William Randolph Hearst is one of those people we all know was very, very famous but are never quite sure why, or what we are to think of him. We know he built a huge castle, San Simeon, on the central California coast, and are dutifully if dubiously impressed by its palatial kitsch. We know he owned a swarm of newspapers, practiced “yellow journalism” and had something fishy to do with starting the Spanish-American War. Mostly we know he was the model for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.
But who, exactly, Hearst was has slipped in large part out of popular memory, along with the understanding of why quite so many American people hated him–and with such a cold and lifelong passion.
Now David Nasaw thrusts Hearst back onto historical center stage in a rich and subtle new biography, The Chief, challenging us to rethink Hearst’s legacy. The first biographer to have access to the Hearst family archives, Nasaw uses an ocean of new material to drown half-truths, quash rumors and take us much closer to Hearst’s concrete persona and activities than any previous study, deliberately eschewing the muckraking outrage of his predecessors to take a “just the facts, ma’am” approach.
Not that he’s quite neutral. We get a clue as to Nasaw’s position in the quote from Winston Churchill with which he concludes the book’s preface. After visiting Hearst at San Simeon in 1929, Churchill reported, “I got to like him–a grave simple child–with no doubt a nasty temper.” Such was not the view in Los Angeles, by contrast, where Churchill sojourned afterward: “These Californian swells do not of course know Hearst…. They regard him as the Devil.”
Who was William Randolph Hearst, then–simple child or the Devil? Should we hate him? And does it matter? Just the facts, ma’am:
William Randolph Hearst was born in 1863 in San Francisco, the only child of George Hearst, a barely literate mining speculator who rarely changed his shirt and liked to hang around with mining-camp rowdies, however rich he became, and Phoebe Apperson Hearst, a small-town music teacher and proper lady. George eventually made millions investing in hard-rock mines all over the United States and Mexico. He first used his money to buy a newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, and then used the paper to buy himself a US Senate seat from California in 1887. William took note.
For a while young Will attended Harvard, where he seems to have majored in buying friends and social position with expensive, boozy parties; he was eventually kicked out for never studying. In 1887 he persuaded his daddy to let him run the Examiner, and he promptly began to make journalism history. Stealing tricks from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, Hearst pioneered at the Examiner and soon thereafter at the New York Journal what would come to be known as “yellow journalism.” His papers baldly submerged fact with fiction, splaying daily crime stories across their pages with headlines set amid large, lurid, titillating illustrations. (“Screams and scandals,” as Time would later describe the Hearst press.)
Thus the first reason people hated him: His papers lied like a rug. But they were a great read, and the working-class immigrant readers to whom he was catering sent circulations through the roof.
Then Hearst began a lifetime of experimentation with what control of the press might buy him politically. With characteristically unchecked egomania, by 1896 he had decided he should be President. A first step would be support for that year’s Democratic presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan. To insure victory in the Midwest, Hearst bought a third paper, the Chicago American.