The American publishing executive Randolph A. Hearst (1915–2000) shepherded his family's newspaper publishing business into the electronic age in the later 20th century, earning credit for shrewd business decisions that transformed the aging Hearst newspaper empire. Hearst remains best known, however, for his role in the events following the 1974 kidnapping of his daughter, Patricia Hearst, placing him in a public role to which he was unaccustomed.
Said to be a billionaire at birth, Randolph A. Hearst was born in New York City on December 2, 1915. His father, William Randolph Hearst, used a family mining fortune to build Hearst Communications, a chain of politically conservative newspapers oriented toward sensationalism and so-called yellow journalism. As film buffs will explain, the elder Hearst was satirized in 1941 in the critically acclaimed motion picture Citizen Kane by actor/ director Orson Welles. Hearst's mother, Millicent, was a former theatrical dancer with some altruistic ambitions: she established a free milk fund for children during Hearst's childhood.
Hearst was a twin: he and his brother David were the youngest children in the family. He attended the Lawrenceville School, a New Jersey prep school, and then matriculated at Harvard University. He did not graduate from Harvard, however, but instead took a job with one of his family's papers, the Atlanta Georgian. There he met his future wife, Catherine Wood Campbell; the couple married in 1938 and had five daughters.
Hearst then moved west to California, where his family owned several papers, and took a job as a cub reporter with the San Francisco Call-Bulletin. His newspaper career was interrupted by World War II: enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Force, he served as a flight instructor in the Air Transport Command and rose to the rank of captain before his discharge. Once back in civilian clothes, he returned to California and worked for the Hearst-owned Call-Bulletin and Oakland Post-Enquirer, rising to higher-level positions until he was named publisher of the Call-Bulletin in 1950. From the beginning of his career, it was clear that his talents lay more in management than in journalism.
In 1951 William Randolph Hearst died. His will, instead of distributing the assets of the Hearst corporation among his children, endowed a 13-member board that left its five Hearst family members in the minority. Hearst's older brother, William Randolph Hearst Jr., was oriented toward journalism and often clashed with the company's new management team, but Randolph Hearst signed on to the task of remaking a company whose operations had become bloated. By the late 1950s the Hearst firm was losing millions of dollars each year. Hearst, noted Rupert Cornwell of the London Independent, “was self-effacing and unusually ready to listen for one born to such privilege and power.”
What he heard from the company's new directors was that the news and communications business was changing. No longer did large city newspapers wield near-total control over how Americans received the news and evaluated its impact in their own lives. Magazine publishing, formerly dominated by a handful of major outlets such as Life and the Saturday Evening Post, was growing rapidly, with specialty publications emerging to serve numerous niche interests. The medium of television, in its infancy as Hearst began his publishing career, was also poised for a period of explosive growth.
Hearst oversaw the pruning of unprofitable newspaper properties and other money-losing operations, and Hearst Communications began to turn around financially. He also oversaw the expansion of the company's holdings into fields beyond communications, such as real estate and timber operations that manufactured paper for Hearst publications. Despite the proportional disadvantage under which he and his siblings worked, his influence within the company grew, and in 1965 he was named chairman of the corporation's executive committee. In 1973 Hearst became the company's chairman of the board, rising to the top of the corporate hierarchy in the company his father had founded. The company by that time had assets of some $4.5 billion.
Quiet in personality and disinclined to seek the limelight, Hearst and his wife appeared only occasionally in the social pages of the San Francisco Examiner, the Hearst chain's flagship newspaper; otherwise, his name rarely appeared in the news. That changed dramatically on February 4, 1974, when Hearst's daughter, Patricia, a student at the University of California at Berkeley, was kidnapped by a group of leftist extremists calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and thrown, unconscious, into the trunk of a car. The Examiner, in printing news of Patricia's engagement, had listed the street address of her Berkeley apartment.
Led by Donald DeFreeze, who used the names Cinque Mtume and Field Marshal Cinque, the SLA demanded that Randolph Hearst begin a program of free food distribution to San Francisco's poor. Hearst, who appeared daily before a phalanx of journalists and television cameras, remained composed as he delivered updates on negotiations with the SLA. He never employed a media spokesperson, handling all communications with the press and the SLA himself. He complied with the SLA's initial demands, agreeing to the formation of an agency that distributed food to people in need. Eventually 90,000 bags of food were given out, but Patty Hearst was not released.
Instead, things took a turn for the worse when Patty Hearst was identified in closed-circuit-television camera footage as a participant in the armed robbery of a Hibernia bank branch in San Francisco. The SLA delivered a tape to the Examiner in which she said that she had joined the robbery willingly, calling herself “Tania” and denouncing her parents as fascist pigs. For more than a year, Patty Hearst and the SLA eluded police investigators, using a series of safe houses the organization had secured. On September 18, 1975, she was arrested, and the following year she was put on trial and sentenced to seven years in prison after prosecutors argued that her participation in the robbery and in later SLA crimes had been purely voluntary.
Throughout the trial, as described in the New York Times, Hearst and his wife sat “in her courtroom …, sad and serious in their blacks and navy blues, two people who have retreated from the gay social life they once led, into recurring states of isolation and fear, even anger and bitterness.” Hearst refused to react angrily to his daughter's invective, instead expressing a willingness to try to understand what she was experiencing. He was instrumental in persuading U.S. President Jimmy Carter to commute Patty's sentence in 1979, after she had served 22 months in prison. She married police officer Bernard Shaw that same year, and the couple eventually had two children.
The kidnapping and trial affected Hearst deeply, and colleague Larry Kramer was quoted in the London Guardian as saying that he was “never the same afterward.” His 44-year marriage ended in divorce in 1982, and his second marriage, to Maria Cynthia Scruggs, was also dissolved, in 1986. In 1987, Hearst's Bay Area home was destroyed by a lightning strike; no one was at home or injured as a result. That year, he married Veronica de Uribe, with whom he remained for the rest of his life.
The changes in Hearst's life after his daughter's kidnapping extended beyond the personal realm. He took a new interest in philanthropy, becoming the director of the William Randolph Hearst Foundation that disbursed grants running into the millions of dollars for early-childhood education, school computers, and educational research. He also served on the board of the National Council of Christians and Jews and of several charities and held advisory roles with New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art. When he took the occasional break, he enjoyed trout fishing in the vicinity of a family estate called Wyntoon, near Lake Shasta in northern California.
Hearst remained Hearst Communications’ chairman of the board until 1996, also serving as president and editor of the Examiner. By that time he was William Randolph Hearst's only surviving son, and his personal fortune was estimated at $1.8 billion. During the late 1990s he placed 150th on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 wealthiest individuals in the United States. Company holdings had been streamlined down to 12 newspapers, including the Examiner, which was sold off shortly after he died. They also included 16 magazines and 27 television stations, with annual sales of $4.4 billion.
Sometime in 2000, Hearst purchased an oceanfront mansion in Manlapan, Florida, near Palm Beach, that had belonged to the Vanderbilt family, paying $30 million for more than 29,000 square feet of living space. He had little time to enjoy his new Florida home, however; he died of a stroke in New York City on December 18, 2000.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), January 1, 2001.
Guardian (London, England), December 20, 2000, Godfrey Hodgson, “U.S. Tycoon Sobered by His Daughter's Kidnap,” p. 20
Independent (London, England), December 20, 2000, p. 6.
New York Times, February 26, 1987; December 19, 2000, Felicity Barringer, “Randolph A. Hearst,” p. C1.
Vanity Fair, November 10, 2008, Vicky Ward, “The Mansion Trap.”❑