The Real Citizen Kane

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Katie Lambert: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy.

Katie Lambert: And Sarah and I got an e-mail from a listener named Katia this morning, who was suggesting we do a podcast on William Randolph Hearst, which was funny, because at the time I was researching that very man.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, Hurst has actually been on our short list of podcast topics since we talked about the newsies a few months ago.

Katie Lambert: If you've heard of Hearst it's because of a little film called Citizen Kane, which often tops the list of best movies ever made. But it's a very hostile depiction of Hearts as a ruthless, corrupt man who's greedy for power. And although Hearst was rich and powerful, was he also permanent damaged and corrupt from that wealth and power?

Sarah Dowdy: Well you might also know him for his yellow journalism, sensationalized journalism, his Hollywood mistress, or for the castle that he named after himself.

Katie Lambert: But maybe that's not the whole story. In fact, H.L. Menken once wrote, "Hearst deserves more and better of his country than he will ever get. It is the fashion to speak of him contemptuously, with dark references to matters that are nobody's business. I think there is a great deal of envy in all this. Not many Americans, even among millionaires, have ever been accused so beautifully."

Sarah Dowdy: So what is the truth behind William Randolph Hearst?

Katie Lambert: We're going to find out. He was born April 29th, 1863 in San Francisco to George and Phoebe Hearst. And George Hearst was a prospector and miner. He helped develop the Anaconda Copper Mine and the Home State Gold Mine, and he's also a U.S. Senator.

Sarah Dowdy: And George has a pretty good education. He goes to a nice prep school, St. Paul's Prep School in New Hampshire, and from there he goes to Harvard.

Katie Lambert: Where he has a pet alligator named Charley. We thought this was a nice companion to Lord Byron's pet bear.

Sarah Dowdy: The other guy who always pops up in our podcasts.

Katie Lambert: Right. And he goes on academic probation at Harvard. As far as classes go, he's not fantastic. As far as social life goes, he's amazing at it, because although he is seen as a bit of an arriviste, they do have plenty of money and he can buy friends at will.

Sarah Dowdy: Can entertain in style. He joins the Hasty Pudding Theatre Group and he even sends chamber pots to his professors, which that's not going to help you when you're on academic probation.

Katie Lambert: No, but it's things - it's stories like that that he loves to tell about himself. The childhood pranks where he would set off fireworks in his own room to get his parents' attention or also in college when he would throw various huge parties at Harvard.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, he's a real iconoclast.

Katie Lambert: But William does leave college and he has to find a way to make his name, because that is important to him. So he decides he'd like to get into the newspaper business. And luckily for him, his father George had bought the San Francisco Examiner as a way to curry some political favor, and William asked for it and got it at age 24.

Sarah Dowdy: It's a struggling paper, but he turns it around and manages to make a profit with it. And not too long after, with money from his mother, he buys the New York Journal for $150,000.00. Again, this is not a successful paper until he gets his hands on it.

Katie Lambert: And he hires this stable of very talented writers and illustrators, including Stephen Crane and the guy who drew the Yellow Kid cartoons, who he notoriously hired away from Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. And he makes this paper very successful too. They add lots of illustrations; he adds color, crazy headlines, articles on crime and pseudo sciences.

Sarah Dowdy: It's kind of more like what you would think of today as a paper.

Katie Lambert: Or at least as a tabloid, except you've got the addition of lots of political and foreign affairs kind of stories.

Sarah Dowdy: And it's cheap too, it's only one cent, which of course we touched on in our newsies podcast. So the circulation wars between Hearst and Pulitzer go crazy, and it all becomes about who has the best scoop, who has the better headline, and who can sell more papers. And this kind of leads to the rise of yellow journalism!

Katie Lambert: And as a good example of that, they competitors of the Journal called it a chamber of horrors, a brothel, a rattlesnake and a moral disease.

Sarah Dowdy: So they're being just as sensational as Hearst.

Katie Lambert: Right. And to give you an idea of how powerful and influential both Hearst and Pulitzer were, one Hearts biographer, Kenneth White compares them to Google and Microsoft. But in addition to having these incredibly successful businesses, they were also very politically involved. So imagine if the Google guys got into politics.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And Hearst puts his full weight behind William Jennings Bryan in the Presidential election of 1896. And he goes really populace for this candidate. His paper's actually the only one who supports Bryan.

