SAN SIMEON— In a dressing room in the remote recesses of Hearst Castle, Diane Marchetti glanced at a mirror, and had to like what she saw. Her evening gown shimmered like silver and sheathed her slender figure like a second skin. She tucked her hair beneath a curly blond wig and checked the mirror again.
This was a special occasion. On this night, she would be part of a small assembly of dinner guests at the home of William Randolph Hearst himself.
This moment did not occur 70 years ago, when Hearst and his castle were at their zenith. It occurred this very year, on a night when Marchetti, who by day teaches eighth-grade math in nearby Atascadero, was joining several other docents to lend an undercurrent of realism to an evening tour of the opulent hilltop mansion.
The evening tours, instituted a dozen years ago but offered only during slack tourist periods, have been extremely popular, according to a spokesman for the state park system, which administers the property. And it’s not difficult to see why. They provide a glimpse of the castle as it would have been in its 1930s glory, when Hearst routinely entertained select groups of guests for the weekend.
For those who have taken the main daytime tour with dozens of other visitors, the evening tour, limited to three groups of 18 visitors each, offers a much different sense of the place.
“I hope you brought your imagination,” guide Bill Coleman said as he greeted his group of visitors one brisk evening. “You’re going to see it as it was when Hearst was entertaining guests in the evening.”
And indeed, after we climbed a staircase to the Neptune Pool, elegantly dressed guests were milling about, conversing quietly in small groups and sipping cocktails. A maid happened by, bearing an armful of towels.
They are all volunteers who participate in Hearst Castle’s Living History Program, and they take it seriously. They don’t want a visitor’s experience to be marred by the brief flash of a Calvin Klein logo.
Coleman addressed us as if we had been included on the guest list — though all of it, of course, was make-believe.
“You may have noticed a tray of drinks,” he said. Remember that Mr. Hearst has no tolerance for drunkenness. If you got drunk, you’d probably be sent home — and probably not invited back.” (Actually, tour visitors have no chance to get drunk: No food or drink is served.)
We were ushered into the kitchen, where a docent in chef’s attire was busily working. When asked about the evening’s menu, he said, “It’s all set. Roast beef, rare, just like the Chief likes it; he won’t have it any other way. I’ve got some chickens on the spit from that ranch you passed on the way up the hill. Four different kinds of bread. Vegetables. And five desserts, including homemade vanilla ice cream — the Chief’s favorite. That’s probably why he’s 280 pounds. And I think it’s the only thing he doesn’t put ketchup on.”
The illusion was maintained throughout the tour — almost two hours — with only a couple of minor lapses.
Hearst Castle has differing effects on its visitors. Some consider it a lavish treasure, others a ghastly testament to a man who fancied art, had more money than he knew what to do with and created an absurd hodgepodge in his attempt to marry the two. Was this art collection or simple accumulation?
It probably doesn’t matter now. In visiting this castle on a hill — especially when it is dressed for the evening — visitors can gain a strong sense of the manifestations and indulgences of sudden wealth in the early 20th century.
After we left the seductively lit Roman pool, scuffing our heels over the inlaid 22-karat gold in the deck tiles, the passengers on the bus were silent on the way down the hill. Maybe this group of tourists was toying with the same fantasy.
Far down the road, a glimpse of the receding castle was visible through a gap in the trees, the twin bell towers gleaming against the night sky.
Maybe it is a garish monstrosity, a monument to avarice, but on this night Hearst Castle seemed magical.