Archive for June 2017

For reasons that have never been entirely clear to me, I went through much of my life completely oblivious of certain very important icons of American culture. For example, if you were to ask 100 Americans at random to name the best movie of all time, it’s a safe bet that a sizable percentage would say, “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece. Even those who don’t consider it a cinematic legend have most likely seen it, if for no other reason than curiosity at its fame. But I can’t recall even hearing of the film until about six or seven years ago. Morgen and I were watching some old “Kids in the Hall” videos, and one very funny sketch was based on the assumption that everyone knows about Citizen Kane. Feeling that my cultural education was incomplete, I finally saw the film. I enjoyed it but utterly missed the point, having also somehow failed to accumulate any knowledge of William Hearst, on whose life the story was not-so-subtly based.

Hearst, like the fictional Charles Foster Kane, was a newspaper magnate who aspired to, but never quite got, political power. Where Kane spent his fortune on a vast estate in Florida he called Xanadu, Hearst built his dream house in San Simeon, California—about 200 miles (322km) south of San Francisco. Hearst had inherited a 250,000-acre (101,172-hectare) ranch on a hill overlooking the ocean, and he used to take his family camping there. Eventually he tired of “roughing it” in a small city of tents and in 1919 hired architect Julia Morgan to design less austere vacation housing.

The Art of Building a Palace
These improved camping digs eventually turned into a project of palatial proportions. For decades, construction (and renovation) was almost continuous. Hearst was an avid art collector, and he and Morgan designed the estate to incorporate and display his considerable collection, which included not only paintings, sculptures, and tapestries, but entire walls, floors, and ceilings removed from castles and churches in Europe. As the art collection grew, the estate grew to accommodate it.

The estate was designed for entertaining, and Hearst nearly always had guests in his home. Among his most famous visitors were Calvin Coolidge, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, George Bernard Shaw, and Amelia Earhart. Guests were given the run of the property but required to attend the evening meal with Hearst. Although every need was attended to—Hearst even had a complete selection of bathing suits for guests who forgot to bring their own—drunkenness was never tolerated, and rowdy guests were sent home. But an invitation to the Hearst residence was highly coveted: it meant either that you were rich and famous, or that you’d get to fraternize with those who were. San Simeon was a place where connections were made, power was wielded, and alliances forged.

One Word: Rosebud
When Orson Welles, at age 24, made Citizen Kane, he used Hearst as a model and—to put it generously—painted him in a less-than-flattering light. More upsetting for Hearst was the film’s depiction of the character Susan Alexander, a talentless singer Kane marries. Her resemblance to Hearst’s real-life mistress, movie star Marion Davies, was all too obvious. Hearst found out about the film even before it was finished and fought bitterly to prevent its release; Welles, who also had enormous power in the film industry, fought back. This much-chronicled battle damaged the reputations of both men, and prevented Citizen Kane from achieving any real acclaim until long after its original release. Welles, for his part, later claimed that the film was not intended as a reflection on Hearst’s life, even if some notable character and plot points were inspired by Hearst. But now, Citizen Kane is inextricably linked to San Simeon, and the estate’s current popularity as a tourist attraction is undoubtedly due, in large part, to the film.

Like most lavish residences-turned-tourist attractions, what this estate has more of than anything else is…statistics: a total of 165 rooms, including 56 bedrooms and 61 bathrooms, 41 fireplaces, a 5,200-volume library, and over 90,000 square feet (8361 sq m) of floor space. The primary structures on the grounds are a main house (“Casa Grande”) that resembles a Spanish cathedral and three smaller guest houses, plus a huge Greco-Roman outdoor pool as well as an indoor pool lined with gold and Venetian glass. But wait, there’s more! Hearst also had his own zoo, as well as a private airport, complete with two paved runways equipped for instrument landings. (Besides using the airport to shuttle in guests, Hearst insisted on having a daily copy of each newspaper he published—more than thirty from all parts of the country.) He also had a theater in his home that would put many multiplex cinemas to shame; legend has it that he insisted on showing a film for his guests every night. Construction on the property continued until 1947, when Hearst, in failing health and with severely depleted financial resources, moved away from San Simeon.

