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A Boy’s Life

Being the colossus of journalism was not enough, though; he wanted to be president. This is puzzling, for he was temperamentally unfit for elective politics and disliked politicians, who in turn disliked and, more importantly, distrusted him.

He was hankering for the White House when he and Teddy, who also had the itch, competed for glory in Cuba. The two were born to be enemies, and their mutual hatred was the stuff of trashy fiction. Each had been popular at Harvard, but in different ways. Hearst’s popularity owed a lot to the lavish way he spent money to entertain. The good Harvard clubs accepted him, but this did not qualify him for admission to fancy Boston society where Teddy was at ease. Teddy was old money; Hearst was new money of the rawest kind.

Was he sensitive to being slightly déclassé? Since Nasaw is not a psychoanalyzer we are free to guess for ourselves. Most of Hearst’s classmates would have come from what society editors used to call “good” families, meaning that the source of their wealth had been long forgotten. Harvard in those days was the home office of “good” families. The Hearsts were not a “good” family, and by Harvard standards the source of their money was not a pretty sight.

George Hearst was a Missouri farmer who went to California in the gold rush and ended up with big stakes in Anaconda, the Ophir Mine, and the Comstock Lode. These made him rich enough to buy a seat in the United States Senate. Nasaw describes a formidable figure: “uncouth, loud, and semiliterate, seldom changed his shirtfront, wore his beard long, bushy, and ragged at the edges, spit tobacco juice, liked nothing better for dinner than what he called hog and hominy, and had not seen the inside of a church in decades.”

After hitting it big, George had gone back to Missouri, married Phoebe Apperson, a former schoolteacher half his age, and begat a son. For the next twenty years he made himself scarce after setting up wife and child in elegant style on a San Francisco hilltop. George loved them but loved mining more, and mining was a business that kept a man far from home most of the time. Or so he explained.

Phoebe dominated the boy’s life. She was not going to raise a hog-and-hominy man. She would polish him, educate him, make him a gentleman, and see him married to a suitable wife. While spoiling him she was also tyrannizing him, conditioning him to fear her in a subdued respectable way. She had what it took to make him see things her way even into his middle age, for her husband’s will had left the entire Hearst estate to her, nothing to young Will. Hearst was fifty-six years old before Phoebe’s death finally made him financially independent. By then she had used the money weapon to end his engagement to an aspiring actress and to drive away the mistress he had kept for ten years and loved deeply.

Phoebe could make him go to Harvard, but she couldn’t make him study. Books bored him. (If in his entire lifetime Hearst read a single book that influenced his thinking, Nasaw doesn’t mention it.) He liked to throw parties and enjoyed the usual campus hell-raising. After three years of good times and rotten grades Harvard asked him to leave and not come back.

What Phoebe produced was a big shy mama’s boy capable of deep and lasting love for women but uneasy with men. From men he wanted loyalty, deference, respect, obedience. He wanted colleagues to call him “the Chief.” They did and he made some of them very rich. When it came to men, he didn’t make friends, he acquired retinues. This was not a natural candidate for the presidency.

The gregarious Teddy was. “It is impossible to measure the depths of his loathing for Roosevelt,” says Nasaw. He thought Teddy “a charlatan” and “preening aristocrat.” Just before Teddy’s Cuba adventures, Hearst’s New York Journal had attacked him for wearing elegant haberdashery—pink shirts and a tasseled silk sash instead of a vest. When Cuba made the hero of San Juan Hill the Republican candidate for governor of New York, Hearst’s cartoonists and writers produced constant ridicule and abuse. “The Theodore Roosevelt that was, was a humbug,” said a typical editorial. “The Theodore Roosevelt that is, is a prideless office-seeker.”

Teddy, who always seemed to come out on top, won anyhow and eventually went on to be president. From the White House he avenged himself with gusto. Hearst, he told an English editor, not for attribution of course, was “the most potent single influence for evil” in American life. Then, when Hearst himself ran for governor of New York, Teddy did him in.

