William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) was the American publisher, editor, and proprietor—for almost half a century—of the most extensive journalistic empire ever assembled by one man.
On April 29, 1863, William Randolph Hearst was born in San Francisco. He received the best education that his coarse-grained, multimillionaire father and his refined, schoolteacher mother (more than 20 years her husband's junior) could buy: private tutors, private schools, grand tours of Europe, and Harvard College. Hearst inherited his father's ambition and energy, but neither his father's fortune nor need to make his own way in the world. George Hearst had amassed millions in mining properties, which he left, not to his son but to his wife—who compensated for his crass unfaithfulness by wantonly spoiling their only offspring.
Young Hearst's journalistic career began in 1887, 2 years after he was expelled from Harvard. "I want the San Francisco Examiner," he wrote his father, who owned the newspaper and granted the request. The Daily Examiner became young Hearst's laboratory, where he indulged a talent for making fake news and faking real news in such a way as to create maximum public shock. From the outset he obtained top talent by paying top prices. Ambrose Bierce, at the peak of his fame, became Hearst's first star performer.
Building a Journalistic Empire
But to get an all-star cast and an audience of millions, Hearst had to move his headquarters to New York City in 1895, 4 years after his father's death. By this time his mother had liquidated $7,500,000 of her husband's mining properties and turned over the proceeds to her son, who immediately purchased the decrepit New York Morning Journal. Within a year Hearst ran up the circulation from 77,000 to over a million by spending enough money to beat the aging Joseph Pulitzer's World at its own sensationalist game. Sometimes Hearst hired away the World's more aggressive executives and reporters; sometimes he outbid all competitors in the open market, as when he got Richard Harding Davis to report and Frederick Remington to illustrate the ongoing Spanish-American War.
The Journal had got its start by raiding the World of its talents and its readers. Next, to Arthur Brisbane's portentous front-page column entitled "Today," and to black-and-white daily comic strips and colored Sunday supplements, Hearst added frenetic reporting of sports, crime, sex, scandal, and human-interest stories. "A Hearst newspaper is like a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut," said Hearst writer Arthur James Pegler. Hearst's slam-bang showmanship attracted new readers and nonreaders, but on no one did the Journal cast so potent a spell as on its master of ceremonies.
During the last 5 years of the 19th century Hearst set his pattern for the first half of the 20th. The Journal supported the Democratic party, yet Hearst opposed the free-silver campaign of Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896. In 1898 Hearst backed the Spanish-American War, which Bryan and the Democrats opposed. Further, Hearst's wealth cut him off from the troubled masses to whom his newspapers appealed. He could not grasp the rudimentary problems raised by the issues of free silver and the war with Spain. Thus, for 5 years Hearst stood in the mainstream of the history of his time and did not even get his feet wet.
Having shaken up San Francisco with the Examiner and New York with the Journal, Hearst established the Chicago American in 1900, the Chicago Examiner in 1902, and the Boston American and the Los Angeles Examiner in 1904. These acquisitions marked more than an extension of Hearst's journalistic empire, they reflected his sweeping decision to seek the U.S. presidency. However, he had chosen the wrong path to the wrong goal at the wrong time. To begin with, journalism and politics rarely mix; each is a full-time occupation. Furthermore, Hearst never even qualified as a great journalist. At most he was a showman whose very flair for a certain type of metropolitan journalism did him more harm than good in national politics. Finally, he had little preparation and less aptitude to win success in either field in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of 20th-century America. The contrasts between his towering presence and his close-set eyes, his courtly manner, and his high-pitched voice did not present the typical image of a successful politician.
In 1902 and 1904 Hearst won election to the House of Representatives as a New York Tammany Democrat. But his journalistic activities and his $2 million presidential campaign left him little time to speak, vote, or answer roll calls in Congress. His absenteeism disgusted his colleagues and dismayed his constituents. Nevertheless, he found time to run as an independent candidate for mayor of New York in 1905 and, in 1906, as Democratic candidate for governor. His loss in both elections ended Hearst's political career.
The 45 years of anticlimax that followed gave ample scope to those defects of character, inheritance, and environment which a perverse fate had bequeathed Hearst. In 1903, the day before his fortieth birthday, he married 21-year-old Millicent Willson, a show girl with whom he had been smitten for several years, giving up Tessie Powers, a waitress he had supported since his Harvard days. The Hearsts had five boys, but in 1917 Hearst fell in love with another show girl, 20-year-old Marion Davies of the Ziegfeld Follies. He maintained a liaison with her that ended only at his death. He spent millions on her career as a movie actress, backing such sentimental slush as When Knighthood Was in Flower and Little Old New York, while ignoring her real talents as a comedienne.
When Hearst's mother died in 1919, he came into his patrimony and took up permanent residence on his father's 168,000-acre San Simeon Ranch in southern California. There he spent $37 million on a private castle. He put $50 million into New York City real estate and another $50 million into his art collection—the largest ever assembled by a single individual.
During the 1920s one American in every four read a Hearst newspaper. Hearst owned 20 daily and 11 Sunday papers in 13 cities, the King Features syndication service, the International News Service, the American Weekly (a syndicated Sunday supplement), International News Reel, and six magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and Harper's Bazaar.
Yet, for all his getting and spending, Hearst had few powers to lay waste and none to hoard. Originally a progressive Democrat, he had no truck with the Republican expressionists—Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root—who supported the Spanish-American War, which Hearst claimed he had made but which actually had made his Journal. Hearst then fought every reform Democratic leader from Bryan to Franklin Roosevelt; he opposed American participation in both world wars.
In 1927 the Hearst newspapers printed unchecked, forged documents charging that the Mexican government had paid several U.S. senators more than $1 million to support a Central American plot to wage war against the United States. (Ironically, this fiasco led President Calvin Coolidge to appoint Dwight Morrow as ambassador to Mexico, thereby launching a new era in U.S.-Latin American relations.) From this scandal the Hearst press suffered not at all. Nothing was lost save honor, and that had gone long since.
In the next 10 years, however, Hearst's funds and the empire suddenly ran out. In 1937 the two corporations that controlled the empire found themselves $126 million in debt. Hearst had to turn them over to a seven-member conservation committee, which managed to stave off bankruptcy only at the expense of much of Hearst's private fortune and all of his public powers as a newspaper lord. He died on Aug. 14, 1951.
Some of Hearst's biographers have stressed his split personality—as if that differentiated him from the rest of mankind. The word "nihilist" provides a more precise clue. Not that Hearst's nihilism incorporated any of the revolutionary passion that impelled the Bolshevik Lenin or the destructive passion that impelled the Nazi Hitler. Hearst's nihilism had no more substance than Hearst himself possessed. In fact, no notable of his time left so faint an imprint on its sands.
Further Reading on William Randolph Hearst
Edmund D. Coblentz, ed., William Randolph Hearst: A Portrait in His Own Words (1952), is a compilation of Hearst's public and private documents. Judicious interpretations of Hearst's life are Oliver Carlson and Ernest Sutherland Bates, Hearst: Lord of San Simeon (1936); John William Tebbel's sympathetic The Life and Good Times of William Randolph Hearst (1952); and William A. Swanberg, Citizen Hearst (1961). Ferdinand Lundberg, Imperial Hearst: A Social Biography (1936), is a scathing attack. See also John K. Winkler, William Randolph Hearst: A New Appraisal (1955).