Thursday, January 8, 2015

William Randolph Hearst: Time to Take a Second Look

This biography of William Randolph Hearst was published in 2001. Amazon now has nine pages of books about this larger-than-life character. 

In the popular media, big almost always equals important. In the world of journalism, publisher William Randolph Hearst has long been considered a giant. Born in 1863 in San Francisco he died in Los Angeles in 1951. And still his legend seems to grow. 

His fortune was big, his empire was big, his family was big. His famous house, Hearst Castle, was really, really big and filled with what may be the largest, most jumbled, most ferociously acquired collection of art and architectural antiques the world has ever seen. A man like this just has to be important, doesn't he?

As a youngster I grew up reading the San Francisco Examiner, a paper WR inherited from his father. As a journalism student, I read the landmark book by W.A. Swanberg, Citizen Hearst, the first important biography written about him following his death. My family and I visited the estate he owned at San Simeon, back when there were only old yellow school buses to ferry visitors up the hill and only three tours (there are now many more tours than that). We stayed over an extra day so we could take all three. My mother was fascinated. My father made every effort to enjoy himself.

My mother and I posing by the outdoor pool at Hearst Castle many years ago. 
We were headed down to UCLA where I was starting graduate school. 

Today, almost a century and a half after Hearst's birth, if you type his name into a search engine on Amazon, you'll find almost nine pages of books about him. He owned newspapers, made movies, produced some of the first newsreels, had his own wire service, published magazines and spent through one of California's largest fortunes. In the field of media, back when no one else knew what a media empire was, Hearst had one. 

But to be important, it seems to me, someone with that much money, who sought and acquired that much power, should actually do something meaningful. In those terms: does Hearst qualify for greatness?

In his newspapers, he constantly claimed to be a champion of the working class. But in 1898, when newsboys bought his papers for fifty cents a hundred, allowing them to make a penny a piece on the papers sold, he tried to cut into that penny profit. He, with fellow publisher Joseph Pulitzer, raised fees to sixty cents per hundred. The newsboys, ragged and poor, went on strike. Eventually they got their few pennies back from this millionaire. 

Before Hitler came to power, Universal Studios founder, the avuncular Carl Laemmle, wrote Hearst of his fears about what the growth of the Nazis might mean for Jews, and asked for Hearst's help. Laemmle, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, worked tirelessly until his own death in 1939 to save as many refugees as he could from Hitler's grasp; finding them jobs, sponsors and homes in the U.S. Hearst, who had far greater power than Laemmle, didn't even answer Laemmle's letter--at least there he no record he did so. Instead, his New York Journal paid both Hitler and Mussolini to write columns for the Hearst wire service in the 1930s. 

Here's a Hearst production from 1931.

What about films? His Cosmopolitan Pictures had a successful contract with MGM and though the company was in large part created to make movies for Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies, Cosmopolitan made lots of other movies as well. And in the early 1930s, when MGM was turning out now classic films like Dinner at Eight and Grand Hotel, Cosmopolitan was churning out drivel like The Mask of Fu Manchu (1931), a turgid, racist, dated (even then), melodrama that really stuns with its badness. Hearst, they say, micromanaged all his movies.

Hearst Castle in a photo I took on a visit this year. 

Visiting his house at San Simeon again this year I had a chance to take a second look at his famous mansion. It made me sad to see the way he used the art and architectural antiques he collected. How he carved up historic ceilings, floors, walls and fireplaces to fit his needs, using the remnants in dressing room, kitchens and bathrooms. How he threw together a hodgepodge that might have been better preserved in situ, or, at least, in museums. One historic building he took down in England, stone by stone, and shipped to America, was controversial even in his day. When he died it was discovered in one of his warehouses and was later sold and incorporated into the famously strange California motel/attraction known as The Madonna Inn. 

There is a lot more that can be said of Hearst's taste and his choices: read any of the books about him. He shared the stage with some towering contemporaries--Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt to name just a few--who were also wealthy and powerful and who left important legacies.

Ultimately, I'm struck by the insight one finds in the Academy Award winning screenplay by Herman Mankiewicz for Citizen Kane. Mankiewicz was a New York newspaperman who observed Hearst in the East and also in Hollywood. The movie he wrote about Charles Foster Kane really is about William Randolph Hearst, of course, though when the film was released in 1941 a great fuss was made to deny this. In this film Mankiewicz sees the Kane/Hearst story as a tragedy. It is a portrait of a man with everything. And none of it was ever enough.

What was missing to make this so, we can only speculate. The screenwriter of Kane used a device--the loss of childhood toy--to represent the hole in this man's character. Whatever it was, this genuine lack also infuses the story of William Randolph Hearst. It leaves his life a fascinating one and a sad one: but it is not one of greatness. 

Some of the ceilings in Hearst Castle come from ancient religious buildings. Nearly all were cut into pieces to fit his rooms.

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