I don’t believe I’m in any imminent danger of becoming ludicrously wealthy, but I have certainly fantasized about my dream home from time to time—what kind of house I’d live in if money were truly no object. I think it would be very much on the scale of one of the guesthouses on Hearst’s estate—large but not too large; lavish but not gaudy; livable and maintainable by ordinary humans. Well, OK…throw in the home theater too. You never know when you might want to have a few friends over for dinner and a movie. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about The Hearst Estate at San Simeon…

The official Web site of the estate is at, though the California State Parks Department, which administers the land, also has its own home page for the Hearst San Simeon SHM.

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For a more complete look at the erstwhile home of Mr. Hearst, see Hearst Castle: The Biography of a Country House by Victoria Kastner.

If you’d like to read more about William Randolph Hearst, there are a couple very different printed biographies: The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst by David Nasaw (a sympathetic view of Hearst) or Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst by W. A. Swanberg (a disparaging view). Hearst’s influence over the film industry is chronicled in Hearst Over Hollywood by Louis Pizzitola.

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The Citizen Kane DVD includes the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (also available separately).

The following additional tidbits were provided by reader Bob Laurence:

First, Welles later acknowledged that his film was quite unfair to Marion Davies, who was really a talented actress, and once bailed out Hearst’s empire when he was on the verge of bankruptcy. She [Davies] was also quite an accomplished businesswoman in her own right and did very well after he died. They really did love each other, for many many years.

Second, the story of the opera singer, and the building of the opera house, was taken from the life of Samuel Insull, the utility and streetcar tycoon of Chicago. Insull really did marry a much younger, sadly untalented opera singer, and built an opera house for her to sing in. The opera house is still there, home of, I believe, the Chicago Lyric Opera.

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Herrenchiemsee Castle

King Ludwig II of Bavaria is one of the most colorful characters in German history. Widely regarded as insane, he was certainly a troubled individual and not well suited to the demands of a monarch’s life. Although as a ruler he was neither effective nor well-liked, he is remembered fondly today primarily because of his contributions to the future economy of Germany: his castles, which attract huge numbers of tourists each year. Of the three castles Ludwig had built, Neuschwanstein was the most famous, with its fairy-tale pseudo-medieval design. But even more ambitious was Herrenchiemsee Castle.

Sup-Versailles It
At the foot of the Bavarian Alps lies the Chiemsee, a large lake with a number of islands. To reach the largest island, Herreninsel, you take a ferry from the shore. Hidden from view by trees until you reach the island is what appears to be an exact replica of Versailles. And in fact, that was just what Ludwig was after. He didn’t like the thought of being outdone, and fancied himself as one of the great kings of Europe. So he studied Versailles carefully in order to make his version as close as possible to the original. Herrenchiemsee lacks the two side wings of Versailles, has a somewhat different interior layout, and is located in a much more secluded setting. But the overall design of the architecture—and even the choice of artwork, fabrics, and décor inside—reflects the sensibilities of French royalty.

It is not always apparent from photographs, but Herrenchiemsee was the largest and most lavish castle Ludwig had built. Construction began in 1878, financed by the king’s personal fortune. Like Neuschwanstein, this castle was never completed. Its structure was built in just a few years, but only a fraction of the interior rooms were ever finished. Visitors are uniformly impressed by the ornateness of the furnishings and attention to detail—gold and marble are everywhere you look. Unless, that is, you look very closely. A great many surfaces that appear to be marble are merely painted, and much of the gold is nothing more than a thin leaf over wood. Ludwig was not known for economy, and it is thought that the faux finishes were more a reflection of the design aesthetic of the time, just as wood-veneer plastic was considered very modern a couple of decades ago.

Leave Me Alone, I’m Eating
Ludwig was notoriously shy and reclusive. When possible, he avoided interacting with members of his own government, and though he was an avid fan of music and theater, he always demanded private performances. Such was Ludwig’s passion for privacy that he not only dined alone, but wanted to avoid even seeing kitchen staff before and after meals. (In all likelihood the staff didn’t want to see him either: he reportedly had terrible table manners.) This led to the most talked-about room at Herrenchiemsee: the dining room. Ludwig had an elaborate mechanism designed to lower the dining room table through the floor to the kitchen below so that it could be set and raised into the dining room without any need for the king to encounter human beings. One of the king’s other castles, Linderhof, has a similar arrangement, though at Herrenchiemsee the kitchen is open to tours so you can see the mechanism beneath the table.

