- PHOTO BY PATRICK HOWE
- OVERLOOKED : Phoebe Cooke says her own wishes have been ignored in the conservator process.
More than a dozen receipts are taped to the cupboards of Phoebe Hearst Cooke’s small kitchen, records of money owed helpers and friends for groceries, meals, and sundries. Cooke—on paper one of the wealthiest women in America—for now can’t pay them back; all of her money and her entire estate are under the control of a San Luis Obispo County-appointed temporary conservator. She complains that she has only a few changes of clothes. At the time of a recent interview, the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst described herself as essentially penniless.
On its face, her privation might seem evidence of a system that has turned squarely against the prim 81-year-old woman it was supposed to help. Yet the precise reason Cooke doesn’t have any spending money is complex, as is Cooke’s life these days.
According to Cooke’s own account, SLO County’s deputy conservator Lisa Niesen has arranged a monthly stipend of $9,500. But Cooke said she had rejected that offer for a variety of reasons: The bank account was opened through Rabobank, or “Rob-o-bank,” as she pronounces the name, which she doesn’t trust. There was also the matter of numerous co-signatories, many of them county officials, being listed on the account—she said she is worried they would be watching every dollar spent. And perhaps foremost among the concerns, opening the account would have meant that she would have had to leave, if only for an hour, the seaside Shell Beach resort apartment that has been her home lately.
That is a problem, because she will not leave the apartment without a trusted friend staying behind to guard it. She worries that if she leaves, people working for her twin brother, George Hearst, Jr., who is seeking to become the permanent conservator of both her and her estate, will enter her apartment.
Those are just some of the many worries that were occupying Cooke’s mind during a recent visit. She has a great many others. There are worries about the safety of the food she is eating; there are worries about whether people might try to poison her water; there are worries about her mail being opened; there are worries about her phones being tapped and microphones in houseplants. There are worries that people working for the county are taking photographs of her when she steps out to her balcony to smoke the four or five Camel cigarettes she enjoys each day.
There are so many worries that her family members have become convinced she is delusional and paranoid. Doctors, according to court documents, have concluded the same. Her daughter Phoebe “Misty” Lipari, 56, of Cambria is supporting her brother’s actions to take control of the estate.
A representative of the county conservator’s office said she was not able to speak to details of Cooke’s estate or care, but described a process that is closely overseen by county supervisors and the court, which she said works in the interest of people who are no longer able to run their own affairs.
The conservator process is designed to look after the “best interests” of a conservatee, but not necessarily regard their own wishes.
- IMAGE COURTESY OF RICK MACHADO LIVESTOCK
- PICTURED BUT OPPOSED : Phoebe Cooke opposes the sale of her horses and the use of her name and picture in this ad for the April 17 auction.
• She doesn’t feel San Luis Obispo County should have any say over her estate or care, as she is a registered voter in and considers her official address to be in Woodside, in San Mateo County. She would like to return to that house.
• Short of that, she would like the court hearings on her estate to remain open to public view.
• She would like an accounting, verified by a Certified Public Accountant, of the way her estate has been managed since the county stepped in. She receives monthly updates, she said, but not in a format she considers valid.
• She’s frustrated that attorneys have been appointed to act in her interest when she hasn’t had control over their actions. (On the day of an interview in her apartment, an attorney was present of whom she later called to say was not representing her.)
• She’s outraged that her prized quarter horses are scheduled to be sold off on April 17, and that her name and picture have been published in advertisements as though she approved the sale. It’s being described as a “tribute” to her and Jack, but she doesn’t condone the sale and doesn’t understand why the county is selling off the possessions that perhaps have the most meaning to her. (In court documents, county attorneys said the roughly 100 horses needed to be sold because they were costing the estate $100,000 a month).
• She’d like help around her house. She doesn’t have a live-in assistant and would like one to, in her words, help her with things such as shopping, or even simply to help her to apply lotion to her back.
• By and large, she said, the examples that have been offered in court documents as proof that she has fallen victim to scam artists have no merit, she said. She’s more concerned about the money being spent by the conservator without her consent than whether certain people might have taken advantage of her in the past.
• She feels capable of controlling her own estate, but regardless of what happens, she particularly does not want her twin brother to have the job.
“I would like to no longer be completely controlled and hear the stories about how helpless I am,” she said.
In conversations, Cooke is articulate, responsive, and sharp minded to the point of making clever jokes. Although court documents indicated she was not aware of how her properties—including the Paso Robles-based Circle Six Ranch—were being managed, in conversation she showed a highly detailed knowledge of her different horses, citing their performances in specific competitions and details of their medical care. She’s certainly engaged in the current fight over her estate; nearly every flat surface, from tables to counters to beds, is covered with stacks of documents regarding the battle.
On the other hand, conversations with Cooke are apt to take turns into unconventional subjects. She is prone to connecting seemingly unrelated thoughts at length. She is preoccupied with worries regarding her safety; the death of her late husband Jack Cooke, who died in September; the structure of the Hearst Trust established for descendants of William Randolph Hearst; and the propriety of Hearst Corp. actions, as well as the operation of Hearst Castle.
She interprets events in unconventional ways. When an aide was locked out of the apartment after returning from an errand (Cooke had fallen asleep) and police responded, Cooke interpreted their presence as a sign authorities are monitoring her and looking for opportunities to work against her. Another possible interpretation of their response: mere concern for her safety.
By her thinking, small details many might overlook—such as in which county a particular business is contracted, or whether her late husband’s alias “Jack” appeared on his death certificate—offer proof of larger, often sinister, forces at work.
- PHOTO BY PATRICK HOWE
- PAPERS IN HAND : Phoebe Cooke’s apartment is lined with neat piles of papers related to the battle over her estate.
