William Randolph Hearst (April 29, 1863-August 14, 1951) was one of America's wealthiest and most powerful newspaper publishers who used his empire to crusade mostly for progressive causes, a consummate politician who held White House aspirations, an extravagant spender who built one of the United States’ most fabled homes, and the inspiration for a film classic.
Born on April 29, 1863, Hearst was the only son from the marriage of George Hearst, a self-made California multimillionaire and later U.S. Senator, and Phoebe Apperson, a Missouri schoolteacher. Hearst's childhood was not solely that of privilege. As his father's fortune rose and sunk, he was alternately the child from a mansion on the hill or the boy confined to public school because his father had gone broke. However, during his late teenage years, Hearst's father's fortune became vast and stable on the footings of a successful mining venture and Hearst joined the sons of privilege at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, and then Harvard University.
While at Harvard, Hearst became interested in journalism, particularly after his father acquired the San Francisco Examiner, a failing Democratic paper. With the encouragement of his father, Hearst became the editor-in-waiting and undertook a careful study of New York newspapers, in particular Joseph Pulitzer's innovative and vastly successful World. Of less interest to Hearst were his academic studies and so, at Harvard's choice, he left the university without completing his degree and returned to San Francisco to assume the helm of the newspaper in the spring of 1887. He immediately imported all of Pulitzer's techniques and gave his paper a national scope by arranging for the exclusive use of New York Herald articles via cable. Hearst's efforts paid off in substantial circulation increases but at a tremendous financial cost to the family's fortune. The paper probably did not become financially remunerative for many years, but it gave the young Hearst a reputation of journalistic success that was noted in New York's Park Row.
As Pulitzer had done when leaving St. Louis for New York, Hearst left San Francisco in 1895 and dove into New York journalism by buying a failing newspaper, the New York Journal. In one of those odd twists of history, the paper had once been a financially successful enterprise launched by Albert Pulitzer, brother of Joseph. Since its sale to other investors, however, it had fallen on hard times. In a few short months, the thirty-two-year old Hearst enlisted flamboyant advertising techniques, lured away from Pulitzer many of his best editors with promises of high salaries, paid unheard of fees to famous writers, including Richard Harding Davis and Stephen Crane, and dropped the price of the paper to a penny. The circulation shot up from 20,000 to 150,000 and, although still a long way from the World's circulation, the Journal had all the makings of overtaking it. Pulitzer was befuddled by this young imitator who now threatened his franchise in exactly the same manner Pulitzer had when first encountering the stodgy world of New York newspapers a dozen years earlier. Having grown complacent at the reigns of the money-churning World, Pulitzer became locked in a battle for survival against an adversary who seemed to have unrestricted access to his family's fortune though his widowed mother.
The competition between the two reached its apex in the late 1890s during one of the most notorious epochs of American journalism. The competition grew so frenetic that each paper abandoned restraint and published stories so extreme, so “newsworthy,” and so outrageous that they were not to be believed. Often they were not. The excesses gave birth to the term “Yellow Journalism” drawn from popular color comics featuring Yellow Kids published by the two newspapers.
An insurrection against Spanish rule in Cuba became the proxy for the journalism war between the World and the Journal. Each paper outdid each other in stunts and inflammatory coverage fanning the call for war to assist the Cubans. When the U.S.S. Maine mysteriously blew up in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, killing more than 250 American sailors, Hearst's Journal urged the nation to avenge the murder of the Americans, transported members of Congress to Cuba on Hearst's private yacht, and spared no expense to publish an additional six to eight pages a day of articles, interviews, maps, illustrations, and cartoons on the Cuban crisis.
By the time war was declared by the United States in late April, the competition between the Journal and the World had grown into a twenty-four-hour a day affair. This gave rise to the creation of the “Lobster Trick,” the nickname for a shift of reporters and editors who came to work at 1:00 a.m. to start producing the almost hourly editions of the evening newspapers. Pulitzer could not out “Yellow” Hearst nor match his spending. The Journal and its evening edition reached a daily circulation of a million copies and Hearst became a national figure.
His actual power in instigating the war has been exaggerated and the most famous tale of Hearst's telegram to Frederic Remington telegram—”You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war”—has likely been proven apocryphal. Nonetheless, Hearst used his fame and his newspaper to begin a career in politics that lead first to his election to the House of Representatives in 1902 and a string of vain efforts at higher office that included New York City Mayor, New York governor, and even the Democratic presidential nomination. Though he would not attain other political office than his two terms in the House, Hearst remained an influential force in politics. Candidates for all sorts of offices kowtowed to the publisher.
Hearst's political future and financial life were threatened by his virulent opposition to the U.S. entry into World War I. The Wilson administration tried to gather information to prove disloyalty or even treason. The government investigative heat caused editors and reporters to quit and his public vilification—the New York Times, for instance, referred to him as the “spokesman for the Kaiser”—wiped out profits and endangered both his newspaper empire and his public life.
In the 1920s, with the war and the controversy behind him, the growth of the Hearst media empire was on the march again and he was undoubtedly the most famous newspaper publisher in the United States and certainly the most powerful. He owned twenty newspapers in thirteen cities. One out of four families read a Hearst newspaper and countless others read Hearst-produced features and columns syndicated to local papers. Though he teetered near financial collapse from his overextension, a bond issue, heavily promoted by his newspapers, and his eventual inheritance of the family fortune, following his mother's death, staved off disaster. In time Hearst vast newspaper empire, his movie studio, and his very successful magazine division that included Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan became immensely profitable.
Hearst lived on a scale whose lavishness was news making. He owned a castle in Wales and built his own on a 240,000-acre ranch at San Simeon, California. With more than 165 rooms, the Hearst Castle was filled with great art treasures and crowded with movie stars, writers, and other glitterati. (It is today a state park.) Hearst became involved in an affair with film actress Marion Davies, popular in great measure because she was a creation of Hearst newspapers, magazines, and movies. As the two became increasingly open about their relationship, Hearst's wife Millicent Veronica Willson, a former chorus girl, retreated to New York and built an independent life of philanthropy.
In 1932, Hearst played a key role in securing Franklin Roosevelt's 1932 presidential nomination after initially opposing him. Following the election, Hearst became an opponent of both FDR and the New Deal, renouncing decades of strong support for Progressive causes. The 1930s also brought a new financial crisis to Hearst's publishing empire. This time the government prohibited another round of bond sales to readers. A court ordered reorganization triggered the sale of many newspapers, closed his Hollywood studios, and even forced the humiliating sale of many of his treasured antiques and art works.
As World War II approached, the economy's recovery from the Depression helped restore financial health to the company. Hearst, however, advised against entering the war but used his papers to support the war effort after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. After the war, Hearst's last editorial campaign was as a strong anti-Communist.
Ironically, Hearst, who was one the first newspaper publishers to recognize the importance of motion pictures, was immortalized in mythical fashion in a now-classic film by Orson Welles. Citizen Kane, which is biographical in spirit but not fact, so shaped the public's perception of the publishing magnate that one of Hearst's biographers called his book Citizen Hearst. Hearst tried vainly to stop the release of the film.
Hearst died on August 14, 1951, in Beverly Hills, California, leaving in trust for his family the Hearst Corporation whose restored financial health made it one of the five largest privately held companies at the end of the twentieth century.
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