Arabian Adventure

A tale of three men, 25,000 miles, half a dozen countries, $100,000, one press baron — and 14 historic Arabian horses

The storm that ravaged the North Atlantic in mid-November 1947 wasn’t actually a hurricane, but it sure felt like one. The nor’easter in the ocean off Cape Cod and Canada’s Maritime Provinces roiled the shipping lanes between Europe and the United States with hurricane-force winds of as much as 100 miles an hour. It wrecked freighters and fishing boats, flooded and damaged coastal ports and delayed ocean liners and cargo ships from their scheduled arrivals. One experienced ship captain said it was the worst late-season storm he could remember.

Among the ships caught in the tempest was the S.S. Marine Flier, a freighter en route to New York from France. For two days, the 500-foot-long ship tossed on the ocean, rolling from side to side as winds and rain battered it and 60-foot waves washed over its deck. Deep in the Marine Flier’s hold, 14 prized Arabian steeds were being knocked around in cramped, makeshift wooden shipping crates, at times falling down and being helped up by their worried attendants as the storm swirled outside.

The nasty weather was just the latest adventure involving the horses — the trophies of an Indiana Jones-like expedition that had stretched halfway around the world, through Europe and across the Middle East, with stops in Bedouin encampments and fabled cities, amid encounters with colorful desert cultures and international political intrigue. Behind it all: William Randolph Hearst, the famed American newspaper magnate and horse lover.

Preston Dyer Jr. was just 29 years old when he answered a tiny advertisement in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner for a “horse ranch superintendent.” Job requirements, according to the ad: “Must have former experience in breaking, training and breeding horses.” In spite of his youth, Dyer had those qualifications — a native of Virginia’s horse country and a former U.S. Army cavalry soldier, he’d spent several years before and during World War II working as the personal horse manager for General George S. Patton and his family.

With a handwritten letter of application and a reference from Patton’s wife, Dyer won the job — which turned out to be managing the horses and stables at William Randolph Hearst’s legendary San Simeon ranch. Hearst was a longtime horse owner and breeder who, like other rich Americans such as cereal mogul W.K. Kellogg and the candy-making Wrigley and Mars families, had focused his equine interests on Arabians.

The distinctive, high-stamina horses, powerful yet good-natured, had been favored for centuries by Arab sheiks and warriors. They had been imported into Europe from the deserts of the Middle East for centuries and had become increasingly popular with horse lovers in the United States since the turn of the century. Hearst, who had begun acquiring Arabians in the 1930s, had dozens of the beautiful horses on his San Simeon ranch. But the Depression and World War II put imports of Arabians on hold, and Hearst and other breeders became concerned that fresh horses were needed to reinvigorate the U.S. Arabian bloodlines.

One night in the early spring of 1947, Dyer received a midnight phone call summoning him to an immediate meeting with the Chief, as Hearst was universally known to his employees. Dyer, a trim, intense-looking young man with combed-back dirty blonde hair and horn-rimmed glasses, feared that the call meant bad news. He jumped out of bed and hurriedly drove the 15 miles or so from his home on the San Simeon ranch to the extravagant, sprawling main house, the legendary “castle” that sat atop a large hill overlooking the Pacific and tens of thousands of acres of Hearst-owned land. He met with Hearst in the giant Assembly Room, filled with artifacts and an enormous fireplace. As the two men sat down together at a small table, a butler served coffee and sweet cakes from an elaborate silver service.

The ranch now known as Hearst San Simeon Arabians, San Simeon, Calif.
The ranch now known as Hearst San Simeon Arabians, San Simeon, Calif.

The reason for Hearst’s late-night summons was hardly bad news. The Chief first complimented Dyer on his job running the San Simeon stables and then asked what needed to be done to diversify and improve the bloodlines of the Arabians. Dyer told his boss that the Arabians in the United States were too interrelated, and that even the horses on storied breeding farms in England and Europe couldn’t really offer fresh blood. The best strategy, Dyer offhandedly suggested, might be to return to the original source, the deserts, plains and mountains of the Middle East, in search of horses. That idea caught Hearst’s fancy. “Do you think you could get any in the desert?” he impulsively asked. Dyer, taken a bit off guard, replied, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t know why not.”

