Among news-media titans, Rupert Murdock and his sons are probably better known these days.
But in the 20th century, William Randolph Hearst was the most famous, ambitious and outrageous American publishing tycoon.
An innovator whose daring takes one’s breath away, Hearst created the media landscape we know today, with its interwoven ecosystem of newspapers, radio, movies, magazines and television—and that young upstart, social media. That fascinating story, so relevant to today’s world, will be told Monday and Tuesday nights in the new documentary “Citizen Hearst” on PBS’ American Experience series.
The publishing mogul couldn’t have done it without the vast fortune shared by his mining-magnate father, George, and the backing of his mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst.
Less known is that the news baron had Virginia roots, of which Phoebe was proud. She was the daughter of Culpeper County native Randolph Walker Apperson, whose first name she gave to her only child.
Phoebe’s grandfather was Revolutionary War veteran John Apperson of Spotsylvania County, who settled in Missouri, where Phoebe met George Hearst as a young school teacher. John married Alcey Favor in Culpeper County in 1785.
The Apperson name survives in the area today, according to a family member’s recent obituary. Appersons have been Culpeper residents since their farm was established in 1789. As of 2019, their homeplace was the second-oldest continuously-run family farm in the county.
Striking it rich
George Hearst’s wealth as a prospector and miner eventually helped land him a U.S. Senate seat representing California, where he had been a “Forty-Niner” during the Gold Rush. And it enabled his son to attend Harvard, buy newspapers and magazines, get into radio and movie newsreels, build a palatial castle and estate on California’s coast, and entertain Hollywood’s elite there on a legendary scale.
Tinseltown golden boy Orson Welles depicted a fictionalized version of Will Hearst’s story in his groundbreaking 1941 classic “Citizen Kane.”
What Phoebe Hearst’s only son wrought with his life is mind-boggling. But his early life was emotionally precarious.
Soon after Will was born, George returned to his mines, leaving behind a lonely wife, who took up travel without him. When she came home, her son would cling to her.
“He seems to be afraid all the time that I will go away and leave him again,” she wrote a friend.
Whenever they were together, she indulged her young son.
“Phoebe is the most important person in his life,” biographer David Nasaw tells PBS viewers. “As a child, he can do no wrong.”
“Citizen Hearst” provides many other insights into one of modern times’ most fascinating and powerful men.
By the 1930s, William Randolph Hearst controlled the country’s biggest media empire—28 newspapers, a movie studio, a syndicated wire service, radio stations and 13 magazines.
Wielding his communications fiefdom to gain unheard-of political power, Hearst then ran for office, just as Charles Foster Kane does in “Citizen Kane.”
He met both of his great loves on Broadway, where the much-older businessman wooed young showgirls. Married to Millicent Willson, with whom he had five sons, Hearst carried on a decades-long affair with actress Marion Davies, his companion until death.
When Hearst died in 1951 at 88, he had transformed the media’s role in American life and politics.
“In today’s polarized media landscape, the explosion of false narratives seems to undermine the very concept of what qualifies as news,” Cameo George, American Experience executive producer, said in a statement about the new documentary. “This incisive examination of William Randolph Hearst, and the unprecedented power he wielded through his media empire, couldn’t be more timely.”
Hearst and publishing rival Joseph Pulitzer fashioned the wildly popular style of newspapering derided by critics as “yellow journalism.”
“Hearst had a talent for telling stories,” biographer Nasaw says in the two-part, four-hour PBS documentary. “He knew what the public wanted but, more than that, Hearst was a true revolutionary. He’d get a story, he’d run it in the newspapers, he would embellish it in his magazines, he would tell it over the radio and turn it into a moving picture. It’s the essence of synergy.”
Hearst deserves credit for many innovations we take for granted today.
For instance, from his earliest days in San Francisco, Hearst put cartoons in his papers. In the 1890s, Hearst adopted the comic strip and the Sunday color comic supplement to help battle Pulitzer for circulation. He published “Buster Brown,” “Mutt and Jeff” and “Krazy Kat,” helping establish the art form. He started King Features, the first big comic-strip syndicate, which included “Barney Google,” “Popeye the Sailor,” “Blondie,” “Prince Valiant” and “Beetle Bailey,” the last strip Hearst approved before he died.
After breathing new life into the Harvard Lampoon as its business manager, when he was a Harvard undergrad, William Randolph Hearst got his start at the failing San Francisco Examiner, which his father seized in partial repayment for a gambling debt.
Soon, Will—hiring the best writers and editors that money could buy—ballooned the Examiner's circulation from 5,000 to 50,000 copies a day. Lurid headlines, scandal-mongering and shameless self-promotion added fuel to the fire, techniques that served Hearst well as he grew his media empire.
Next up was New York, the country’s biggest newspaper town, dominated by Pulitzer’s The World.
