Saturday, April 29, 2006


"I have never known a person to throw wealth around in such a dégagé manner as did Hearst. Rockefeller felt the moral burden of it, Pierpont Morgan was imbued with the power of it, but Hearst spent millions nonchalantly as though it were weekly pocket money." -- Charlie Chaplin.

In the half-century since his death, William Randolph Hearst has become almost indistinguishable in the public memory from "Charles Foster Kane," the protagonist of Orson Welles' classic film Citizen Kane (1941). Kane was based on Hearst, but Kane was a cartoon -- a wondrous and compelling cartoon, but a cartoon nonetheless. Hearst himself was one of the great showmen of the century, much more shrewd and self-conscious than Welles' monstrous child-man, a P.T. Barnum who found his outlet in newspapers, media and politics (the latter being only a stone's throw from Tom Thumb and the Cardiff giant, after all).

Born on this day in 1863 in San Francisco, the son of mining magnate George Hearst (who later became a U.S. senator), William Randolph Hearst attended Harvard where he concentrated on improving the financial condition of the Lampoon (Harvard's satirical rag); he was suspended for staging a too-boisterous celebration of President Cleveland's victory in 1884, and thrown out for a practical joke involving the delivery of chamber pots to professors.

After an apprenticeship with Joseph Pulitzer, Hearst persuaded his father to give him control of a Democratic newspaper which the elder Hearst operated at a loss, the San Francisco Examiner. Here Hearst employed the turn-around tactics which would mark his publishing style throughout his career: he paid high prices for writing and administrative talent, and spared no opportunity for getting attention, valuing cheap emotional appeal (even faking the news in the service of his slant) over balance and accuracy. In his hands, the Examiner became the leading paper in San Francisco, making a profit despite high overhead.

It was a natural next step for Hearst to expand to meet Pulitzer's New York World in head-to-head competition in 1895, raiding the World for its star cartoonist R.F. Outcault (creator of the "Yellow Kid") and continuing his shrill style of "yellow journalism," targeting the vast immigrant masses for his readership with stands against corporate exploitation and a presentation-style best described as "dumbing-down." He capitalized on his success with new newspapers around the country as well as magazines (Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Harper's), and eventually he even entered radio and motion pictures to build the first modern diversified media empire.

It is generally agreed that Hearst precipitated American involvement in the Cuban revolt against Spain by sending correspondents to Cuba to trump up news of Spanish atrocities. When Hearst artist Frederick Remington complained that the situation was quiet, Hearst purportedly answered, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." Due in large part to the pressure brought by Hearst's papers and his gigantic readership (1.25 million copies sold per day in New York alone), Republican president McKinley reluctantly declared war against Spain in April 1898.

Feeling his political oats, Hearst bandied his own name as a possible Democratic vice-presidential nominee with reform-minded principles in 1900, but within a year he was being branded as a traitor. Shortly after the assassination of Kentucky governor William Goebel, Hearst published an editorial by Ambrose Bierce which caustically prophesied that the assassin's bullet was "speeding here to stretch McKinley's bier." After McKinley's own assassination in September 1901, Hearst became a target of hatred for the editorial, and he was burned in effigy around the country. Surprisingly, he survived the incident to be elected to 2 unremarkable terms in Congress from Manhattan, and to make a nearly successful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1904; he was beaten by the nonentity Alton J. Parker, the Democrats perhaps having had an overreaction against Hearst's notoriety. Hearst then nearly beat George McClellan for mayor of New York, and lost the New York governorship to Charles E. Hughes by less than 600,000 votes. He ran for mayor of New York one last time in 1909, placed 3rd, and relegated himself to the role of kingmaker and molder of public opinion.

His mildly pro-German views during World War I, however, were unpopular, and it became increasingly clear that Hearst's ability to start and stop wars single-handedly was no longer what it used to be. He still wielded tremendous influence over public perceptions, however, helping to foment anti-immigrant and increasingly anti-union sentiment throughout the 1920s.

Hearst's private attentions shifted away from New York back to California in 1917 coincident with the beginning of his long-term, open extramarital relationship with actress Marion Davies (despite the fact that he was still married to his wife, a former showgirl), whose career Hearst handled with Svengali-like control and enthusiasm, mobilizing his media resources to make her a star of sorts. With the construction of his elaborate estate at San Simeon (known as "Hearst's Castle"), he and Davies became the reigning hosts to the Hollywood elite, everyone from Chaplin to Pickford to Elinor Glyn to John Gilbert.

He had a hand in securing Franklin Roosevelt's nomination for president in 1932, but turned against Roosevelt as Hearst's own politics became ever-more reactionary and protective of his own millions. His erratic and arbitrary management tactics, along with his liberal personal and corporate spending habits, threatened to destroy his empire, and after pulling back a public bond offering due to charges of private use of company funds, Hearst turned the company over to a receiver in 1937 with the condition that he would maintain some measure of editorial control. Downsizing prepared the Hearst empire for the post-War boom, to the point that by the time Hearst died (on August 14, 1951 in Beverly Hills, California), Hearst managed to regain economic control over the empire and left an estate of $59.5 million. Today, the Hearst Corporation is still a large media conglomerate.

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