Katie Lambert: Right. The other ones were calling him a rattle pated vapid mouther of rottenness, among other insults. So Hearst compared to them was much less sensational, and he started at that point kind of championing the underdog. That was another part of yellow journalism. And it works, because the day after the election, his paper sells over a million copies. A year before that it had been selling 50,000 a day, so do the math.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And by 1897, both Hearst and Pulitzer are selling each about 750,000 papers a day. So that's Hearst as a newspaper man. But of course we want to get into some of the great myths surrounding him.

Katie Lambert: Right. The accepted idea of Hearst is that he coarsened the news, that he was completely shameless, more so than his competitors and more sensationalistic and just interested in these lurid stories. But it was all the papers who were doing that.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah he didn't start this.

Katie Lambert: Right. He was just the best at it.

Sarah Dowdy: What he was really good at too was hiring more newsboys, that's a good way to increase your circulation, more little kids out on the street hawking your papers. He runs more editions, and he's an audacious promoter of his papers.

Katie Lambert: And he's also better at figuring out what the public wants to read. He knew how to entertain. He knew how to pique their interest and he knew how to provoke. But unlike some of the other newspaper men, he didn't use ethnic slurs, which is something they were known for. Charles Dana of the Sun called Pulitzer Joey the Jew and Judas Pulitzer, and Pulitzer said that Dana was Greek, which he wasn't, and then called the Greek race a treacherous and drunken one.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, and another charge often leveled against Hearst is that he stole writers away from Pulitzer. When in reality a lot of writers just found Pulitzer very hard to work with and came to Hearst on their own.

Katie Lambert: And Hearst was notoriously good at managing high strung writers who liked to drink, which if you've met any, that's a real talent.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And he's got a little humanitarian edge to his cover age too. A lot of times they'll be reporting on a fire or something and he'll send people with blankets and food. So they get the scoop, they're fulfilling the demands of yellow journalism, but they're helping out a little too.

Katie Lambert: But the greatest charge leveled against Hearst, or in favor of him, depending on which side you are, is that he started the Spanish-American war, at least had a major hand in it. And supposedly he said to someone in a telegram, "you furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." He probably didn't say this. He himself called it clotted nonsense, which I think would be a wonderful name for a band. But he certainly was involved. So let's get a little context on that.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, so Cuba had been revolting against Spain for a while. Americans were sympathetic, but too isolationist to want to get involved with it.

Katie Lambert: And although all the papers are doing a little war drumming, Hearst is definitely at the front of the pack as far as that goes. He publishes one headline, "Feeding Prisoners to Shark." That's about Spain, but -

Sarah Dowdy: I'd spend a penny on that.

Katie Lambert: I totally would. But it's not entirely true. They were feeding already dead prisoners to sharks, which isn't quite as bad, but, you know, it's still interesting.

Sarah Dowdy: And he romanticizes it too. His coverage of Rodolfo Rodriguez with these beautiful sketches by Frederick Remington really gets people's hearts involved in this story going on in Cuba.

Katie Lambert: Right. There's another story that's illustrated that's about these naked young American women being examined by Spanish officers, but again it's exaggerated, because it was female officers who were doing the examining, but in the story well it's so much more sensationalistic if you have a man doing it. And then we have the story of Evangelina Cisneros, who was a 17 year old who was involved in the revolutionary movement and Spain wanted to send her to an African prison for 20 years. And Hearst hears the story and thinks, jackpot!

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. So he actually puts out a petition to send to Maria Christina of Spain. And the signees include President McKinley's mother, for some reason, Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republics, all these famous people who were saying, no, you know, she shouldn't be imprisoned. It's a great story.

Katie Lambert: So they play the story out for as long as possible and then figure they need to come to a resolution. So the journal ends up bribing a bunch of guards, rescuing Evangelina and taking her back to the United States, branding her the Blameless Flower of Cuba, making her a stay hero.

Sarah Dowdy: The really big event that Hearst gets involved with in the war though is the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana's harbor, which killed 266 U.S. sailors.

Katie Lambert: Right and no one knew what happened at the time. We're still not entirely sure, although modern forensics points to it being a problem with the shop itself. But at the time Hearst's paper and other papers jumped on it and said that it was Spain attacking us, and so we should enter the war.

Sarah Dowdy: So that's the kind of thing that gets a war going.

Katie Lambert: Right. So Hearst goes to Cuba himself and reports right in the combat zone. At the same time he's managing to get both Spanish and English editions of the paper produced. The rebels give him their flag in appreciation for all that he's done for them.