That settled it. “Excellent idea,” Hearst declared, to Dyer’s surprise. On the spot, Hearst authorized the young horseman to mount an expedition to the Middle East in search of Arabians, according to an unpublished interview with the trainer now in the archives of the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Ky. He told Dyer to call the Hearst corporate office in New York first thing in the morning to draw the extraordinary sum of $100,000 (more than $1 million in today’s dollars) to pay for the trip. “If you need any more money, let me know,” Hearst added. The two men talked well into the night, with Hearst regaling Dyer with stories about Homer Davenport, the flamboyant Hearst newspapers cartoonist who was one of the first major breeders of Arabians in the United States and one of the first to import horses directly from the Middle East. It was nearly dawn when Dyer drove back down the hill from the castle to wake his wife and tell her all about his remarkable meeting with the Chief.

Dyer immediately began planning his trip, traveling first to New Mexico to seek advice from Carl Raswan, a leading Arabian connoisseur and breeder with extensive contacts in the Middle East. Raswan offered to introduce him to Fawaz al Shaalan, a Bedouin prince who Raswan considered a “blood brother.” Fawaz was soon to come to the United States for meetings at the nascent United Nations, and when he arrived, he and Dyer immediately hit it off. The two men took a driving tour of California together, with stops in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, San Francisco and, of course, a few days at San Simeon. At the end of April, Fawaz left to go to the United Nations meeting in New York, but he soon called Dyer to invite him to come east. “We were having a lot of fun together,” Dyer later recalled, “and he was lonesome.”

The Hearst-sponsored quest for Arabians was on: In July 1947, Dyer and Fawaz traveled to London to visit Arabian breeders there and then went on to Paris. Before leaving the United States, Dyer had ordered two Buick convertibles, one red, one green, for Fawaz. One was shipped to Fawaz’s compound in the Syrian desert; the other went to Paris, and the two men drove it through France, to the French Riviera and Monte Carlo, and then down to Rome. They were two young guys on a European road trip, stopping along the way to look at farms and breeding facilities, checking out horses that might fulfill Hearst’s objective. “I had found no stock in England equal to ours at San Simeon, and none in France and Italy,” Dyer told an interviewer for Hearst’s Examiner newspapers a year later. “I was discouraged.”

As Dyer had predicted to Hearst, they needed to go to the desert to find the best Arabians. So, they shipped the Buick to Egypt and traveled there to look at horses. In early August, two more members of Dyer’s expedition joined him in Cairo: Dr. Fred Pulling, the San Simeon veterinarian, and John Williamson, a Los Angeles-based photographer who shot hundreds of evocative photos and even Technicolor home movies of the trip. Coincidentally, Williamson was the grandson of Hearst’s friend and fellow Arabian breeder, W.K. Kellogg.

Veterinarian Fred Pulling riding a camel in Giza, Egypt, during the Hearst Arabians expedition.
Veterinarian Fred Pulling riding a camel in Giza, Egypt, during the Hearst Arabians expedition.

For a month, the three Hearst men lived it up in Egypt, staying at the grand Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, taking camel rides and playing golf at the picturesque Mena House Hotel course at the foot of the Great Pyramid. They took time to look for promising Arabians as well, frequenting horse-racing tracks, taking a weekend trip to Alexandria to evaluate the horses there, and visiting the expansive Royal Agricultural Society compound to learn about Egyptian equine practices. But they weren’t happy with the quality of horses they were seeing. Most were thin and poorly fed, and some showed signs of malnutrition and ill health. While the men looked at hundreds of horses in Egypt, they found none worth buying.

Dyer’s original idea for the expedition was to range broadly across the Middle East in search of horses, with an ambitious itinerary that included Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But world politics intervened to change that plan. At the end of August, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) recommended that Palestine be divided in two to create the Jewish state of Israel.

