Steve Zegar was the first man to drive up the grassy sides of Hearst’s Enchanted Hill, before there was a Castle, or even a road.
Now that is someone with a story. A story that had to wait decades to be told. Zegar maintained his relationship with Hearst and newspaper and movie mogul’s friends by not telling tales at the time.
The golden years at Hearst Castle were surprisingly short. A little over two decades and the era was over.
Castle construction began in 1919 and by 1941 the era of stars visiting the hill was essentially done though construction would continue in fits and starts.
As Japanese submarines began shelling the coast and sinking ships William Randolph Hearst moved away from his beloved home on the hill. His newspaper’s anti-Japanese viewpoints made him wary of offering an attractive target to the Imperial Government. Declining health in 1947 forced him to leave San Simeon and construction was halted after 28 years.
The then Telegram-Tribune published this story November 6, 1965.
Fabulous Hearst era
World celebrities rode with Steve to Enchanted Hill
By Elliot Curry
Steve Zegar’s second hand Buick touring car was parked at the railroad depot as usual that day in 1919 and Steve was looking for taxi passengers.
A tall, powerfully built man alighted from the train and peered up and down the platform—a cue that he was looking for transportation.
“May I help you?” Zegar asked.
“Yes, I want o go to San Simeon Ranch,” he said in a high-pitched voice.
It did not dawn on Zegar that this was William Randolph Hearst, owner of a great newspaper empire and one of the nation’s most controversial public figures.
Nor did Zegar ever dream as he chugged up the narrow dusty road along the coast that day, that he was on his way toward becoming the best known taxi driver in America.
Zegar had never been over the route before so his passenger guided him from time to time as they passed other county roads.
More than two hours later they turned into the big Hearst ranch, which had been purchased and developed many years earlier by U.S. Sen. George Hearst, father of the publisher.
Hearst inquired about the fare. Zegar said whatever he had been paying others was satisfactory. Hearst handed him $25 then added a tip of $20 more and went into the house.
Several cowboys had gathered around the taxi by that time and from one of them Steve now learned that he had just brought the big boss to the ranch.
Before a month was over Steve had made his second round trip to the ranch with Hearst and on that trip he was paid in cash for the last time. From then on a monthly statement would go from the Zegar taxi service to the San Francisco Examiner for whatever services were rendered to the San Simeon Ranch.
The stage was now set for the dramatic building of the Hearst Castle and the fabulous era of the late 1920s when presidents and potentates, millionaires and movie stars, politicians and poets would form the parade winding up the narrow road to the Enchanted Hill.
For more than 30 years there was a Zegar taxi ready for any call to serve the Hearst Castle, day or night, rain or shine, one automobile or 20.
Once Hearst had decided upon which hill to build his castle he wanted to get started immediately. He put Julia Morgan, a famous San Francisco woman architect, in charge of planning and she soon became one of the regulars on the Zegar taxi run. First step was to plan what was called the “A” house, now one of the guest houses at the castle. Miss Morgan did not cotton to the idea, however, of riding horseback to the top of the Santa Lucia Mountains.
What to do?
Hearst suggested taking a taxi.
There was no road up the hill yet, but Zegar knew Hearst well enough by then never to say “I can’t.” Up the hill they went. When the auto wheels lost traction on the grass covered hills, a couple of cowboys would throw their lariats around the front bumper and give the car some help.
At the top of the hill, Zegar helped hold the chalk line while Hearst and Miss Morgan measured and paced around through the brush, flushing out an occasional jackrabbit. That was how it all began. Within a few years as many as 650 men were working on the castle and grounds at one time, ships were bringing whole cargoes from Europe where Hearst and his agents were buying castles, furniture, artifacts, relics—whatever took his fancy.
Zegar never included cooking among his duties with the taxi service, but in an emergency he did not quail at any demand. One afternoon when he arrived at the castle grounds with Hearst, they found the cookhouse empty. Hearst decided to have bread and mil. But there was no milk.
“There are 8,000 cows on this ranch,” Hearst exclaimed, “and I can’t get a glass of milk.”
Zegar took a quick inventory of the kitchen, found some stew beans and bread and put out a meal for the hungry publisher. That was the last time they ever found the cook house without milk on hand. After the construction got started it became necessary to put guards at the ranch gates to keep out the curious. When it seemed advisable, Zegar would often phone the gate to alert the ranch that Hearst was on his way or that other notables were coming.
As activity at the castle stepped up, Zegar saw to it that his taxi service was able to meet any demand on it. Steve had originally come to San Luis Obispo in 1915 to work at the commercial Hotel, which stood on the present site of the Fremont Theater.
The hotel was still using horse drawn buses to meet the train at that time and Zegar acted as a hustler at the depot, directing patrons to the hotel, as was the custom in those days. As time went along, Zegar bought a Model T Ford and while still working for the hotel also started making side trips on call. There was one other taxi already operating in the city, owned by the late George Kilburn.
By 1919, however, Zegar had parted company with the hotel and set up his own taxi office in the old Mission garage building which stood facing up Monterey Street at Chorro where the Mission Plaza Park is now located.
The Pickwick stages, predecessors of Greyhound, also had a depot in the building.
In the early 1920s the Anderson Hotel was built and Zegar moved his office to the hotel in the Morro Street room now occupied by a tailor shop. This became a familiar room for the great and the near great as they waited between taxi and train rides.
