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Citizen Hearst

ISSUE:  Spring 2001

The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst
. By David Nasau. Houghton Mifflin. $35.

A great many journalists devote their working lives to the principles of objectivity, fairness, and accuracy to which William Randolph Hearst paid little tribute. The Hearst newspapers and other elements of his media empire had other purposes: promoting the Chief’s personal political ambitions; aiding in the film career of his longtime mistress; trumpeting his ideological views, which shifted from early liberalism to the clanging far right.

The author, David Nasau, a professor at the City University of New York, has written an exhaustive, 607-page account of Hearst’s life, 1863—1951. He does not ignore many of Hearst’s dingy qualities. Still, he seems just a little soft on the publisher.

And there are a few sweeping generalizations, as in the case with San Simeon, the famous West Coast castle he built: “He began making additions . . .until it was not simply the most beautiful place on earth but the most fun.”

Nasau acknowledges that despite all the Hearst family and other papers made available to him, a central mystery remains: how did Hearst, on somewhat limited funds, manage to acquire, in his heyday, 28 daily newspapers in major cities, a number of Sunday papers, the Cosmopolitan Picture studio, the King Features Syndicate, radio stations, magazines and other properties?

It was not for want of family wealth.

Hearst was the son of George Hearst, a “barely literate” prospector who struck it very rich in the West and became a United States senator from California.

His father called Hearst “Willy” or “Billy-Buster”—if one could ever imagine Mr. Hearst being called that. But George Hearst was rarely around during his growing up.

W. R. Hearst had barely been kicked out of Harvard, for want of sufficient grades, when his father gave him the San Francisco Examiner, which the elder Hearst had used in his political campaigns.(Harvard’s tuition in 1884: $150.)

Hearst years later blamed Harvard’s action on “politics.”

On the Examiner, Hearst quickly applied instinctive talents. These included acquisition of loyal henchmen, good printing, and the unbridled sensationalism that became his trademark. Many senior newsmen will remember such stories as appeared in the New York Journal on page one, under the headline KILLED BY HYDROPHOBIA . . . “Two Innocent Boys Barked and Snapped Like Dogs, Suffering Terrible Agonies. Little Ralph, In His Struggle Bit Through His Tongue and Lips Again and Again.”

Another early aspect was a strong populist editorial policy, interestingly accompanied by a near-rabid denunciation of “Asians.” Whipping boy is the modern phrase. As Nasau recalls, Hearst was not alone among American newspapers in this shameful direction.

His mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, was a Midwestern school teacher who as time went on became virtually in charge of the family’s huge pursestrings. William was forever begging her for money; but she, for what she thought was his own good, often resisted. In the end, however, she sometimes relented.

With this the situation, Hearst usually was hard-put to come up with the funds for his acquisitions. But he not only did it but lived at an unbelievable pace: a castle in Scotland, town houses in New York, several opulent residences in California, a vast Mexican ranch. If he was not the last of the big spenders, he was just about the biggest. When the Depression came, he refused to believe it, despite a long period when his properties sank in value.

From San Francisco he branched to New York City, bringing with him somewhat incongruous political ambitions. His aim was no less than president of the United States. But aside from his election to Congress in 1902, many other campaigns, with his own papers his cheering sections, fizzled out.

In most of these, Hearst ran as a populist, condeming “the Trusts” and the like. But as his obligations to the banks and other financial institutions grew, the former defender of the poor and helpless turned almost full circle.

He ripped the New Deal, despite all that Franklin Roosevelt could do to placate him. He became a fervent isolationist, declaring that Hitler needed his strong-arm policies to recover from the Versailles Treaty. David Nasau writes:

“The Chief had so committed himself by this point to the position that Hitler was not an aggressor but merely righting the wrongs of Versailles that even after the horrors of Kristallnacht in 1938 and the invasion of Poland in the fall of 1939 he continued to argue that peace with Hitler was possible.”

When the McCarthy business arose, the publisher not only embraced the senator’s cause, but Hearst operatives actually took to the bedclothes “investigating” Communists.

There could be no doubt as to the Hearstian power in his day. Presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to FDR tried not to lose his favor, most of them holding their noses privately as they did so. As a major Tennessee politician told me once, speaking of newspapers, “They can drop you on 50,000 doorsteps every morning.” Hearst, in touch with his editors every day, could and did do much more dropping than that.

In the book jacket of this book, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. said of Hearst: “William Randolph Hearst was the most famous, ambitious, unscrupulous, outrageous American newspaper publisher in the twentieth century, the most glorified and the most reviled. . . .”

The Spanish-American War of 1898 has been called the war that Hearst started—which, more than outrageous, would have been criminal. The truth, Nasau says, is that Hearst, prince of jingoism, would have loved to start the war. He even ran the unbelievable caption: “How Do You Like Our War?” But he had little to do with actual events.

Hearst and his women is a celebrated subject. But how his wife Millicent, a somewhat proper former chorus girl, put up with his multiple adulteries, offering an almost serene front to the public for years, is only partially explained. Nasau reasons that she did not want to jeopardize her financial position which, at the time Hearst left her, was considerable.

Hearst had a thing for chorus girls, and another one, Marion Davies, became noted as his longtime mistress. Eighteen years old when he met her, she already was a veteran of several years on the New York stage.

Hearst signed her to a film contract with his production company and later, through his arrangements with such companies as MGM, had not a little to do with her becoming at one time the wealthiest actress in Hollywood. When Hearst hit bottom financially in his later years, she lent him the better part of a million dollars—with the shaky collateral of his two Boston papers.

Hearst’s attention to Marion’s career was assiduous. He would visit the set, throw his weight behind his arguments about scripts and castings. He even built a 14-room “bungalow” for her outside the MGM lot.

Marion was an alcoholic, and the problem increased when her career was over. Her antics became an embarrassment at San Simeon parties, and Hearst assigned employees to prevent her smuggling in liquor.

When Hearst died in 1951, she quickly married. She died at 64, ten years later.

By the time of his own death, Hearst rather ironically had recovered some of his fortune. He did so over the years with the aid of bond and preferred stock issues to the public. In 1925 and 1927 he raised many millions, with all Hearst newspapers and financial columnists—B.C. Forbes, who was to found the business magazine, was one of these—ballyhooing all the way. Hearst advertisements carried illustrations of smiling mothers and fathers holding their dividends. The preferred stock ads did not say that it did not carry voting rights, although the prospectus did. Early advertisements said that “application will be made to list this class A stock on the New York Curb, and the Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles Stock Exchanges.” But this never happened.

With the money, Hearst paid off some debts and bought more newspapers.

When Orson Welles’s 1941 film Citizen Kane unmistakably portrayed “The Chief,” Hearst’s lawyers thought he had a libel suit. But he demurred. Actually, David Nasau writes, the distortions in the film had more to do with Marion Davies than with Hearst.

William Randolph Hearst was a rolling circus, all in one. He became the embodiment of yellow journalism, a term which originated with the “Yellow Kid” comic strip. He had many triumphs. One major disappointment might have been that none of his five sons, like he, ever completed college.


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