The plan infuriated many Arabs. Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal called an urgent meeting in Cairo of members of the Arab League. The topic: how to mount opposition to the Palestinian plan at the mid-September meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. One of the delegates invited to the Cairo meeting was Fawaz. In addition to being a Bedouin prince, Fawaz had close ties to the Saudi royal family — his sister Nawf was one of King Abdulaziz ibn Saud’s wives.

Conveniently, the meeting was to be held at Shepheard’s Hotel. Dyer and Fawaz waited on the hotel terrace to greet each delegate as he arrived, and Dyer used the conversations to ask about the best places to find horses. With advice gleaned from the Arab leaders, Dyer revamped his itinerary to narrow the focus of his search to Syria and Lebanon. When the Arab League conference ended, Dyer, Pulling and Williamson left Cairo with Fawaz to fly to Syria.

Fawaz was greeted in Damascus like a returning hero. It had been nearly a year since the globe-trotting Bedouin prince had been to his Ruwallah tribe’s encampment in Adra, 10 miles northeast of Damascus. Tribesmen swarmed the Damascus airport to await his arrival. The crowds were so thick on the runway that the plane had to circle three times before sufficient space could be cleared to allow it to land, and the pilot had to quickly cut the engines to avoid injuring anyone in the crowd pressing against the plane. As soon as Fawaz came out of the airplane door, he was grabbed by the Ruwallah tribesmen, joyously lifted onto their shoulders and transported back to camp. The three Americans, left behind at the airport, were somewhat bewildered. After a couple of hours, Fawaz’s brother returned to the airport and took them to a hotel outside Damascus, and they settled in to begin looking for horses in Syria.

A couple of days after they arrived in Damascus, Fawaz sent the two Buicks to pick up Dyer’s party. A few miles into the desert, they were met by a team of horsemen and escorted to a luncheon feast and celebration unlike anything they’d ever experienced. Under enormous tents, wide platters were heaped with rice and roasted lamb and mutton and placed on low tables. The 300 guests sat cross-legged on Persian rugs around the platters and scooped the food up with their hands. Dyer and his men quickly learned to make balls of the rice to pop into their mouths, and to eat the meat off the bone. After a short post-meal nap, sweet hot tea was served.

And then came the entertainment. Ruwallah tribesmen put on an exhibition of fighting skills. To the rhythmic beat of large drums, lines of warriors approached each other with sabers drawn and then drew back, circling each other over and over, for nearly two hours. Dancing girls moved provocatively through the crowd. Falconers displayed their birds. A group of acrobats and contortionists performed balancing, knife and magic tricks. A few hours later, at dinner at the home of a neighboring sheik, the banquet was repeated, until the Americans thought they could eat no more. The trip’s photographer, Williamson, took dozens of photos of the feast and the accompanying celebration, providing a unique and vivid record of nomadic desert life.

Then they got down to business. Over the next couple of days, Dyer’s team looked at hundreds of horses from the Ruwalla tribe and around Damascus, presented to them by proud tribesmen. But once again, they found none worth bringing back to the United States. The tribal horses showed signs of poor feeding and overuse; even the healthiest horses lacked the distinctive large head shape and other features favored by Arabian aficionados in the United States. The tribe’s most prized royal steeds, treated more carefully than the everyday horses, also were deemed inadequate by the Americans. Dyer had been on the road for nearly three months, extravagantly spending Hearst’s money, and he still didn’t have any horses to show for it. Dyer, Pulling and Williamson decided to say farewell to Fawaz and drive on to Beirut.

Beirut in 1947 was very different from the city devastated in recent years by civil war and terrorism. Indeed, mid-century Beirut was justifiably known as the Paris of the Middle East, a beautiful seaside metropolis with wide boulevards, verdant parks lined with palm trees, classic architecture, expensive hotels and resorts, and swanky nightclubs and restaurants. One of the architects of this cosmopolitan era in Beirut was Lebanon’s foreign minister, Henri Pharoun, who owned the nation’s largest bank and even had a hand in designing the Lebanese flag. Dyer, with his knack for hobnobbing with famous, powerful men, quickly made Pharoun’s acquaintance and enlisted him in the search for Arabians.