With a loan from Phoebe, Hearst bought the failing New York Journal in 1895, and made it a sensation.
He embedded his reporters at crime scenes, railed against business monopolies and championed workers’ rights, earning the loyalty of the city’s thousands of newly arrived immigrants.
“For Hearst, news was not reporting the facts,” journalist Jeet Heer says in the PBS show. “News was creating history, making history. You don’t report history, you’re a participant in history.”
War and politics
Hearst is famed for leading the nation into the Spanish-American War.
When Cuban revolutionaries rebelled against Spanish rule, Hearst’s papers viciously attacked President McKinley’s lack of action. When McKinley finally declared war in 1898, Hearst took credit.
But when McKinley was assassinated just three years later, many blamed Hearst for inciting violence against the president.
In 1904, Hearst ran, unsuccessfully, for the presidency, and then for mayor of New York City.
Throughout his long life, this incredible character had huge influence, using his empire to persuade readers to see the world as he did.
“In many ways, William Randolph Hearst is an American writ large,” author Gary Kamiya says in the documentary. “He embodies everything good and bad about the essence of this country: its expansiveness, its ambition, its greed, its sentimentality, its showmanship, and its ability to transform itself.”
In 1919, Phoebe Hearst succumbed to the 1918 flu pandemic that killed more than 50 million people worldwide. Her death gave her son, at age 56, control of the family fortune.
Hearst began producing move-theater newsreels and serial dramas, and entered the burgeoning movie business.
One of his films starred a young actress named Marion Davies, with whom Hearst was smitten. At his San Simeon estate, which included a castle, several lavish guesthouses, a menagerie and more, he and Davies reigned over Hollywood society.
After Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Hearst’s politics turned more to the right, growing out of touch with working-class readers. His publications’ circulation began to drop, putting him $78 million in debt. Borrowing $1 million from Davies, Hearst sold many of his treasures at a department-store fire sale in 1941.
That year, Orson Welles opened “Citizen Kane,” his thinly-veiled portrait of Hearst.
Infuriated, the publisher forbade any of his papers from mentioning the film. He was most upset by its demeaning portrayals of his mother, wife and Davies. Hearst died 10 years later at Davies’ home in Beverly Hills.
In his will, Hearst left Davies the voting rights of Hearst Corp. controlling stock, worth well over $100 million. Soon after, she sold it back for one dollar to Millicent Hearst, the tycoon’s wife.
Remembering his 18-month tour abroad with Phoebe at age 10, Hearst collected gobs of European art, antiquities and statuary to decorate his grandiose Spanish-style, 20th-century estate just off the California coast. His castle boasts opulent pools, 165 rooms and 123 acres of gardens.
Versions of the castle’s interior are depicted in climactic scenes in “Citizen Kane” and 2020's “Mank.”
Ironically, given Hearst’s treatment of Marion Davies’ character in those films, it was the successful actress’ generosity that helped save him and later sustained his widow.
By coincidence, Culpeper’s gem—the Packard Campus of the Library of Congress—preserves an extensive trove of films given by Hearst’s lover, according to the library’s Motion Picture Research Center in Washington, D.C.
The actress gave the Marion Davies Collection to the American Film Institute, which later passed them on to the library—anonymously, at first.
Her collection includes dozens of home movies shot on 16-millimeter nitrate, a format only wealthy people could afford. Those movies show William Randolph Hearst walking at his San Simeon estate with architect Julia Morgan, his castle being built, Hearst and actor Charlie Chaplin at the beach, and Chaplin clowning around with the Hearst family, a librarian told the Culpeper Star-Exponent on Friday. The films also show the castle’s famous pool, Hearst’s office, a lion at his private zoo, and people being entertained at the castle, a librarian said.
Also, Davies plays actress Peggy Pepper in a delightful movie—directed by King Vidor and costarring William Haines—named to the library’s National Film Registry, its annual list of noteworthy films showcasing the range of American cinema. ”Show People,” a Warner Brothers satire of filmmaking, depicts Davies and other stars poking fun at themselves and the movie business.
As for “Citizen Kane,” perspective requires us to note that, upon its release, Welles’ masterpiece was a box-office flop.
The movie’s plot follows reporters trying to decipher the last word spoken by millionaire newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane, widely understood to have been modeled on William Randolph Hearst.
The backstory to the screenplay’s creation by Herman J. Mankiewicz provides the heart of “Mank,” which won Oscars this spring for best cinematography and best production design—more than “Citizen Kane.”
“Kane” was nominated for nine Academy Awards but won only one, for best original screenplay. Today, many critics regard it as the greatest film ever made.
Welles’ movie was controversial enough that there was talk Hollywood might ban it, and RKO Radio Pictures had a hard time persuading theater-chain owners to book the movie. Hearst’s newspaper empire refused to publish the film’s ads and promotions.