William Randolph Hearst, American Moguls 7”x7”, acrylic on paper, 2022, Mark Wyatt McGinnis
William Randolph Hearst
News is what people don’t want you to print. Everything else is ads.
William’s father, George, was of Scotch-Irish descent and a farmer in Missouri. In the middle of the 19th century, he caught the California gold rush fever and headed west. He had some knowledge of estimating the amount of metal in ore, which put him ahead of many of the “49’ers.” He bought a rich mine in Nevada and soon had a small fortune. At 40, George returned to Missouri to look for a wife and found Phoebe, a school teacher. He established her in a large house with servants in San Fransisco and headed back to his mines, where he would spend most of his time for the next 20 years.
William Randolph Hearst was born in 1863. Phoebe did most of the childrearing, and she doted on William; he was a spoiled, mischievous boy. She took him on tours of Europe, where William became enamored with collecting things. George’s fortunes went up and down until he invested in some hugely profitable mines in Utah, Idaho, Montana, and the famous Homestake mine in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He became enormously rich.
In 1882, William began his studies at Harvard, although not much studying was done. He lived in a suite of rooms that Phoebe had decorated. He kept a valet, maid, pet alligator (Champagne Charlie), and a mistress, Tessie, in Cambridge. William established his standing at Harvard by giving lavish, alcohol-soaked parties. He had a very large allowance from Phoebe but always asked for more. Hearst became the business manager for the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine, expanding its advertising and circulation and making it a self-sufficient publication. Finally, in his Junior year, he was expelled from Harvard for lack of academic progress and his on-going pranks, one of which was giving his professors chamber pots with their names and photos on the interior.
His father George had been expanding his investments into real estate, including buying 40,000 acres in central California and a 240,000-acre ranch in Mexico. He also started eyeing a political future, an interesting choice for a semi-literate, hard-drinking, tobacco-chewing, gambling miner. To further his fortunes in politics, George purchased a newspaper in San Fransisco, The Examiner. William moved back to the bay area, hoping to run the paper. He brought Tessie, his Cambridge mistress, intent on marrying her; he consistently fell in love with his mistresses. Phoebe was enraged at the prospect but gave him the paper anyway. With his great wealth, George succeeded in his political goals and became a U.S. Senator.
In 1887, William Randolph Hearst, WRH, settled in a luxurious villa across the bay from San Francisco and made his daily commute to the paper in his 50-foot, early motor boat. He set out to transform The Examiner with a furious intensity. William hired Harvard friends, stole the best staff from other papers, expanded national and international news, featured sensational, lurid, and violent crime articles, sought out scandals, used his father’s political power to increase advertising, improved design and layout, and hired the best illustrators. At 24, he was a successful publisher, ready to use whatever ruthless and scheming approaches he felt were needed. The Examiner was staunchly Democratic, featuring sensational articles on corruption in politics and business. The paper was pro-labor, anti-capitalist, and also anti-Asian immigration.
George’s lifetime of heavy drinking took its toll, and he died in 1891. He wisely left his entire fortune to Phoebe, and she would control the flow to William. First, she forced William to give up his mistress, and then she bought him the New York Morning Journal. Hearst was ridiculed in NYC as a rich boy with a new toy. He would prove them wrong. WRH transformed the paper with the same intensity he had The Examiner in San Fransisco, making it a Democratic paper for the working class and again hiring away the best staff from other newspapers. He produced a 100-page Sunday edition that featured fiction, humor, sex, and a large color-comics section. Hearst was, for the most part, an authoritarian but good boss, even-tempered and praising of quality work. Hearst reveled in the wild nightlife of NYC and soon had two favored chorus girls, the sisters Anita 18, and Millicent 16. They were seen, one on each of his arms, moving from club to club and show to show.
He did everything he could to promote war with Spain in his newspapers. Hearst even called it “his war.” When war did break out, he leased a refitted steamer and took staff, friends, cooks, maids, and his chorus girls to Cuba and the war. His reports that came back to the states were great successes. Near the war’s end, Hearst’s pleasure steamer picked up 21 shipped-wrecked Spanish soldiers who were delighted to surrender. This adventure and his new popularity made him think about going into politics as his father had, only with his eyes set on the White House.
Hearst’s papers, with now a third paper in Chicago, fought for public ownership of services and utilities and against the city bosses, and he did so with some success. WRH believed his papers should be activists, not idle observers. He vehemently fought for Democrats and viciously condemned Republicans, including William McKinley, who was assassinated shortly after winning the Presidency. Because of his demonization of McKinley, Hearst was considered by many as responsible for the President’s death. In what he saw as his first step in a political career, Hearst was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1902. He gave a huge fireworks display to celebrate his victory; an enormous, accidental explosion left 12 spectators dead. He retreated to California leaving his lawyers to sort out the disaster.
Hearst decided he wanted to marry the youngest of his two chorus girls, Millicent, now 21. Phoebe was furious, but this time he went ahead with the marriage. He was 40, a member of Congress, a married man, and he did settle down a bit. In 1903 the first of their five sons was born. WRH bought two more newspapers, one in Los Angles and one in Boston. He missed 168 of 170 roll calls in Congress but was still elected to a second term. He kept his eye on the Presidency but had no luck working his way there. He was defeated twice for mayor of NYC and once for governor of New York state. Even with his wealth, he was no match for the political or city machines.