Dyer later called Pharoun “definitely the best-informed man on Arab horse breeding that we met.” Pharoun owned hundreds of horses — at one time he was the world’s largest single owner of Arabians — and was president of the group that managed Beirut’s renowned Hippodrome du Parc de Beyrouth, the venue for popular Sunday races exclusively featuring purebred Arabians. Dyer rented stable space in downtown Beirut and set out looking for horses.

Along with Pulling and Williamson, occasionally accompanied by Pharoun, Dyer traveled deep into the Lebanese countryside and back into neighboring Syria, visiting tribesmen to inspect and negotiate for promising Arabians. They found that the Arabians in Lebanon, usually only one or two generations removed from the desert, were very high quality. Over a busy couple of weeks, Dyer’s group journeyed by plane, by automobile, on horseback and on foot north to Tripoli, Homs, Aleppo and the Plain of Akkar, and east into the Beqaa Valley and along the Euphrates River. They met with members of many tribes — nomads who had raised and ridden Arabians for centuries. When they visited the desert camps, hundreds of tribesmen galloped in with their horses, looking to make a deal with the American.

Dyer quickly learned how to do business with the Bedouins. “Buying from a Bedouin isn’t easy,” he later told a group in California. “He is very religious and bound to any statement he makes. We had to learn that he could not bargain, as once having stated the value of his horse, he could never change it without becoming, in the eyes of any other Bedouins, a liar.” By one account, Dyer even made a remarkable solo journey to acquire a particular horse. During a visit to one desert tribe, he spotted an especially attractive mare and negotiated with the owner to buy her. Worried that the seller might have second thoughts, Dyer mounted the horse and quickly rode it 85 miles back to Beirut, stopping only to sleep at night on the ground in a sleeping bag with the mare tied safely nearby.

In all, Dyer purchased 13 horses in his short stay in Lebanon. It’s not clear how many horses were acquired directly from tribesmen; records indicate that all of the purchases came through Pharoun, who may have acted as an agent in dealings with the tribes. Several of the horses came from Pharoun’s own stock; one was purchased the day before it won an important race at Hippodrome track, attesting to its value. In some cases, Dyer paid cash for the horses. For others, he said later, he bartered Cadillacs, Buicks or Jeeps. At the end of Dyer’s stay in Beirut, in early October, Pharoun gave him a 14th horse, a fine stallion named Arkane, as a gift for Hearst.

Dyer had found what Hearst had sent him to the Middle East to acquire: a collection of fine Arabians, six stallions and eight mares ranging from ages 2 to 12, in colors from gray to chestnut. They would fortify the Hearst herd at San Simeon and could be bred with American horses to refresh the U.S. Arabian bloodlines. Now he just needed to get them back to California.

The storm lashes the deck of the S.S. Marine Flier, a former World War II freighter, as it carries the horses to the U.S.
The storm lashes the deck of the S.S. Marine Flier, a former World War II freighter, as it carries the horses to the U.S.

Dyer and Hearst had initially boasted of plans to fly the horses back to the United States on a chartered plane. But the actual voyage was more conventional — and difficult. Complications arose from the start: Shortly after Dyer and his men left Cairo, cholera broke out there, eventually killing more than 10,000 people. The outbreak severely restricted travel, with United States officials banning direct passage from the Middle East. And in any event, finding transport for 14 horses was not easy. “The homeward trip was a long, tedious affair that required a lot of wheedling and coaxing,” Dyer said later. “Ship captains refused to take our horses aboard because they didn’t want their ships messed up.”

