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When P.G. Wodehouse came to California

July 27, 2009 |  1:54 pm

Hearstdinner_lg The depression may have been well underway by February 1931, but that didn't stop the glitterati from glittering. Successful humorist P.G. Wodehouse, then 49, was in California doing some script work and accepted an invite for himself, his wife and their dog to head up to William Randolph Hearst's ranch, San Simeon. He wrote about it in a letter to a friend:

I have been away for a week at Hearts’s ranch. He owns 440,0000 acres, more than the whole of Long Island!...

The house is enormous, and there are always at least 50 guests staying there. All the furniture is period, and you probably sleep on a bed originally occupied by Napoleon or somebody....

The train that takes guests away leaves after midnight, and the one that brings new guests arrives early in the morning, so you have dinner with one lot of people and come down to breakfast the next morning to find an entirely new crowd.

Meals are in an enormous room, and are served at a long table, with Hearst sitting in the middle on one side and Marion Davies in the middle on the other. The longer you are there, the further you get from the middle. I sat on Mario’s right the first night, then found myself being edged further and further away till I got to the extreme end, when I thought it time to leave. Another day, and I should have been feeding on the floor.

The letter is reprinted in a dusty anthology, "The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes" -- my copy is from 1975, and is packed full of witticisms from major figures of British literature. The anthology was updated for a 2006 release as "The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes," and includes a few more recent literati. But the real pleasure is in the feeling, flipping through, that you're at a dinner party hearing Samuel Johnson and Bob Dylan trade stories -- with no chance of being edged off onto the floor.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Dinner at Hearst's 72-foot dining table. Credit: Hearst Castle/Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument