Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2577

Article abstract: By a paradoxical combination of sensationalism, support for reform, and innovative design, Hearst changed the fashion in which American newspapers reported and influenced the news. He made essential contributions to journalism but clouded these contributions when reporting the news fell second to advancing his own interests.

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Early Life

William Randolph Hearst was the only son of George and Phoebe Apperson Hearst and grew up enjoying his mother’s total devotion and his father’s considerable wealth. Although personally shy, young Hearst had a passion for outlandish pranks; both the shyness and the desire for public sensation were traits he retained throughout his life. Other characteristics were his imperious desire to have his way in all things immediately, a nature that seemed both sentimental and cynical, and a passion for collecting.

George Hearst had come to California during the 1849 gold rush. Enjoying a combination of geologic skill and innate good fortune, he discovered or was a partner in some of the largest mines in the nation, including the Comstock Load (silver) in Colorado and the Anaconda (copper) in Wyoming. From these would flow wealth that seemed inexhaustible—until William Randolph Hearst began to spend it.

George Hearst’s enterprises grew to include vast land holdings in California and Mexico; almost his entire attention was on mining, and later, politics; he left young William entirely to his doting mother. Eventually, George Hearst realized his ambition with his election as United States Senator from California. To further his political career, he also acquired a small, struggling newspaper in San Francisco, the Examiner.

Young Hearst was given an extensive, if incomplete, education. He was sent east to a boy’s school but was asked to leave after two years, probably because of a prank. In 1882, he entered Harvard but was expelled during his junior year for sending his professors silver chamber pots, with their names engraved inside. For a while, he drifted through various jobs, including a stint with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

Hearst was a tall man—six feet, two inches—and his large frame carried his weight with grace and agility; he was an excellent dancer and often surprised friends and associates with vaudeville steps during conferences or conversations. His eyes were gray, and he had the disconcerting habit of staring unblinkingly. His voice was surprisingly high-pitched and soft; he had himself carefully coached in speaking during his long political career.

Life’s Work

As a young man, William Randolph Hearst declined a position with any of his father’s mining or ranching operations. In 1887, after several requests, he was given control of the San Francisco Examiner, and he immediately began to spend money and attention on the paper. He initiated a series of promotional efforts, joining articles advocating serious reform with those that were wildly sensational. He launched an attack on the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad, the first of many battles he would have with big business and monopolies. Hearst’s efforts on behalf of municipal ownership of utilities and other services began with the Examiner; in San Francisco, they earned for him the title of “Socialist” among the well-to-do, but circulation of the Examiner soared. Hearst would continue this same basic pattern with his newspapers for the remainder of his long career.

In 1891, George Hearst died, leaving all of his money to his widow. Phoebe Hearst would frequently complain about her son’s spending, but she continued to provide him with funds. In 1895, she gave him $7.5 million; this was to finance Hearst’s attack on New York journalism.

At that time, the New York World was the predominant newspaper in the nation’s largest city. Purchased by Joseph Pulitzer in 1883, the World used sensational techniques: blaring headlines, promotional stunts, and popular crusades had established its large circulation and consolidated its power. The World was Hearst’s target.

His paper, the Journal, lagged far behind. Always impatient, Hearst wanted a huge circulation immediately and was prepared to pay for it. He increased the paper’s size, dropped its price, and splashed even larger and more startling headlines on the front page. He began raiding Pulitzer’s staff, attracting them with the lure of higher salaries; at one point, he hired away the entire staff of the Sunday World. Pulitzer won them back with a raise, but Hearst topped that offer the next day. This time the staff stayed bought.

Hearst and Pulitzer battled it out daily. The Journal coaxed the artist of a popular comic strip, “The Yellow Kid,” into leaving the World. Pulitzer immediately hired a new artist and continued to run the feature, and so “yellow journalism” was born. Aspects of the practice included a reliance on sensational stories, chiefly involving crime, sex, and political corruption; the growth of comics, pictures, and features at the expense of hard news; crusades for the good of the public, especially against big business; and countless gimmicks, such as contests, fireworks displays, and giveaways.