According to our tour guide, Herrenchiemsee included one more bathroom than Versailles (for a grand total of one). And it is quite an extraordinary bathroom. The circular tub, if you can call it that, is the size of a small pool. Ludwig was known to be an excellent swimmer, but also, in his later years, quite rotund. So the tub (or pool) may have been designed more for the king’s bathing comfort than for exercise.

Herrenchiemsee shares another historical trait with Neuschwanstein: despite the huge sums of money spent on it and the years it remained under construction, Ludwig never got to enjoy it. He stayed there for a total of just 16 days in 1885. Shortly thereafter, construction was stopped due to a lack of funds. With three major castles simultaneously under construction and no sense of fiscal responsibility, Ludwig had exhausted his considerable resources and gone deeply into debt.

The Decline and Fall of Ludwig II
Even though the castles were not funded with state money, Ludwig’s cabinet was deeply concerned about his expensive obsession. They were concerned for other reasons too. He rarely communicated with his staff or attended to matters of state; he had frequent affairs with young army officers; he appeared to suffer from hallucinations and delusions. But more important than all these issues was the rumor that Ludwig was planning to replace his entire cabinet. In order to remain in power, the cabinet members hatched a secret plan to remove Ludwig from power. They had a detailed report of Ludwig’s troubling behavior compiled and signed by a psychiatrist named Dr. Berhardt von Gudden, even though the doctor had never even met Ludwig at the time. According to Bavarian law, the king could be removed from power only if shown to be incapable of performing his duties, and this report served that purpose. In June of 1886, Ludwig was deposed and arrested.

Just one day later, while still under custody at Berg Castle, Ludwig went for a walk on the castle grounds, escorted by Dr. Gudden. When the two did not return after several hours, a search began, and the bodies of both men were soon found floating in a nearby lake. Official reports called Ludwig’s death a suicide; Gudden, whose forehead was badly injured, was assumed to have been killed by the king before he drowned himself. However, there is considerable evidence to suggest that both men were murdered by the conspirators who removed the king from power—to be sure he never regained it. Yet another theory suggests Ludwig may have killed Gudden and then died while trying to escape by swimming across the lake. Ludwig’s death, like his life, will always be a mystery. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Herrenchiemsee Castle…

The official Herrenchiemsee Web site (in German and English) is located at

Other resources:

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As for books about Ludwig II, good choices include Ludwig II of Bavaria: The Swan King by Christopher McIntosh and The Dream King, Ludwig II of Bavaria by Wilfrid Blunt.

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Winchester Mystery House

San Jose, California—about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco—is the unofficial center of Silicon Valley. Lots of high-tech companies are based in or near San Jose, and of the dozens of times I’ve been there, all but one or two were for a technology-related conference of one sort or another. It’s an attractive small city with some excellent museums, parks, and restaurants. But San Jose’s biggest tourist attraction was built long before computers made their mark on the area. About five miles (8km) from downtown, the Winchester Mystery House draws huge crowds almost every day of the year for a simple walking tour of what may be the country’s strangest residential building.

Everyone in the Bay Area seems to know about the Winchester House, to the extent that billboards advertising the attraction don’t give any information other than its name. When I first moved to northern California several years ago, these signs puzzled me. Even after reading a brochure about the house, I didn’t quite grasp what it was all about until I visited for myself. The Winchester Mystery House is undeniably interesting, though whether it lives up to its hype is another question.

Our House Is a Very, Very, Very Strange House
From the outside, the building appears to be nothing more than a sprawling Victorian mansion surrounded by meticulously groomed gardens, soothing fountains, and lots of tour buses. It’s pretty, though not particularly shocking. But the interior of the building and the story of its construction are bizarre and fascinating. Tickets are surprisingly expensive, and there’s sometimes a long wait for your guided tour to begin. But once inside, you forget all about that. You’re walking through a mystery.

The Winchester House has 160 rooms, with a total of more than 10,000 windows, 2,000 doors, 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces, 40 bedrooms, 40 staircases, 6 kitchens, 3 elevators, 2 basements, 1 shower, and 349.7 other impressive-sounding numerical statistics. What makes it most interesting, though, is what it doesn’t have—any rhyme or reason. The entire house seems to have been randomly assembled, disassembled, and reassembled numerous times, with no master plan or design. And in fact, that’s pretty much what happened. Stairs lead to nowhere; floors have doors and windows in them; doors open into solid walls. All of this and more was due to an inexplicable obsession that drove its erstwhile owner, Sarah Winchester, to keep the building continuously under construction for 38 years.