Sarah Dowdy: And we have the competitors, like the Post even saying that it was Hearst who blew up the Maine. So this story is just sensational in every respect.

Katie Lambert: And it's selling 2.7 million copies for the Journal every day.

Sarah Dowdy: So was his coverage of the war exaggerated? Yes, definitely. And was it dishonest? Maybe!

Katie Lambert: But did the end justify the means is the question, because some people have made the point, including Biographer Kenneth White, that 300,000 Cubans died in those last 30 years of Spanish rule. So really, did the U.S. help step in and same them from genocide?

Sarah Dowdy: Stop the genocide.

Katie Lambert: That's up to you.

Sarah Dowdy: So Hearst wasn't just involved in the politics of Cuba though. He also had a fairly unsuccessful career in the U.S.

Katie Lambert: He was elected to the House of Representative from New York in 1902 and re-elected in 1904, although to be honest, he didn't do all that much. He ran for governor and lost. He ran for new York City Mayor and lost. And politically throughout his life he's a bit of a flip-flopper. He starts off, like we said, as a populist and someone who's very anti-trust. Later he goes anti-war and kind of pro-German for World War I. And then he turns isolationist in the '30s, but in the '40s becomes this rabid anti-Communist crusader.

Sarah Dowdy: But I think from there we're going to move on to his personal life, which is full of salacious scandals.

Katie Lambert: Oooh yes! One of them that's not a scandal, he married a chorus girl named Millicent Wilson in 1903, and they had five children together, all boys, and remained married for the rest of his life, although not necessarily together.

Sarah Dowdy: But Hearst's most famous relationship is not with his wife, it's with his mistress, Marion Davies, who's born Marion Douras. They have a 34 year long relationship. So Marion becomes a chorus girl at age 13, and by 1917 she meets the 54 year old Hearst while she's performing in the Ziegfeld Follies, and they start their relationship that lasts until his death in 1951. And Hearst likes Davies so much because she's kind of fun and irreverent and doesn't suck up to him like so many of the people around him. She calls him Pops or the Old Bum, and he spends a lot of money trying to launch her film career, which isn't as successful as it should have been with how much funding went into it.

Katie Lambert: She was good at the comedies though. Like she was in The Patsy and Show People, and those were considered good and did fairly well.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. But it's not a classic gold digger chorus girl story though. Towards the end of Hearst's life, when he's suffering financial difficulties, she actually supports him with really sound investments she made over the years. Gives him a check for $1 million!

Katie Lambert: Right, and again, he is going through financial difficulties at the end, but she stays around, she doesn't leave. In his bedroom where he spends his final years, it's very bare. But one thing he does have is a picture of Marion Davies with an inscription from Romeo and Juliet: "my bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love is deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite."

Sarah Dowdy: After his death though, she's rejected by his family and marries a sea captain, surprisingly enough, and has a successful post-Hollywood life. Like I said earlier, she's really good at business investments. And when she dies, 32 years after her death, this woman Patricia Van Cleeve Lake dies, I know you might be thinking, okay, well who is she? She's supposed to have been the child of Marion's sister, Rose. But Lake's relatives say that she's the only child of Davies and Hearst, and that she was supported by them for most of her life. She was left a lot of money by Davies, and spent a lot of time with the two as well.

Katie Lambert: Which is a pretty cool sidebar?

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: But as for the rest of his life, the parts not involving love affairs, he had a huge art collection. He spent a ridiculous amount of money on it. It was museum quality. Everything from paintings to antique ceilings! And in the 1920s he started building Hearst Castle. But that I think is a subject that deserves its own podcast.

Sarah Dowdy: Definitely. Hearst was a bit of a strange character to.

Katie Lambert: He had some weird habits. Apparently when he was working at the paper, he would appear at someone's door and grab both sides of the frame and then he would start soft-shoeing until he decided what he wanted to say, which is, you know, I think a good way to buy some time.

Sarah Dowdy: I was asking Katie if it would bother her if I started to dance and snap my fingers in my cube, which is right next to hers, while I was working.

Katie Lambert: Just let me know, and I'll put my headphones on first. But let's switch gears just a little bit. And while the Spanish-American war was probably the biggest, I don't know if you'd call it scandal, but the biggest story of his professional life, the biggest story of his personal life may have been the death of a man named Thomas Ince.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, this is a really strange history mystery. Thomas Ince was a pioneer American motion picture director. He was sometimes considered the father of the Western. But he's more known for his mysterious death that came shortly after an ill-fated trip on Hearst's yacht. Hearst was throwing him a birthday party, and the guests included Marion Davies, Hearst's mistress, Charlie Chaplin, columnist Louella Parsons and Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman who was Hearst's film production manager. And weirdly enough, Ince actually misses the boar literally.

