For much of the first half of the 20th century, William Randolph Hearst was perhaps the dominant voice in the burgeoning world of communication, what has come to be called “the media.” Although he shares credit with Joseph Pulitzer, Adolph Ochs, and a few others for inventing the modern newspaper, Hearst was one of the first to achieve a national audience and to use that position to campaign for policies he favored and as a springboard to public office. In his heyday, he was as much a newsmaker as a news purveyor.
In 1897, a scant two years after he purchased the failing New York Morning Journal for $200,000, William Randolph Hearst sent a reporter and an artist to the island of Cuba to send back dispatches on and images of the insurgency against Spain being waged by the Cuban people. Hearst had already boosted the journal’s circulation with a combination of sensational headlines, bold graphics, and populist editorials. Now he was beating the drums for more American involvement on behalf of the Cuban people in their rebellion against Spain. According to a contemporary account, the artist, Frederick Remington, wired Hearst that there was nothing going on in Cuba for him to draw and that he wished to return to New York. Hearst, according to the source, wired back: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” Historian David Nasaw in his biography of Hearst is skeptical about the existence of this telegram, but whether or not the story is apocryphal, it sums up the legend of one of the United States’ leading early 20th-century media giants. W. R. Hearst was a man who could push the United States into a war (it would have happened anyway, says Nasaw) and who would do anything to boost the circulation of his periodicals.
Hearst and his chief rival in the New York circulation wars of the 1890s, Joseph Pulitzer, tried to outdo each other in sensational headlines and entertainment features. Pulitzer was the pioneer here, but Hearst, after learning the newspaper business running his father’s San Francisco paper, moved to New York to confront Pulitzer and tried to best him at his own game. Stealing the artist of Pulitzer’s prized cartoon “The Yellow Kid” (whence “Yellow Journalism” got its name) and poaching many other members of Pulitzer’s staff, Hearst threw himself into the hurly-burly of New York, highlighting in his papers sensational crimes as well as the doings of the upper crust of New York society. He also supported progressive causes and championed the downtrodden immigrant groups, especially the Jews, the Irish, and the Italians, whom he tried to attract to his paper (according to Nasaw, he was, like a majority of Americans at the time, not so friendly to African Americans and other nonwhites). He outspent Pulitzer, dipping into his family fortune to bankroll his circulation efforts.
In the space of the next 40 years, Hearst put together a chain of more than 30 newspapers, a features syndicate, a magazine empire, and a film production studio. Throughout his career, Hearst used his papers to promote his personal causes and to boost his political ambitions, which included several attempts to run for president; he was elected to Congress for two terms, ran for mayor of New York City, and then governor of the state, and was still seeking the presidency as late as the 1920s. He also became one of the wealthiest men in the United States. In addition to pushing candidates in his papers and magazines, unlike many of his fellow press barons who preferred the anonymous shadows, he frequently gave public lectures and later made speeches on the radio; he was prone to impromptu press conferences as he embarked or returned from a trip.
Starting out with vaguely socialist leanings, Hearst supported Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan against the Republican William McKinley in the 1896 presidential election, ran as a Democrat in his own campaigns beginning in 1902, veered toward the Republicans in the teens and twenties (he was opposed to Wilson’s intervention in the European war and campaigned against the League of Nations), and was a major influence in Franklin Roosevelt’s winning the Democratic candidacy for the presidency in 1932 (although he initially had doubts about Roosevelt and supported John Nance Gardner). Shortly thereafter, he defected from Roosevelt, perhaps from personal pique that Roosevelt did not follow his advice or perhaps because he genuinely found Roosevelt’s policies abhorrent. He supported Republican Alf Landon in the 1936 election and thereafter was noted for his support of conservative candidates. He opposed U.S. involvement in the war in Europe both in World War I and II. His views on labor relations and Communism earned him the opprobrium of many on the left. He courted Mussolini and Hitler (both of whom he signed on to contribute articles for his newspapers) and earned the reputation of being a fascist himself. He himself thought he was a patriot above all else, and while many of his columnists and writers engaged in anti-Semitic attacks, Hearst himself favored a Jewish Homeland and engaged with Hitler directly over Germany’s treatment of Jews.
Hearst was also notorious for his personal life, his extravagant building projects, and his art collecting. Hearst’s father, George Hearst, made and lost several fortunes in mining and real estate, and the family’s life was unsettled during the younger Hearst’s childhood (the older Hearst was, in addition to his business interests, active in California politics and served in the U.S. Senate). Hearst had a rocky academic career at Harvard (he was more engaged in political activities, theatrics, and chasing women than in his studies) and eventually was dismissed, despite his mother’s attempts to keep him on the straight and narrow. As an adult, Hearst enjoyed the company of theater people and he courted chorus girls rather than the daughters of the upper class. His wife, Millicent Willson, whom he married in 1903, was a 16-year-old chorus girl when Hearst first began seeing her. He waited until she was a respectable 21 before marrying her; he was 40.
