David Nasaw. The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 687 pp. $35.
At first, it is hard to believe that the world needs yet another book on William Randolph Hearst. We have been well served by William Swanberg's Citizen Hearst, even though it was written forty years ago, and more recent books have been unimaginative retellings of familiar tales. Nonetheless, David Nasaw's The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst is well worth reading.
There's much to enjoy in this book. The author writes in an engaging and informative style, making good use of a vast array of new documents, letters and thousands of telegrams released by the Hearst family and the Hearst Corporation. The result is a book that provides new insights into Hearst's life and business, as well as into the world in which Hearst lived. It is a fascinating story of a egocentric self-promoter who just happened to own the nation's largest media company throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
Given history's long fascination with Hearst, some of the stories here are not new. But Nasaw tells them with a fresh and engaging style, based on a good sense of how journalism changed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But much of this book is new. Nasaw documents Hearst's news formula of crime, sports and sex while also noting Hearst's business skill in hiring staff and in producing, distributing and promoting his newspapers. He also provides a vivid and thoughtful account of Hearst's political career and aspirations, of his far-flung media empire (newspapers, magazines, newsreels and movies) and business strategies. As Nasaw writes, "Decades before the word synergy entered corporate discourse, Hearst was putting the concept to work, exploiting his products in several different media forms"
News stories became the basis for newsreels and vice versa; Sunday comics became animated cartoons; and serial films were novelized in Sunday papers and then published in hard cover before being turned into films.
The risk of biographies on "great men" such as Hearst is that authors may adopt either a reverential or overly critical style. Nasaw is even handed, noting Hearst's great successes and sense for news while not overlooking his self-absorption and selfish behavior. …