The most blatant form of yellow journalism was the hysteria the two newspapers whipped up over Cuba. Then a Spanish possession, Cuba had been struggling for independence for years. In 1897, Hearst turned his interest to the revolt, and the Journal carried stories about Spanish atrocities and Cuban heroics. The Hearst papers also attacked the United States government in general, and President McKinley in particular, for not taking action. One article by the satirist Ambrose Bierce went so far that it seemed to encourage McKinley’s assassination. The main target of the Journal, however, was the Spanish presence in Cuba; in effect, Hearst personally had declared war on Spain. He admitted as much when the artist Frederick Remington, sent to Cuba to sketch the revolt, asked to return because the island was quiet. The reply came quickly: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

The destruction of the United States battleship Maine in Havana harbor led to the Spanish-American War long sought by Hearst. At the same time, the circulation of the Journal rose to more than one million daily. Clearly, yellow journalism had its results.

One result was increased political power for William Randolph Hearst. With the Journal the strongest Democratic Party paper in New York, Hearst easily won election to the House of Representatives in 1902. Already he had his eye fixed on the supreme prize, the White House; his newspaper empire expanded, providing him with a power base for the campaign. By 1903, he had seven papers in major cities across the country.

In 1903, he married Millicent Willson, a chorus girl. She was twenty-two, Hearst was forty. Eventually there would be five sons born to the Hearsts. Despite this fact, Hearst’s detractors, and there were always many, said that the marriage was designed primarily to improve his political image.

His career did advance with furious intensity. In 1904, he was only a first-term congressman, but he mounted a determined effort to win the Democratic presidential nomination. His campaign was surprisingly strong, and the obvious power of his newspapers impressed regulars in the Democratic Party. Still, while they needed the support of the Hearst press, they feared losing control of the party to the publisher, who had clearly shown that he could never be satisfied with less than total dominance. In addition, Hearst had already displayed his lifelong tendency first to embrace, then to denounce politicians.

Hearst easily won reelection to the House in 1904, but the next year, he launched a drive for the office of mayor of New York City. He had fallen out with the powerful Tammany machine and, characteristically, challenged it head-on. Hearst came within three thousand votes of winning the election, and there is strong evidence that he would have won an honest contest. In 1906, Hearst was a candidate once again, this time for the office of governor of New York. Once again, the powerful Hearst press and a liberal platform gave considerable momentum to his candidacy. At the last moment, President Theodore Roosevelt came out against Hearst, reminding voters of the violent attacks against President McKinley before his assassination: Hearst lost.

Hearst would be an official candidate only one more time, in 1909, when he again ran for mayor of New York. His political career, however, was far from finished; it simply moved behind the scenes. The Hearst papers supported a bewildering variety of candidates: Republicans, Democrats, independents, and third-party nominees. Typically, Hearst would support a candidate, then repudiate the man once he was in office for not following the Hearst line. Doubtless, Hearst believed that he could have done the better job had he been chosen by the voters. Until the 1930’s, Hearst retained considerable political influence, especially within the Democratic Party. He was pushed aside, however, when he lost a bitter struggle with New York governor Al Smith. Hearst had his revenge in 1932, when he helped swing the Democratic nomination to Franklin Roosevelt; characteristically, he later became one of Roosevelt’s most implacable opponents.

The Hearst newspaper empire became one of the largest in the world. At its height, it had twenty-six daily papers, fifteen Sunday papers, seven magazines in the United States and two more in England; all this made Hearst the single largest user of paper in the world. He branched out into radio stations, news services, and newsreels; he also attempted to become a motion-picture mogul.

Part of the reason for his interest in film was Marion Davies (born Douras), an actress whom he met in 1915. At the time, she was eighteen and Hearst was fifty-one. Although Hearst and his wife were never divorced (despite his repeated attempts to do so), Hearst and Marion Davies remained inseparable for the remainder of his long life. He attempted to fashion a brilliant cinema career for her, spending millions on her motion pictures and promoting those films in his many newspapers. While Davies was talented, she was never the star Hearst believed she should be—another example of Hearst wanting something immediately and believing he could grasp it through his money and influence.

Hearst was a fanatic and eclectic collector of art. He spent millions upon paintings, statuary, furniture, and decorations, which remained crated in warehouses, and some of which Hearst himself never saw. He bought an entire medieval Spanish cloister and had it shipped to the United States; it remained in a Bronx warehouse. Other treasures included paintings by the old masters, antique furniture, and entire rooms from Renaissance manor houses. The setting for much of this treasure was the palatial estate of San Simeon, begun in 1919 and never finished. Hearst’s massive California castle was a highly personal combination of styles and periods, a baroque mingling that accurately reflected the complicated personality of its owner.

