Two men with way too much money, and way too few ways to spend it, decided nearly one century apart to build enormous monuments to their wealth and their power and their paranoid perceptions about the outside world. I have never been to Neverland -- and I doubt I ever will after this trial -- but I went Thursday to the Hearst Castle during a break in deliberations at the King of Pop's molestation and conspiracy trial. What I saw there made me immediately think of what life must be like at Jackson's house.
Both places are in the middle of nowhere, although Hearst clearly had a better sense of scene than Jackson does. Hearst, the late, great publishing magnate, built on land owned by his rich father at a site where the family had gone in the early 1900s to have picnics and camping trips.
Roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Hearst property is enormous, stretching from the ocean's high-water marks down below, up a beautiful rolling set of hills, to a majestic mountain backdrop. Hearst's backyard, literally, is a small mountain range, which he literally owns.
Jackson, meanwhile, chose a more secluded spot, away from the sea and the views. Neverland, too, is enormous but smaller than the Hearst property. It is tucked away, between Santa Maria to the north and Santa Barbara to the south.
CBS News consultant J. Randy Taraborrelli, by far the best Jackson biographer, tells me that Jackson chose the spot after staying there (the place was originally called "Sycamore Valley Ranch") during the taping of the video for the song "Say, Say, Say" with Paul McCartney. Jackson liked the place and so, when he was thinking about moving from his Encino home, and after rejecting the idea of buying the home used in the "Beverly Hillbillies" show, he bought the ranch for $17 million and then turned it into Neverland.
At the castle yesterday, I saw -- I always wanted to start a sentence like that, by the way -- Hearst's lasting imprint on the world. Basically, the guy ravaged the treasures of Europe (legally, the tour guide assured us), shipped them all halfway around the world, and then assembled them together in what was then, and still is now, a fairly desolate place along the coast. In its grand rooms were 14th century tapestries, and 18th century paintings, and stunning sculptures and statues. There were stones from Luxor crafted 3,000 years ago. There were wooden beams taken from churches in France. There were hand-blown ceramic tiles on the floors, tens of thousands of them perhaps.
It was stunning in its excess. And you couldn't help but wonder what was going on in Hearst's mind as he spent that money, much of it during the Great Depression. How did he deal with the staggering disconnect between his luxury, his materialism, and what was going out in the real world. While Steinbeck's "Okies" were hauling themselves into California as refugees, how did Hearst rationalize paying $15,000 (in 1930s currency) for a rug? In any event, he did, and his modern-day tour guide tells visitors, in the way of an apology, that Hearst contributed to the fight against poverty by continuing to employee a lot of people at a time when people were losing their jobs. He also reminded us that Hearst ultimately was a big benefactor in the area of health care.
At Neverland, the excesses were of a different sort. Whereas Hearst tried to make up for his lack of a beaux arts pedigree by simply buying up everything he could find, Jackson turned his pad into a paean to his lost childhood. Jurors at Jackson's trial learned about how much Neverland resembled Disneyland and how the whole place was and is tailored for young people. Whereas Hearst wanted people reminded that he was an adult, Jackson tried to convince a world that you can stay a child forever. The Hearst Castle is what Neverland would be if it ever was to grow up.
When Hearst died, his family gradually deeded the house and the land to the state of California. When Jackson dies, or goes to prison, I wonder what will happen to Neverland? It's too bad that Jackson will forever be linked with child molestation no matter how this trial plays out. Because if he weren't, Neverland, with its ferris wheel and petting zoo and little train and enormous arcade, would have made a wonderful place for sick and dying and underprivileged children to come. Guilty or not, Jackson was right to try to share his wealth and his privilege with the world's less fortunate and most vulnerable. It's the execution of that noble plan, skewed by Jackson's inherent creepiness, which got him into the trouble he is in today.
There is one more thing to say about this odd pair. Hearst would have absolutely loved the Jackson trial in all of its sordidness and sleaze. It would have made the front page of all of his hundreds of newspapers. It would have screamed and streamed out of his radio stations. His circulation would have swelled. And more money would have poured into his pockets on its way into the baubles that make up that Castle. Two rich, eccentric men. Two vastly different times. One's legacy is clear, if mixed. And the other's almost certainly will be as well.