Willliam Randolph Hearst
Willliam Randolph Hearst; drawing by David Levine

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.

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.”

This Issue

August 10, 2000