William Randolph Hearst lived a life of dizzying extremes.
It was part-Trump and part-Murdoch, with bits of the fictional Charles Foster Kane. It rippled with power, both symbolic (a castle, shown here, a movie-star lover) and real, with newspapers, magazines and more.
But there were also parts of Hearst that were surprisingly mellow. “People were expecting something as brash as his newspapers,” Victoria Kastner, a Hearst historian, told the Television Critics Association. “Actually, he was quite courtly and an elegant man with a sense of humor.”
Kastner – former official historian for Hearst’s San Simeon estate – is one of the commentators in a four-hour “American Experience” profile, from 9-11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday (Sept. 27-28) on PBS.
In the documentary, we see hints of familiar figures.
Like Donald Trump, he kept trying high-profile projects, then being bailed out by family funds.
“He was not as good a businessman, in the pure sense, as you might think,” said Stephen Ives, the film’s writer-director. “I don’t think he even read a balance sheet …. He lunged into endeavors, oblivious of the repercussions and the debt.”
His mother – controlling his late father’s estate – kept giving him money … carefully.
“Phoebe doled it out in a slightly stingy way,” Ives said. “She always came through for her son,” but in a way that may have kept him from early bankruptcy.
Still, Hearst spent boldly. He owned 28 big-city newspapers, with 20 million readers, plus magazines and a news service. At times, that was similar to Rupert Murdoch’s use of newspapers and Fox News.
“Hearst’s pioneering use of advocacy journalism” was key, said Gary Kamiya, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist and a journalism historian. He “played fast and loose with the facts, and he often didn’t want facts to get in the way of a good story.”
Still, Kamiya said that part is sometimes exaggerated. Yes, Hearst papers bellowed against Spain and President William McKinley launched the Spanish-American War. But Kamiya doubts the widely held notion that Hearst created it. “Most historians now believe that McKinley was going to war anyway. It is not even clear if he read the yellow press.”
The phrase “yellow press” encased Hearst and many of his competitors, given to brash headlines, big illustrations, self-promotion and an emphasis on sex, scandal, celebrity, crime and human interest.
“He was a tremendous early adopter of technologies and innovations,” Ives said, “from high-speed presses to the use of color to comics to early newsreels to silent films and on up.”
But he also had an aesthetic sense, Ives said. “For all of his embrace of yellow journalism and lurid crime stories, what’s surprising … is he valued good writing. He loved high-quality conversations.”
He savored the day-to-day work, Kamiya said. “The best thing about the guy was he really was a great newspaper man, especially in the early days.”
Later, he had distractions – running for office, building the San Simeon castle in California, romances that peaked with actress Marion Davies. Those are the parts that “Citizen Kane” emphasized.
The 1941 Orson Welles movie is a classic, rated by two American Film Institute polls as the best American film of all time. Its main character was a lot like Hearst … but the differences are crucial.
In the movie, Kane loved a low-IQ, no-talent singer; in real life, Kastner said, Davies was a smart and respected (but alcoholic) movie star. And one other key difference:
“In ‘Citizen Kane,’ the character is deserted by his parents and raised by a bank,” Kastner said. In contrast, “there could be no one with a more indulged … childhood than William Randolph Hearst.”
Later, his mother kept fueling his wild spending. Hearst soared during good times, then had to surrender control of his business during the Depression. “World War II saved him from a financial collapse,” Ives said. “I wouldn’t put him in the … pantheon of great executives.”