His long-time mistress was actress Marion Davies, for whom Hearst created his spectacular retreat on the family ranch, San Simeon, in California (known to-day as Hearst’s Castle and dubbed Xanadu by Orson Welles in his film Citizen Kane, based loosely on WRH’s life). Hearst met Davies in 1915; she was 18 and a member of the chorus in a Broadway musical; he was 52 and now the father of five sons (including recently born twins). Soon Davies’s name and photograph began to make regular appearances in the drama pages of Hearst’s papers. Hearst had gotten into film production around this time as part of his expanding media reach (he was an early believer in what has come to be called synergy in the media field) and he signed Davies to a contract, hoping, perhaps, to turn her into a rival to Mary Pickford. Davies’s career was not as disastrous as her fictional counter-part’s in Citizen Kane; she made some decent films and some clunkers over the next 20 years and she and Hearst remained together until Hearst’s death in 1951; she is credited with rescuing Hearst from bankruptcy in the 1930s and Hearst left her a substantial stake in the Hearst Corporation in repayment, which she relinquished to the family rather than engage in a legal battle with Hearst’s wife and sons.
Hearst’s building of his great estate began in the 1920s. Although he acquired many other residences, including apartments in New York, an estate on Long Island (for his wife), a palatial house in Santa Monica (for Davies), and a castle in Wales, San Simeon became his obsession. He filled it with art that he bought from all over the world. He worked closely with his architect designing its rooms and outbuildings. There was a fully stocked zoo on the premises along with a cattle ranch and farm. During the 1920s and 1930s, Hearst and Davies hosted lavish parties on weekends when they were in residence, with upward of 60 guests, mostly Davies’s Hollywood friends. Hearst’s birthdays were marked by lavish costume balls. He also took over another family estate in Northern California on which he lavished as much money and attention as he did on San Simeon.
During the heyday of his career, Hearst was a peripatetic but hands-on chief executive. He spent a good part of the year in California and made annual spring and summer tours of Europe between the wars, accompanied by Davies and carloads of staff and luggage, collecting art works and meeting with heads of state. While traveling, he peppered his home office constantly with memos and telegrams setting the agenda for his chain of papers and his magazines; at San Simeon or Wyntoon, his Northern California home, he was on the phone with his editors long into the night. His seconds in command would relay his wishes in memos to the staff announcing what “The Chief” wanted. He wrote many signed editorials that appeared on the front pages of all his papers and in his magazines (the eponymous Hearst’s International, Cosmopolitan–before it was a women’s magazine, Cosmopolitan was a general interest magazine and had a brief run as a muckraking journal–and Good Housekeeping); he approved most of what appeared in his papers, and he reproved staff members who strayed away from his biases and his principles. Although he was an active opponent of Roosevelt’s policies, he never vilified the president personally and he chastised his star columnist Westbrook Pegler for his personal attacks on Eleanor Roosevelt in the late 1940s.
The combination of the economic depression of the 1930s, Hearst’s extravagant lifestyle, and his growing conservatism led to a drop in circulation of Hearst’s papers and a financial crisis for his corporation; in 1937, the company was put under the control of a trustee who put Hearst on a restricted allowance and sold off some of his newspapers and much of his art collection (Hearst was humiliated to find out that many of his prized possessions were sold at Saks and Gimbels department stores). Nonetheless, Hearst maintained his editorial control even as he entered his ninth decade of life and his papers rebounded somewhat after the United States entered World War II (which Hearst had opposed). In the postwar period, Hearst’s papers were notable for their crusade against Communism, a theme they had been sounding since the 1930s but which they now took up with renewed energy even as “The Chief” began to draw back from the heat of the campaign, partially from his sense that the public might be tiring of this theme and partly from the onset of ill health that plagued him as he neared 90. He died in Marion Davies’s home. Although much reduced in power and influence, his corporation is still a major player in the media realm and still held by his descendants. The kidnapping of his grand-daughter, Patti Hearst, by would-be revolutionaries and her subsequent alliance with her kidnappers was one of the major stories of the 1970s.
Leonard, Thomas C. “Hearst, William Randolph.” American National Biography Online February 2000. http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-00738.html .
Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. Five vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930–1968.
Nasaw, David. The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. Boston, MA, and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Schudson, Michael. Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers. New York: Basic Books, 1978.