Basically, he accused Hearst of being complicit in the 1901 assassination of President McKinley. Before the assassination Hearst had attacked McKinley with such savage abuse that some people said he had inspired the assassin to kill. Now in 1906 with Hearst running for governor of New York, Roosevelt struck. Being president, Roosevelt could hardly do such a nasty piece of work himself, so he wrapped Secretary of State Elihu Root in presidential authority and sent him to address a New York political rally.

I say to you, with the President’s authority,” Root began, “that he regards Mr. Hearst to be wholly unfit to be Governor.” Then, after touching up Hearst as “an insincere, self-seeking demagogue,” Root became serious:

In President Roosevelt’s first message to Congress, in speaking of the assassin of McKinley, he spoke of him as inflamed “by the reckless utterances of those who, on the stump and in the public press, appeal to the dark and evil spirits of malice and greed, envy and sullen hatred.” …I say, by the President’s authority, that in penning these words, with the horror of President McKinley’s murder fresh before him, he had Mr. Hearst specifically in mind. And I say, by the President’s authority, that what he thought of Mr. Hearst then he thinks of Mr. Hearst now.

Teddy’s blow came just four days before the election, leaving Hearst no time to recover. He lost the governorship by 60,000 votes out of a total 1.5 million cast.

Roosevelt was only one of many who yearned to put the boot into Hearst. He had a gift for making enemies. Al Smith despised him so thoroughly that in 1922 he virtually read him out of the Democratic party. In 1904 when Hearst campaigned as a Bryan populist, The New York Times, a voice of hard-money Democrats, called him a rabble-rouser standing “for absolutely nothing but the arraying of class against class.”

New York’s Evening Post, normally the voice of calm decorum, declared that if Hearst ran for president, “gutters would be dragged” and “sewers laid open,” then went fortissimo:

An agitator we can endure; an honest radical we can respect; a fanatic we can tolerate; but a low voluptuary trying to sting his jaded senses to a fresh thrill by turning from private to public corruption is a new horror in American politics.

Even people who supported him politically were uneasy about him. Lincoln Steffens, seeking to understand why, interviewed Hearst when he ran for governor. Here was America’s “number one radical” running for an office but “one step away from the White House,” yet he was a mystery. Why “plutocrats” detested him was obvious, wrote Steffens. If Hearst did what he said he would do, “it means that this child of the privileged class will really try to abolish privilege in the United States!”

But why was he disliked even by those who agreed with his progressive policies? Steffens concluded that it was because he was not really a democrat, but an aspiring dictator. Hearst, he wrote, used money “as a substitute for persuasion, charm, humor, pleadings…. He does not work with; he does not support…the other leaders of reform. He does not know who they are. Mr. Hearst is not a part of the general reform movement; he simply has a movement of his own. This isn’t democratic, that is plutocratic; autocratic. Mr. Hearst is a boss.”

Did Hearst really have any firmly held political ideas beyond the no-tion that the country needed a man it could call “the Chief”? In youth he adopted Bryan’s populism. This made him a radical in the sound-money culture of the eastern business world, but it also did wonders for newspaper circulation among the struggling left-of-center urban masses with no love for bankers. As the years passed he followed the well-beaten path from reformer to fogey commonly taken by Americans as age wrings the juice out of them. Hearst, the forty-year-old rabble-rouser, agitator, radical, and fanatic—not to mention voluptuary—spent his seventies raging at FDR, cursing taxes, and hounding Reds.
The great enemy of his old age—how history loves its little jokes—was another Roosevelt. Like Hearst, FDR was also a rich, spoiled mama’s boy, also a Democrat as reform-minded as Hearst had been in the old days. If Hearst had had a scintilla of political instinct he would have realized that 1935 was no year to go to battle with Roosevelt. In the end his fury at FDR hastened his empire into bankruptcy.

