The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst , by David Nasaw. Houghton Mifflin, 687 pages, $35.
In 1916, at age 53, William Randolph Hearst–already a media tycoon whose publishing empire included newspapers such as the New York Journal and San Francisco Examiner , magazines such as Cosmopolitan and some of the first motion picture newsreels; a congressman who became an arbiter of Democratic party politics; a social reformer who forced Tammany Hall to take on the New York City utility trusts; and a philanderer known for carousing with two teenage showgirls at his side (he eventually married one of them)–was forced to borrow $350,000 from his mother. His total debt to her now stood at nearly $2 million.
This detail pops up on page 233 of David Nasaw’s exhaustive biography, in a paragraph about Hearst’s finances–it follows a short passage about his art collection and precedes a discussion of syndication services and their role in the expansion of the Hearst publishing empire. What does it mean when a middle-aged millionaire grovels for money from his mother? Mr. Nasaw doesn’t ask. Again and again in his 687-page tome, he presents telling bits of information; and just as often, obvious questions are ignored.
Mr. Nasaw was granted unprecedented access to Hearst family and business archives, including files the Hearst Corporation has kept in a Bronx warehouse since the 1920′s. Mr. Nasaw writes that his biography is based on “hundreds of thousands of letters, telegrams, memoranda, transcripts of phone messages, articles, and editorials.” He adds: “There were some fine biographies dating from the 1950′s and 1960′s, but none had been able to call upon the vast archival resources that have become available since then. I was able to start fresh, to detour around the anecdotal information that my predecessors had had to rely on.” The detour seems to have led him straight past the point of interest.
In a recent review for The Wall Street Journal , Conrad Black, who, as chief executive of Hollinger International, publishes 379 newspapers and magazines around the world, gushed that The Chief “is unlikely to be surpassed as the definitive study of its subject.” In the next breath he added approvingly, “Mr. Nasaw takes no psychological liberties and leaves it to the reader to judge.”
We learn a lot from Mr. Nasaw’s study, including, of course, the bare-bones riches-to-fabulous-riches story. The son of a miner from Missouri who headed west during the California gold rush, Hearst grew up in San Francisco, a product of Gold Coast wealth. He was raised by his mother while his distant father took care of business, and because his mother harbored high social aspirations, he was packed off to boarding school at St. Paul’s (which he left after a bout of homesickness) and then to Harvard College, from which he failed to graduate. Rather than study, he spent his time funding clubs, managing the Lampoon and throwing decadent parties in his suite of rooms–which his mother had redecorated in Harvard crimson.
Hearst was not yet 24 when he went to work as publisher of the San Francisco Examiner , a small paper his father had purchased to further his political ambitions. In time, young Billy Buster (as his father called him) expanded circulation with a lively mix of sensational headlines and lavish illustrations, a formula borrowed from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World . After his father’s death in 1891, Hearst convinced his mother to finance the purchase and expansion of the New York Journal and began a money-losing competition with Pulitzer’s World . As his publishing empire expanded, Hearst shamelessly employed his media outlets to bolster his own political career–which helped him win a Congressional seat in 1902, fight unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination, win re-election to Congress in 1904 and then, also unsuccessfully, campaign for New York governor in 1906.
Always a populist in both his newspapers and his politics, Hearst helped Franklin D. Roosevelt win election in 1932 and then attacked him and his New Deal policies later in the decade. In a shameful episode in 1934, Hearst visited Hitler and called him a “Moses leading [the German people] out of their bondage”; he dismissed the anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime as “such an obvious mistake that I am sure it must soon be abandoned. In fact, I think it is already well on the way to abandonment.”
At the end of his life, in 1950, Hearst’s son Bill Jr. shared files on American Communists with Senator Joe McCarthy and Hearst columnists, including Walter Winchell. The family newspapers were full of enthusiastic redbaiting. But Hearst himself found the Red scare a bit overboard. He sent the following telegram to his editors: “The Chief instructs not, repeat not, to press the campaign against Communism any farther.”
We learn all this and much, much more–but we never learn about Hearst the man.
For instance, Mr. Nasaw tells us at the very beginning of his biography that Hearst believed “there were no ‘silver spoons’ in [his] family,” and yet everything about his life flows from the fact of George Hearst’s mining fortune–the ore, rich in gold and silver, dug from the ground near Virginia City, Nev. What kind of “self-made” man is bankrolled by his parents?
Hearst’s mother even put his “oldest and dearest friend,” Orrin Peck, on the payroll–she “supported his art studies”–so that Peck would keep an eye on his pal. Hearst never had many friends, and yet this is all Mr. Nasaw has to say about the combined effect of Peck’s death in 1921 and the demise of his Harvard friend Jack Follansbee, who died of drink in 1914: “They had always been there when he needed them. He would sorely miss them.”
Mr. Black is right about the absence of psychologizing in The Chief –and it’s a shame. Since at least 1941, when Orson Welles released Citizen Kane , the psychology of William Randolph Hearst has been a topic of much speculation. But Mr. Nasaw won’t play. In his chapter on Citizen Kane , which describes in detail the attack Hearst mounted against the film (the Chief even dispatched an editor to gather material on Welles’ leftist leanings), Mr. Nasaw concludes that Charles Foster Kane is nothing like Hearst: “Welles’ Kane is a cartoon-like caricature of a man who is hollowed out on the inside, forlorn, defeated, solitary because he cannot command the total obedience, loyalty, devotion, and love of those around him.” When Mr. Nasaw turns to the subject of his biography, we get a string of negatives: “Hearst, on the contrary, never regarded himself as a failure [and] never recognized defeat…. He did not, at the end of his life run away from the world to entomb himself in a vast, gloomy art-choked hermitage.”
Mr. Nasaw has made heroic efforts with his research and compiled an impressive documentary record. But the result reads like a dictionary: reliable, comprehensive, well-ordered and bone-dry.
Gabriel Snyder writes Off the Record for The New York Observer.