As far as we know, Kykuit, the Rockefeller family’s estate in Pocantico Hills NY, has never been used as the location for any commercial film or television production. Simply put, the family would not allow such a thing.
However, footage of Kykuit does appear in at least one major motion picuture.
So what film was it?
Answer: Citizen Kane!
Actor/Director Orson Welles uses a fictional news-reel titled “News on the March” to describe the ‘Xanadu’ estate of the film’s main character, Charles Foster Kane.
An aerial shot of the Rockefeller Family home Kykuit appears 27 seconds into this montage:
Compare the film still above with this aerial photo of Kykuit from the late 1930’s:
(Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center)
And here’s a current aerial photo of Kykuit:
Welles’s character Charles Foster Kane is of course based on the media tychoon William Randolph Hearst, and Xanadu is modeled after Heart’s expansive estate in San Simeon, CA known as Hearst Castle:
Hearst Castle’s Spanish Revival architecture was recreated in the “News on the March” montage by using several shots of San Diego, CA’s Balboa Park:
There is also at least one shot of Oheka Castle in Huntington, NY, which directly precedes the shot of Kyuit:
The whole “News on the March” montage from Citizen Kane can be viewed here:
So how did an image of Kykuit find it’s way into the “News on the March” montage? Well here’s some background info:
After the success of his radio adaptation of “War of the Worlds” in 1938, Orson Welles was hired onto RKO Pictures. The recently bankrupt movie studio had defaulted on it’s Rockefeller Center lease, leaving the Rockefeller family with a large holding of the company stock, and Nelson Rockefeller in charge of turning RKO into a profitable venture.
Rockfeller encouraged RKO to give Welles full artistic control of his first project with RKO, including the prevlige of final cut. Welles set to work on Citizen Kane in 1940.
Prior to the film’s release news leaked that Citizen Kane would be based on real-life newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst a scandal ensued. Hearst was so enraged by the young filmmaker’s veiled criticism of his life & career that he refused to allow RKO advertisments in his papers.
According to RKO president George Schaefer, Hearst contacted Nelson Rockefeller and threatened to run defamatory articles on Nelson’s grandfather, John D. Rockefeller Sr., if Citizen Kane was allowed to premier at Radio City Music Hall. The younger Rockefeller must have backed down, as the film premiered at the RKO Palace on Broadway on May 1, 1941 instead.(1)
32 years earlier Hearst had read aloud in public incriminating letters from Standard Oil executives which detailed bribes made to members of Congress on the behalf of the oil company. Hearst had used the stolen letters in support of his own presidential candidate during the 1908 election, and in doing so severely embarrassed the Rockefeller family. (2) It’s been speculated that Nelson Rockefeller was attempting to settle the score with Hearst by supporting Welles’s Citizen Kane, although no direct evidence confirms this theory. (3)
(Nelson Rockefeller on the cover of TIME, Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, and William Randolph Hearst)
It’s also unknown whether Nelson Rockefeller, or any other member of the Rockefeller family, ever knew that Welles had added the footage of Kykuit into the film.
As there is no mention of the footage in the family’s files, we may never know.
(1). For info on Nelson Rockefeller’s involvement with RKO Pictures and Orson Welles see: “The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller: Worlds to Conquer 1908-1958” by Cary Reich, pages 217-219.
(2). For info on Hearst’s purloined Standard Oil letters and the ensuing bribery scandal see: “Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr.” by Ron Chernow, pages 548-550.
(3). For info on a possible Rockefeller grudge against Hearst see: “The Real Story Behind the Masterpiece” by Philippe Mora, Sydney Morning Herald, 12/22/2007, available online: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2007/12/21/1198175341197.html