What sent him around the bend was a soak-the-rich tax plan being prepared by Roosevelt. As one of the inevitable soakees, Hearst, already a dedicated Red-hunter, attacked FDR as the American Marx. The tax plan, he advised his main editorial writer, was “a bastard product of Communism and demagogic democracy, a mongrel creation which might accurately be called demo-communism, evolved by a composite personality which might be labeled Stalin Delano Roosevelt.”

This inevitably alienated his papers’ traditional working-class readership, which loved FDR. The Depression was already shrinking Hearst’s newspaper revenues. Now Roosevelt supporters on the left organized a dangerously effective boycott. Nasaw is especially good on details of the bankruptcy and the unavailing efforts of Hearst’s old friend Joseph P. Kennedy to persuade him to cut costs, pare his holdings, and restructure his companies. Kennedy was still well connected at the White House at this time, and soon even FDR was sending business advice through a Hearst colleague: “I advise him to get rid of his poorest papers, to print more news, not to print so many features, keep just the good ones, and to kill his editorial page.” It was too late; the till was empty; the banks took charge. Although Hearst was allowed to keep editorial control of his papers, his salary was cut, dividend payments on his preferred stock were canceled, and—the ultimate degradation—he was ordered to pay rent and costs of upkeep if he stayed at San Simeon.

Besides contributing to the business catastrophe, the boycott by the end of the 1930s had made Hearst’s name synonymous with right-wing reaction, and, for some, fascism. Nasaw obviously thinks Hearst has been painted too deep-dyed a villain over the past sixty years. He had his nasty moments, Nasaw seems to be saying, and they are not to be overlooked, but he also had his splendid moments. He made important contributions to progressive reform before he choked on the New Deal. On his contributions to journalism Nasaw quotes H.L. Mencken, writing in 1927 when Hearst had started drifting rightward:

[Hearst] shook up old bones, and gave the blush of life to pale cheeks. The American newspapers, for a generation before [his] advent, had been going down hill steadily…. The American mob was rapidly becoming literate, but they were making no rational effort to reach it. Here Hearst showed the way…. He did not try to lift up the mob, like Pulitzer; he boldly leaped down to its level. Was the ensuing uproar all evil? I doubt it. Hearst not only vastly augmented the enterprise of the whole American press; he also forced it into some understanding of the rights and aspirations of the common man.

Nasaw credits him with an important political contribution. In Hearst’s fight against FDR, he writes, “he set the terms for the counter-progressive ideological assault that would enter—and, at times, dominate—the nation’s political discourse from the mid-1930s onward.”

Hearst was an impudent boy wonder of twenty-three when he took over the San Francisco Examiner in the 1880s and started tormenting Joseph Pulitzer. Orson Welles, another impudent boy wonder, was twenty-five when he resolved in 1940 to have some sport with Hearst. By then Hearst was in his seventies, an age not readily charmed by the antic impudence of boy wonderhood. He was unamused by Citizen Kane, a movie with which Welles and his screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz obviously expected to torment him. Did Hearst personally order the famous campaign to suppress Kane? Nasaw finds no fingerprints, but the zeal with which Hearst’s employees and powerful Hollywood colleagues worked to kill it might make even Inspector Clouseau suspicious.

Hearst could hardly have been flattered by seeing himself turned into “Charles Foster Kane,” but the movie’s representation of the women in his life must have seemed vile and insupportable. For all his faults, Hearst was a devoted lover of women, and he deeply respected those he loved. In the movie’s “maliciously false portraits” of them, writes Nasaw,

Kane’s mother is pathologically cold and unloving; his wife is an anti-Semite and social snob; his mistress is mindless, untalented, a drunk who becomes a shrill harpie, possessed of one of the screen’s most gratingly annoying voices.

The portrait of Hearst himself is relatively warm, made so by the natural buoyancy and joie de vivre of Welles himself, who played the role. Pauline Kael’s essay on the film sees Charles Foster Kane as a well-worn Hollywood cliché, the spiritually empty rich man whose millions “can buy everything except what counts—love.” Thus the great man’s mistress—in real life she was Marion Davies—is cartooned as “a silly, ordinary nothing of a girl, as if everything in his life were synthetic, his passion vacuous, and the object of it a cipher.”

