Anecdotes of an Artist’s Life in Cambria in the 1920s
by Joseph A. Serbaroli, Jr., Yonkers, NY
My grandfather, the artist Hector E. Serbaroli, was contacted in 1924 by the architect Miss Julia Morgan. She was looking for someone with broad-ranging artistic abilities to do decorative work on William Randolph Hearst’s magnificent castle in San Simeon. Grandfather was ideally suited to the task, because he had in-depth knowledge of European architectural detailing, which was precisely what Hearst and Morgan had in mind for the castle’s construction. He also had extensive experience doing original ornamental art in churches and buildings from Rome to Mexico to San Francisco.
In the 1920’s, it was problematic to convince artisans to move to such an inaccessible locale. The main train station and hospital that serviced the area was in San Luis Obispo, and the 275 mile train ride from San Francisco took about 6 hours. From there, one took a car about 40 miles north and eventually turned up a meandering five mile road that was formerly a series of cow paths. For Serbaroli, it would mean leaving a secure existence in Marin County; giving up the supplemental income he received from his teaching job at Tamalpais Military Academy (today Marin Academy); and closing his studio in San Francisco where he had established himself as an artist. On the other hand, the job paid reasonably well at $63.00 a week, but more importantly it was steady work.
When he asked Julia Morgan where he would live and where his children would go to school, she informed him that the small town of Cambria near San Simeon had a school house and that the town would be a suitable place for him and his family while he worked on the castle. With a population of a few hundred, it was a quaint community of Swiss and Italian immigrants, some of whom were dairy farmers who found the expansive rolling knolls to be ideal for grazing cattle.
Hearst wanted only the best artisans for his San Simeon retreat, trained professionals who could recreate the European detailing to enhance his palace. He needed engineers, skilled wood carvers, specialists in ornamental plaster and stone, weavers for the tapestries, metal workers, and, of course, painters. Many were immigrants, and most lived in Cambria or San Simeon. These were men like Camille Rossi, Chief Engineer at the castle, and Frank Gyorgy, a master wood worker from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
At Hearst Castle, Hector Serbaroli was entrusted with much of the decorative work on the palatial interiors doing European-style embellishments, as well as restoration work on the priceless antique artworks, including the fabulous ornate ceilings, some of which were from Spain and Italy that had been disassembled in Europe and shipped in huge, numbered wooden crates. (i) He worked on the ceilings of the Doge’s Suite bedrooms, the Assembly Hall, the Roman style Vestibule and other rooms. It was difficult, grueling work, not just because of the physical strains, but because the lighting was often poor and impeded his ability to match the colors exactly on his palette.
Serbaroli spent most of his week working atop steel and wood scaffolding in the castle’s interior. But weekends and holidays would find him in the hills around Cambria studying the topography, looking for a suitable place that would yield a few good landscapes or seascapes to paint and then sell for extra income. On some weekends he would sit in the rolling pastures on a small stool wearing an old wide-brimmed hat to shade his eyes. He would hear the distant clanging of the Swiss cow bells as he worked his brushes over the canvas. At times, the warm coastal wind was strong enough to rattle the dangling tin cup that held his brushes on the right side of his easel.
In stark contrast to the opulent castle he was working on, where Hollywood’s elite would revel in sumptuous banquets and were entertained in the most lavish lifestyle imaginable, Serbaroli’s dreams and aspirations in Cambria were not grandiose. He had four lively young children to feed, clothe and educate on an artist’s modest wages. He needed to paint continuously to provide the things that the growing family needed. His wife Josefina, unlike the starlets and the “flappers” with raised hemlines who were up at the castle, would not be dancing the Charleston on Saturday nights. Cooking, keeping house and raising four children was hard work. There was little time or money for partying on weekend nights. The small house they rented in the peaceful, newly forming section of Cambria called Cambria Pines was what they could afford and it was all that they needed to be happy.
For the four children now ranging from 5 to 11 years of age, Cambria became an absolutely idyllic place for them to spend part of their childhood. Josefina enrolled the children in a little primary school with 2 large rooms. The lower classes, grades 1 through 4, were in one room of the schoolhouse and were taught by Miss Balaban. The higher grades 5 – 8 were in the other room and taught by the principal, Mr. Weimer. He was an older gentleman, tall and gangly, who bore some resemblance to Ichabod Crane of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. He also taught violin to the Serbaroli’s daughter, Judy, and other children who were interested in learning a musical instrument. (ii)
Josefina insisted that her children go to school in proper attire as they had when they lived in the city of San Rafael. This meant walking to school with shoes! But as soon as the children were out of sight of their home, the shoes would come off and be hidden in the bushes. They would then walk to school as barefoot as the rest of their classmates. To do anything else would have meant ridicule at the hands of the local farm kids. Josefina would find out about her barefoot boys disobedience because the oil on the classroom floors would make the dirt adhere to the soles of the children’s feet turning them coal black.
For parents, it was not the easiest of times and it was hard work to keep up the household; yet for children growing up in the little section of Cambria Pines, these were halcyon days. Pretty little Judy at the age of fourteen was being pursued by Wilfred Lyons who was a year or two older, and whose family owned a local store. For the boys, it was a time when a good fishing pole and a can of fat worms promised grand adventures at Santa Rosa Creek that ran behind their house. It was there that Alec Campbell, an older boy whom they looked up to, taught them how to hook trout in Santa Rosa creek. If they caught a few good sized ones, they were beamingly proud to bring them home and they were happy to have fresh fish for the evening meal. As the small feast was being enjoyed, they would all remark how delicious those fish were and how well the boys had done to catch them.
