The King of Clubs

Well, I wonder now. About that golf ball, I mean. Earlier this week, I went on a tour of St. Donats, the Welsh castle that, during the 1920s and ’30s, was being transformed into a getaway for media mogul William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, silent screen and talkies star Marion Davies. A decade after Hearst’s death in 1951, his trustees finally managed to sell this 14th-century if thoroughly remodeled castle, something that Hearst had been trying to do since his empire began to crumble in the late 1930s. In 1962, St. Donats became the site of the international Atlantic College and as such no tourist attraction; but, as I mentioned previously, every August and early September, when most of its students are away, it is open to visitors.

Our tour was conducted by one of the students, a girl from New Mexico, who, however charming, smart, and fortunate to land a scholarship to attend this prestigious school, had little to do with or say about the castle and its history, other than sharing a few anecdotes about a ghost, a pirate, and a deadly duel, all part of St. Donats fascinating lore.

However much remains of the old place, its more recent past is now obscured, a fleeting Hollywood romance yielding both to antiquity and utility. Since the castle is now a campus, little is left of its imposed splendor designed to impose, architectural features imported from all over Britain and Europe by Hearst, who had done as much on an even grander scale at San Simeon in California. Assembled from various secular and profane properties, the (pictured) banqueting hall with its English church roof and its fireplace from France, was commissioned by Hearst to accommodate his illustrious guests, however rarely he ultimately got to entertain at St. Donats.

Waiting for our tour to commence, we found a golf ball in a little herb garden on the grounds. I thought little of it at the time; but when I browsed through Enfys McMurry’s slyly titled Hearst’s Other Castle (1999) to satisfy my newly roused curiosity about St. Donats, I came across a reference to . . . Big Broadcast star, USO morale booster, and golf enthusiast Bob Hope.

As those who know me come to dread, I can ride the hobbyhorse of old-time radio to death; but I didn’t expect to drag it back from its pasture quite this quickly in this case, notwithstanding Hearst’s media empire and Davies’s appearances on the Lux Radio Theater. As it turns out, the quintessential radio comedian of the medium’s so-called golden age was indeed staying at St. Donats, shortly before Hearst’s death in 1951. Hearst had not been at St. Donats in over a decade; and Hope, of Welsh descent on his mother’s side, was the last major Tinseltownie to occupy this ancient castle. He was in need of a place to flop while attending a golf tournament in the Welsh town of Porthcawl during the spring of that year.

Now, I don’t suppose Bob “Thanks for the Memory” Hope could have planted that ball there among the lavender and fennel, the herb garden being a recent addition; but those moats and towers sure inspire yarns . . .

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