Nasaw’s Hearst has little in common with Welles’s Kane:
> Both were powerful; both were enormously wealthy; both had big houses and big egos. But Welles’s Kane is a cartoon-like caricature of a man who is hollowed out on the inside, forlorn, defeated, solitary because he cannot command the total obedience, loyalty, devotion, and love of those around him. Hearst, to the contrary, never regarded himself as a failure, never recognized defeat, never stopped loving Marion [Davies] or his wife. He did not, at the end of his life, run away from the world to entomb himself in a vast, gloomy art-choked hermitage.

Citizen Kane was a box-office failure in 1941, but not necessarily because of the campaign to suppress it. Nasaw observes quite correctly that it was simply not a movie to fetch the mass audience in 1941. It was dark and experimental; there was no boy-meets-and-gets-girl, no chase, no triumph by virtue, no happy ending.

Hearst’s love life was far more interesting than Kane’s. His first mistress has no counterpart in Citizen Kane. She was Tessie Powers, a waitress from Cambridge. They met while he was at Harvard, and their relationship lasted more than ten years. When he went west to take over the Examiner he took Tessie with him, and they lived together in Sausalito. She went with him to Europe. A ten-year relationship suggests genuine devotion, but Phoebe did not intend to have a waitress for her daughter-in-law. Because no amount of frowning seemed to convey the message to her son, she finally exercised the power of the purse. She confronted Tessie and perhaps, though Nasaw thinks it unlikely, even threatened her with jail unless she left California. More likely, he suggests, she bought Tessie out with a pleasant sum of money. Hearst was crushed.

When he went back east to take over the New York Journal he lived a raffish nocturnal life and became a well-known stage-door Johnny along Broadway. In the late 1890s, he met Millicent Willson, a sixteen-year-old chorus girl from Brooklyn, married her when she was twenty-one, and had five sons by her. They remained married until his death, although Marion Davies became the great love of the last half of his life.

Phoebe Hearst hated his marriage. A chorus girl! He was now forty years old, however, a bit long in the tooth for bullying by Mother, and he had just been elected to Congress—the only elective office he ever held. Sound politics required him to marry Millicent or leave her. Nasaw thinks she was “the perfect companion for him. She was a stunning-looking woman, rather tall, with unblemished pale skin, dark hair, and piercingly dark eyes. She was also devoted to Hearst and having been with him for five years now, knew him as well as anyone else.”

Marion Davies appeared in 1915. Millicent was thirty-five, Hearst was fifty-two, and Marion was eighteen, another showgirl. He first saw her in a new Irving Berlin musical. It is unclear how long the affair had run before Millicent finally intervened in 1925. Millicent was now a formidable woman, mother of five sons, and a figure in New York society. She and Hearst agreed that divorce would be ruinous for him, bad for their sons, and financially unsound for her. They stayed married and on good terms, and Millicent continued to live on a grand scale.

Marion Davies soon became the subject of gossip throughout the land. Hearst bankrolled efforts to make her a Hollywood star. Movie people agreed she had talent, especially for comedy, but Hearst couldn’t bear to let her look foolish on the screen. This spoiled any chance of her becoming a “screwball comedy” star of the 1930s like Carole Lombard. When he faced bankruptcy she gave him her money, jewels, and real estate, to help him keep his newspapers.

The two were to be lovers for thirty-six years, never to marry, living their final years together, he tottering and frail, she struggling with alcohol, but the two of them still in love as only long-married old people can be. When he died Millicent came for the funeral, and Marion stayed away.

In her essay on Citizen Kane, Pauline Kael observes that what really happened in Hearst’s love life was a better story than Welles and Man-kiewicz put on film: Hearst “took a beautiful, warm-hearted girl and made her the best-known kept woman in America and the butt of an infinity of dirty jokes, and he did it out of love and the blindness of love.”

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