Repeating Success
The story begins a century and a half ago. Oliver Winchester was the co-owner of a successful shirt manufacturing business. In 1857, just before the U.S. Civil War broke out, Winchester took over the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. The company, which would later be renamed Winchester Repeating Arms Company, was responsible for revolutionary advances in rifle design. With repeating rifles, a soldier could fire several times without reloading, and sales of the weapons soon made Winchester both wealthy and famous. His son and heir, William Wirt Winchester, married Sarah Pardee in 1862.

Sarah was a diminutive woman at 4 feet, 10 inches (147cm) tall, but was reputed to be charming, intelligent, and beautiful. She gave birth in 1866 to the couple’s first and only child, Annie, who died before she was two weeks old. Annie’s death affected Sarah deeply, and for years she withdrew from the public and her family alike. In 1880 Oliver Winchester died, leaving his fortune to his son William. But the following year, William died of tuberculosis. This left Sarah the only heir to the Winchester fortune, an inheritance of US$20 million, plus nearly 50 percent ownership in the company, which paid her $1,000 per day. Not too shabby even by today’s standards, these figures were astronomical in the late 1800s. But the fortune was no consolation to Sarah, who began to believe there was a curse on her family.

History and Mystery
Shortly thereafter, Sarah Winchester moved from New Haven, Connecticut to San Jose, purchased a modest farm house, and began building. This is where history ends and speculation begins. It’s also an appropriate time for a brief cautionary digression. Dozens of Web sites, booklets, and brochures (and even the tour guides at the Winchester House) tell variations on the story of why Mrs. Winchester behaved the way she did for the rest of her life. Sadly, most of these stories appear to have been copied from each other and there’s no persuasive evidence to support any of them. This mirrors the situation a century ago, when a fanciful tale about Mrs. Winchester would be told, embellished, and retold until it was impossible to separate truth from fiction. Thus, assume that most of what follows is apocryphal. And a word to the wise: history is slippery.

What we know is that Mrs. Winchester hired builders to work around the clock, every day, for 38 years. The house was in a constant state of change, with rooms being built and modified on a daily basis. According to legend, Mrs. Winchester had visited a psychic in Boston who convinced her that she was indeed under a curse of sorts. The spirits of those who had been killed by Winchester rifles had sought revenge from her family and were now haunting her. The only way to appease the spirits and prevent her own death, by some odd logic, was to ensure that construction on her house never stopped. One version of the tale has it that the labyrinthine interior of the house, including the stairs to nowhere and the dead ends, were meant to confuse or slow down the spirits. An alternative explanation was that Mrs. Winchester, in daily séances, received plans for the next day’s work directly from the dead, and simply did as she was told. Whether for one of these reasons, or simply being off her rocker, Sarah Winchester did indeed keep construction going for years on end, in what appears to be a completely random manner.

This One Goes to 13
Whatever the reasoning she employed, it is certain that Mrs. Winchester was superstitious. One indication is her repeated use of the number 13 in features of the house: there are 13 bathrooms; 13 palm trees line the driveway; most of the windows have 13 panes; a sink drain has 13 holes; a chandelier that originally had 12 lights was modified to have 13; and so on. It is also frequently said that she slept in a different bedroom every night.

In 1906 when the great earthquake struck San Francisco, part of the Winchester house was damaged, including the bedroom in which Mrs. Winchester was sleeping that night. Although she was unharmed, she believed the spirits were trying to tell her something. As a result she had the front portion of the house blocked off, and continued construction elsewhere.

Spirit of the Winchester House
Sarah Winchester died in her sleep in 1922 at the age of 82. Construction on the house stopped immediately—some stories say carpenters stopped with nails hammered in halfway. In Sarah’s will—which consisted of 13 sections and included 13 signatures—the house was not mentioned specifically at all, but all her possessions were left to her niece, Frances Marriot. Marriot had all the furnishings removed from the house, a task which took more than six weeks due to the house’s design, then sold it to be used as a tourist attraction. It was later declared a California Historical Landmark, and is still open daily for tours.

