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.

For the next three decades, Hearst would buy more and more papers so that he could deploy them repeatedly, in fruitless but spectacularly spirited political campaigns for his own election–as mayor and governor of New York as well as President. He almost always lost, but usually carried enough of the electorate to remain a threat and continue to build his power. (He did serve two lackluster terms in Congress, elected in 1903 and 1905 as a New York Representative, but only because he was in cahoots with the Tammany Hall machine at the time.)

Throwing off his Harvard party-boy style, Hearst dumped his loud ties and began, in Nasaw’s lovely phrase, to dress like an undertaker. Part of what’s fascinating about Hearst is that in contrast to Orson Welles’s ebullient charm in Citizen Kane, as a personality he had zero charisma. His handshake was limp, his voice high and squeaky, his eyes a steely cold blue and his smile rare as the truth in a Hearst news story. He still managed to pick up showgirls, though, with whom he practiced serial extramonogamy, in 1903 finally marrying one, Millicent Willson, whom he had kept as a mistress for six years.

Hearst’s exact politics in these years are endlessly difficult to nail down. Usually he is described as a Progressive; in particular, as a trustbuster. And indeed, he did crusade against the transit, milk and gas trusts in New York for decades. He also had a consistent pro-labor record. For all this he was hated by the right people for the right reasons–the big monopolists were terrified he could use his theatrical power of the press to rouse the masses to revolution, especially since he was happy to unleash his papers like an attack dog on whichever political candidate he happened to oppose that week.

But although he might have performed at times as the People’s Hero, let’s be clear: Hearst was at his core a magnate playing a part. For all his trustbusting, he was building a newspaper trust of his own while reaping ill-gotten profits from properties throughout the Americas.

The money to buy his New York papers, for example, came from Phoebe’s sale of a 25 percent share of the Anaconda copper mine in Butte, Montana–where an average of forty men died of industrial accidents every year, and where management brutally repressed the miners’ unions. I only wish Nasaw, while playing it so close to the archival data, had pulled back a bit more to make these connections and help us add up the political pieces, here and throughout.

Hearst’s politics on the foreign front were clear-cut. Toward Latin America he was a raw imperialist. “I really don’t see what is to prevent us from owning all Mexico and running it to suit ourselves,” he declared in his youth, and stuck to that position thereafter, in part because he would come to own nearly a million acres in Mexico (7.5 million by some estimates) and part of the Cerro de Pasco copper mine in Peru as well.

Nasaw disputes a classic piece of Hearst mythology: that Hearst caused the Spanish-American War by faking official documents, sensationalizing the blowing up of the Maine and launching his own private yachts against Spain. All these claims are true, Nasaw concludes–but that doesn’t mean Hearst caused the war, which would have happened anyway. Hearst was such a genius at self-promotion, Nasaw smartly argues, that he convinced everyone afterward that the war was his handiwork. Here again, though, I wish Nasaw had contextualized Hearst a bit more: How did the publisher’s cleverness nonetheless dovetail with and push along the economic sources of US imperialism? And should we really let him slip quite so far off the hook of historical causation?

As for Asia, Hearst was the nation’s chief and most dangerous exponent of the “Yellow Peril” hysteria, and in this case we can assign clear blame–and, I hope, as with his role in Cuba, begin to feel our own hatred, because here again Hearst did some very effective hating of his own. Throughout his career he argued that the mythical “Yellow Races”–Japan in particular–were ever-conspiring to overtake the “White Races” worldwide. Hearst viciously attacked Asians both outside and within the United States, and he should be held responsible, in part, for the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans.

By the twenties and early thirties Hearst had expanded his media empire to include twenty-six daily newspapers in eighteen cities. All told, almost one in four US families read a Hearst paper every day. Still searching to expand his political sway, he moved into magazines–including Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Town & Country and Harper’s Bazaar–then to radio stations, then newsreels.

Hearst was the first and a brilliant master of what analysts today call “synergy”–using one outlet or medium to promote an offering from others, in a lockstep promotional machine in which all organs speak in Their Master’s Voice. He also snatched up real estate right and left, becoming one of the biggest property owners in New York City, some $41 million worth by 1935.

This private vaudevillian sensualist couldn’t, of course, resist Hollywood, the latest and sexiest of new media outlets. In the early twenties Hearst jumped into film production, setting up the ultimate in public and private synergy by using his film companies to promote the acting career of his newest showgirl squeeze, the semi-innocent Marion Davies. (His wife, Millicent, by this time an upstanding benefactress, got to play the aggrieved but proud wife in a decades-long performance of don’t ask, don’t tell.)

There was no innocence to Hearst’s empire. He wielded vast and scary ideological power at the nexus of journalism, entertainment and politics for over fifty years, in an arc of greed and influence-mongering that bolted back and forth across the nation from the mining West to the intellectual and political control center of New York and back again to Hollywood. Hearst prefigures press lords of our own time like Rupert Murdoch; but his real counterpart is more Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, who used his three television networks to parlay himself into a prime ministership.

By the mid-twenties Hearst was engaging in an orgy of cultural acquisition. First he hired California architect Julia Morgan to design San Simeon on 60,000 acres of the California coast, where he indulged his garish, if superficially charming, artistic fantasies on a nauseating scale. He imported a preposterous mishmash of European antiques and artifacts, which he pieced together in his very own dreamscape of “culture” and “civilization.” Nasaw provides lovely tidbits of Hearst obsessively reading the gallery and auction catalogues every day, checking off, say, an entire tenth-century monastery the way we mere mortals might today buy T-shirts from L.L. Bean.

