Cambrian: Arts & Events

Hearst matriarch in spotlight at San Luis Obispo exhibition

Phoebe Apperson Hearst takes center stage in a family photo with her grandsons, taken around 1915.
Phoebe Apperson Hearst takes center stage in a family photo with her grandsons, taken around 1915.

Tourists from across the world flock to San Simeon to see the castle built by William Randolph Hearst, but many are unaware that his mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, preceded him in establishing philanthropy, education and arts initiatives that transformed the social landscape. 

 “She was the Hearst to watch,” said Eva Ulz, curator at the History Center of San Luis Obispo County, where an exhibition showcases the Hearst matriarch’s accomplishments. Among them:

  • Co-founding what is known today as the National Parent Teacher Association.
  • Spearheading the movement to design a cohesive UC Berkeley campus.
  • Preserving the California Missions when they began to deteriorate.
  • Building libraries in mining towns across the country.
  • Championing students and artists, including architect Julia Morgan.
  • And directly managing for 30 years the ranch that would become the home of Hearst Castle. 

As a result, Phoebe Hearst set the stage for preserving the San Simeon coastline from commercial development.  

“In her time, she was one of the most prominent women in the country. Bar none. … You read through the catalogue of what she did and say, ‘No one person could do all of that,’ ” Ulz said. “But what’s really extraordinary is that, today, she’s really just not talked about much.” 

“Phoebe Apperson Hearst: California’s Grande Dame,” is an exhibition aimed at correcting that oversight. As the first show to focus solely on Phoebe Hearst, the exhibition was organized in collaboration with Hearst Corp. and features newly surfaced mementos from a distant Hearst cousin, as well as excerpts from Phoebe’s own letters and writings. 

Phoebe Apperson Hearst may have been the wife of Senator George Hearst — who was an extraordinary gold miner and businessman — but she was also his business partner. 

“They wrote letters to each other constantly,” Ulz said. “He was taking her advice, he was consulting her.”

In an unusual move for the time, when George Hearst died in 1891, he left all his assets to his wife instead of his son. That included mines across the country, and large swaths of cattle ranching land in San Luis Obispo County, which she managed personally until her death in 1919.

Phoebe Hearst’s ability to overcome Victorian ideals of womanhood to thrive in what was then considered a man’s world can be attributed in part to her unusual upbringing. 

Born in Franklin County, Mo., to educated but poor farmers, Phoebe attended a one-room schoolhouse and was trained, as if she were a boy, in subjects of reading, writing, and business. 

“It was unusual for people in the Ozarks to be as educated as the Appersons were, and extraordinarily unusual for them to give so many educational opportunities to a daughter. She was given a great amount of trust and independence,” Ulz said. 

Phoebe grew up to be a teacher, and education was one of her deepest philanthropic interests. She started kindergartens in San Francisco at a time when poor young children were more likely to be seen as pickpockets on the streets, and sponsored an international architecture competition to transform the scattered, land-grant college of UC Berkeley into a grand campus to rival East Coast schools.  

“She was always trying to figure out how to provide people with education, so they could go on helping themselves,” said Hearst Castle historian Victoria Kastner, who will deliver a lecture at the history center in June. 

Phoebe’s impact was broad and deep, including on her own son, whom she brought on travels throughout Europe — no doubt infusing the young W.R. Hearst with a shared love of art, collecting, and anthropology. That passion is no doubt visible in the myriad artifacts that decorate Hearst Castle. 

As the curators researched the exhibition, “One of the things that shocked us was how sappy people get about Phoebe Hearst. I can’t emphasize it enough — how much she meant to so many people,” Ulz said. 

An obituary written by Elizabeth W. Allston Pringle of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and displayed at the exit of the exhibition, sums it up: “This great expression of womanhood is gone, and we who loved her can only bow our heads and say: Thank God that Phoebe Apperson Hearst lived.” 

If you go

  • What: “Phoebe Apperson Hearst: California’s Grande Dame”
  • Where: History Center of San Luis Obispo County, 696 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo 
  • When: Through Nov. 2. The History Center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays. A lecture and opera concert will be held in conjunction with the exhibition.