According to some estimates, Sarah Winchester spent a total of $5.5 million building and rebuilding her house. As a tourist attraction, the Winchester Mystery House undoubtedly brings in money at a much faster rate than it was spent during the years of its construction. Appropriately enough, the reason for the house’s current success is much the same as the reason it was built: many of the people who visit believe the Winchester Mystery House is haunted. (Special nighttime flashlight tours every Halloween and Friday the 13th reinforce this idea.) Tour guides will tell you stories of unexplained noises, of faucets mysteriously turning themselves on, of rooms suddenly turning cold. I’ve been to the Winchester House a couple of times and have never seen a ghost, but if you’re ever in San Jose, I recommend a visit for the sheer weirdness of the experience. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Winchester Mystery House…

Special thanks to Neil Hopper for providing corrected statistics for this article!

The official Winchester Mystery House home page has information for tourists, but not a lot of detail about the history of the house (they want you to take the tour for that).

This history of New Haven’s Ronan-Edgehill Neighborhood, where Oliver Winchester made his fortune, has quite a bit of information on the Winchesters (including Sarah) and their philanthropic exploits. There’s a biography of Sarah Winchester on and other stories at such sites as, and International Real Estate Digest.

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A number of Web pages cited printed sources, which lends them considerably more credibility than those that don’t. Troy Taylor, author of The Haunting of America and other books, has a good article about the Winchester house on An article on Obiwan’s UFO-Free Paranormal Page also cites a few printed references. See, for example, Haunted Houses of California by Antoinette May.

The company that Oliver Winchester made famous, by the way, still makes ammunition but no longer manufactures Winchester guns; those are produced by another company under license.

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A reader pointed out to me that according to Ghosts of the Prairie, Stephen King’s Rose Red was inspired by the Winchester Mystery House.

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Neuschwanstein Castle

Before visiting Germany a few years ago, I didn’t know very much about German history or culture, and didn’t really care to. I had always had a warm place in my heart for France, and felt my Gallic tastes were fundamentally at odds with what little I had grasped of life in Germany. As I saw things, the French language was smoother and more mellifluous than German; the French favored wine (as I do) where Germans were more fond of beer; the French countryside was organic and endearingly unkempt while rural Germany was spotless and well-manicured, and so on. In other words, Germany was undoubtedly nice enough, but just not my style.

My wife, however, has more overt German roots (even her name, Morgen, is spelled like the German word for morning). She had spent some time in Germany while in high school, spoke German well, and had the same sort of idealized fondness for Germany that I had for France. So in the interest of fostering marital harmony, we humored each other on our first trip to Europe together. She agreed to spend some time in Provence, and I agreed to spend some time in Bavaria. Needless to say, this was not a hardship for either of us. We ate and drank well in both countries and collected plenty of interesting stories.

Where Fairy Tales Come From
A recurring theme in the sights we saw in Germany—and believe me, I mean this in the best and most complimentary way—was wackiness. I’m not just talking about lederhosen and sauerkraut either, though it has always puzzled me how such things came to exist. A particular slice of German history we became well acquainted with was the rule of Ludwig II, king of Bavaria from 1864 until his death in 1886. While the many stories about Ludwig are strange and colorful (and some are featured as Interesting Things of Other Days) his most famous follies are the castles he built—especially his grandest and best-known castle, Neuschwanstein.

Neuschwanstein is a beautiful castle set in one of the most scenic locations on Earth. If it looks a bit familiar, that may be because Walt Disney used it as inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle at the Disney theme parks. It really does evoke images of fairy tales, in more ways than one. But the story of its origin is one of tragedy, despair, and outright weirdness.

Swan Song
To understand the story, you’ll need to know a bit about Ludwig. As a child, he loved swans. This is not surprising, considering the castle he lived in was called Hohenschwangau (or “high region of the swan”) and contained artwork depicting the story of Lohengrin, a medieval knight of the Holy Grail who rescues a princess with the aid of a swan. Ludwig liked to feed swans and draw pictures of them, and when at age thirteen he heard of Richard Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin,” he was very excited. He memorized the entire libretto, and this led him to an interest in Wagner’s other music and writings. Within a few years, this interest turned into an obsession. In 1863, Ludwig got a copy of Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle.” In the preface, Wagner talks about “the miserable state of the German theater,” and that “a German Prince would need to be found to provide the required funds” to produce the opera. Ludwig took this as his personal mission. The very next year, at age eighteen, Ludwig became king when his father died. His first official duty was to send for Wagner and have him brought to Munich.