His frequent tours of Europe were primarily collecting trips where he spent vast amounts of money. The media mogul bought more newspapers and magazines and began making newsreels, serials, and cartoons for movie theaters. In 1916 took on another mistress, the chorus girl Marion Davies, 18.
In 1919, Phoebe died on Easter Sunday. It was a massive blow to the entire family, as she had done the most to raise his five sons. William inherited the rest of George’s estate, about $125 million in today’s money. Hearst was determined to make Marion a motion picture star and started his own movie company, Cosmopolitan Productions. Eventually, Millicent became aware of Marion and withdrew from William but did not ask for a divorce. Throughout the rest of his life, Hearst provided very generously for Millicent and his sons. He tried to stay involved in his son’s lives, and they took after their father in one way, none graduated from higher education.
WRH decided to build a mansion (castle), San Simeon, on the vast piece of central California land his father had bought and he now owned. It was to be of a fantastic scale and home for his collections. He selected a location overlooking the Pacific that was isolated and nearly impossible to build on and access. The problems were enormous, expensive, and never-ending, but nothing stopped him. Railroad cars of art were shipped to California from his NYC storage buildings.
In the 1920s, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon had the tax on the rich reduced from 77% to 24%, a windfall of stupendous proportions for Hearst. He bought more newspapers, more for his collections, more of everything, borrowing more money when he ran out of his own. Marion was the toast of Hollywood giving lavish parties almost nightly with all the great stars of the silent era attending. WRH built Marion a $7 million beach house with 110 rooms and 55 bathrooms. At Hearst’s birthday party, there were 2,000 guests. Hearst also built a lavish beach house for Millicent. He acquired new mansions in NYC, Long Island, and a 13th-century castle, St. Donat’s, in England. At San Simeon, WRH amassed the largest private zoo in the world. He had the castle in a never-ending chain of renovations, changes, and expansions. He kept a steady stream of Marion’s movies being produced, good and bad, and parties, parties, parties. He had strict rules for his parties; no profanity or dirty jokes, no drunkenness, and no fornication of unmarried couples. These rules seem a bit hypocritical in light of his and Marion’s relationship and Marion being an ardent alcoholic. But if guests violated the rules, they might find their bags packed, and a car was waiting for them.
The Great Depression gradually worked through Hearst’s empire, and by the late 1930s, he was near bankruptcy, owing $140 million. A trustee was appointed to take over the empire leaving Hearst with only editorial control of his publications. He was given a fixed income and had to rent San Simeon. Construction stopped on all his projects. Much of his collections began a two-year liquidation. The collections included medieval armor, tapestries, furniture, pottery, gold and silverware, glassware, stained glass, jewelry, precious stones, rugs, drawings, paintings, sculpture, autographs, manuscripts, and first editions — some good quality, and some not so good.
When Hearst turned 75, Marion quit making films and lived with him as a full-time companion. He and Marion had over 70 dachshunds at San Simeon. They had their favorites who slept, ate, and drove with them. When Marion’s favorite, Gandhi, had to be put down, she went wild with grief and became deathly ill. Later, when Hearst’s favorite died, his reaction was nearly as strong.
The boy-genius writer and actor Orson Welles decided to make a very thinly veiled film about WRH titled “Citizen Kane.” It was a mean caricature of Hearst with little understanding of his life and an even more vicious depiction of Marion. Hearst refused to sue as he felt it would bring more attention to the film, but his friends did everything they could to stop the movie from being shown but failed. When released in 1941, critics hailed it as the greatest film ever made. As a work of art, it was brilliant and would be resurrected and praised by the great European directors of the 1960s. But it was not well received at the box office. Its extreme noir and non-linear timeline were too much for the filmgoers of the time; by the end of 1942, “Citizen Kane” was out of circulation.
At 82, Hearst’s finances had finally improved, and he was back in control of his money. WRH did not retire but worked daily with his private secretary, dealing with over thirty issues every morning. Over time his health declined and he died in 1951 at the age of 88. He had set up separate trusts for Millicent, his sons, and Marion. Millicent and the sons attacked Marion’s trust with a vengeance and eventually convinced her to relinquish some of her shares in the company. The Hearst Corporation thrives to this day, and the family wealth is $21 billion.
David Nasaw, in his definitive biography of Hearst, “The Chief,” wrote, “William Randolph Hearst was a huge man with a tiny voice; a shy man who was most comfortable in crowds; a war hawk in Cuba and Mexico but a pacifist in Europe; an autocratic boss who could not fire people; a devoted husband who lived with his mistress …” Contradictions were the shape of Hearst’s life. His empire, at its height, had 26 newspapers and a strong presence in all other media of the day, and he maintained editorial control over all of it. If someone had told him that news needed to be unbiased and balanced, he would have smiled or laughed out loud. For Hearst, the news was opinion and tool to be used sometimes as a hammer and sometimes a feathery breeze that is barely noticed. In his private life, which was in no way private, he spent more money than some Saudi princes; he loved his family and mistresses but often had other priorities; he lived in excess as if there were no other options. William Randolph Hearst wove his strengths and weaknesses into the fabric of the United States.