The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst

by David Nasaw

The Chief Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his biography The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, David Nasaw grapples with one of the most enigmatic personalities in American history. Infamous in the early decades of the twentieth century as the father of “yellow journalism,” as an aspiring but ultimately frustrated politician, and as the lord and master of a grandiose palace in San Simeon, California, William Randolph Hearst both crafted and figured in headlines for more than fifty years. Hearst self-consciously made himself a legend in his own time. As a pioneering press magnate, he had the means to do so. No one reading a Hearst publication could escape his editorial omnipresence. A Hearst paper was a Hearst paper in voice and perspective, not just in name. Revered by some and hated by many, Hearst received an ironic apotheosis in Orson Welles’s classic muckraking film Citizen Kane (1941). Ever since, Americans have had a difficult time disentangling the true story of Hearst from the fictional saga of Charles Foster Kane.

Even without the assistance of Welles’s cinematic genius, Hearst would have lived on in the American imagination. His name, like those of contemporary robber barons such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan, remains familiar, enthroned in the corporate and civic landscape. There still is a Hearst Corporation, though it is better known for its magazines than its newspapers; in addition, the Hearst empire expanded into television, radio, and the Internet. In a moment of great symbolic import, the Hearst Corporation in 1999 bought out the Pulitzer Publishing Company’s television and radio holdings. This was a belated postscript to the old and celebrated newspaper rivalry between Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

The collective memory of Hearst tends to the lurid. Hearst is remembered as the original “yellow journalist,” the man who popularized (but also cheapened) journalism by attracting readers through an incessant flow of editorial promotions and gimmicks. He is indelibly associated with the Spanish-American War, which he is believed to have helped foment through a relentless barrage of blood-curdling stories about Spanish rule in Cuba. His papers specialized in exposés of the rich and powerful, and in populist crusades for causes ranging from cheap streetcar rates in the 1890’s to anticommunism in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Extravagant in his personal life, Hearst ransacked the world for treasures with which to adorn San Simeon and his other homes. He defied convention by living openly with a string of mistresses. Despite his imperial style, Hearst wielded unprecedented influence over American public opinion. Never before had anyone controlled such a media colossus comprising newspapers, magazines, and radio stations that reached millions of Americans. The media are much more concentrated than they were in Hearst’s time. However, in an era of giant media conglomerates, no one person seems to hold the power once enjoyed by Hearst. Though an architect of the contemporary world, Hearst is now a refreshingly old-fashioned figure.

In telling the story of his extraordinary subject, David Nasaw benefited from access to recently opened archives of material on Hearst. Earlier biographers had to rely on printed reminiscences and monographs, as well as a vast lode of anecdotes. Nasaw was able to pore over a huge mass of telegrams, memoranda, letters, and even transcripts of telephone calls, in addition to the imposing array of editorials, interviews, and speeches that Hearst published during his life. Nasaw made good use of this wealth of material—he produced a rich and engrossing biography. His work should stand as the definitive study of Hearst for years to come.

Nasaw is an able and experienced historian, and he does not fall into the trap of writing beyond his sources. Hearst’s life, with its combustible mixture of glory, scandal, and excess, invites sensational treatment. By playing up sin and sex, Nasaw could have sold more copies of his book. He chose instead to exercise admirable restraint in chronicling Hearst’s tumultuous career. His narrative is straightforward. He does not obscure Hearst’s flaws or ignore his virtues. Nasaw also eschews facile psychologizing. He modestly avoids an attempt to plumb Hearst’s soul. He also makes no effort to contort Hearst’s character into the shape of a pet theory. Instead, Nasaw respects the essential integrity of his...

(The entire section is 1813 words.)