Wagner, who at that time was in his fifties, was a gifted musician but not, apparently, a very nice guy. History records Wagner as arrogant and self-centered, prone to excess, indiscretion, and intolerance. It so happened that at the very time Ludwig summoned him to Munich, Wagner was trying to evade his creditors and was very much in need of a patron. So Ludwig and Wagner struck up an almost symbiotic relationship. Ludwig funded Wagner’s work and put him up in a handsome villa, and Wagner played the part of mentor and idol. Not long thereafter, though, amid reports of yet another affair and worries that Wagner might be exerting too much influence over the young king, he was forced to leave Bavaria and move to Switzerland. Although Ludwig was upset, he continued to support Wagner, and the two kept up a steady correspondence.

Meanwhile, Ludwig was not having a very good time as king. He lost an important war against Prussia, was forced to submit his army to Austrian control, and then ended an unhappy engagement. Depressed and bitter, he withdrew from the public eye as much as possible and consoled himself by planning the construction of several great castles. In 1869, work began on his most ambitious castle, Neuschwanstein (which means “new swan stone”).

Reinventing the Castle
Ludwig had always wanted a medieval castle, so he had Neuschwanstein built in what you might call a neo-Romanesque style. That is to say, it was made to look a lot older than it really was, and unlike authentic medieval castles, it had such luxuries as forced-air heating and indoor plumbing. But the most distinctive feature of the castle was that it was designed to be a stage for Wagner’s operas, both literally and figuratively. Some rooms were designed explicitly as places where an opera might be performed, but in every room and corridor of the castle the architecture and artwork reflected the German mythology that formed the basis of Wagner’s operas. All but a very few of Wagner’s operas are depicted in one way or another in the castle. One of the most unusual rooms—if you can call it that—is called the Grotto. It’s actually an incredibly convincing artificial cave, complete with stalactites and a waterfall. The Grotto was intended to represent a cave from Wagner’s opera “Tannhäuser.”

Around the time construction began, estimates were that Ludwig would be able to move into the castle within about three years. But the work proceeded at a painfully slow pace and more than a decade later, the castle was still not complete. In 1883 Wagner died, causing Ludwig tremendous grief. So the composer never actually set foot inside the castle that had been built in his honor. A year later, Ludwig decided to move in, even though the structure was still unfinished and the throne room was not yet ready to hold a throne. But the king resided there for a grand total of only eleven nights. After Ludwig died under suspicious circumstances in 1886 at the age of 41, construction on Neuschwanstein continued for another eight years. When the builders finally stopped, only a third of the rooms had been finished and decorated.

Without Ludwig, Wagner may never have achieved the successes he did, and without Wagner, Neuschwanstein would never have been built. But there is much more to the story of the life and death of King Ludwig II than Neuschwanstein. The “swan king,” as he is sometimes called, built other equally interesting castles and led a fascinating, if deeply troubled life. His story, like his castles, reminds me that there’s more to Bavaria than meets the eye. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Neuschwanstein Castle…

This article was featured in Carnival of Bad History #7 and Travel Carnival 5.

A good biography of Ludwig II, along with information on each of his castles, can be found at Another very informative site is The German Way, which has a page on Ludwig II and another on Neuschwanstein.

Other resources:

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Books about Ludwig II include Ludwig II of Bavaria: The Swan King by Christopher McIntosh and The Dream King, Ludwig II of Bavaria by Wilfrid Blunt.

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If it’s the castles in particular you’re interested in, check out Neuschwanstein by Gottfried Knapp or Prestel’s Neuschwanstein (Prestel Museum Guides Compact). A search at or will yield a number of additional choices.

The Arizona Opera Web site has a good biography of Richard Wagner.

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One-Log House

I’ve always wondered about the expression “famous for being famous.” It seems to denote someone or something with no intrinsic appeal but with a high level of self-replicating buzz or hype. I can think of examples of famous people and things that seemingly don’t deserve to be famous, but what has always puzzled me is how that buzz about nothing gets started. In other words, how could I become famous for being famous? If it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, maybe it would be fun to be famous for being famous. Not “Joe Kissell the famous author” or even “Joe Kissell the famous curator of Interesting Things” but just “Joe Kissell the Famous.” Sure, all things being equal, I’d prefer to be known as smart and talented, but notoriety itself can be useful.

