"I thought of it, but I decided against it. Because you can crush a man with journalism, and you can't with motion pictures."
- William Randolph Hearst to Douglas Fairbanks in response to a question about why he didn’t consider going into Hollywood.
William Randolph Hearst has reached almost folklore status in United States history. Hearst’s first, and most important, accomplishment was his pioneering of “yellow journalism,” an idea that would make him millions and continues to influence journalism today. The most interesting aspect of Hearst, though, was his outlandish, legendary lifestyle. After becoming one of the richest men in America, he set out to create the Hearst Castle on his famous San Simeon ranch, which was half the size of Rhode Island. No man during his reign over the American people held more power than Hearst; he was an eminent influence in publishing, art, politics, and public opinion in addition to practically commanding Hollywood (although he was never directly connected with it).
William was born on April 29, 1863, to George and Phoebe Hearst in San Francisco, California. His father was a self-made millionaire through various mining and ranching businesses, and had also served time as a Senator of California. As the only son of a staggeringly rich couple, Hearst enjoyed opportunities that very few people in the world have ever had. He would travel all throughout Europe at a young age with his mother Phoebe, where they would visit various museums. Young William gathered ideas of grandeur from his appreciation of art, castles, history, and extravagance in general. At the age of ten, he told his mother that he wanted to buy the Louvre. Phoebe only encouraged such ideas.
After returning from his European adventure, Hearst was enrolled in St. Paul’s Preparatory School in Concord, New Hampshire. Although he did not show much interest in math or science, he excelled the literature and history courses. He was soon accepted into Harvard University, where he would first show signs of journalistic brilliance. Shortly after Hearst became part of the group that was publishing the Harvard Lampoon, he took over the managerial position. Hearst soon convinced his father to let him take over the San Francisco Examiner, which George had acquired as payment for a gambling debt, as a pet project.
Building an Empire
Two years after Hearst took the reins in 1887, the Examiner showed a profit. It was here that he would get his first taste of the power of media. By controlling a newspaper, he also controlled the reputations of everyone in the community. Although the newspaper itself made profits, Hearst most likely earned just as much by accepting bribes. In 1895, he would purchase the New York Morning Journal. Hearst shortened the title to simply the Journal. Within a few years of its purchase, the Journal attained an unprecedented circulation, due in large part to its low price of one cent. This success would allow him to acquire almost two dozen different papers within the next decade.
With an almost unlimited budget, Hearst began to build the most impressive writing cast in the world. The list of figures that, at one time or another, worked for Hearst included Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Julian Hawthorne, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, and Richard Harding Davis. The tycoon’s papers were also the first to introduce color comics, invented by Richard F. Outcault. At his highest point, over 25% of Americans got their news from one of Hearst’s many papers. These papers were certainly the flashiest in the country; nobody else took better advantage of color magazine sections or outrageous headlines.
Hearst soon replaced Joseph Pulitzer as the number one yellow journalist in the country. When there was no news to be found, Hearst would create the news. When Frederic Remington, a Journal reporter, asked for permission to return from Cuba after a fruitless voyage, Hearst replied with his famous saying, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." Many people accused him of conjuring the Spanish-American War in order to stimulate newspaper sales. This claim is not as outrageous as it sounds; if anyone had the power to conjure a war, it was Hearst.
Hearst became the center of controversy and an FBI investigation because of his political views around the turn of the century. As a staunch supporter of William Jennings Bryan, he assailed William McKinley as a drunkard, debaucher, and liar in the presidential election of 1900. After McKinley was elected president, Hearst wrote an editorial that encouraged assassination on the President. Within five months, his dream came true.
During World War I, Hearst attacked the notion of U.S. participation in Europe's problem. He vilified the United Kingdom and called the French cowards. Hearst became an instrumental tool in destroying American participation in the League of Nations after the war. His newspapers served as representatives of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge’s reservations about the League to the public. In doing this Hearst changed history; if it were not for his actions, the government would have most likely approved Wilson’s League. Instead, with the majority of public opinion changed on the subject, the United States would continue its tradition of isolation and lead to the start of World War II. This would be the second war that Hearst would indirectly cause during his life.
Politics and San Simeon
In 1903, Hearst married Millicent Wilson with whom he would have five sons: George, William Randolph Jr., John, and Randolph and David, the twins. This was also the year in which Hearst would be elected to the United States House of Representatives. During his service as a Congressman, which lasted until 1907, the only thing he contributed to the country was the worst attendance record ever, a title he still holds today. In 1905, Hearst came within 3000 votes of becoming the mayor of New York City. The next year, he was defeated by Charles Evans Hughes in the race for governor of New York. His second campaign for mayor was not as successful, and he was defeated again by a much larger majority. After failing to gain the Democratic presidential nomination, Hearst retired from politics.
While Millicent was bedridden due to severe illness, Hearst met Marion Davies, an eighteen year-old showgirl almost thirty-five years younger than him. After meeting him and trying to con him for money, Marion fell in love with Hearst and became recognized as his companion. Marion was a talented young actress and may have made it big if not for Hearst’s meddling. Newspaper headlines were filled with Marion Davies almost daily. The overexposure his stories provided destroyed her chances in Hollywood. He began to produce motion pictures solely in order to give his mistress work. She would later accompany him on San Simeon, his grandiose ranch.
"San Simeon was the place God would have built--if he had the money." This was no understatement; San Simeon and the Hearst Castle were the largest private constructions ever undertaken. The entire estate was a throwback to his ambitions as a youth. His “house” was in actuality a castle, modeled after the ones he had seen as a kid in Europe. Hearst also became the largest private collector of art in the world. At one time, his collection was said to comprise of a full quarter of the world’s great sculptures. San Simeon was also the home of the world’s largest, and private, of course, zoo; it contained two of each animal in existence. The original ranch (the size has been reduced today) comprised almost 300,000 acres, with 18 miles of coastline. The estate is now a California State historical monument.
It was in this paradise that Davies and Hearst would host some of the most distinguished parties in Hollywood history. San Simeon became a sort of “social mecca” for stars. The hosts, largely due to Davies’ increasing feelings of loneliness, threw an innumerable amount of parties in Hearst Castle, many of them costume parties. Davies left the Castle after being struck with Polio, and Hearst would remain there for the majority of the rest of his life.
The Great Depression and the New Deal both dramatically weakened Hearst’s financial position during the 1930’s. Roosevelt, who made an agreement with Hearst that virtually assured his presidency, turned around and stabbed him with harsh taxes. When signing a bill for the heavy taxation of people with incomes over $500,000, Roosevelt remarked, “This one’s for you, Hearst.” In 1941, he was forced to sell a large chunk of his art collection; many of them were never removed from the box in which he shipped them to his warehouses.
At the same time of the Depression, Hearst was fighting another battle. The man he was fighting against was as powerful as any president; he was Orson Welles, the most famous man in Hollywood that hadn’t even made a movie yet. After receiving an advance copy of the script of Citizen Kane, a film allegedly written about Hearst’s life, from one of his lackeys, Hearst set out to destroy the film and Welles himself. The entire endeavor resulted in very little except the ruin of both parties. Welles would not set his foot in Hollywood for a long time and Hearst would go into large amounts of debt and remain locked inside his castle for the rest of his days.
Hearst died on August 14, 1951, at the age of 88. He was interred in the Hearst Family Mausoleum in the Cypress Lawn Cemetery. With his opponent gone, Welles was free once again to work on major motion pictures. Although thousands sighed in relief after fearing the wrath of Hearst and his newspapers for sixty-five years, the world of journalism lost possibly the greatest pioneer it had ever received.
The Battle over Citizen Kane DVD