William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) launched his career by taking charge of his father’s struggling newspaper the San Francisco Examiner in 1887. By the 1930s, he had built the nation’s largest media empire, including more than two dozen newspapers in major cities nationwide, magazines, wire and photo services, newsreels, radio stations and film production. As America’s first media tycoon, Hearst pioneered the sensationalized, attention-grabbing methods that would change journalism forever.
Early Life and Beginning of Publishing Career
Born on April 29, 1863, in San Francisco, Hearst was the only son of George Hearst, a mining tycoon who migrated West from Missouri during the Gold Rush, and Phoebe Apperson Hearst, a former schoolteacher also from Missouri. He matriculated at Harvard, where he worked as the business editor of the Harvard Lampoon, but was eventually expelled for skipping classes and other misadventures.
While his father wanted him to join the mining business, Hearst was determined to make his name in the newspaper industry. Inspired by the example of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, he convinced George to give him control of the San Francisco Examiner, which the elder Hearst—who won election as a U.S. senator in 1886—had acquired as a platform for his political career.
At the age of 24, Hearst used his family’s money to hire top newspaper talent (including writers like Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and Jack London) and adopted a sensationalist style, complete with catchy headlines and images that enlivened the traditionally dull newspaper style of the day. While the Examiner had long been losing money, it began turning a profit within three years after Heart took over, with circulation jumping from 5,000 to over 55,000.
New York Newspaper War and 'Yellow journalism'
In 1895, Hearst headed to New York City, purchasing the failing Morning Journal. He began competing against Pulitzer for the attention and money of the working-class, largely immigrant readers that had made the World the city’s most popular newspaper of the era. Their bitter rivalry played out in newsprint, as both papers dialed up their sensationalist style in an effort to win readership
This brand of “yellow journalism” reached its height around the turn of the century, when the two papers’ hyperbolic coverage of Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain led to increased pressure on the U.S. government to intervene, culminating in the Spanish-American War. During the Progressive Era, Hearst went after trusts and governmental corruption, calling for better working conditions and reforms such as the eight-hour workday. The Journal’s circulation climbed steadily as Hearst earned a reputation as a champion of working-class Americans against the elite.
Political Career and Expansion of Media Empire
Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from New York in 1902, Hearst set his sights on winning the Democratic presidential nomination. The following year, he married former chorus girl Millicent Willson; the couple would go on to have five sons: George, William Randolph Jr., John, Randolph and David. He also set about expanding his publishing empire, acquiring newspapers in Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston.
Despite garnering significant support, Hearst lost the 1904 Democratic presidential bid to Alton B. Parker, who went down in a resounding defeat to Theodore Roosevelt. Undaunted, Hearst ran for mayor of New York City, a race he lost due to the ruthless opposition of the powerful Tammany Hall political machine. After mounting an unsuccessful run for governor in 1906 and another failed mayoral run in 1908, Hearst would never again hold elected office.
Instead, he focused on his media empire, which soon included newspapers in nearly every major American city; magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Town and Country and Harper’s Bazaar; and a wire service. Hearst also dove into the film business, producing weekly newsreels and serialized dramatic films that were shown in movie theaters nationwide. A staunch isolationist, he used his media platform to advocate (unsuccessfully) for the United States to stay out of World War I.
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Relationship with Marion Davies, Hearst Castle and 'Citizen Kane'
By 1917, Hearst had become romantically involved with a young actress named Marion Davies, and was soon shepherding her career, including roles in many of the movies he produced. He and Davies lived together openly, throwing lavish parties for celebrated guests from Hollywood and beyond, even as his marriage to Millicent continued.
In the 1920s, Hearst began building a palatial hilltop estate on close to 250,000 acres of land in San Simeon, California, which he had inherited upon the death of his mother in 1919. Hearst furnished the castle with his enormous and ever-growing collection of art, furniture and antiques, and would continue construction and renovation of the estate throughout his life.
Hearst’s empire took a hit during the Great Depression. Despite his initial support of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he ended up bitterly at odds with the Democratic president, disparaging the New Deal as Soviet-style communism. Hearst’s increasingly reactionary politics alienated many working-class readers of his newspapers and led his influence to decline, as did his visit to Germany in 1934 to meet with Adolf Hitler, whose essays he published in syndication.
Released in 1941, Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane infuriated Hearst with its brutal portrait of an obsessive media mogul clearly based on his life. Hearst waged a bitter campaign against the film, first attempting to shut production down and later publishing bitter personal attacks on Welles and banning advertisements of the film.
Later Years and Death
Despite his earlier isolationist views, Hearst supported the U.S. declaration of war on Japan and Germany after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He used his newspapers to call for the forced internment of Japanese Americans, a continuation of the anti-Asian racism that had long characterized his career.
With the economy revived by World War II, Hearst emerged from his financial struggles in control of a diminished but still formidable media empire. By the late 1940s, however, his health was worsening, and he and Davies moved from San Simeon to Los Angeles to be closer to his doctors. On August 14, 1951, Hearst died in Beverly Hills at the age of 88.
David Nasaw. The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)
“William Randolph Hearst’s Campaign to Suppress Citizen Kane.” PBS: American Experience. April 30, 2021.
William Randolph Hearst Biography. Hearst Castle.