Working the Beirut waterfront, Dyer finally booked passage to Marseille, France, aboard a small Romanian passenger ship, the Transylvania. The horses would have to stay on deck, and Dyer’s group had special crates built to hold them. The wooden crates, just three feet wide and eight feet long, barely gave the Arabians room to move. Feed bins attached to the crates held hay for the horses. Williamson’s photos of the voyage show the horses crowded onto the Transylvania’s foredeck amid piles of hay and straw. Veterinarian Pulling lamented that the feed wasn’t very high quality and later wrote, “These boxes were constructed in Beirut of the best material available, which was none too good, as we later experienced.” But at least the weather was pleasant for the weeklong trip to Marseille. After arriving, the horses stayed at a small, drafty stable near the docks in the French port for a couple of weeks, munching on poor-quality hay, before giant cranes lifted their crates into the cargo hold of the S.S. Marine Flier, a former World War II freighter bound from Marseille for New York.

The slow 20-day trip across the Atlantic was mostly uneventful — until the Marine Flier encountered the nor’easter near the end of the voyage. The last tropical hurricane of the season had petered out in the North Atlantic a few weeks before, but this was almost as bad, with hurricane-force winds gusting up to 100 miles an hour. Off the coast of Newfoundland, a 400-foot British freighter, the Langleecrag, was dashed against rocks and broke up; two of its crew members died. A 110-foot fishing trawler, the Uncle John, foundered and sank off the Massachusetts coast. Passenger liners such as the Queen Mary and S.S. America had their voyages delayed by days, with many passengers suffering from seasickness. On land, the towns of Cape Cod were battered, trees were uprooted and streets were covered with debris and broken glass. Two hangars collapsed at the Martha’s Vineyard airport. Locals said it was the worst storm since the devastating hurricane of 1944.

Heading for New York, the Marine Flier sailed straight into the nor’easter. The sturdy steel ship, just over two years old, was tossed about as waves crashed over its deck. In an account published a few months later, Pulling wrote that the ship rolled 35 degrees to port and starboard every three minutes as it plowed through the high seas and powerful winds.

The storm lasted two days, and Pulling kept close watch on the horses in their wooden crates in the hold. As the ship rolled, the horses fell and repeatedly had to be helped up — at one point, five horses were knocked down at once. Some of the crates splintered. As Pulling attended to the horses, the indefatigable Williamson was shooting photos of the storm, capturing dramatic pictures of waves as tall as the bow of the boat splashing across the deck.

Finally, three days behind schedule, on November 17, the Marine Flier docked in New York. Amazingly, the 14 Arabians were largely uninjured — scraped and bruised, but with no significant damage. They didn’t even show signs of seasickness, Pulling reported. The horses passed through Customs and were certified for importation into the U.S., in care of Sunical Land & Livestock, the Hearst subsidiary that oversaw San Simeon.

After resting in New York for five days, the Arabians were loaded onto a Pennsylvania Railroad train to California. This trip, by way of Chicago and Omaha, also proved challenging: The heater in the baggage car carrying the horses malfunctioned, subjecting them to sub-freezing temperatures for much of the four-day journey. Again, they somehow were not significantly damaged or sickened. The 14 Arabians finally were unloaded from the train in San Luis Obispo for the last leg of their journey, a 50-mile truck ride up California’s Highway 1 to San Simeon. Over 1947’s Thanksgiving weekend, the horses arrived at the Spanish-style stables of the Hearst ranch and were turned loose in San Simeon’s lush pastures.

In all, Dyer & Co. had traveled 25,000 miles over six months, through several countries, by plane, boat, car, horseback and on foot. They considered 3,000 possible horses before deciding on the 14 Arabians they brought back. As Hearst and Dyer had planned, these horses went on to refresh the American Arabian breeding stock. Progeny of the 1947 Hearst Arabians are prized by American-Arabian breeders, and a few descendants still remain on the Hearst ranch as part of the Hearst family’s San Simeon Arabians breeding operation.

Ironically, however, William Randolph Hearst never saw the Arabians he paid so much to bring to the United States. In his 80s and in failing health, Hearst had left San Simeon for the last time in May 1947, shortly after his midnight meeting to dispatch Dyer on the expedition to the Middle East. Hearst and his longtime mistress, Marion Davies, moved to Los Angeles, where he could receive better medical care. The legendary press baron lived until 1951, but he never returned to his castle by the sea — or to the noble Arabian steeds that Dyer brought back from his Middle Eastern adventure.

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