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The San Francisco Examiner

Three more tales of diamonds and mud

By P.J. Corkery
Published: Sunday, May 15, 2005 11:16 PM PDT
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Tomorrow, a little bit of baroque, old San Francisco — well, strictly speaking, lots of a little bit of baroque, old San Francisco — will go on sale at a 300-year-old stately English home. Being auctioned off by Sotheby's are baubles and ancient bling from a San Francisco family whose scandals were so extravagant and outré as to make the current furor surrounding the Wilsey family seem dully middle class. … And members of yet another silvery San Francisco family, the Hearsts, are rather daringly risking scandal, and disinheritance, by filing legal challenges to the long-sealed last will and testament of the original W. R. Hearst. Leading the charge are the redoubtable Patty Hearst and her cousin (and onetime publisher and editor of The Examiner) William R. Hearst III. …

The New York Times yesterday, in a well-reported, droll and much talked-about article on the Wilsey to-do by Joyce Wadler (in which I am briefly quoted), described the Wilsey mess, which has Sean Wilsey and his stepmother Dede Wilsey slinging unflattering charges back and forth, as "a tale of diamonds and mud." Given that these three families managed to pull diamonds out of mud — milk farms and mines — we now have three such yarns. As the Irish say, "Money tells a good story."

In the Hearst matter, Patty Hearst has asked the L.A. Superior Court to unseal her grandfather's will and 18 boxes of files — an unsealing that would reveal the true extent of the wealth of the family and the names of the beneficiaries. There is talk, but only talk, that an unsealing of all the records might reveal as well the names of "illegitimate children" of W. R. … Right now, the family fortune is controlled by a 13-member trust, only five members of whom can be Hearsts. The other eight are hired hands: executives of the Hearst Corporation. Patty and cousin Will contend the trustees don't tell them much. "I call it the Hearst family secret, not the Hearst Family Trust," Patty told Daily Variety.

Will Hearst has previously filed petitions to obtain a full accounting of the estate, but he has been thwarted by a bizarre clause in the will that threatens to disinherit any heir who gets too inquisitive about it. Now Patty's action is in support of his efforts. She says she feels duty-bound to help. After she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, the Hearst trustees further super-glued the 1951 will, lest it become a roadmap leading other terrorists to other Hearsts and give kidnappers a true sense of the family's worth. "I feel very uncomfortable with this seal," said Patty, "partly because of the kidnapping, as though this is my fault. I feel like these are public records. Why shouldn't they be made public? … There's no reason why [the will] should be sealed except for the sake of secrecy." … This is an old battle. Years ago, when I worked with Will Hearst III at the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner, he put the situation succinctly. "In the Hearst Corporation," he once said, "the biggest outsiders are the members of the Hearst family." … Some of those "outsiders" estimate the fortune at $18 billion. …

Now off to merrie England for the aforementioned auction, where the 55-year-old Baron Hesketh is heir to a 120-year-old San Francisco fortune, piled up by the sinister and salacious Sen. William Sharon. Sharon was a one-time stockjobber, closely allied with Billy Ralston, founder of the Bank of California, builder of the Palace Hotel, and the first visionary to imagine S.F. as a grand city, not just another dock town. Ralston died mysteriously while swimming in the Bay. Sharon took over the estate — Ralston's widow claimed he looted it. But he held sway over San Francisco from a building just across from the Palace (the post-1906 reconstruction is still called the Sharon Building, and is home to that old-time bar, House of Shields). Sharon also kept his voodoo-prone mistress there, connecting her to his rooms in the Palace via a private covered bridge across New Montgomery Street. …

In 1880, Sharon married his daughter Flora off to Baron Hesketh's great-grandfather, sending her to England with a $2 million dowry, including hoards of silver, much of it made by Shreve & Co, still down on Post Street. The silver and Flora's art collection are among the 1,500 lots to be auctioned off tomorrow. The house itself, and the grounds, are also on offer for about $40 million.

By the 1960s, the family had sold off the Palace Hotel, and its remaining San Francisco property. Tomorrow, the last of this San Francisco fortune passes out of the family — including an opium pipe used by the senator. Many secrets are coming to the fore. …

Tip off P.J. at (415) 359-2649. E-mail to