One of the figures most often in this room was Arthur Brisbane, the famed Hearst columnist. He was reputed at that time to be the highest paid journalist in newspaper history with a salary of $5,000 a week. His old overcoat and crumpled clothing belied his wealth, however, and he was eternally at work. Waiting periods at the Anderson would find him pecking away at his portable typewriter or talking and interviewing into a dictaphone machine.
Brisbane’s daily column, called “Today,” not only appeared on the front page of all Hearst newspapers, but was syndicated throughout the world. Into this column Brisbane often poured the story of San Simeon, the scenic wonders of the central coast, and the man who took him back and forth so many times, Steve Zegar. Did any taxi driver before or since ever have such a press agent?
Zegar, however, never sought the slightest attention for himself. He knew almost as many famous people as Louella Parsons but their privacy was never invaded. The surest way for a Zegar driver to get fired was to become overfamiliar or overtalkative with his passengers.
From the mid-Twenties to the mid-Thirties came the great days at San Simeon. In the Great Hall of the castle Hearst held an informal “court” where movie stars and statesmen mingled to discuss the affairs of the day and then went on to see the latest movies in Hearst’s private theater.
The Zegar phone was never left unguarded in those days.
Many of the trips were not to and from the train but to and from Los Angeles or San Francisco. If it was 2 a.m. and Hearst wanted to go to Hollywood, his taxi was sure to be ready. The secondhand Buick had grown by this time to a fleet of 15 cars, including a Cadillac for the chief. When this was not enough, Zegar would rent cars from dealers.
La Casa Grande (Hearst never called it the castle) had its formal opening with a grand party on Christmas Eve of 1925. For the next several years there was hardly a time when guests did not number from 10 to 60.
When recalling the movie stars that visited the castle, Zegar named two of his favorite passengers as Clark Gable and Bill Powell. There were so many: Greta Garbo, Will Rogers, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, the Bennett Sisters, Mr. and Mrs. Louis B. Mayer.
The Prince of Wales, now the Duke of Windsor; Roal Amundsen, the famous explorer, and Elliott and Anna of the Roosevelt family come to mind as Zegar talks of those exciting days.
Well remembered, too, is the visit of President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge. Despite the fact that the President was traveling by special train, the San Simeon visit was kept secret until he got here. The train pulled up at the siding on Hathway Street. Tipped off as to what was coming up, Mrs. Zegar had a bouquet of flowers prepared for Mrs. Coolidge and it was presented by the June. The President and First Lady rode to the castle with Zegar for an overnight stop.
One of the most entertaining and inquisitive passengers of the late Twenties was Winston Churchill, who happened to be out of office at the time and was touring the world as a journalist. Steve drove Churchill from the castle to Los Angeles to the accompaniment of many questions about the country. Churchill was particularly intrigued by the many roadside “cabins” which were springing up in those days—the forerunners of the motels of today.
Another famous visitor from Great Britain was George Bernard Shaw. He proved to be a quiet passenger, flashing none of his famous wit.
Sir Hubert Wilkins, the famous Australian explorer, visited the castle both as a guest and employe of the Hearst newspapers.
The biggest and most elaborate party ever given at the castle, as Zegar recalls, was for Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson, publisher of the Washington Times-Herald, and sometimes political ally of Hearst. She had her own railroad car, Ranger, and Cissy always got the red carpet treatment both at San Simeon and Hearst’s other retreat in Northern California, Wyntoon.
After 1925 a frequent taxi passenger was the famous attorney, John Francis Neylan. He had become chief counsel for Hearst Enterprises that year.
One of the pleasant memories of the Zegar family is a Christmas party which Hearst gave one year for employes at the castle. A huge tree was brought, dismantled, from Los Angeles and put together again at the castle. Two fabulous displays of toys were put out, one for boys and one for girls, with the little guests taking their choice of gifts. Esther Zegar was satisfied with a French doll but June headed straight for a big red bicycle on the boys’ side.
When private planes started coming into use, Hearst built an air field at the foot of the mountains at San Simeon. It was never extensively used and Zegar was witness to the only major tragedy which took place there. He was waiting for Lord and Lady Plunkett of England one day when their plane overshot the landing strip. Both were killed along with the pilot. One passenger was thrown clear with his clothes blazing with fire.
Using part of the shattered plane as a shield from the heat, Zegar pulled the man to safety and got the fire out. The badly injured man turned out to be a member of the family owning the Longine watch firm. A beautifully engraved watch came later from a grateful survivor.
After the mid-Thirties the need for taxi service to the castle declined as roads became better and guests drove their own cars. With the coming of World War II Hearst spent little time at San Simeon. As a home it was closed in 1947 as Hearst entered a period of semi-imvalidism.
Thee old ways were not quite forgotten, however. Twice during those last years the familiar order came to have a Zegar car ready for the trip to San Simeon.
Each time it was countermanded, Steve has little doubt that the chief was hoping he could make one more drive along the Pacific shore which they had both come to know so well. It was not to be. At the age of 89 Hearst died in Beverly Hills in 1951.
Before the end of the Hearst Era, Zegar had already turned to the establishment of a furniture business, which he now operates, with the active assistance of his daughter June.
In 1958 the Lonely castle came under state administration and was opened to the public. Since then the tourists, by the hundreds of thousands, have replaced the celebrities on the highway to the Enchanted Hill.
Steve Zegar has not been one of them. He needs no guide as memory takes him down the long corridor of time back to the day in 1919 when he stood with William Randolph Hearst and Julia Morgan on a sunswept hill above San Simeon and saw the beginning of a dream come true.