That personality and Hearst’s accomplishments were the inspiration for the 1941 film Citizen Kane, which marked Orson Welles’s Hollywood debut. A brilliant collaborative effort, Citizen Kane was a thinly veiled but acutely accurate portrait of Hearst and marked a milestone in American film. Although critically acclaimed, the film was a commercial failure, in part because of pressure from the Hearst papers, including a total advertising ban.

Hearst’s empire was weakened by his massive purchases, his lavish expenditures on Davies’ pictures, and his newspaper promotional schemes. The onslaught of the Great Depression forced a crisis; unthinkable as it was, Hearst and his corporations were on the verge of bankruptcy. Removed from direct financial control, Hearst watched in agony as stringent economy measures were taken: Radio stations were sold; production of feature films was halted; salaries were cut and employees were fired; worst of all, newspapers were consolidated or closed, including the New York American, Hearst’s flagship paper. The drastic efforts, joined, ironically enough, with federal spending ordered by President Roosevelt, helped save the Hearst corporations. By 1945, Hearst had maneuvered himself back into control.

His operations were still massive by any standards. At his death, Hearst was in command of sixteen urban newspapers, with a total circulation topping five million. His King Features, which included the most popular comic strips in the world, had fifty-two million readers. There were still the magazines, the International News Service, the radio and television stations.

Hearst attempted to continue guiding his far-flung enterprises himself, but time had caught up with him. Weakened by age and illness, he was forced to leave his beloved San Simeon, still unfinished. He died on August 14, 1951, in Beverly Hills, California.

Summary

Hearst is best known as a journalist, but he was more interested in promoting causes than in presenting the news. His papers were a strange mixture of ideas and sensationalism. In many ways, he was more of a publicist and showman than a newspaperman.

His crusades could be noble: He fought for municipal ownership of utilities long before that concept was popular; he supported the rights of workers when labor unions were not yet powerful; and he opposed American entry into World War I, even though it brought him infamy as a pro-German “traitor.”

On the other hand, his papers could preach cheap sentiment and sometimes violent hatred. He was a primary cause of the Spanish-American War; his papers attacked politicians with a vehemence that went beyond public issues and into their private lives; as he grew older, he turned against organized labor and the liberal causes of his youth. Above all, the Hearst press was notorious for its love of sensation and disregard for fact.

Hearst was a paradox, an enigma. Although he literally bought many of his staff from other papers, most of them remained loyal to him throughout their careers. Personally, he was a kind, shy man, capable of great generosity; publicly, he inspired mistrust, dislike, and downright hatred. Indisputably, he was one of the greatest press lords in history, but whether for good or ill is a question that continues to be debated.

Bibliography

Carlson, Oliver, and Ernest Sutherland Bates. Hearst, Lord of San Simeon. New York: Viking Press, 1936. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970. Didactic psychological approach to Hearst, portraying all of his activities as the result of acute megalomania and lifelong immaturity. Distinctly unfavorable to its subject.

Chaney, Lindsay, and Michael Ciepley. The Hearsts: Family and Empire. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981. Brief but helpful summary of life and career of William Randolph Hearst; major concentration is on the fortunes of the Hearst family business dealings since the death of the founder.

Coblentz, Edmond D., ed. Newsmen Speak: Journalists on Their Craft. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954. Contains several illuminating passages from Hearst on what journalists do and how newspapers should be run. One memorable line: “I think promotion is absolutely essential to success.”

Hearst, William Randolph. William Randolph Hearst: A Portrait in His Own Words. Edited by Edmond D. Coblentz. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952. A collection of Hearst’s writings on various topics, personal and public, brought together by one of his chief lieutenants and editor of the New York American.

Swanberg, W. A. Citizen Hearst. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961. Still the best biography of Hearst, a well-researched, in-depth, and generally fair presentation of a difficult, enigmatic character. Strong on information from Hearst’s contemporaries.

Swanberg, W. A. Pulitzer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967. Several good chapters on the relationship between Hearst and Pulitzer and their influence on each other. Especially interesting for the circulation war between the World and the Morning Journal.

Tebbell, John. The Life and Good Times of William Randolph Hearst. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1952. Brisk general biography of Hearst.

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