pregnant for a year. Not surprisingly, the first thing they do is give birth- to skinny black pups weighing between sixty and ninety pounds. The babies start nursing immediately, gaining as much as nine pounds a day.

Meanwhile, the males are in full harem building mode, fighting for dominance by banging their chests together and biting each other. Sometimes this occurs on the beach, and sometimes they take it out to sea. A salty old sea dog of an elephant seal will have a crusty, scarred up chest from years of turf battles. The prize? A harem of 40 cows, all ready to take Big Daddy's DNA into the next generation.

Once her pup is weaned, which takes about four weeks, the female elephant seal goes into estrus and is ready for mating. Within a matter of days, she is pregnant and ready to leave for her yearly migration. The fertilized egg inside her does not develop further for about 3 months. This is logical from an evolutionary standpoint, because the female elephant seal has not eaten in 6 weeks or more, and has lost a lot of her blubber feeding her pups. She needs to fatten up again before she can support a growing fetus. The females migrate West in temperate waters and feed primarily on squid and other swimming prey. Meanwhile, the males head north to the Aleutian islands and scarf down whatever they can find crawling on the sea floor - skates, rays, and other bottom feeders. Everybody gets fat and happy until it's time to meet again.

Observing the elephant seals is like being in your own episode of Animal Planet. Visitors park and walk 5 feet to the top of a fenced bluff, about 10-15 feet above the beach. The seals are right underneath you, barking, keening, grunting, swimming, sleeping, nursing, fighting, mating, giving birth and, in some cases, dying. Pups can literally get crushed by the males, who don't believe in going around any obstacle they can simply roll over. Occasionally, pups get separated from their mothers and starve to death. At birth, each mother imprints her pup with the unique sound of her voice, so the young one can find her in a crowd. Sometimes it works, sometimes, natural selection has its way with a tone-deaf pup. When the female seals give birth, seagulls fight over the placenta. And when a baby seal dies, they swoop down and peck away at their corpses, starting with the eyeballs. While these matters of life and death work themselves out, young males who have not yet acquired the status to have harems of their own slink around the shore. They watch for an alpha male to get distracted so they can sneak up and mate with one of his females. Mothers quetch and poke at each other over who gets to lie on a few square feet of sand. Pups just nurse and look, well, cuter than a baby alligator but considerably less cute than a kitten.

So, from the sublime to the ridiculous, or, depending on your perspective, the ridiculous to the sublime, we move on to San Simeon, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst's folly on top of the world. The Hearst family owned an immense tract of land, which was and still is used for cattle ranching. When William Randolph was a boy, they used to camp at the top of the tallest point on the ranch at a place they referred to as "camp hill". Of course, camp included servants, cots and creature comforts. As an adult, WR longed to crown that mountain with a "modest lodge", but the land was in his mother's name and she refused to let him build on it or fear he'd get, as she put it, "carried away." When she herself was carried away by illness in 1919, William Randolph waited a respectful two weeks after her death before contacting architect Julia Morgan.

Julia Morgan became an architect in a time when women didn't have to worry about glass ceilings –– they couldn't even get into the building. Of course, Julia wanted to DESIGN the building. One of the first co-eds to graduate from UC Berkeley with a degree in civil engineering, she became the very first woman to attend the Beaux Arts architectural school in Paris. Despite glowing recommendations from the Berkeley faculty, Beaux Arts rejected her twice. In order to persuade Messieurs les professeurs to let her in, Julia entered every european architectural competition she could, won several of them, and finally wore the grey beards down. Out of a pool of 392 applicants, she came in ranked thirteenth. By then, she was two years shy of the 30-year age limit, and so was unable to complete the four year program. But two years of gilding at a prestigious French school put enough shine on her to launch her career as an architect. By the time WR Hearst hired her to build his palace, she had designed and built public buildings and private homes in San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento.

Mr. Hearst's hill has a wide base and gradual incline. Viewed from the beach, it doesn't look so tall. Then, you get on the tour bus and climb up and up and up a perfectly maintained winding road and the panoramic views just keep zooming further and further out. When you finally reach the estate, you realize that there are ten miles of gently sloping prairie with a canyon or two thrown in between you and the silver sea. The location is so stunning, building on it is almost an act of hubris, but build they did.

While Dorothea Lange was photographing starving dust bowl victims and John Steinbeck was writing about exploited sharecroppers, Mr. Hearst kept blithely adding on to his castle, like a kid with a giant tub of legos. Surely he had an inkling that there was a depression going on. Every newspaper in the land was flown in to his private airstrip daily, and he read them all. Perhaps he rationalized that his endless building, demolishing, rebuilding and remodeling was keeping people employed. Poor Julia kept having to revise her blueprints to accomodate a 15th Spanish century ceiling recently ripped from its villa of origin, fit in a half dozen Roman columns bought at auction or add on two incongruous baroque church bell towers to the facade of the main house, aptly named "Casa Grande".

Over time, Hearst built three opulent guest villas, Casa del Sol, Casa del Monte and Casa del Mar. All the homes were furnished with art and antiques of the finest quality - greek and roman statuary, exquisite medieval paintings and sculptures, Persian carpets fit for a pasha, Egyptian deities, islamic tiles, rare books, chinese porcelains. Hearst bought his antiques by the roomful and why not? He had lots of rooms to fill. And he was as extravagant about the grounds as he was about the houses, adding tennis courts, lavish indoor and outdoor pools, a landing strip and even a private zoo. (When we arrived in Cambria, we spotted some descendants of William Randolph's zebras, grazing by the side of the road.)

WR entertained in legendary style, with his long time mistress Marion Davies at his side. (Unless the guest was of the stature of a Winston Churchill or Calvin Coolidge, in which case Mrs. Hearst, who lead a separate life in New York city, flew out to play hostess while Marion Davies kept a low profile back in LA). On any given weekend, the guest list might include legends the likes of Greta Garbo, Charles Lindberg, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Howard Hughes, Irving Thalberg, Harpo Marx or George Bernard Shaw.

All this beau monde was encouraged to have a good time but there were rules. Hollywood types might be pressured for gossip for Mr. Hearst's papers, a subtle way of singing for your supper. There was no room service, and sleeping in was frowned upon. You had to go out and play, while Mr. Hearst stayed indoors and ran his empire. Guests were expected to attend breakfast, lunch and dinner in the main dining room. The food was plentiful and mediocre - Hearst did not know the difference as he covered everything in ketchup. After dinner, every one would retire to the state-of-the-art screening room and watch the latest films from Hearst's and other studios.

Liquor was available even during prohibition, but it was doled out in modest increments. The charming retirees who work as Hearst Castle tour guides depict this relative temperance as though Hearst were some kind of crusader for moderate drinking, but if you do a little digging, you find out that Marion Davies had an affinity for alcohol and Hearst wanted to keep her sober. In any event, at the Hearst table, the wine, as David Niven once quipped, flowed like glue. If you were caught with alcohol in your room, your bags were packed and put out on the front porch. This happened to screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and he was permanently scratched off the guest list. As a result of this humiliation, Mankiewiz nursed a life-long grudge against Hearst and Marion Davies, eventually collaborating with Orson Welles to write Citzen Cane.

So there you have it, the Cambria weekend. Humans and elephant seals, living life as fully and abundantly as their species allows. Glittering soirees on the summit, bestial orgies on the beach.

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