During the hours when he was not working at the castle, Serbaroli would make picnic excursions with the family to the beaches and the surrounding region. On Sundays, Josefina would make sure that the children were properly dressed. After attending mass at Santa Rosa Church, they would go with the children down to the small dairy community of Harmony that had a population of a few dozen. There they would buy milk and flavorful cheeses. Then it was home again where they would pack a picnic lunch.
Evenings after work were occasions to be spent with the whole family. They prepared evening meals together. Locally harvested produce was plentiful, but Josefina loved to grow tomatoes, basil, rosemary and other herbs in the garden, because it was less expensive, and it meant one less trip to Mr. Joaquin Soto’s market, where she bought her groceries. It wasn’t easy to make ends meet on an artist’s salary, but they did better than the unskilled laborers.
And although lively occasions, these were chances for the children to communicate boisterously in a loving environment about their episodes of the day. When the accident happened at the nearby cinnabar mine, they talked at dinner about seeing the bodies of the deceased miners carted through the main street of Cambria. Or when a fire broke out at one of the nearby homes, older brothers Joe and Augie told their father excitedly how they helped out in the “bucket brigade,” passing water along a human chain from Santa Rosa Creek to the blazing house to contain the fire. (iii)
In winter, Josefina would ask the children to collect pine cones for the fireplace. The children would come back with sacks full of pine cones. Augie was the champion pine cone gatherer and would snack on the pine nuts as he went on his excursions through the woods. They burned well, took the chill off the house in winter, and released a wonderful fragrance in their living room and outside in the night air.
Or Josefina would ask the children in the afternoon to go down to the shore when the tide went out. There, clinging to the protruding rocks on the beach during low tide was an abundance of abalone that was native to the region. The boys, looking like Tom Sawyer with pant legs rolled up and bare feet, would take tire irons with them and knew how to pry the shells away from the rocks. They looked only for the pink abalone, because it was the tastiest. It would be on the family’s dinner table as much as 3 to 4 times a week prepared in a variety of ways, but mostly sliced like filets and sautéed in olive oil with a little garlic and some home-grown herbs. It was just another way to stretch an artist’s salary to meet the needs of a growing family. The boys often brought home so much that Josefina would carry some over to her neighbors like Bertha and Frank Gyorgy, who always appreciated the gesture and would reciprocate in kind with baked goods or fresh vegetables from their own gardens. That’s the way life was in Cambria. People helped each other.
Serbaroli met Frank Gyorgy while working on the interior of the castle doing antique restorations as well as faux antique finishing of restored wood and metal. Hearst brought him from New York where he was doing work on one of his buildings. His Swiss-born wife Bertha and Josefina became the best of friends. She was vivacious, loved people – especially children, and eventually was elected mayor of Cambria, serving for many years in that office.
Together with Camillo Rossi and his family, they would all go down to the beach for a picnic lunch. It was a polyglot group whose communication during these outings was a pastiche of Spanish, Italian and broken English. Perhaps for that very reason, they all had a wonderful time together. They would all remain in touch for many, many years.
By the fall of 1926, much of the décor for the castle’s interior was complete and efforts on that phase of the project were beginning to scale down. It was a difficult position to be in, because he was in the small town of Cambria where there were no other jobs that required his skills or would allow him to earn the money he needed to support his family. As time passed, employment at the castle became sporadic and he sensed the need to start looking elsewhere for work, some place that would afford him better opportunity to showcase his talents.
It was around 1927, on a day like any other ordinary day in his working life, that he met a young, illustrious newspaper reporter named Adela Rogers St. Johns (1894-1988). (iv) In her early thirties, she was a friend of Hearst’s, beginning her career as a reporter for his newspaper, “The San Francisco Examiner” in 1913, and more recently writing for “Photoplay” magazine. She struck up a conversation. Why not? There might have been a potential story in it for her magazine. She inquired about what he was doing, and he told her about his training in Italy and the types of creative projects he did in San Francisco at the Pan Pacific Expo and on Hearst’s palatial home. It quickly became apparent to her that he was not only highly skilled, but that he was a very serious and professional craftsman.
Rogers St. Johns informed him that, in addition to her news reporting, she was doing screenwriting for the studios in L.A., which put her in touch with some key people. She seemed to know everyone and everything that was going on in Hollywood. More importantly, she heard that First National Studios was looking to hire a qualified sketch artist. By the end of their dialogue, she had presented him with an offer to connect him with one of the more successful motion picture operations in Los Angeles.
Serbaroli left Cambria for Los Angeles in 1927 and made his career there working for the next 20 years at studios like First National, Warner Bros., RKO Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Paramount and others working on the sets and painting portraits of stars like Bette Davis, H.B. Warner, Hedy Lamarr, Tyrone Power, Loretta Young, Shirley Temple and others. But the children always looked back fondly on those years of their youth in Cambria.
(i) White, Emil, “The Fabulous Hearst Castle”, p. 21
(ii) Conversations with Joseph A. Serbaroli, Sr. and August Serbaroli
(iii) Conversation with August R. Serbaroli, 2006
(iv) Conversations with Hector Serbaroli’s children