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The Business of America

Hearst Gets His Due

July 2024
5min read


History is a self-correcting process. Every historian lives amid the culture of his or her own age and to a greater or lesser extent reflects that culture and its interests and assumptions. Every historian also has prejudices, personal interests, and blind spots. But over time one historian’s failings are matched by another’s strengths, so that a balanced, rounded portrait of an age and the people who lived in it can emerge.

No better example of this can be had than that of what the historian Stewart Holbrook called “the age of the moguls” and some of the major players of that time, the so-called robber barons. The first histories and biographies of the era tended to be highly tendentious (as first histories often are). Some, not infrequently funded by the people involved, were unctuously laudatory; others were equally condemning. In recent years, a string of newer biographies has redressed the balance. Maury Klein’s The Life and Legend of Jay Gould and The Life & Legend of E. H. Harriman , Ron Chernow’s Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. , and Jean Strouse’s Morgan: American Financier all have drawn portraits of their subjects that are thorough and honest.

But history, like life, is not always fair. Sometimes even a work of fiction is so powerful that it obliterates in the public mind all attempts by historians to draw a more accurate picture. Consider the last Plantagenet king of England, Richard III. He was not a hunchback; it is quite possible that someone else ordered the killing of the little princes in the Tower; and he was a skilled general and administrator. He was no more brutal than his contemporaries in a brutal age. His last words were “Treason! Treason!” not “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

But the mere truth does not stand a chance against a portrait painted by Shakespeare. Richard III is, to be sure, a very great play, but as history, its depiction of a power-mad cripple from whose clutches England was rescued by Henry Tudor is no more than propaganda. No matter, that is the image that will surely reside forever in the folk memory of the English-speaking peoples, despite such marvelous works of real history as Paul Murray Kendall’s 1955 biography Richard III .

William Randolph Hearst, a major figure of the age of the robber barons, has suffered a similar fate. A polarizing figure, to put it mildly, Hearst was lionized (often in his own newspapers) and vilified equally in his lifetime. But the portrait of him that survives today is the one painted by the actor and director Orson Welles and the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz in the movie Citizen Kane .

That film, as a work of fiction, is deservedly on nearly everyone’s ten-greatest-ever-made list. But while its creators maintained it was a work of fiction, no one believed them. When the left-leaning Ferdinand Lundberg, author of the fiercely anti-Hearst 1936 biography Imperial Hearst , sued for plagiarism, Mankiewicz denied ever having read Lundberg’s book. This claim was somewhat undercut by the fact that three copies of it were found in his library. RKO settled the case for $15,000 plus several hundred thousand dollars in court costs and attorney’s fees.

But if Charles Foster Kane holds an extraordinary place in the history of American cinema, the real, flesh-and-blood William Randolph Hearst is no less fascinating. Almost 50 years after his death at 88 in 1951, he finally has gotten a biography worthy of one of the most extraordinary lives in American history. Unlike Lundberg’s hatchet job, or W. A. Swanberg’s lively but superficial Citizen Hearst , published in 1961, The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst , by David Nasaw (Houghton Mifflin), was written with the cooperation (but not control) of the Hearst family and the Hearst Corporation. Thus the author had access to a vast trove of papers no historian had seen before.

Unlike most of his fellow turn-of-thecentury empire builders, Hearst was born rich. His father, George, although barely literate, had a first-class business sense and a first-class nose for where gold, silver, and copper could be found. The names of some of the mines he developed are still familiar: the Comstock Lode, the Homestake, the Anaconda. By the time W.R., as his friends called him, was coming to manhood, his family was very, very wealthy.

Although erratically educated, Hearst received a thorough grounding in art and history thanks to extensive travel, and he spoke both French and German well. However, he did manage to get himself thrown out of Harvard for poor grades, thanks largely to the high life his vast allowance ($150 a month—perhaps $2,800 in today’s money) made possible.

He could easily have spent his whole life in idle pleasures, but he did not. His father, to further his political ambitions, first purchased the moribund San Francisco Examiner and then, in 1887, became a U.S. senator. When George Hearst went to Washington, his son became the proprietor of the Examiner .

San Francisco, although the ninthlargest city in the country by the 188Os, was still a provincial place far from the power centers of the East. Hearst wanted to change that with his new newspaper. He wrote to his father that he intended to foment “a revolution in the sleepy journalism of the Pacific slope.” He certainly succeeded, and the effects of that revolution continue to reverberate around the world.


When Hearst took over the Examiner , it had a circulation of only 15,000, less than half the San Francisco Chronicle ’s 37,500. He immediately made a deal with the New York Herald to carry its dispatches, giving the Examiner a much greater national and international scope than any San Francisco paper before it. He hired new talent and redesigned the paper to make it more inviting to read, added line drawings, and sought circulation beyond the city of San Francisco itself.

By 1890 the Examiner , now a recognizably modern newspaper, had pulled even with the Chronicle in circulation and was making a profit. That was the first step in building what would become a vast media empire. In 1895 Hearst bought the Morning Journal (which he redded the New York Journal ), taking on head to head the country’s leading newspaperman, Joseph Pulitzer. Even before the Spanish-American War, the Journal was printing more than 1.5 million copies a day.

At the height of his influence, around 1930, Hearst owned 28 newspapers, all of which spoke in his own editorial voice. Such people as Winston Churchill, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler were writing for his papers, and they were being read by 20 million people a day—one in six of the U.S. population.

This brought Hearst real political power. He served two terms in Congress from New York and became a major contender for the Democratic nomination for President in 1904.

But the empire that Hearst created (and which still exists, one of the largest privately held corporations in the country) was far larger than just his newspapers. Although he was often accused of merely buying up properties, Hearst was in fact extraordinarily innovative, preceding by several decades the rest of the world’s interest in synergy—to use the media buzzword of the 1990s—among the rapidly expanding types of media available to the public.

As early as 1898, Hearst teamed up with Thomas Edison’s company to produce newsreels (a word that would not even be coined until nearly two decades later) about the Spanish-American War. By the 1920s he had become a major presence in Hollywood, producing, among other films, the Perils of Pauline series. He instructed the editors of his magazines to buy only stories that could be turned into films and to make sure to secure the film rights. He used his newspapers to publicize his movies.

It was, of course, in Hollywood that he frolicked with his long-time mistress, Marion Davies, with whom he spent the last decades of his life. In Citizen Kane , the character Susan Alexander is a grotesque caricature of Marion Davies. They were both blonde, and both had a drinking problem in later years, but the fictional Susan Alexander, who had perhaps the most irritating voice in the history of Hollywood, was a pathetically untalented singer, while Marion Davies was a gifted comic actress, some of whose movies are worth watching today.

Susan Alexander eventually leaves Charles Foster Kane as his empire crumbles. When Hearst, whose spending habits are legendary, ran into financial problems in the late 1930s and had to yield control of his empire to a trustee, Marion Davies did not leave him. Indeed, she cashed in jewelry and real estate to lend him a million dollars when he needed it badly.

That is not the usual direction of the cash flow between mogul and mistress, to put it mildly. This fact alone would indicate that William Randolph Hearst must have been a man worth knowing. David Nasaw’s excellent biography proves it.

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