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A Boy’s Life

From Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt to Steven Spielberg and Bill Clinton the evidence is overwhelming: the adult American male’s dream of paradise is eternal boyhood. David Nasaw’s Hearst is a sublime example. Nasaw presents him at age ten in London asking his mother to buy him the royal family’s carriage horses and in his seventies throwing costume parties for movie stars—Gary Cooper coming as Dr. Fu Manchu, Groucho Marx as Rex the Wonder Horse, Hearst presiding as cowboy gunslinger, Tyrolean peasant, circus ringmaster. In the years between ten and seventy-five he builds himself a castle on 60,000 acres and furnishes it with a private zoo, tries to start some wars, cruises Europe like a king on a royal progress chatting up the mighty and buying any and all treasures that catch his fancy. He hires Winston Churchill, puts both Mussolini and Hitler on his payroll, runs for president.

Not since Tahara, Boy King of the Yucatan has a book so delighted my inner boy. There is much more. How about a good war story? In this one, war has been declared against the Spanish in Cuba, and Will wants to be there, see the action, scoop his newspaper rivals with on-the-scene stuff. (Only his mother and very close pals call him Will, of course, but, aesthetically, it’s the only possible name in this episode.) His rival Teddy (Roosevelt, that is) has already beaten him to Cuba, bringing along his very own personal cavalry—cowboys, naturally—and is looking for a hill to charge.

Lacking cavalry, Will rents a steamship, loads it with printing presses, ice, medical supplies, cooks, stewards, and “food fit for a king.” Also correspondents, illustrators, editors, telegraphers, and two showgirls he’s been escorting around New York for the past year or so. Ashore, he and his warrior journalists blunder into enemy gunfire which wounds one of his correspondents. “I’m sorry you’re hurt,” Will tells his bleeding colleague, “but wasn’t it a splendid fight? We must beat every paper in the world.” And leaving his fallen pal to medics on the beach, off he sails for Jamaica to file an exclusive eyewitness story. What fun!

Joy, alas, is ever but an instant away from despair in the boyish heart, and the war is scarcely ended before Will realizes that Teddy has whipped him in the struggle for glory. “I made the mistake of my life in not raising the cowboy regiment I had in mind before Roosevelt raised his,” Will writes his mother. “I really believe I brought on the war but I failed to score in the war.”

Cuba has made Teddy a national hero; he has been drafted to run for governor of New York. That happens to be a job Will wants, as well as the presidency of the United States. “I had my chance and failed to grab it,” he tells his mother, “and I suppose I must sit on the fence now and watch the procession go by…. I’m a failure…. Outside of the grief it would give you I had better be in a Santiago trench than where I am…. Goodnight, Mama dear. Take care of yourself. Don’t let me lose you. I wish you were here tonight. I feel about eight years old—and very blue.”

Did Hearst truly believe, as he writes here, that he had “brought on” the Spanish-American War of 1898? The popular notion was that he had, but Nasaw thinks this absurd. The United States would have declared war “even had William Randolph Hearst never gone into publishing,” he argues. Americans were itching for an empire, and decrepit Spain’s was ripe for the plucking. If Americans really believed Hearst had given them this chance to strut in battle, while picking up the Philippines as a bonus, it merely proved he was a “genius as a self-promoter,” says Nasaw. He also doubts that Hearst ever issued the famous command to Frederick Remington: “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” The only record he finds of such an exchange appears in the autobiography of a Hearst colleague written in 1901. Hearst himself, in a letter to the Times of London in 1907, said the notion that he was responsible for the war was “clotted nonsense.”

Still he had tried hard enough to start a war. War would be a good story, good for business, a chance for a young man with get-up-and-go to do great things, make a reputation for himself. And have some fun too. The situation in Cuba had all the elements Hearst’s New York Journal loved. “Here,” writes Nasaw, “was raw material for tales of corruption more horrific than any yet told. The villains were lecherous and bloodthirsty Spanish officials and army officers; the victims, innocent Cuban women and children; the heroes, crusading Journal reporters and their publisher.” The very proper Spanish General Valeriano Weyler became “Butcher” Weyler, who, if the Journal‘s “credible witnesses” could be believed, killed all his prisoners on the spot, not sparing helpless hospital patients. These, said an editorial, were “the methods of the Turkish savages in Armenia.” Only “a righteous crusade” could drive them out of the hemisphere.

And so on. Almost all of it was baloney, but what a lovely story it made, so long as nobody sent a real reporter, a mistake Hearst made in 1897 by hiring Richard Harding Davis. Davis never found an army in the field, heard a shot fired, or saw a guerrilla warrior. He was disgusted. “All Hearst wants is my name and I will give him that only if it will be signed to a different sort of a story from those they have been printing,” he wrote home. He never did find any fighting.