Katie Lambert: For his own birthday party, yeah. The yacht leaves without him and he has to join the group the next day. So Sunday they all party together. But Monday Ince is taken from the yacht and brought ashore, accompanied by Dr. Goodman who's a licensed, although non-practicing physician and an employee of Hearst's!

Sarah Dowdy: By Tuesday Ince is dead. And Dr. Ida Glasgow, who's Ince's personal physician signed a death certificate saying that heart failure was the cause. But Wednesday morning papers say movie producer shot on Hearst yacht. And this is so strange. These headlines, these sensational headlines are gone by the evening. The story is totally dropped.

Katie Lambert: So the implication is that somebody killed that story.

Sarah Dowdy: Somebody shut it down. No coroner's inquest is held. The body is cremated, so we can't exhume, unfortunately.

Katie Lambert: She knows our favorite thing.

Sarah Dowdy: And the first stories that run in Hearst's own papers are totally fake. It's, you know, oh Ince got sick visiting Hearst's ranch. But too many people saw Ince getting on the yacht. So they can't stick by these stories.

Katie Lambert: And Chaplin's secretary claims that he saw a bullet hole in Ince's head as he was removed from the yacht.

Sarah Dowdy: Only further fuels the rumors flying around. So it gets so bad that the D.A. of San Diego has to get involved. The only person who he calls to testify though is Dr. Daniel Goodman, who was a Hearst employee, and he says, "Oh, Ince has always been talking about his heart pains and his heart troubles. So it's been a long established issue with him." The rumor that gets tossed around is that Hearst found Marion and Charlie Chaplin together, that they were having an illicit affair or maybe about to start one. There is a scuffle, Marion screams, other people come to the area because they hear the commotion, and somehow Hearst shoots Ince, not Chaplin.

Katie Lambert: So we might not have an answer to that one. But as a sketchy kind of follow-up, columnist Louella Parsons is rewarded a lifetime contract with the Hearst Corporation and her syndication is expanded. So maybe Miss Parsons knew something she wasn't supposed to know.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: I need to go re-watch the Cat's Meow. But speaking of Hearst papers, his business dealings weren't just about newspapers. He also had magazines. He published fiction, he produced movies, especially ones starring his mistress, Marion Davies. And 1935 was probably the peak of his fortune.

Sarah Dowdy: Banner year.

Katie Lambert: Right. He owned 28 major papers, 18 magazines, radio stations, movie companies, and news services. And he's also an early pioneer of TV and pretty much started comic strip syndication. And this is my favorite part. He was really an early adopter of synergy. And every single time I say this I picture Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock, but he was good at media tie-ins. So a good example would be the Perils of Pauline, which if you're into silent film or film history, you probably heard of. But it was a silent film serial that not pioneered, but made the damsel in distress extremely popular. She fought gypsies, she fought rats, she was tied to railroad tracks and hung off of cliffs. Poor Pauline really did have a lot of perils to get through. But Hearst signed a deal to distribute the films and promote them in his paper. So whenever a new episode came out of Pauline, he would make sure to have some sort of print tie-in in the paper.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, he had this synergy even telling his magazine editors; make sure that every story will be fit for moving pictures. It sounds a lot like make sure every article will be fit for [inaudible]. So he's got Hollywood in mind all the time.

Katie Lambert: Right. But when the great depression hits, that's the beginning of the end for Hearst's fortune, and also his own extravagant spending habits. He ends up having to sell off bits of his empire and even having to sell a lot of his art. And by 1940 he's on the fringes of his own Hearst Empire that he set up.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, he retreats into seclusion basically at the end and dies at age 88 on August 14th, 1951 in Beverly Hills.

Katie Lambert: And bringing up Marion Davies again. In those last years, a lot of the time they would just watch her old films and he would tear up.

Sarah Dowdy: He would tear up, yeah.

Katie Lambert: Which is so sad? All of his children went into media and maybe you're heard of one of his descendants, her name is Patty Hearst, and we're going to cover her in a podcast soon. But I'm sure we haven't covered everything about William Randolph Hearst's life. So if there is a favorite story that you've missed, please e-mail us at

Sarah Dowdy: You could also search for tabloids on our home page at

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