The Forty-year Run

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In 1935 Fortune magazine published a profile of the Hearst empire, which said that William Randolph Hearst’s assets—twenty-eight newspapers, thirteen magazines, eight radio stations, two movie companies, inestimable art treasures, real estate, fourteen thousand shares of the Homestake Mine, and two million acres of land were worth $220 million.

But Fortune also noted that because of taxes and other debits in books that it was not permitted to see, the Hearst Corporation might soon be short of cash. The taxes, of course, were imposed by that hated man in the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., for which Hearst would have gladly traded his California castle; his Bavarian Village in Wyntoon, California; his mistress Marion Davies’s beach “cottage” at Malibu; his castle at St. Donat in Wales; his Long Island estate; his New York apartment; his two cloisters from Spain; and his Brooklyn warehouse with all its treasures.

This century’s most famous newspaper publisher wasn’t really a newspaper publisher at all. He was the next President of the United States.

But Hearst never made it to the White House. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom perhaps only H. L. Mencken hated more than Hearst did, had laid out a tax program about which he once smiled at Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and said, “That is for Hearst.” Two years after the Fortune article, the Hearst Corporation did go bankrupt. Hearst had to start selling newspapers, relinquish control of what was left of his propaganda machine, and take a pay cut from five hundred thousand dollars a year to one hundred thousand. As his father said in 1887 when one of his employees told him that in a good year a hundred thousand dollars would be about what voung Willie might make from that paper he wanted to run, “Hell, that ain’t no money!”

And the question could quite rightly be asked: How had a man who had built the greatest publicity machine in history not only gone bankrupt but become so hated in his country that the Hearst Pathé News had to eliminate “Hearst” from its logo because people hissed when his name came on the screen? In 1936 the historian Charles A. Beard wrote of Hearst that “even school boys and girls by the thousands now scorn his aged image and cankered heart,” and six thousand people went to the Hippodrome Theater in New York City to stage a mass trial of Hearst, with Minnesota’s governor Hjalmar Peterson leading off by charging him with “being guilty in the first degree of attempting to destroy democracy.”

The man who has given the most thought to the career of William Randolph Hearst is W. A. Swanberg, whose monumental biography, Citizen Hearst , appeared in 1961. He surveyed all the obituaries written at the time of Hearst’s death and noted that the man baffled most of his contemporaries. “They were saying that he was great—somehow—but they could not explain why.” After five hundred pages of chronicling his life, Swanberg concluded that Hearst was really two people and wrote two obituaries, casting them in Shakespearean terms—Hearst the Prospero and Hearst the Caliban.

In fact, Hearst was not two men but several: Hearst the journalist, Hearst the politician, Hearst the art collector, and Hearst the man— bon vivant , husband, and lover—each one living a life of tremendous passions, for power, possessions, women. But if we had to choose the real William Randolph Hearst, which one would it be?

Without any doubt, it would be Hearst the politician. To understand William Randolph Hearst, you have to understand his obsession with being President. And in his political career, which lasted nearly forty years, Hearst had more impact on American public life than many politicians who did make it to the White House.

William Randolph Hearst, who lived to see the dawn of the atomic age, was born before the Battle of Gettysburg, in 1863. His father was a rough-and-ready prospector who at one time held controlling interest in two of the richest mines in the country—Anaconda and Homestake. His mother, Phoebe, was a schoolteacher. Their only son was still small when George Hearst commented most prophetically: “There’s one thing sure about my boy, Bill. I’ve been watching him and notice that when he wants cake, he wants cake and he wants it now. And I notice that after a while he gets the cake.”

Willie, as he was later called, went to oublie schools in San Francisco and was then sent East to St. Paul’s, in New Hampshire. But the most important thing that happened in his youth was the trips he took with his mother to Europe, where, in a sense, he became both a populist and a monarchist. “The poor classes are so terribly poor,” Phoebe wrote her husband. “Willie wanted to give away all his money & clothes, too.” At the same time, he was carried away with medieval art and antiques and became a collector at the age of ten. He also told his mother he wanted to live in Windsor Castle and asked her to buy him the Louvre.