It won’t do to explain Hearst solely as an exuberant juvenile. That would make for a coherent explanation, and for Hearst there is no coherent explanation. He cast a giant shadow, but his life had no theme. For a biographer he is like a six-ring circus: all spectacle and no plot. Watch the lion tamer and you miss the clowns; look up and see acrobats fly through space, look down and see women dancing on the backs of galloping horses. Thus with Hearst. It is not a life, it is an extravaganza.

Now he is a newspaper publisher, now a movie producer, now a lover of women, now a left-wing radical, now a right-wing reactionary, stage-door Johnny, Red hunter, compulsive buyer of things, things, things. Though going into bankruptcy, he splurges the modern equivalent of $5 million on antiques, art, and real estate. “I’m afraid I’m like a dipsomaniac with a bottle,” he tells a colleague. “They keep sending me these catalogs and I can’t resist them.”

Nasaw had access to a storehouse (literally) of previously unpublished documents, and there is a great deal here that was not available when W.A. Swanberg wrote his Citizen Hearst forty years ago. This includes correspondence with his parents and with twentieth-century world leaders, many of whom wrote for Hearst’s papers. This material—tons of it by Nasaw’s estimate—has been stored for decades in a Bronx warehouse and a Hearst Corporation building at San Simeon. A lot in the new documents will be valuable to scholars, and wire traffic between Hearst and his editors will be especially interesting to journalists.

Here, for example, is a priceless piece of comedy in which Hitler and Mussolini show how to get under Hearst’s skin. Both wrote for him in the early 1930s, and each was an editor’s nightmare. Hearst’s editorial manager, Vanneman Ranck, was at the point of contact with the pair, and his wire messages to Hearst reveal a man near the boiling point. He reports constant trouble with Mussolini: “ponderous” prose, dull subject matter, copy constantly late.

Then—what’s this! Mussolini’s latest piece disagrees with Hearst’s view on the European war debt. Hearst is furious. This gives Ranck a chance to argue for dropping Il Duce from the payroll. Unless reined in, he cautions, Mussolini will try to “make us take any old pot-boiling topic that he pleases at any time at twelve hundred dollars per article. Not only has Mussolini been endeavoring to work off some very uninteresting subjects but in spite of all our admonitions has been providing some of them so late as to miss our [deadlines].” Hearst agrees that it’s time to crack down: “Have noted that Mussolini has been less interesting of late…. There is no reason why we should take and pay for dull stuff.” But Mussolini hangs on.

When Hitler goes on the payroll he is still a minor player in German politics and is worth only a small fee. As he turns into Der Führer he demands better pay. Then we enter Chaplin territory with Ranck wiring Hearst that Hitler won’t write a piece Hearst wants “unless we willing pay him as much as pay Mussolini. Frankly do not believe he is worth as much as Mussolini. Do you? What would you think of Goering?” Soon Herman Goering has replaced Hitler as Hearst’s inside expert in Germany and turns out to be a shameless chiseler, forever trying to squeeze “the Chief” for more money.

It is Hearst as newspaperman who matters today. He pioneered in the intermingling of news and entertainment for the mass market, which is to say, modern media. Nasaw says he was also the first “to understand that the communications media were potentially more powerful than the parties and their politicians.” Perhaps, but if he really understood it, why did he try so hard to promote himself into political office? Would Rupert Murdoch want to fritter away his time being president of the United States?

At the height of his power Hearst owned twenty-six daily newspapers in eighteen cities. Between the gaslight age and World War II he was the colossus of American journalism. Unlike the boardroom finaglers who run our modern “media” conglomerates, he was a highly skilled newspaperman who could edit a paper, cover a story, and write an eloquent editorial. He had learned all this by doing. At Harvard he showed no interest in learning anything, but after being expelled he threw himself into intense study of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and went home to San Francisco at the age of twenty-three to apply Pulitzer’s ideas to the moribund Examiner. The Examiner was a gift from his father, who cared nothing for journalism and apparently thought young Will wasn’t up to much more than running a failing newspaper. He had a genius for selling newspapers. He swiftly turned around the Examiner and headed east to take charge of the New York Journal and go head-to-head against Pulitzer’s World for the yellow-journalism championship.

Hearst believed talent was more vital to success than the quarterly earnings report and paid big money to fill his papers with it. Enthralled by the high quality of Joseph Pulitzer’s staff, he simply offered the best of them huge salaries and hired them for himself. He was innovative and inventive. His first columnist was Ambrose Bierce. He invented the “sob sister.” He gave America the Katzenjammer Kids, Maggie and Jiggs, and Flash Gordon in beautifully printed color. He established his own newswire service and created new magazines. With the advent of the movie camera, he flooded theaters with newsreels. He kept daily watch on his papers across the country, sending instructions on how to play the news, phoning editors in the night with new orders, keeping everyone forever reminded that “the Chief” was in charge and “the Chief” never slept.

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