One time-tested technique for building up unearned fame is the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you declare something to be the case, loudly enough and persistently enough, you may set in motion a chain reaction that will eventually make it true. This phenomenon is of course well-known in California, even in the quiet rural areas far from the machinery of Hollywood fantasy. A case in point: the Famous One-Log House of Garberville, California. No one can say how famous it is, or for what reasons, or among what group of people, but undoubtedly that one word on the sign has convinced hundreds of visitors to pull off the road and have a look rather than just zipping by.

Big Red
If you’re driving through northern California to or from Oregon, the scenic route—US Highway 101—takes you through ancient redwood forests. The stuff of legend, song, and bitterly disputed logging practices, California redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are known for both their size and longevity. Many of the trees are over 2,000 years old, with heights of over 300 feet (about 100m) and diameters of as much as 30 feet (about 10m). Decades ago, before environmentalists started lobbying to keep these old trees alive, the redwoods were exploited not only for their lumber but also for their value as tourist attractions. It’s not very exciting just to say, “I saw a big tree,” but it does sound cool to be able to say, “I drove my car through a big tree.” So a number of live trees had car-sized tunnels bored in their trunks; visitors were charged a few dollars to drive through the tree and take a picture. And yes, I drove through one of the trees too, for no other reason than to be able to say I’d done it, just like the rest of the tourists.

The stretch of highway with the drive-through trees also has a number of other cheesy tourist attractions—a giant, talking statue of Paul Bunyan (along with Babe the blue ox), a larger-than-life Bigfoot carved from a redwood, and other silly gimmicks, all of which exist mainly to drive business for gift shops and restaurants. The last time I drove through northern California, I decided to throw common sense to the wind and indulge in some kitsch. So when I saw the signs advertising the Famous One-Log House, I knew I’d have to stop and see what it was all about.

Home Is Where the Log Is
The One-Log House is, as the name suggests, a house carved out of a single, very large redwood log. It’s actually more of a mobile home than a house; the interior looks just like a travel trailer, and it’s even mounted on wheels. Nevertheless, it is habitable, with a kitchen, bedroom, living room, and dining room squeezed into its interior, and a comfortable 7-foot (2.1m) ceiling. The log itself is 13 feet (4m) in diameter and 32 feet (9.8m) long, and weighs a whopping 42 tons—even with its insides removed. There are doors at either end, one of which contains two small windows—the log’s only source of natural light.

The One-Log House is not, from an engineering standpoint, an entirely successful design. Large steel bands encircle the tree to keep it from splitting; this is necessary because with so much of its interior gone, it has lost most of its structural integrity. The tree does have electric lights inside (only some of which were working when we visited) and a sink; details of plumbing were unclear, and there was no bathroom (unless that’s what was hidden behind a locked door—it may also have been a closet). With almost no light, no ventilation, an unstable shell, and an absurdly high weight, it violates just about every sensible architectural principle and isn’t very livable.

Construction on the house began in approximately 100 B.C., but Art Schmock and a friend put the final touches on it during an eight-month period in 1946. As far as I can tell, it was never intended to be used as a residence; as a tourist attraction it traveled the country briefly then moved from one location in northern California to another before being sold to its current owners in 1999. Recently renovated, it’s open to all visitors willing to pay US$1 (on the honor system). You can see the whole thing in about 10 seconds, but it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality, right?

The One-Log House itself does not rate very high on the Interest-O-Meter, but the idea behind it does. In America’s great tradition of weird roadside attractions, it created fame out of (almost) nothing. Here at the Famous Interesting Thing of the Day Web site, we find that an inspiration.—JK the Famous

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More Information about One-Log House…

The Famous One-Log House has its own home page. See also this page at and this one at Frankie’s Web Kingdom.

For more on the strange tourist attractions of Northern California, check out:

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If you’re planning a trip to northern California, any of these guide books will help you find the One-Log House and other wacky attractions: Lonely Planet Road Trip: California Highway 1 by Paige Penland, California-Nevada Roads Less Traveled by Don Martin and Betty Martin, or California for Dummies by Mary Herczog and Paula Tevis.

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