When attorneys for her brother recently sought to seal the probate case regarding Cooke’s estate from public view, they argued she should not be subject to attention for pure prurient interest.
Perhaps the most attention has been focused on the spending of her money. According to court documents, some 26 people have taken advantage of her and could potentially face consequences for elder abuse over some $20 million in spending.
But Cooke doesn’t want such details hidden. She says many details in the court file regarding “abuses” are false. Far from being disinterested or uninvolved, she has kept careful track of these disputes.
In one case, a contractor sued her husband and her after being denied payment for work done on a shower at the Circle Six Ranch. The lack of payment was one of the examples used to justify the need for a conservator. But Cooke herself has photographs that she says demonstrate substandard work; for example, a shower door that was not installed. In other words, she describes the matter in the terms of a dissatisfied customer rather than a disengaged debtor.
There was also the matter of taxes that went unpaid in recent years. She acknowledges the lapse, but said subsequent accountings have determined she shouldn’t owe taxes because they would be offset by money stolen from her.
She gives a highly detailed accounting of the spending that’s been used as the most prominent example in the argument that she can no longer adequately control her finances. Attorneys have pointed to a $1.9 million check written to a car dealer to manage her ranches and finances. In fact, she insists, that check was never cashed by him; a trusted family acquaintance she tried to coax into the job turned it down and left the check behind. Similarly, a $650,000 check in question was also never cashed, she said. In her telling, many of the people she relied on for services, including to care for her horses, subsequently found themselves under suspicion of bilking her.
Where Hearst and county attorneys say paintings and other property have gone missing at one of her homes after she allowed an acquaintance access, she says there was evidence of a burglary.
Another example offered in court documents seems more ambiguous, even to Cooke. Hearst’s attorneys point to her having given $500,000 to a family acquaintance for surgery that included breast augmentation. Indeed, Cooke herself doesn’t seem certain all was accounted for in this instance; she said she sought documentation of the procedures for her own accounting purposes and was turned down, being told the documents were private.
Regardless, Cooke insists that she ought to be able to spend her money as she pleases.
“All of my life I’ve taken care of my own things,” she said. “I’m the only person in the world who will take responsibility for my actions, and I have for years and years and years.”
She’s not sure how much money she has. Forbes recently put her net worth at $1.4 billion, but she says that’s far too high. Recent Forbes lists have placed her among the top 10 wealthiest women in the nation.
“Everyone says, ‘How much money do you have?’” she explains. “I said, ‘I don’t know, but somebody knows.’”
Among the heartaches that have come with the loss of control: She won’t be able to purchase cattle at junior livestock auctions to benefit youth groups, and she can’t give possessions to family members as she would like to. She recently tried to gift a particularly prized horse to a friend, only to have the court send a letter demanding that the horse show up at the coming auction. If it didn’t, the letter warned, the woman who received the horse would be held in contempt of court. That woman declined to comment on the situation.
“All day I get these miserable, miserable things,” Cooke said. “I’ve been trying to get anybody to help me.”
She insists she has always enjoyed spending her money in ways her brother might not have agreed with.
“The reason I gave so much of the money away is because I considered it filthy,” she said. “I didn’t want any part of it. I didn’t need it.”
And then Cooke laughed, and added, “At least not until they took every bit of it away.”
- COURTESY OF HEARST CORP.
- BROTHER : George Hearst, Jr., Phoebe Cooke’s twin and chairman of the board of the Hearst Corp., is working toward becoming conservator of her estate.
For a family as prominent as the Hearsts, personal details are kept under guard. Aside from the annual Forbes list, Phoebe Cooke has rarely been mentioned in the press. In the 1980s, she appeared on a guest list for a Ronald Reagan official White House dinner. An Australian periodical wrote about one employee’s experience working for her at a Woodside center that uses horses in therapy for the disabled (Cooke is described as a generous woman but an eccentric employer, going back nearly two decades).
A 1981 book historians consider to offer one of the more penetrating insights into the family tells this story: She and brother George Jr. were born to Blanche Wilbur, one of numerous wives of George, the oldest son of William Randolph Hearst. Her father was an alcoholic, and her parents divorced in 1929 when the twins were infants.
Both of the twins in the book recount pleasant memories of their grandfather, who took a particular interest in George Jr.’s career because he showed drive and aptitude for the publishing business.
In her interview, Cooke herself happily recounted working for one of the Hearst papers under famed crime reporter Agnes Underwood. Cooke worked for her for less than a year.
The book also describes her as working as an unpaid advisor to the Hearst Foundation in the late 1970s. She was married for 45 years to Jack, who was a Hearst Corp. board member and executive who managed ranch and timber holdings.
In the book The Hearsts, Phoebe is singled out as one of the few family members who displayed genuine pride at her family heritage. She’s quoted by the author as saying: “I have always believed that my name sets me apart. It puts me under an obligation. I would never do anything to tarnish it.”
* * *
Just as this story was being finished, Phoebe Cooke called one more time. As the conversation went on, the reporter had to interrupt and end the talk to meet a deadline.
Here’s how Cooke politely ended her conversation: “That’s fine. Just know that I do need help.”
There’s no better way to say it.
The bottom line is that Phoebe Cooke needs assistance that may go beyond a health worker who can put lotion on her back or someone who manages her estate.
At the moment, she doesn’t seem to be getting that help. The process now underway would grant her brother control of her “person,” as well as her estate. She opposes both. As the legal efforts march on, it might be best to repeat Phoebe Cooke’s words: “Just know that I do need help.” ∆
Managing Editor Patrick Howe may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.