As if San Simeon weren’t enough, Hearst also bought an eleventh-century castle in Wales, St. Donat’s. He rebuilt a summer pseudocastle on Long Island for the estranged Millicent, erected a 110-bedroom beachfront mansion in Santa Monica for the chosen Marion and constructed a second, less-well-known fantasy complex, Wyntoon, that lurks deeply and privately, to this day, in the forests of Northern California, its four-story “cottages” maturely named Cinderella, Bear and Fairy houses.

All this ever-more-fabulous wealth–perhaps $140 million by 1935–began to seep ever-deeper into his politics. By the early thirties Hearst had resolved all his former contradictions by marching rightward. He was rich, and he wanted policies that would keep him rich. Now he broke strikes at his own papers and viciously attacked the 1934 San Francisco general strike. When Franklin Roosevelt presumed to suggest that economic recovery might include regulation of newspaper wages, Hearst turned on him ferociously.

All the while he flirted with fascism. From 1927 through the mid-thirties, Hearst solicited and ran regular columns from Benito Mussolini and then Adolf Hitler. After years of courtship, Hearst finally got to meet Hitler in 1934 in a carefully arranged rendezvous. Hearst flattered (and protected) himself by reporting that he had used the occasion to pressure Hitler to back off on the persecution of Jews. Jewish-Americans were not fooled. One more reason to hate Hearst.

It’s easy to see why Hearst admired fascists so much: He was a dictatorial control freak, monitoring every ketchup bottle at San Simeon, every soul entrapped in his empire. At Hearst’s publications the highest editors down to the lowliest office boys jumped when he said jump; if he said Mussolini was an OK guy, every last Hearst writer said Mussolini was an OK guy. Toadies and lackeys thrived.

Hearst extended the same tentacular control over his friends and family. He kept his five sons ground under his royal thumb, dictating their every move–surprise, surprise, they never seemed to amount to much and couldn’t hold down jobs very well. His relationship with Marion Davies, while to appearances full of love and dedication on both sides, was nonetheless scarily dictatorial as well.

Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, you-name-it megastars, producers and big-shot directors came to frolic at Hearst’s castle, forty or fifty at a time. But Hearst cracked a sharp whip over them, too. Guests had to show up like clockwork at meals and attend film screenings every night on command. You couldn’t get a cup of coffee anywhere but at the buffet in the main house, because you weren’t supposed to loll in bed. King Vidor later described one forced collective horseback expedition over the mountains as “sadistic.”

In the book’s last chapters Nasaw reminds us of Hearst’s record as an ardent and powerful anti-Communist–another reason so many people hated him, prompting nationwide boycotts of his papers. From 1934 onward Hearst used his press to equate the New Deal with Communism and condemn both. Long before McCarthy was out of his political short pants, Hearst reporters faked that they were students so they could smear professors at Columbia University, Syracuse University and the University of Chicago.

After all this repression, hatemongering and sadism on display, it’s a kick to read about how Hearst’s empire finally began to fall apart in 1937, hoist by the petard of his own sense of limitless wealth and power. He was a master at leveraged borrowing–most of the money he spent so lavishly was never his own. When the Depression and the bankers ultimately caught up with him, Hearst landed in trusteeship and had to start selling off properties.

The financial vultures never quite got to feast on Hearst’s flesh, but Orson Welles did. Citizen Kane, released in 1941, didn’t follow Hearst’s life blow by blow. Unlike Kane, Hearst had a doting mother, a happy childhood and a loving partner to the end. But everyone knew who it was about, including Hearst, who unleashed all his Hollywood snakes and press toads against the film, with only a modicum of success. With lovely irony, Citizen Kane has in many ways eclipsed Hearst himself in its fame. Citizen Hearst was a mere mortal and not quite the Devil, it turns out; he died in 1951, clutching the ideological pursestrings of his papers almost to the last day.

Hearst may be having the last laugh from down below, though; 800,000 visitors tour San Simeon every year, courtesy of the State of California, and what do they learn? That it’s cool to be superrich. Hearst might have been obsessive and excessive, they see, but he had the big dough and got to build his own palace and have great parties with movie stars. The historical exhibits furnished by the state say barely a critical word about him. He was just a Great Man. Blinded by the Roman Pool, warmed by the baroque guesthouses (if a bit chilled by that Gothic dining room), we are being taught not to mind the rich, not to ask where the money came from, charmed out of any potential outrage. No snakes, toadies or fascists here.

Meanwhile, the Hearst Corporation lives on without its master or his voice, enriching his heirs by $450 million a year in 1998. Bertelsmann, Simon & Schuster, Time Warner–we know about these other megapublishers and discuss their power over the culture industry. But Hearst, too, still holds formidable monopoly power: It owns a dozen newspapers, twenty-six television stations and sells more monthly magazines than anyone else in the world. The hated man has become an It, and we have no one left to hate.

I think it matters deeply, in the end, that we hang on to and nurture our sense of outrage at Hearst and at his more impersonal, corporatized ilk today. Nasaw’s intriguing study is a must-read, as it details myriad nuances of Hearst’s persona, brings scholarly balance to the half-truths and illuminates the corrupting confluence of media imperialism and infotainment. It also helps us see why all those people hated Hearst. But to feel the hate ourselves and fully grasp quite how influential he was, we still need to go back to W.A. Swanberg’s 1961 classic Citizen Hearst, full of poetic judgment; or, still better, to the seething Popular Front biographies from the thirties by Ferdinand Lundberg, and Oliver Carlson and Ernest Bates.

“It is impossible to believe that any person literate enough to read Mr. Lundberg’s pages can come to any other verdict than that of ostracism and oblivion for Hearst,” wrote the historian Charles Beard in 1936. On the Devil Question Beard knew which side he was on: “This is not to say that Hearst possesses no virtues. Nero and Caligula had virtues.”