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Hearst Gets His Due
A NEW BIOGRAPHY RESCUES A GREAT INNOVATOR FROM THE SHADOW OF CITIZEN KANE
December 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 8
San Francisco, although the ninthlargest city in the country by the 188Os, was still a provincial place far from the power centers of the East. Hearst wanted to change that with his new newspaper. He wrote to his father that he intended to foment “a revolution in the sleepy journalism of the Pacific slope.” He certainly succeeded, and the effects of that revolution continue to reverberate around the world.
AT THE HEIGHT OF HEARST’S INFLUENCE, 20 MILLION PEOPLE-ONE IN EVERY SIX AMERICANS-READ HIS NEWSPAPERS.
When Hearst took over the Examiner , it had a circulation of only 15,000, less than half the San Francisco Chronicle ’s 37,500. He immediately made a deal with the New York Herald to carry its dispatches, giving the Examiner a much greater national and international scope than any San Francisco paper before it. He hired new talent and redesigned the paper to make it more inviting to read, added line drawings, and sought circulation beyond the city of San Francisco itself.
By 1890 the Examiner , now a recognizably modern newspaper, had pulled even with the Chronicle in circulation and was making a profit. That was the first step in building what would become a vast media empire. In 1895 Hearst bought the Morning Journal (which he redded the New York Journal ), taking on head to head the country’s leading newspaperman, Joseph Pulitzer. Even before the Spanish-American War, the Journal was printing more than 1.5 million copies a day.
At the height of his influence, around 1930, Hearst owned 28 newspapers, all of which spoke in his own editorial voice. Such people as Winston Churchill, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler were writing for his papers, and they were being read by 20 million people a day—one in six of the U.S. population.
This brought Hearst real political power. He served two terms in Congress from New York and became a major contender for the Democratic nomination for President in 1904.
But the empire that Hearst created (and which still exists, one of the largest privately held corporations in the country) was far larger than just his newspapers. Although he was often accused of merely buying up properties, Hearst was in fact extraordinarily innovative, preceding by several decades the rest of the world’s interest in synergy—to use the media buzzword of the 1990s—among the rapidly expanding types of media available to the public.
As early as 1898, Hearst teamed up with Thomas Edison’s company to produce newsreels (a word that would not even be coined until nearly two decades later) about the Spanish-American War. By the 1920s he had become a major presence in Hollywood, producing, among other films, the Perils of Pauline series. He instructed the editors of his magazines to buy only stories that could be turned into films and to make sure to secure the film rights. He used his newspapers to publicize his movies.
It was, of course, in Hollywood that he frolicked with his long-time mistress, Marion Davies, with whom he spent the last decades of his life. In Citizen Kane , the character Susan Alexander is a grotesque caricature of Marion Davies. They were both blonde, and both had a drinking problem in later years, but the fictional Susan Alexander, who had perhaps the most irritating voice in the history of Hollywood, was a pathetically untalented singer, while Marion Davies was a gifted comic actress, some of whose movies are worth watching today.
Susan Alexander eventually leaves Charles Foster Kane as his empire crumbles. When Hearst, whose spending habits are legendary, ran into financial problems in the late 1930s and had to yield control of his empire to a trustee, Marion Davies did not leave him. Indeed, she cashed in jewelry and real estate to lend him a million dollars when he needed it badly.
That is not the usual direction of the cash flow between mogul and mistress, to put it mildly. This fact alone would indicate that William Randolph Hearst must have been a man worth knowing. David Nasaw’s excellent biography proves it.